It just wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Just two weeks ago, it looked like the Michigan baseball team was headed for a breakout season. On March 30, the Wolverines headed to Ypsilanti and topped Eastern Michigan in a wild 18-12 decision. The win raised the team’s record to a spectacular 16-3, and Michigan appeared to be chugging full steam ahead into its Big Ten opener in Minnesota.
But in the cavernous confines of the Metrodome, the Wolverines’ season derailed in dramatic fashion. Michigan dropped four consecutive games and immediately fell to the Big Ten cellar. Facing an uphill battle to get back into the thick of the Big Ten race, the schedule seemed to favor the Wolverines. Perennial conference bottom-dweller Iowa — who finished seventh or worse in the Big Ten during five of the last six years — came to The Fish for a four-game set.
But even against the 6-14 Hawkeyes, Michigan couldn’t find its bearings. Although they held a lead in every game, the Wolverines somehow squandered advantages of eight, three and two runs to drop three games on their home field.
After missing a golden opportunity to pick up wins at home against lowly Iowa, Michigan now faces perhaps its most difficult stretch of the season. This weekend, the Wolverines must travel to Champaign to take on a red-hot Illinois team that is 7-1 in the Big Ten. Then, Michigan will return home to face traditional Big Ten power Ohio State.
But the Wolverines cannot dwell on the difficulty of their upcoming schedule. With a quarter of the conference season already in the books, Michigan must turn the tide now. Because the Wolverines own an abysmal 1-7 record in Big Ten — bad enough for sole possession of last place — they have absolutely no margin for error. Nothing short of two consecutive series victories is acceptable given the team’s precarious situation.
There is no doubt that Michigan has the talent to do it. The lineup is solid from top-to-bottom — the team boasts a .310 batting average through its first 28 games. Junior Chris Getz is one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten, senior Kyle Bohm provides pop from the cleanup spot, and senior Matt Butler can spray the ball all over the field.
Despite the team’s conference slump, the lineup has continued to hit fairly well. But while the team has no problem scattering a few singles here or there, the Wolverines have recently been unable to come up with the crucial hit. For example, Michigan smacked 12 hits in its 7-6 loss to Iowa on Sunday. But it left a whopping 12 runners on base and left runners in scoring position in six of nine innings.
Earlier in the season, clutch hitting was Michigan’s forté, with high-pressure, late-inning knocks figuring prominently in a number of nonconference victories. But the Wolverines have lost their killer instinct at the worst possible time. With the exception of a 13-3 blowout to the Golden Gophers, Michigan has been one or two key hits away from winning every Big Ten game. In the Iowa series, the tying run came to the plate in the last inning of each Michigan loss. But the Wolverines’ hitters could not deliver.
Michigan’s hurlers have fared no better in clutch situations. The Hawkeyes scored 16 of their 27 runs in the last three innings of games last weekend. And previously trustworthy relievers such as senior Phil Tognetti, junior Jeff Niemiec and redshirt junior Paul Hammond have seen their ERAs skyrocket in Big Ten play.
Coming into the season, the Wolverines saw themselves as major contenders for a Big Ten title, and it’s hard to blame them. After the Wolverines’ victory over the Eagles, Collegiate Baseball ranked them No. 19 in the nation, and they were the only Big Ten team to receive a ranking. But somewhere along the way, Michigan lost the ability to put away its opponents. In order to start climbing the ladder out of the Big Ten cellar, the Wolverines must show more grit come crunch time.