When sophomore hurler Ben Ballantine stepped on the mound in the third inning to relieve sophomore Alex Lakatos on Saturday, he brought with him a glove and ball, but they could have easily been mistaken for a mop and pail.
Down 8-3 to Winthrop, the Michigan baseball team’s fourth straight loss seemed inevitable, and Ballantine’s job seemed clear: this was mop-up duty.
But Ballantine must have used some strong soap. The right-hander pitched 6.1 scoreless innings to stop the bleeding and the Michigan bats stayed quiet for three innings before exploding for five runs in the seventh.
Suddenly, the game was tied.
Then, in the top of the ninth, second baseman Anthony Toth untied it. His RBI double gave the Wolverines a 9-8 lead, which Ballantine protected in the last half of the inning for Michigan’s most satisfying victory of the season.
“Coming into that game, I knew what I had to do,” Ballantine said. “Just because we were down, I wasn’t going to pitch in any different way than I know how.”
Finally, some momentum appeared like it may be inching — albeit ever so slightly — towards Michigan’s favor.
“True momentum comes from winning,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said.
In that regard, Michigan (3-12) still has some work to do. Though they played four close games in this weekend’s Bojangles Baseball Classic against Winthrop and Stony Brook, the Wolverines were only able to come away with one victory.
In the first game on Saturday against Stony Brook (7-4), Seawolves right-hander Nick Tropeano ruined a great start by Michigan sophomore right-hander Kyle Clark, who gave up only two earned runs in eight innings of work. Tropeano struck out 10 Wolverines in eight innings of shutout ball.
But Michigan had its chances in the ninth. Down 3-0 with the bases loaded and no outs, first baseman Garrett Stephens grounded into a run-scoring double play, and third baseman John Lorenz grounded out to end the game.
The Wolverines had another opportunity for a come-from-behind win against Stony Brook on Sunday. In the eighth inning, Michigan trailed 3-1 but had the bases loaded and only one out. Michigan sent its two best hitters this season to the plate — sophomore centerfielder Patrick Biondi, batting .306, and freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill — but a strikeout and foul out ended any chance of a rally.
“We were in all four games, which was an improvement, but we just didn’t do enough things well enough to get over the top,” Maloney said.
Sophomore left-hander Bobby Brosnahan finally found the command he had been lacking in the early part of the season. He pitched his first solid outing of the year on Sunday, giving up one run before leaving due to arm fatigue after the fourth inning.
“You need some quality starts, and like what Clark did for us — eight innings of well-pitched ball gave us a chance to win — if we can get Bobby doing that like he had done many times last year, then that really puts a lot less pressure on your pitching staff,” Maloney said. “It would mean a whole lot to the team.”
In the first game against Winthrop (7-7) on Friday, Michigan again benefited from solid long-relief work. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Vangheluwe pitched five scoreless innings after redshirt sophomore starter Tyler Mills got chased after surrendering five runs — four earned — in 1-plus innings of work. RBIs from third baseman John Lorenz and O’Neill in the fifth and sixth tied the game for Michigan. But a three-run eighth by the Eagles handed Michigan an 8-5 loss.
Michigan experimented with some lineup changes this weekend to try to ignite an offense that has been mostly stagnant. Biondi, normally the leadoff man, moved into the third spot, bumping up O’Neill into the cleanup position. O’Neill remains the team’s hit leader with a .356 batting average, and he extended his season-spanning hit streak to 15.
Sophomore shortstop Derek Dennis, previously the sixth hitter, took over as the leadoff man and Lakatos was given time in left field and designated hitter.
The move generated more offensive production and led to some closer games.
“Even if we came up short in some of (the games), the fact that we were in these games real close and it’s just a pitch away from being a win or a hit away from being a win, we know we’re right there,” Ballantine said. “We’re right at the cusp of just skyrocketing into a really good season and a really good turnaround.”