When Michigan baseball coach Rich Maloney interviewed for his position four years ago, the athletic department had one qualm about his qualifications.
Despite leading Ball State to a combined 81 games over .500 in seven seasons of Mid-American Conference play, Maloney had never won a tournament as a coach, whether it be there or as an assistant at Western Michigan.
And the Wolverines had been unable to team up with Maloney to finish higher than third in either the Big Ten regular season or tournament.
Until this season.
After winning an outright Big Ten regular season title last weekend against Iowa, a 9-4 victory over Minnesota on Sunday clinched the tournament title.
“I’ll remember team,” said a teary Maloney. “I’ll remember Kunkel sweating when he basically needed (an) IV (but) he just fought through that heat. I’ll remember him turning down pro baseball to be a champion. I’ll remember Paul Hammond realizing a dream. In my mind, he was our pitcher of the year and what he did was so phenomenal. I’ll remember just the way we played with grit. The grit and the mettle that we had was just extraordinary. We could’ve quit several times.”
Said Hammond: “(Maloney) was definitely emotional before the tournament started, and to bring it home to him was really great.”
After they were rained out of their scheduled start Thursday, the Wolverines suffered an ugly 6-2 loss at the hands of Minnesota on Friday morning. The loss was their first conference loss at Ray Fisher Stadium since the season-opening Big Ten series against Northwestern.
“There’s a little bit of a lull, but with this team, it lasts for maybe 20 minutes, 25 minutes and then we’ve got another game to play,” said senior Paul Hammond, after pitching just 2 2/3 innings against the Gophers. “We always have a very good, forward-looking attitude, so it’ll be easy for us to put this behind us. We’ve just go to come out and do the things we do and do them well – pitch well and play defense well – and we’ll be right there.”
If “right there” was holding a Big Ten Tournament Champions banner in the outfield after wins against Northwestern, Ohio State and two wins against Minnesota, Hammond was dead on.
But as far as how to get to that point, Hammond may have slightly missed the mark.
The defense was so-so and the pitching was ok.
But the key to Michigan winning the four consecutive games needed to take the tournament was its offense. They tallied 31 runs in their final four games.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney said following the team’s 8-3 win over Northwestern: “I like my offensive team. I really, really do. I believe in these guys and we’ve just been in a lull. We needed something to break out of it.”
After a 3-2 win over Ohio State – their fifth in as many games against the Buckeyes this year – the Wolverines’ batting had to match Minnesota’s, and it did. An 11-9 Michigan victory set the stage for Sunday’s winner-take-all game with the Gophers.
Each Michigan starter had a hit in the final two games against Minnesota. But freshman Adam Abraham was the team’s star. He not only had three hits, one homerun, 3 RBI and 2 runs, but pitched 5 1/3 innings of relief and allowed just one run to get the win in the Wolverine’s second game against the Gophers.
Abraham made the All-Tournament team as a pitcher and designated hitter and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He was joined on the All-Tournament Team by senior Jeff Kunkel at catcher, sophomore Nate Recknagel at first base, senior A.J. Scheidt at third base and junior Eric Rose in centerfield.
Maloney’s credo early in the season was “it’s not how you start, but how you finish,” and thanks to the team’s great weekend, Michigan isn’t finished yet.
The Wolverines will travel to Atlanta to play in the NCAA regional hosted by No. 8 national-seed Georgia Tech. Michigan, a three seed in the regional, will play second-seeded Vanderbilt Friday at 3 p.m.