CHAMPAIGN — Against Iowa two weekends ago, sophomore Leif Mahler left the first game of the series last weekend against Iowa and never returned. A hip flexor injury sidelined Michigan’s starting shortstop and forced Michigan coach Rich Maloney to shuffle the lineup a bit, moving junior Chris Getz from second to short and placing freshman Doug Pickens at second. Despite Pickens’s solid performance at second base — no errors in 17 chances — Mahler was healthy enough to take back his starting position at short for this past weekend’s series against Illinois.

Michigan Baseball
Michigan shortstop Leif Mahler has a .933 fielding percentage this season.
(TONY DING/Daily)

“He’s a good shortstop,” Maloney said simply.

In his return to the starting lineup, Mahler had a great day at the plate and notched three hits, including a solo home run that gave the Wolverines a two-run lead,. But the sophomore had one glaring mistake in the third.

Mahler reached first base on a single and loaded the bases for Pickens with two outs. After the very first pitch of the at-bat, Illinois catcher Chris Robinson fired the ball to first base and caught Mahler sleeping. The pickoff ended the inning and killed a potential two-out rally for Michigan.

“When we got picked off at first, that little error like that, you just don’t know,” Maloney said. “Maybe we’d get a hit, and break that thing open.”

But Mahler played well the rest of the weekend. The shortstop didn’t record a single error and made a nice play in the second inning of Sunday’s game to save a run. With two outs and a man on third, Illini second baseman J.R. Kyes hit a ground ball to the hole between short and third base. Mahler raced to the ball, back-handed it on one knee, got up and fired the ball to senior Kyle Bohm at first to get Kyes out by a step.

With the way he has been playing in the field, it is apparent that Mahler’s hip is no longer bothering him.

“It’s feeling much better,” Mahler said. “It’s almost (100 percent), but it’s healing, so I’ll be fine.”

Mahler’s return to the lineup put Pickens into leftfield, a position he played often in the fall but only twice during the season. The freshman was tested early but passed with flying colors.

Illinois designated hitter Mike Rohde already had a single to lead off the second inning of Friday’s game but tried to stretch it to a double. Pickens picked up the ball from the leftfield corner and gunned down Rohde, who was out by more than a couple steps.

“He’s played left all fall,” Maloney said. “He’s good at either left or right.”

No Whitmore!: Illinois pitcher Matt Whitmore’s line for the season was not impressive (2-1, 6.10 ERA, 31 IP, 45 Hits, 13 K, 9 BB). But during Saturday’s second game, Whitmore looked more like a dominant ace than the third pitcher in the rotation. The junior gave up just one run on four hits and struck out five batters, going the distance for the Illini in a 4-1 win.

“How do you figure that?” Maloney said after contemplating the less-than-stellar performance by the offense. “We were trying to be aggressive on fastball strikes — that’s how we’ve hit the last two games. In this particular case, I think we swung at some fastballs that weren’t as good pitches to hit.”

In the first two games of the series, the Wolverines scored nine runs off 21 hits against two of the best pitchers in the Big Ten. Illinois junior Brian Blomquist was 6-1 with a 1.62 ERA while senior Jimmy Conroy boasted a 5-0 record with a 2.28 ERA. But Michigan could not figure out Whitmore, who got ahead of hitters with his fastball and then took advantage with his change-up.

“He wasn’t throwing anything too special out there,” Rose said. “I think a lot of us were trying to do too much with (the pitches), and we got a little outside of ourselves.”

Freshman Derek VanBuskirk felt the full brunt of Whitmore’s performance. VanBuskirk struck out three times on just nine pitches.

Notes: Senior Jim Brauer passed Steve Howe to move into eighth on the all-time strikeout list. Brauer now has 197 strikeouts — one more than Howe — and is three away from becoming the eighth Michigan pitcher ever to record 200 … New Illinois football coach Ron Zook was at Sunday’s game to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The pitch was nowhere near the strike zone … Bohm hit his first triple of the year in the eighth inning of Sunday’s game. He knocked in Matt Butler from first base to give Michigan a three-run lead.

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