Before the Big Ten baseball season started, three teams were picked to finish ahead of Michigan.
Now, with the conference season a little more than halfway complete, the Wolverines are still kings of the Big Ten.
On Sunday, Michigan dispatched in-state rival Michigan State 11-5 en route to its fourth-straight series win over a Big Ten opponent. The Wolverines won three out of four games in each series . The Wolverines also remain tied for first with Nothwestern in the conference.
“(Being in first place is) very pleasing,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “And I’m proud of our team. So many different guys contribute. It’s never the same guy. We’re not a team of superstars, (just a team) of good players. So the contributions have come from many.”
As a team, the Wolverines (14-6 Big Ten, 26-15 overall) made the Michigan State pitchers look more like Charlie Brown than Division I college pitchers. In the series finale, Michigan amassed 11 hits and drew six walks. This type of team contribution and patience at the plate was exemplified in the third inning of Sunday’s game.
With two outs and runners on first and third, junior A.J. Scheidt started a two-out rally when Michigan State second baseman Alan Cattrysse booted Scheidt’s groundball, allowing sophomore Nate Recknagel to score. After three straight walks allowed two runners to walk across home plate, senior Jeff Kunkel ripped a single just over the outstretched hand of Cattrysse to knock in another two runs. Sophomore Doug Pickens capped the third off with a run-scoring single. When the dust settled, Michigan scored all six runs with two outs and the game was basically over.
“We’ve been swinging the bats pretty well and I’m really pleased with that,” Maloney said. “And (we had) timely hits. Even though the score was 7-0, Kunkel gets a bases-loaded single and scores two runs – those are huge. … And then Recknagel got some big hits. It’s a different guy each day, and it’s pretty exciting.”
In Sunday’s game, six different players claimed RBI – with four of them knocking in two apiece. For the series, the Wolverines had 10 or more hits in all four games and every starter drove in at least one run.
“Everybody is doing a great job doing whatever they can to help the team win,” Kunkel said. “It’s great. We’ve won our last four series against really good teams in the Big Ten. We (just have) to keep it going.”
Michigan’s performance on Sunday is even more impressive considering what transpired the night before. After taking the first game of the Saturday doubleheader, 6-2, the Wolverines trailed by one heading into the final inning.
With two outs and runners on second and third, junior Eric Rose hit a two-run single to give Michigan a 5-4 lead and eventually came around to score an insurance run. Unfortunately, a two-run lead wasn’t enough as Michigan State (9-11, 21-21) responded with three runs of its own and stole a 7-6 win to prevent a full series sweep.
But the Wolverines’ play Sunday wasn’t affected by the tough loss Saturday night.
“We fight back and take the lead and we’re inches away from taking that game and maybe sweeping the series, and yet we lose a heartbreaker,” Maloney said. “And we’re all sick to our stomachs. So for those kids to come back (Sunday) and play a solid game of baseball says a lot about them.”
Michigan got off on the right foot in the series’ first two games thanks to strong pitching performances from its starters. Freshman Zack Putnam opened the weekend by going 8 1/3 innings, giving up just one earned run and striking out five batters. Fifth-year senior Paul Hammond followed that up with a two-run, four strikeout, complete game gem.
Michigan has just three series left in Big Ten play and two of those series are against teams that have losing conference records. Even though the final road to the Big Ten championship appears to be paved in gold, Kunkel believes the team will not lose focus.
“We have the Big Ten championship and that’ll keep anybody sharp,” Kunkel said. “That’s what we’re playing for now. If we just keep winning series – take three of four – and maybe if things go our way and we sweep a team towards the end (of the year), it would be huge for us. Right now, if we just keep winning, we’re in good shape.”
Michigan State 5