The Michigan baseball team was on the ropes.
In their previous meeting with Northwestern, the Wolverines trailed 14-0 after three innings and the game looked all but over.
It wasn’t. A solo walk-off home run by senior first baseman Mike Dufek in the 10th inning — the last of 15 unanswered runs — capped one of the most improbable comebacks in Michigan baseball history and kept its conference title hopes alive.
Almost a year later, Michigan again finds itself on the ropes and facing Northwestern once again. The Wolverines sit in sole possession of last place in the Big Ten as they enter a three-game series with the Wildcats (7-11 Big Ten, 17-27 overall).
With two conference series remaining, Michigan (6-12, 15-33) must make up two games in the standings just to claim a share of sixth place and a potential spot in the tournament.
“We know it’s must-win series,” Maloney said. “We’ve got to win the series to have a chance (at postseason play) going into the last weekend. If we don’t win the series, then we won’t. Everybody knows that.”
To win the series, the Wolverines may need to put up similar numbers to their 15-14 slugfest last year. With three starters out for the season, the rotation has been a revolving door.
Aside from junior right-hander Brandon Sinnery, who has anchored the staff with a 2.68 ERA, no other starter has been overly impressive. Redshirt sophomore left-hander Matt Broder will make his second career conference start in game two. On Sunday, Broder became Michigan’s seventh starter in 15 conference games, giving up three runs in five innings in a 6-2 loss to Minnesota.
Maloney has yet to pencil in a Sunday starter. Use of bullpen arms in the first two games will likely determine who gets the nod.
The offense, meanwhile, has experienced scant production from the middle and bottom of the lineup. The trio at the top of the lineup — consisting of freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill, sophomore center fielder Patrick Biondi and junior catcher Coley Crank — has accounted for most of Michigan’s offensive production.
In addition to having the highest batting averages on the team, the three have combined for almost half of the Wolverines’ runs (83) and nearly three quarters of the team’s home runs (9) and stolen bases (48) this season.
The trio’s production must be put in some perspective, though. O’Neill is the team’s batting leader at .306, but his average still lies nearly 10 points below the average for Maloney’s teams during his tenure. For a struggling team used to success, pressing at the plate has become an issue.
“You can see when guys are pressing at the plate and obviously as a team we struggle, so why press?” Biondi said. “Be relaxed, be aggressive, and I think that showed a little bit (Wednesday against Texas Tech). I think we attacked the ball a little bitter, we swung better, so that’s going to be our mentality going in — just be aggressive, have fun and play as hard as we can.”
Northwestern has had more success at the plate this season. Senior third baseman Chris Lashmet and junior designated hitter Paul Snieder pace the Wildcat offense. Both bat over .350 and combine for eight home runs and 60 RBI. Snieder is also the team’s ERA leader.
Like Michigan, Northwestern is fighting to stay alive in the postseason race. Also like the Wolverines, the Wildcats pitching staff ranks towards the bottom of the pack in the conference.
Maloney noted that both teams surrender too many runs and struggle holding runners on.
With two teams coming off of hard stretches in the conference — Michigan was swept in two consecutive weekends and Northwestern has lost its last three series — something has to give.
“We know that, realistically, it’s a long shot to get in (the Big Ten Tournament),” Biondi said. “So we’re going to let it all hang out, play as hard as we can. I think that’s the main thing we’re stressing, whether it’s at practice, whether it’s in batting practice, before games, is to go as hard as you can, all the time.”
That never-quit attitude was enough to salvage the game 362 days ago when the Wolverines somehow pulled off their 14-run comeback.
Now they hope it be enough to salvage their season.