On Friday afternoon, No. 23 Michigan (19-7) squeaked past Rutgers (12-13) by a score of 6-4.
The Wolverines overcame a 3-0 deficit in large part to their starter, redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar, an array of quality bullpen performances, and clutch at-bats.
Rutgers came out early and swung the bats hard. After loading the bases, Evan Sleight launched a 3-run double over sophomore right fielder Tito Flores’ head. It was a slow start for Michigan, but they did not stay quiet forever. The Wolverines got on the board in the bottom of the second thanks to a Flores line-drive single up the middle. He drove in fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur and advanced fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems to third. Then, sophomore infielder Ted Burton brought the Wolverines within one on a sacrifice fly to right field. On Friday, Michigan capitalized on their deep lineup and quality at-bats.
“Our ability to have depth is unmatched, it’s a good strength that we have,” Flores said. ”At any moment, anyone can put a good swing on the ball. Guys at the top of the lineup don’t have to do all of the damage. It doesn’t really matter where we’re batting in the batting order, we just understand that we have a job to do.”
Neither side struck in the third inning, but it was not long before the Scarlet Knights recorded another run. To start the fourth, Danny DiGeorgio got a hold of Hajjar and took him deep over the left-field wall, extending the Rutgers lead to 4-2.
In the bottom of the inning, Michigan’s offense went to work. After drawing a walk, redshirt junior outfielder Danny Zimmerman swiped second base. He provided Flores with a scoring opportunity and once again, the sophomore delivered. On an 0-2 pitch, he laced a double down the left-field line and Zimmerman easily crossed home. Next up was Burton. Like Flores, he was down 0-2 in the count. Burton then ripped a ball down the right-field line and hustled his way into third for an RBI triple. The Wolverines were unable to bring Burton home, but the damage was done.
“We’ve just got that toughness element to us,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “We’re trying to compete pitch to pitch, trying to win each inning. We lost that first inning there, but we knew that we were going to have to battle back.”
Hajjar went five innings and gave up four runs, but only one of those was earned. He dug himself a hole after an attempt to throw out a bunt went over Burton’s head at first. Rutgers proceeded to tack on three runs. Despite his two errors, an impressive part of his line was his nine strikeouts. The most crucial of these came during the top of the fifth inning. Rutgers appeared set to break the 4-4 tie with base runners on second and third and only one out. Hajjar had other ideas. He buckled down and emphatically struck out the next two Rutgers batters.
Hajjar ended on a high note as Bakich then turned the ball over to his trusty veteran, redshirt junior right-hander Isaiah Paige. He came on to start the sixth and was brilliant in his two innings of work. Aside from an error by fifth-year third baseman Christian Molfetta, no Rutgers batters reached base against Paige. Paige’s versatility out of the bullpen makes him one of the team’s most valuable assets.
“He can perform in a variety of roles,” Bakich said. “I trust the makeup. What’s this kid got between his ears? What’s he got in his chest? Isaiah’s started a national championship game, he’s pitched out of the pen. He’s pitched in any type of situation.”
The game stayed tied 4-4 until the bottom of the eighth when Michigan finally pulled ahead. Junior second baseman Riley Bertram lined a single up the middle and gave the Wolverines a 2-out lead. Then, redshirt sophomore outfielder Jordon Rogers provided Michigan with an insurance run via a single to right field.
Junior right-hander Willie Weiss came on to close it out in the ninth. He faced no problems and easily shut down any potential Rutgers comeback.
The Wolverines extended their winning streak to six and continued their hot play in late April. They are now tied atop the Big Ten with Nebraska and will face the Cornhuskers in the series finale, one which should have major conference implications.
“We preach mental toughness,” Flores said. “When we get knocked down, how well can we get back up and punch them right back in the face?”
“At the end of the day, this team is never done.”