Michigan baseball coach Rich Maloney likes to take it one step at a time.
On Sunday, after posting two conference wins and a 13-inning loss in a weekend series against Michigan State, Maloney didn’t have any ideas for what steps came next.
Michigan (2-3 Big Ten, 15-17 overall) will host Bowling Green (2-7 MAC, 11-20 overall) today and Toledo (4-5, 13-18) tomorrow, both of which look like plausible wins for the Wolverines. But the outcome will depend on two of Maloney’s decisions.
Decision 1: Starting pitcher
The day before every midweek contest, Maloney asks himself who will start on the mound, and there’s rarely a definitive answer.
Considering the pitching staff’s lack of reliability, Maloney has little to choose from. While some of the young hurlers have begun to step up recently, others have fallen short of expectations.
Though junior right-hander Ben Ballantine and redshirt junior left-hander Bobby Brosnahan started the season with promising production, they have stumbled to find their footing as of late.
On March 21, pitching coach Steve Merriman praised Brosnahan, Ballantine and senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery, but with a caveat. His words were foretelling.
“Nothing has been etched in stone,” Merriman said. “Those guys are competing, they’re all competing for that opportunity. And you know what? That could change two weeks into the Big Ten season.”
Brosnahan’s inconsistency persuaded Maloney to start freshman left-hander Trent Szkutnik and replace him with sophomore right-hander Alex Lakatos — two young pitchers who have emerged from the struggling bullpen — against Michigan State on Saturday.
Earlier this season, they seemed like probable candidates for midweek starts. But their combined 142 pitches render them unavailable for the upcoming contests.
In Ballantine’s last two starts against Minnesota and Michigan State, he gave up five earned runs, eight hits and four walks in just 3.2 innings of work.
After pulling Ballantine off the mound, Maloney had to rotate through four relievers, including freshman right-hander Matt Ogden, who threw for five innings.
Last weekend put a noticeable dent in the list of prospective midweek pitchers. So Maloney will start freshman right-hander James Bourque today against Bowling Green and give Ballantine another opportunity to redeem himself in tomorrow’s start against Toledo.
Bourque earned a 7-3 win last week against Central Michigan with three strikeouts in three innings, giving up only one earned run. But Ballantine has to show Maloney he deserves another chance.
Decision 2: Batting order
It seems that Maloney has finally found something that works — freshman shortstop Dylan Delaney in the two-hole.
Delaney was always placed in the eighth or ninth spot of the batting order, and he was swinging a near-silent bat. But last weekend, Maloney bumped him up in the lineup, and he notched five hits, three RBIs and a home run against the Spartans.
Though Michigan lost sophomore right fielder Michael O’Neill to a left-hand injury, a number of unlikely players stepped up at the right time.
Maloney had to use freshman Zach Zott, who entered the Michigan State series with a .179 batting average, in right field to compensate for the loss in the lineup. He went 3-for-9 with two runs and three RBIs.
It is unclear if Maloney will continue experimenting with the batting order. But before he posts the starting lineup, he’ll need to take a few things into account.
Bowling Green has eight players batting above .300, led by outfielder Andrew Kubuski’s .389 average on 44 hits. But since the Falcon pitching staff posts a mediocre 4.63 ERA, the matchup is bound to be an offensive show.
Toledo, on the other hand, has just one consistent starter batting above .300 and lingers at the bottom of the MAC in all facets of the game. Though the Rockets appear to be an easy win for the Wolverines, it will all depend on Maloney’s decisions.
“We just have to make sure we play to the same level that we play (against) higher teams,” Delaney said. “We can’t take them lightly.”