Notebook: Clutch hitting comes late behind composed bullpen

By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 22, 2014

Jacob Cronenworth stood on the mound ranked third all-time in saves for the Michigan baseball team.

When the sophomore right-hander ran off the field, he was tied for second.

Though he previously walked Minnesota’s tying run, Cronenworth drew contact with a fastball down the middle and snagged a comebacker to make the toss to first, sealing the Wolverines’ 3-2 win in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday night.

En route to his 19th career save, Cronenworth moved from third base to pitcher late in the eighth inning to relieve junior right-hander James Bourque — Bourque had put two runners on with two out, and Michigan coach Erik Bakich didn’t want to take any chances.

With an outside pitch, the Golden Gophers’ best hope of a comeback grounded out. But Cronenworth wasn’t the only one that had gotten Michigan out of a jam.

Early on, junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik gave up the game’s first run, ending the starting pitchers’ scoreless streak that lasted 36.2 innings. Bakich said Szkutnik usually gets roughed up early and settles thereafter, but that was not the case — he gave up another run in the fifth, leaving with two outs.

In his place came Bourque, who pitched out of the tight spot and prevented any further damage in the next three innings.

At one point in the outing, Bourque retired eight straight batters. The next singled to center field, followed by a single to right, and Cronenworth was called on to do what he does best — close the game.

DÉJÀ VU FOR MAEZES: With two Michigan runners on in the seventh inning, Minnesota starter Alec Crawford needed to pitch to sophomore shortstop Travis Maezes carefully.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, the right-hander wasn’t careful enough.

Crawford’s fastball down the middle was a gift for Maezes, who belted his first home run in two months over the right-field wall until it twanged off the metal bleachers. When he crossed home plate, he knocked his helmet against those of the teammates he scored and disappeared amongst a flurry of maize uniforms.

Everything had gone perfectly for Maezes as he put Michigan up 3-2 — if not for the foul ball before that caused his bat to slip from his hands, he may never have walked back to the dugout to slab a little more pine tar on the grip. By chance, the pine tar gave him the control needed to execute the clutch homer.

It was the big moment the Wolverines had needed all night, and it was no surprise that Maezes was the one to carry it out. On March 23 against Indiana, he knocked the same pitch down the right-field line for a bases-clearing double, a hard-hit ball that gave his team a one-run lead that eventually earned them a win, just as he did again Wednesday night.

For the second time of the season, Maezes was the man of the hour.

MICHIGAN FALTERS EARLY BUT REBOUNDS LATE IN THE GAME: The Wolverines were outhitting the Gophers, 6-1, by the fourth inning, and Michigan was still down by a run.

But that’s what happens when you don’t capitalize in timely situations.

For much of the early stretch of the game, it seemed as though the Wolverines were being given several opportunities to get ahead early in the game but not making anything of them — each team left eight runners on base.

In the second inning, Michigan had runners on the corners when senior catcher Cole Martin ran right into a tag at home. Then, with one out and runners still on the corners, freshman left fielder Jackson Lamb grounded into a double play to thwart any momentum.

It was an instance when the Wolverines had the chance to convert some two-out RBIs, but failed to do so. Inevitably, the team that capitalizes on those chances the most wins games, and Minnesota’s pair of runs had each come on two outs — Michigan still finished the game with none.

If not for the Maezes homer that came as a blessing, the Wolverines (13-11 Big Ten, 29-27-1 overall) may have been going into Thursday as part of the loser’s bracket.