The series had all the familiar themes for the Michigan baseball team: mental mistakes, big innings and slumbering bats.
Only this time, Michigan (4-5 Big Ten, 11-23 overall) found itself in an unfamiliar role. In their weekend series against Illinois, the Wolverines were the ones capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes. The Wolverines were the ones putting up crooked numbers. And the Wolverines were the ones shutting down the opponent’s lineup.
Illinois (4-5, 12-19) knocked the Wolverines around for a 9-2 victory in the first game of the three-game set on Friday. But in Sunday’s double-header, Michigan rode junior right-hander Brandon Sinnery’s complete-game shutout in the first game and a late-game comeback in the nightcap to take the series.
It was Michigan’s first series win all season.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney has said several times this season that, sooner or later, a pitcher would turn in a gem and go deep into the game. He probably just didn’t think it would take this long.
Or come from Sinnery.
But Sinnery, who was dropped from the rotation earlier this year, was dominant, striking out nine batters on 134 pitches en route to a 3-0 victory. The first five outs he recorded in the second game were strikeouts, and he only surrendered four hits and one walk in his complete-game performance.
He almost didn’t get the chance, though.
“I was going to take him out going into the ninth,” Maloney said.
Sinnery, though, had other plans.
“I had a shutout going,” Sinnery said. “And I wanted to finish it.”
In the second game of the double-header on Sunday, Illinois quickly made up for lost time. A Michigan error led to an Illinois run in the top of the first, and the Illini added two more in the second.
Leading by two runs in the seventh, Illinois appeared to be closing the door on any hopes the Wolverines had to win the series.
Then they opened it back up. After two singles, a rare throwing error by sophomore third baseman Brandon Hohl, who had been brilliant in the field all series, allowed Michigan to cut the lead to one.
Freshman right-fielder Michael O’Neill, who stepped into the box with just one hit in his previous 14 at bats, then ripped an 0-2 pitch down the line for a two-run double. His hit proved to be the game-winner.
“I had worked on two-strike approach with coach for an hour, hour and a half (on Saturday),” O’Neill said. “I widened out a little bit, I stayed back on a changeup, and if I wouldn’t have worked on that, there’s no chance I would’ve hit it. It was just unreal.”
In a season riddled with mental mistakes and defensive errors, Michigan made two crucial decisions that secured the victory. In this case, the boxscore is deceptive. Though Michigan committed four errors compared to Illinois’ one, the Illini made the last mistake.
Up one run in the ninth with one out, the Wolverines threw out senior left fielder Casey McMurray as he tried to stretch his single to a double on the cutoff throw.
An inning earlier, sophomore centerfielder Patrick Biondi caught a fly ball off the bat of Illini right fielder Davis Hendrickson with runners on the corners and one out. Instead of throwing home, he threw to first to double up the runner who had strayed too far from the bag.
“We were up two, so the runner (on third) didn’t mean as much,” Biondi said. “I saw how far off (the runner on first) was, got the ball and just thought I’d give it a shot at first.”
Those two plays saved the Wolverines at least one run — the difference in their 7-6 win.
“We really took advantage of some of their mistakes, which we really haven’t done a whole lot of,” Maloney said.
The series was defined by comebacks. After the Michigan pitching staff got roughed up for nine runs on Friday, it seemed as if this series would end up like all of its other series this season.
But just like Sinnery battled back from a rough start to the season, just like the Wolverines battled back to win on Sunday, they battled back to take the series, too.
“As bad as it’s been, the truth of the matter is the guys have been playing hard,” Maloney said. “We may not have been playing well, but we’ve been playing hard. We haven’t quit by (any) means.
“Today was a huge day for this team.”