ATHENS, Ohio — Numbers never lie. Or do they? Sophomore shortstop Leif Mahler is living proof that, sometimes, what you see on the stat sheet isn’t exactly what you get.
Last year, as a true freshman, Mahler committed just four errors the entire season — good enough for a .974 fielding percentage — and batted a respectable .306.
The Columbus native was given the Ted Sizemore Award as the top defensive player at the end of the season and began the 2005 campaign No. 1 on the depth chart.
But this season, Mahler hasn’t looked as impressive.
“I started out a little slow with the bat and defensively, too,” Mahler said.
Going into the weekend, Mahler was hitting .116 and had committed five errors. And his fielding struggles only continued — he added four more errors to his total this weekend.
But Michigan coach Rich Maloney understands that baseball is more than just numbers on a sheet of paper.
“Sometimes, when you’re a young player and you’re struggling with the bat, you have a tendency to try too hard (in the field),” Maloney said. “But he’s a really good fielder, and all the guys know that. I feel very confident in him.”
Although Maloney knows Mahler hasn’t been at his best so far this season, the coach noted that the sophomore has made some tough plays throughout the year.
Just ask sophomore shortstop Bryant Witt of Ohio University.
Mahler stole two would-be hits from Witt in the third and sixth innings of the first game of the weekend. In the third, Mahler chased down a well-struck ground ball in the hole between short and third and put on a clinic on how to field a ball to your backhand side. In the sixth, Mahler preserved a perfect game by making a leaping grab.
Mahler is starting to break out of his hitting woes. He improved his batting average more than 100 points over the weekend to .223. He illustrated his improvement in the second game of the three game series. Mahler went 3-for-5 and drew first blood for the Wolverines.
To open up the second inning, juniors Mike Schmidt and Matt Rademacher hit a pair of singles and were on second base and first base, respectively. That’s when Mahler stepped up to the plate and lined a frozen rope to the gap in left-center — that hit the outfield wall on the fly. When the dust settled, two runners had crossed home plate and Mahler was standing on second.
“This weekend, hopefully, I’ve turned things around,” Mahler said. “I’m hitting and seeing the ball a lot better. We worked on some things this past week, and the results seem to show that things are going pretty well.”
Don’t leave me hanging: The Michigan baseball team hit well over the weekend, but after the first game, there was one statistic that worried Maloney: runners left on base.
“We left a lot of opportunities (on base) to make it a larger lead than it was,” Maloney said. “But I thought we played well, and, when you have a pitcher as hot as (Jim Brauer), it’s pretty much a moot point, which is awesome.”
At last week’s Lamar Classic, the Wolverines scored a total of 12 runs with two outs and left 31 runners on base. Against Ohio, Michigan only scored six runs with two outs, and still stranded 31 runners.
“We’ve been getting timely hitting,” Maloney said. “I just look at the fact we scored 10 runs and we scored six runs. If we keep scoring six runs, with the way we’ve built our team around pitching, we should be pretty solid.”
It’s been a while: This past weekend’s games mark the first time Ohio and Michigan have played each other since 1953. Back then, the Wolverines, headed by coach Ray Fisher, defeated the Bobcats 7-5 and 7-0 in the NCAA regionals in Ann Arbor. The wins pushed Michigan into the College World Series en route to the 1953 national championship. Michigan’s record against Ohio is now 9-2.