By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 20, 2012
A new season, a new pitching staff.
The Michigan baseball team looked like a much different squad this past weekend than it did last year, and the pitching staff was a big reason why.
Following a season-opening 9-8 defeat to Pittsburgh on Friday, the hurlers responded by allowing just two earned runs over the next 18 innings. Behind spectacular efforts from redshirt junior left-hander Bobby Brosnahan and junior right-hander Ben Ballantine, the Wolverines (2-1 overall) defeated Seton Hall, 2-1, and West Virginia, 14-3.
“Bobby and Ben kept us in the game and allowed the offense to get going,” said sophomore right fielder Michael O’Neill. “We were able to scratch a couple of runs across (the plate) and get those two guys a couple of wins.
“Bobby’s performance on Saturday was really nice. He had a down year last year, but he was able to bounce back and pick up his first win of the season against a quality Seton Hall team. I think the pitching in general — it really helped our weekend.”
Last season, the pitching staff struggled mightily. To go along with its last-place finish in the Big Ten in 2011, Michigan also finished last in the conference with a 5.09 earned run average. Brosnahan went 1-9 with a 7.82 ERA while also allowing opposing hitters to bat .351 against him. Ballantine had a better season, but it wasn't great by any means — he finished with a 3-1 record and a 4.91 ERA.
Both players pitched poorly in starts in last year’s Big Ten/Big East Challenge, a three-game stretch in which the Wolverines allowed 35 runs.
Though it was only one game for each starter, Brosnahan and Ballantine looked much improved. Against the Pirates on Saturday, Brosnahan allowed only one run and gave up just four hits, retiring four batters while walking only one. On Sunday, Ballentine allowed three hits and one earned run in seven innings of work.
“Bobby took care of his business yesterday, getting ahead of hitters,” Ballantine said after striking out five batters against the Mountaineers. “I just wanted to repeat that performance, because I just wanted to give our team a chance to win just like (Brosnahan) did.”
Even against the Panthers on Friday, the pitching staff looked solid. Though he struggled all game — allowing four runs in five innings — senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery gave the Wolverines a chance to win the game.
The early success shouldn’t come as a surprise: Senior catcher Coley Crank and Sinnery both noted in the preseason that the pitching staff looks a lot more confident this season. Sinnery credits first-year assistant pitching coach Steve Merriman with helping the staff improve, especially the underclassmen. Merriman, who is in his third stint as an assistant with the Wolverines, has spent six seasons as the pitching coach in the New York Mets and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations.
“Coach Merriman is very knowledgeable,” Sinnery said last week. “He’s been in the big leagues for the last six to nine years. He’s really bringing a lot to the younger players on the team, helping them develop their pitches and their confidence.”
Added Ballantine: “Coach Merriman comes from a lot of experience — we’ve heard it all year. He’s really comfortable in game situations with us, and I think it really helps us out as starting pitchers ... when our coach is relaxed.”
The relief pitching was also impressive during Michigan’s two victories. Freshman Trent Szkutnik, freshman Matt Odgen and redshirt sophomore Logan McAnallen combined to throw four innings without allowing an earned run against Seton Hall and West Virginia.
If the Wolverines do indeed plan to flip last season’s last-place finish in the Big Ten to a top finish this year, their pitching staff will have to continue their excellence from this past weekend.
“I think it’s too early to be talking about any facet of the game, but I think (Merriman) has done a wonderful job with our pitching staff,” said Michigan coach Rich Maloney. “I think guys have responded real well to him and I think he brings a wealth of experience. We certainly saw some of the fruits of that labor this weekend, so I’m impressed.”