Michigan baseball coach Rich Maloney never fails to mention the importance of the “timely hit.” And his words rang true this weekend against Michigan State.

This is what Maloney has been waiting for all season — a Big Ten series win.

Last year, the Wolverines (2-4 Big Ten, 15-17 overall) finished rock bottom in the conference, and their record compared to the Spartans’ (19-10, 3-3) was lopsided. This weekend’s matchup wasn’t looking favorable for Michigan.

Michigan State’s pitching staff looked like a major threat. Friday’s starter, right-hander Tony Bucciferro, leads the conference in strikeouts (48). But even when chances for success seemed slim, the most unlikely players stepped up during crucial moments.

Last weekend, in the first series of the conference schedule, senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery gave up six earned runs against Minnesota. But in the home opener on Friday, Sinnery redeemed himself and pitched 8.1 scoreless innings, en route to a 4-0 shutout and a standing ovation.

In the first inning of the series, freshman shortstop Dylan Delaney put Michigan on the board with a bomb to left field. He went 2-for-4 on the game, and the Wolverines kept building off that momentous start.

Until now, Delaney wasn’t a huge asset, usually placed at the bottom of the batting order. Before his first at-bat on Friday, he had a meager .176 average, so it was surprising when Maloney bumped him to the two-hole spot in the lineup.

“It’s definitely different than hitting eighth,” Delaney said. “But my job is still the same.”

Last Wednesday, Maloney predicted that Delaney’s hitting would contribute in the long run, but he didn’t know that would come so soon.

On Saturday, Delaney kept swinging a hot bat and went 2-for-5 with 2 RBIs. Though the Spartans were up by two runs by the bottom of the fourth inning, Michigan put a pair of unexpected base runners in scoring positions.

With redshirt sophomore second baseman John DiLaura and freshman right fielder Zach Zott on second and third base, respectively, Delaney batted them in to knot the game at 2-2.

Zott hasn’t seen a significant amount of action in his rookie campaign, but someone had to fill in for the missing sophomore right fielder, Michael O’Neill.

Losing O’Neill to a left-hand injury was a terribly timed burden for the Wolverines.

“It’s very unfortunate because he would’ve come up how many different times?” Maloney said. “But that’s the way it is. We’re playing a little handicapped.”

Maloney’s concerns used to reside at the plate, but as of late, the issues seem to be in the team’s fielding.

On Saturday, Michigan State capitalized on two errors in the bottom of the fifth inning and took a 3-2 lead. But the Wolverines answered with another handful of surprising heroes.

After freshman left fielder Will Drake tied the game on a fielder’s choice, struggling sophomore first baseman Brett Winger was due to bat with runners on the corners. So, Maloney called on redshirt junior Kevin Krantz as a pinch hitter, which looked like a lose-lose situation since he hadn’t posted a single hit all season.

Once again, the Wolverines stepped up at exactly the right time — Krantz singled to right-center field, driving in the winning run.

“Krantz had a big hit,” Maloney said. “I’m liking some of the growth I’m seeing.”

Though there are plenty of players starting to emerge from the shadows, junior center fielder Patrick Biondi still stands at the forefront, riding a hot hitting streak.

Biondi smacked his first home run this season to stretch the team’s lead in the sixth inning on Friday. He leads the team with a .457 on-base percentage, has reached base in 17-straight games, and he snatched second place on the all-time stolen base list with 75.

On Sunday, the same string of Wolverines continued strengthening their numbers at the plate in 13 innings of play. Krantz earned a starting spot in the lineup as the designated hitter and Winger finally pulled himself out of the slump, notching three hits.

Both teams made strong offensive retaliations and rotated through the bullpen after initial struggles on the mound. Junior right-hander Ben Ballantine duplicated last weekend’s poor performance and was yanked after just 1.2 innings and three earned runs.

By the end of the ninth inning, Michigan and Michigan State were locked at eight run apiece. In the top of the 13th inning, the Spartans took advantage of a dropped fly ball and fielding error to tally the two winning runs.

“We did win the series, which was pleasing,” Maloney said. “On the flip side of it, we had a wonderful opportunity … to finish that game off, and we just weren’t able to get over the top. That’s a bit disheartening.

“I told the boys — I said, ‘Hey, you played your hearts out.’ ”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.