Last season, the Michigan baseball team had all but clinched the regular-season Big Ten championship with almost a month to play before the conference tournament.
But then, it dropped 2-of-4 games to lowly Illinois, a team the Wolverines should have easily swept but seemingly overlooked.
The team’s first non-winning conference series of the year was brushed off as an isolated incident. Michigan still had a commanding lead over the rest of the Big Ten.
The next weekend, though, another subpar foe, Penn State, jumped on the Wolverines, winning three straight games in Ann Arbor and allowing Minnesota back in the race for the conference crown.
Two weeks ago, then-last-place Indiana stole two games from Michigan. Those shocking upsets left some fans wondering if the Wolverines were headed down a similar lackluster path.
Not so fast.
This year’s Wolverines aren’t about to let a late-season skid ruin their lofty goals. Just look at how they bounced back from the dismal performance in Bloomington.
Instead of the emotionless performance Michigan turned in against Penn State last year – which delayed its regular-season championship until the last weekend of the year – the Wolverines used solid pitching and offensive prowess to outscore Ohio State 27-6 in four games. Although the Buckeyes took one game in Saturday’s doubleheader, the three wins gave Michigan a one-and-a-half-game lead over second-place Purdue.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney attributes part of his team’s added focus to the 11-4 loss at Indiana.
“That whoopin’ was a wake-up call,” Maloney said. “(Now) we know that we’re going to have to do a better job if we want to accomplish things ahead of us.”
But the Wolverines’ motivations draw from much deeper pools than a Hoosier squad that wholly overachieved one Sunday in April.
Purdue has been right with Michigan for the top spot in the Big Ten standings. Unlike last year when the Wolverines lost 5-of-8 down the stretch and still held a comfortable lead, they can’t afford a two-weekend vacation now.
Although hosting the conference tournament may not seem important, it gives the Wolverines yet another chance to show off Ray Fisher Stadium at the Wilpon Complex to the NCAA Selection Committee. That can only help in Michigan’s quest to receive one of the six coveted hosting bids for an NCAA Regional – a goal it has had since construction was completed on the new stadium.
Last year, the Wolverines had an at-large bid locked up, so they had nothing to play for in the Big Ten Tournament. This year, the motivation to win the tournament is there.
“In order to host, we need to win the Big Ten, in my opinion,” Maloney said.
All the Wolverines have to do now is execute. Unlike last season when Michigan was just happy to get in the NCAA Tournament, this team wants more. Because of that, the desperation the Wolverines have been known to play with on the biggest stages – like last year’s NCAA Regional-winning victory over Vanderbilt – is bound to propel Michigan through the next two weeks and into the Tournament.
Get ready for Ann Arbor’s first baseball regional – it should be a fun weekend.
– Andy Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.