For most, the start of Spring Break means freedom from responsibility — it means flip-flops and bathing suits. Though in sunny Florida, the Michigan baseball team traded in their sandals for cleats and swim trunks for jerseys.
The Wolverines headed to Port St. Lucie, Fla. — the New York Mets’ spring training home at Digital Domain Park — on Thursday for their 10-day “vacation.”
Michigan began the trip by winning three games of a four-game series against Iona, their first matchup in history, and extended their season record to 5-2.
The Wolverines found redemption. Last year, they lost their first eight games of the season in the Sunshine State.
But with a fresh start, they coined “Flip It” to reverse the 2011 last-place finish in the Big Ten. And with their most recent win, they remain close but still a stretch away from achieving that goal. Michigan climbed to No. 2 in the conference behind Purdue, but it still has a lengthy and unpredictable schedule ahead.
But Michigan doesn’t want to focus on the past and instead relies on one win at a time.
“You want to win every one that you play,” said Michigan coach Rich Maloney. “But the reality is we just have to keep getting better.”
Against Iona, the Wolverines encouraged Maloney with the 3-1 series win and showed him the meaning of a tiebreaker.
In the first game of the weekend series, the score was 6-6 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Freshman left fielder Will Drake tripled to right center allowing junior center fielder Patrick Biondi and freshman second baseman Dylan Delany to score and break the tie.
After another run by Drake, Michigan kept their lead and won 9-6. With the late-game victory, the Wolverines went into Saturday with momentum and held onto it, pummeling Iona the morning game, 11-2.
“(But) the second game of the doubleheader we were a little flat,” O’Neill said.
It came down to a 1-1 tie in the top of the fifth inning. This time, Michigan couldn’t keep its head above water after Iona scored an unearned run off a walk. It couldn’t pull itself from the two-run deficit and senior third baseman John Lorenz struck out to seal the loss.
Lorenz came back on Sunday and “flipped” his last at bat by putting Michigan on the board with two RBI, adding to his season total of nine. On Lorenz’s double to left field, Drake and Biondi scored after each advancing with stolen bases.
But the duo didn’t just impress Maloney with Biondi’s 63rd career steal or Drake’s cumulative .385 batting average, but their ability to “raise some havoc with the opponent” in critical times.
In another down-to-the-wire tie in the ninth inning, Iona had the bases loaded and Biondi threw out Gael first baseman Mike Chiaravalloti at home plate — what Maloney called a “bullseye throw.”
In Michigan’s last opportunity to win the game and the series, Drake singled for a walk-off win and series victory.
“You just know what you have to do and get it done,” Drake said.
The Wolverines maintain a hopeful record for the beginning of the season and teammates attribute some of that success to the young players.
After starting the veteran pitchers in the first three games, freshman right-hander Matt Ogden — drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks — took the mound for 4.2 innings in the final. Iona loaded the bases, but Ogden struck out two of its best hitters earning him Maloney’s triple-threat alliteration: “Calm, cool and collected.”
Maloney was satisfied with the win but realizes that each tie is a potential win and a potential loss. It seems that Michigan found the extra oomph it needed to push ahead.
“The Iona team was very gritty,” Maloney said. “They made play after play after play.”
But it’s quality over quantity. And if the Wolverines didn’t outnumber Iona’s plays, they at least made effective ones.
“It’s the toughest game out there,” Drake said. “But you just have to battle through.”