By Sunday evening, Friday’s 9-3 loss to Illinois seemed like a distant memory to the Michigan baseball team. The rest of the season did, too.
The Wolverines’ performance Sunday — a doubleheader sweep over the Fighting Illini, 3-0 and 7-5 — wasn’t the Michigan team that we’ve seen all season.
The funny thing is that it was the team we were supposed to have seen all season.
The preseason expectations were mounting in Ann Arbor, even before the Wolverines (4-5 Big Ten, 11-23 overall) were picked to finish No. 2 in the Big Ten. But just a month into the season, instead of fighting for a spot in Omaha’s College World Series, Michigan was struggling to even qualify for the conference tournament.
Weekend after weekend, teams took turns stifling the Wolverines’ bats and knocking around their pitchers. Even in weekday games, MAC teams like Eastern Michigan and Toledo made Michigan look like the mid-major program.
Friday was no different. Illinois (4-5, 12-19) chased starter Bobby Brosnahan for nine runs after just 3.2 innings in an embarrassing loss.
But Sunday, things changed. It started with the pitching from junior Brandon Sinnery, who recorded his first career complete-game shutout and a career-high nine strikeouts.
This was the same pitcher who’d earlier lost his spot in the rotation after giving up six runs in just 1.2 innings in the season’s opening weekend.
Instead of the Wolverines being on the wrong end of a pitching gem, it was Sinnery putting the team on his back and getting just enough runs — three — to survive a complete game from the Illini’s starter.
The nightcap of the doubleheader showed signs that maybe this team is different than the one that’s taken the field the past two months.
We’ve seen Michigan find momentum before, only to have it slip away just as quickly.
A win over Indiana in the first game of a doubleheader a few weeks ago was quickly followed by a 10-3 pounding.
A four-run comeback at Purdue to avoid a sweep followed by a 13-3 win over Bowling Green suggested that, again, things may be on the upswing. But the next night, Toledo came to Ann Arbor and left the Wolverines stunned.
Sunday’s nightcap started much the same. Illinois quickly led 1-0 and then 3-1 in the opening innings.
“I think it was similar in the Indiana game, that third game, where they got the lead, we came back, and they got another one, and we just kind of rolled over,” freshman rightfielder Michael O’Neill said.
But this time, the Wolverines didn’t roll over. They took the punch and punched back in the bottom half of the inning — with some luck.
An Illinois error with two outs scored two Michigan base runners, giving the Wolverines a needed break.
Until they gave it back. A wild pitch and an error led to two more Illini runs in the sixth inning.
The team had its chance and burned it. Time for Michigan to roll over and play dead — or just stay dead. Game over. Series over. Season over.
But in the bottom of the seventh, a single, passed ball and two infield hits turned into a run. Then O’Neill sent a scorcher down the third-base line — two more runs. Then one final single: 7-6. Game over. Series win. Season saved.
And when the game actually ended — with freshman Jake Engels on the mound earning a save with the tying run on third base — there were five freshmen standing on the field, taking it all in.
This freshmen-laden squad — just searching for a series win to help crawl and scratch their way over the hump — finally did it. And it did it in style, celebrating, laughing and smiling all the way back to the clubhouse.
The season was supposed to end Sunday. But when the day ended, it was the young Wolverines who ended their slump.
So when Sinnery described the day showing more youth than eloquence, it put everything together perfectly.
“Winning’s funner than losing,” Sinnery said. “When you’re winning, you’re having fun.”