The last time the Michigan baseball team had a victory over No. 25 Penn State (5-1 Big Ten, 12-15 overall), pitcher Bryce Ralston was a healthy sophomore who pitched five scoreless innings to help beat the Nittany Lions 6-1, and propel the Wolverines into the postseason. That was May 15, 1999.
Since then Ralston has undergone Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and did not play last season as a result. Michigan (1-3, 10-12) was swept by Penn State in 2000, and hoped not to repeat that this past weekend, when the Nittany Lions were in Ann Arbor for four games. Only three were played, however, as Sunday”s game was cancelled due to an early April snowstorm.
But the man who won the only game against Penn State in the last 15 tries for Michigan would not pitch, having gotten the start on Wednesday against Oakland.
The rest of the Wolverine staff could not contain the Nittany Lions, now the best team in the Big Ten. Penn State took a three-game sweep by the scores of 2-1, 4-1 and 9-3.
“I tell them to keep their chins up,” Michigan coach Geoff Zahn said. “Because in (Saturday”s) second game we started swinging our bats a lot better. And we”re young. They have to realize that the teams we”re playing are no better than the teams we played at the beginning of the year.”
The weekend would get progressively worse for the Wolverines. A Saturday doubleheader of seven-inning games gave senior captain Nick Alexander and freshman Jim Brauer chances to start against Justin Nash and Mike Watson, respectively, of Penn State. It was the third career start for Brauer, and the second for Watson.
In the top of the third, Penn State catcher Chris Netwall did the damage for the second time of the series. After singling to lead off the inning, Netwall was sacrificed to second by Willie Melendez, and was driven in by a Zach Smithlin single. In the fifth, Netwall and Melendez scored on a Rod Perry single.
“They”re experienced hitters,” Zahn said
“Both Wrights (Donnie and Chris) and Netwall they know what they”re doing at the plate,” Zahn said. “They”re experienced. If they get a pitch they can hit, they drive it.”
Michigan had its chance in the bottom of the seventh. A two-out rally, aided by a passed ball, allowed shortstop Bill LaRosa to drive in a run. Two runners were left on base as Jake Fox struck out to end the game.
The second half of the doubleheader was a slugfest for the Nittany Lions. Brauer did not complete the third, allowing five runs on six hits. Vince Pistilli came on in relief, but did not fare much better, allowing four runs in 2.2 innings.
Despite the problems on the mound, Zahn believes the problem for the Wolverines is at the plate.
“I think the biggest thing right now is we have young hitters,” Zahn said. “And they”re struggling at the plate. They have to get used to the way (Big Ten pitchers) are pitching to them.”
Friday night was the best chance for Michigan to come away with a victory. With a 1-1 tie going into the ninth, Bobby Korecky allowed back-to-back doubles to Netwall and Melendez, which scored one run. Dan McCall pitched for Penn State, and had five strikeouts in the complete game, including the last two of the game to preserve the 2-1 win. Michigan”s only run came on a homerun by Fox, the first of his career.