FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the top of the third inning, the Michigan baseball team was at bat when the rain started to pour into Swanson Stadium. It seemed like a sign that the Wolverines should’ve taken cover and called it a day.
But nobody flinched — except for a few spectators — and Michigan witnessed a storm conjured by Florida Gulf Coast.
The rain departed just minutes after it arrived, and that’s when Eagles took flight, streaking past the Wolverines to an 8-1 final.
Michigan, continuing its spring break trip, was coming off a series win against Iona. But Florida Gulf Coast, too, had an accelerating three-game winning streak in its favor.
There were just a few minutes of daylight left when the Eagles’ right-hander Ricky Knapp threw out the first official pitch of the evening. But it appeared as though the Wolverines only thrived with the sun on their side.
In the first inning, sophomore right fielder Michael O’Neill hit his fifth career home run over the left-field fence and into the backdrop of palm trees.
The shot drew an “Attaboy, Mike,” from an enthusiastic fan in the stands.
But all of a sudden, the Wolverines looked like the last-place finisher they were just last season. Still, there were glimpses of the respectable team they have recently become.
“I don’t really want to reflect on tonight,” O’Neill said. “It’s probably the worst we’ve played.”
The top of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings looked identical as Knapp retired Michigan’s batters one after another. By the end, he left junior center fielder Patrick Biondi hitless for his third straight game and snapped freshman left fielder Will Drake’s seven-game hit streak. Regardless, Michigan coach Rich Maloney tipped his hat to Knapp for his solid execution.
But Maloney was even more impressed with his own young left-hander, freshman Trent Szkutnik. With a three-run deficit and junior right-hander Kyle Clark on the mound in the bottom of the fifth, Szkutnik came in to do a little housework.
It took him some time to locate his fastball and curveball while walking the Eagles’ designated hitter, Mike Reeves, and loading the bases. Then Szkutnik sent a wild pitch flying above senior catcher Coley Crank allowing Florida Gulf Coast first baseman Sean Dwyer to score.
Then, after trial and error, Szkutnik started accumulating his eight strikeouts one at a time.
“At first I was having a little trouble,” Szkutnik said. “(Then) I was able to get in my groove and throw strikes.”
But sometime before his 81st pitch, Szkutnik started to run out of gas. He loaded the bases on three consecutive walks and allowed two Eagles to reach home plate on a double. But Maloney picked out the positives in his performance.
“Even though we didn’t win the game, that was a win for me, watching him,” Maloney said. “I just saw a pitcher who has a pretty bright future.”
Michigan is a young team with plenty of potential and Maloney utilizes that fresh ‘go get ‘em’ attitude. In their first career appearances with the Wolverines, freshman Zach Zott singled toward the shortstop and freshman Eric Jacobson fielded from second base to replace redshirt junior Kevin Krantz.
Following the seventh-inning stretch, Jacobson laid himself out for a diving catch and his first Michigan putout.
Even with a few good defensive plays here and there, it wasn’t enough to overcome the growing deficit. But despite the unsatisfactory results, Michigan remains No. 2 behind Purdue in the conference standings and leads the Big Ten with 52 runs, 46 RBI, 18 doubles and three triples.
The Wolverines will go through the rest of season proving they truly are a force to be reckoned with. And try to prove that a loss at Florida Gulf Coast was just one bump in the road.
“Today, for whatever reason, didn’t work in our favor,” Maloney said.