Redshirt junior left-hander Ben Dragani stood on the mound with the score tied at three. Cam McDonald stood at the plate opposite him. The pitch came in and McDonald laid down a sacrifice bunt, with the full expectation of grounding out to Dragani.
In the moment of truth, Dragani failed to grab the ball, allowing McDonald to reach first base and give Illinois the lead. This moment was the beginning of the end for the Wolverines, who gave up three more runs in the inning on the way to losing the game 7-4.
The No. 22 Michigan baseball team (7-2 Big Ten) opened its first home game against Illinois (4-4) on Friday. Redshirt sophomore pitcher Steven Hajjar started the game for the Wolverines, retiring each of the Fighting Illini’s first three batters. Sophomore outfielder Jake Marti immediately capitalized by hitting a single into second base and finished with a run after stealing second and errors by Illinois catchers.
Hajjar continued his dominance on the mound in the second inning, allowing no hits and walking one batter to put Michigan in another scoring position. After sophomore infielder/outfielder Clark Elliot grounded out, sophomore infielder Jimmy Obertop crushed a home run into right field to put the Wolverines up 2-0.
“I felt a great swing,” Obertop said. “Didn’t really know I was going to go over so I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team. I don’t think I’ve hit one farther than that.”
Illinois’ hitless streak ended in the third inning, with infielder Jackson Raper hitting a single and outfielder Taylor Jackson hitting an RBI double to allow Raper to score. Hajjar quickly ended the Fighting Illini’s momentum by adding a strikeout and fly out to put Marti back in the batters’ box.
The Wolverines couldn’t add runs, with sophomore pitcher Andrew Hoffmann retiring all of Michigan’s batters and putting Illinois in to bat. After the Fighting Illini loaded the first two bases with no outs, Michigan pitching coach Steve Merriman and Hajjar consulted on the mound. Hajjar managed to retire Illinois’ next two batters, but after a walk and with the bases loaded, Jackson hit a single to the right-center to put the Fighting Illini up 3-2.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Michigan’s hitting struggles continued, with Hoffmann retiring the Wolverines’ first two batters. Fortunately for Michigan, Obertop stepped into the batters’ box and sank a home run into center field to even the score.
“(Obertop)’s a dangerous hitter,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “He’s a good hitter and he’s got good play discipline. Too bad that we didn’t get much offensive output today to help, that would have been a nice exclamation mark.”
The Wolverines found their identity on defense in the fifth inning, retiring each of the Fighting Illini’s batters and giving Michigan another opportunity to score. The Wolverines’ offensive struggles continued as Hoffmann retired Michigan in just four at-bats.
Jackson managed to hit a double into right field in the seventh inning, but the Wolverines’ defense stepped up once again with a strikeout and groundouts to end the momentum. Obertop ended Michigan’s offensive woes by hitting a double deep into left field, but two straight strikeouts left the Wolverines unable to take advantage of their scoring positions.
At the top of the eighth inning, though, Dragani’s error opened the door for Illinois. Swiftly, Michigan fell behind as four runs put the game out of reach.
Michigan’s offensive struggles throughout the game allowed Illinois to exploit errors on the Wolverines’ defense, even though it had held up for most of the game.
“A lot of times when you over try, you don’t do well,” Bakich said. “There is certainly not a lack of effort or motivation if anything it’s trying to do too much.
“We typically play very well at home, I fully expect this was just one of those days that we didn’t play well and wasn’t our best day. We’ll move on and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow and play a much better brand of baseball.”