One minute, your team is cruising along and the game appears to be under control. But all of a sudden, hell breaks loose. Pitchers drop like flies, hitters keep finding the gaps and the scoreboard lights up as a constant stream of runners cross the plate.
The big inning is often a critical turning point in a baseball game — a previously close contest can turn into a blowout, or a seemingly out-of-reach matchup can suddenly tighten up.
Michigan’s four-game series against Iowa featured six “big” innings of four runs or more, including at least one in each game. But no frame was more significant than the top of the eighth in Iowa’s 13-12 victory on Friday.
After putting up two five-run innings of their own to take an 11-3 lead in the series opener, the Wolverines looked ready to cruise home to their first Big Ten victory of the season. With senior Jim Brauer’s pitch count already over 100, Michigan coach Rich Maloney decided to bring in junior Jeff Niemiec — who entered the game with a 1.38 ERA — to finish off the Hawkeyes. But the seemingly comfortable situation quickly turned into a circus.
“You’re up 11-3 — the game’s in hand,” Maloney said. “Jimmy (Brauer) is at 103 pitches. And if the bullpen can’t hold an eight-run lead with two innings to go, what are you going to do?”
Niemiec got off to a rough start, walking two straight Iowa hitters on full counts. He then gave up three consecutive hits, and Maloney went to senior pitcher Phil Tognetti in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
But the hit parade continued. On an 0-2 count, Iowa’s Nathan Price popped a single to right-center, and his teammate, designated hitter Skylar Moss followed by knocking a single to rightfield. With Moss’ single, five Iowa runners had already crossed home plate, and the Wolverines had yet to record an out in the eighth.
Desperate for an end to the nightmare inning, Maloney yanked Tognetti and inserted lefty Paul Hammond, one of Michigan’s steadiest hurlers. But the Hawkeyes were locked in, and they pounded the redshirt junior as well. Five of the first six batters Hammond faced came up with hits, and the one exception was a booming sacrifice fly off the bat of rightfielder Nate Yoho.
With ten runs already on the board in the eighth, the Wolverines finally put it together against Jason White, the fourteenth batter of the inning. Redshirt junior catcher Jeff Kunkel gave Hammond a huge boost, gunning down Iowa’s Andy Cox at second on a botched squeeze play. Hammond responded by striking out White, finally putting an end to the most brutal inning of Michigan’s season.
“Everything they swung at fell in,” Maloney said. “To their credit, they found the holes. That’s pretty impressive. I don’t even know what to say.”
Iowa’s gigantic inning featured every type of hit, including hard liners, deep flies and choppers through the infield. Every one of the Hawkeyes’ ten hits was legitimate — the Wolverines committed no errors and made no serious defensive miscues in the inning.
In the first of two seven-inning games on Saturday, Michigan came up with a big inning of its own. In the sixth inning of a scoreless game, redshirt junior Jeff Kunkel smacked a
bases-clearing double to spark a four-run inning. The four runs were all the Wolverines needed, and their 4-2 victory evened the series at one.
But in the nightcap, the Hawkeyes used a four-run inning of their own to bury Michigan. Redshirt junior Drew Taylor had been cruising in his second start of the year, and entered the top of the sixth with a 3-1 lead. But Yoho’s bunt single sparked a rally that would leave Michigan frustrated once again.
After Taylor forced a lineout to rightfielder Matt Butler, Iowa centerfielder Jesse Brownell blooped a double down the rightfield line, moving Yoho to third. A sacrifice fly brought Yoho home, and Taylor was one out away from ending the inning. But an apparent third strike to Hawkeye third-baseman Luis Andrulonis was called a ball, and Andrulonis capitalized, drilling a game-tying double to left.
“How often in baseball do you see that?” Maloney said. “I don’t know if it was a ball, but it was borderline, that’s for certain. And you get that, and then the next guy gets the hit. It seems that’s how it’s been going for a little while here. Sooner or later, I’m just believing that’s going to turn around.”
Michigan had a chance to escape the inning without further damage, but a defensive lapse allowed Iowa to pull ahead. After pinchrunner Ryan Consodine tripped going around the third base bag, it appeared that the Wolverines had an excellent chance to nail him at home for the third out. But the throw slipped between Michigan catcher Matt Rademacher’s legs, allowing Consodine to score the go-ahead run.
“We’ve given up the big inning two days in a row (and lost two games as a result),” Maloney said. “For most of the year, we’ve been able to stay out of the big inning. And if you stay out of the big inning, you’ll be able to win most of your games.”