Patience and timely hitting.
That was the offensive game plan for Saturday’s game against Ohio State — and it worked to perfection.
Graduate-transfer center fielder Joe Stewart’s three home runs — two of which were grand slams — helped to push past the Buckeyes, but the Michigan baseball team’s success goes further than that. What the stat sheet won’t show is that the Wolverines’ plate discipline forced the Ohio State pitchers to load the bases via walks both times to set up Stewart’s bases-clearing bombs.
We knew (the Buckeyes’) starting pitcher had really good stuff,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “He had two different breaking balls, he had a bunch of strikeouts coming into the day and he gets a swing and miss from people chasing. So we just tried to make a concerted effort to hold the strike zone, and we drew a lot of walks because of it.”
In total, the Wolverines drew 12 walks which amounted to 14 of the 16 runs. When Michigan hitters did swing, they connected, batting .333 in the game. It forced Ohio State’s pitchers to choose one of two options: Pitch around the strike zone or give hitters a chance to put the ball in play. This, in turn, increased the pitch count of the Buckeyes’ pitchers. By the fifth inning, they were warming up their sixth pitcher of the game.
“We have had the same kind of training for the whole year,” junior right fielder Clark Elliott said. “Guys just not trying to do too much, and just trusting ourselves in our approach. If they’re not gonna throw strikes, so be it. We know guys behind us (are) gonna bring us all home and (Stewart) was a prime example of that.”
As Elliott alluded to, aside from Stewart’s three home runs, the ball wasn’t flying all over the field. Of the eight non-home run hits, only one was an extra-base hit. Every other hit had solid contact for a single that passed the bat to the next guy up. This mentality created a “next guy up” mentality that proved effective on Saturday.
Since the beginning of the season, Michigan has improved its patience at the plate by waiting for the right pitches. In the last two games alone, the Wolverines brought 10 or more runs across home plate and produced double-digit hit totals.
The difference in the two games, however, was the walks.
By forcing walks, batters not only found their way on base but also drove up the pitch counts, forcing coaches to make changes. This not only frustrates a team in the game, but it hurts them for the rest of the series when they run out of pitchers.
“The goal is always to get (the starter) out early, and just get to their bullpen,” Stewart said. Today, guys did a really good job having quality at-bats, working deep counts, fouling balls off balls and obviously taking those walks. You can’t score runs unless there’s people on base so I think everyone did a really good job sticking to their approach and (not being phased) by new arms. Just a bunch of quality at-bats in a row.”
In scouting Ohio State, Michigan noticed that the Buckeyes’ bullpen ERA exceeded 12.00. Because of this, the Wolverines knew they had the opportunity to score a lot of runs if they could minimize the starter’s outing.
In the end, this approach paid off.
If Michigan can continue to display patience at the plate, it can weaken — and possibly defeat a lot of good teams. While the Wolverines likely won’t hit grand slams in every game, small ball has appeared to work for Michigan in scoring large sums of runs.
The Wolverines are entering the most difficult part of their schedule so patience and maturity at the plate are crucial if they want to win down the stretch.