With apologies to Yogi Berra, the Michigan baseball team’s season is not over — but it’s over.
With just a three-game series against Penn State remaining, the Wolverines (6-14 Big Ten, 16-35 overall) are mathematically eliminated from contention for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. They need a sweep to have a prayer at moving out of the Big Ten’s basement.
Thanks largely to eight consecutive conference losses, Michigan will miss out on postseason play for just the third time in a decade — something Michigan coach Rich Maloney says could help his team this weekend.
“I think the guys will be relaxed, meaning it’s been a stressful season and now we know that we can’t go any further, so I think the guys will play free and easy and hopefully they’ll play really well,” Maloney said. “We’re going to continue to play our young group of guys and give them experience and play to win.”
But it does have an opportunity to play spoiler to Penn State, one of just two teams to own an all-time series lead over the Wolverines. The Nittany Lions (10-11, 30-19) sit one game out of the last playoff spot entering the final regular-season series of the year.
Last season, Michigan took two of three against Penn State in the final week of the season to knock the Nittany Lions out of the postseason. But Maloney doesn’t think that will change his team’s frame of mind.
“Even with what Penn State has at stake, I don’t think it has any bearing on us, in our mindset,” Maloney said. “I think we’re just playing for our own pride. Although the wins have been few this year, the opportunity to play baseball and represent Michigan is important to all of us.”
To avoid a similar fate, Penn State will turn to its pitching staff, which has anchored the team all season. Thanks to Big Ten ERA leader, sophomore Steven Hill (5-4, 2.36) and sophomore right-hander John Walter (6-3, 2.65) at the top of rotation, the Nittany Lions own the best ERA in the conference. Their team ERA of 3.31 is nearly two runs lower than Michigan’s 5.16 average.
Of course, the Wolverines have dealt with injuries to three starting pitchers and have had little consistency from any hurler aside from junior right-hander Brandon Sinnery.
The struggling rotation of Sinnery, redshirt sophomore Matt Broder and possibly fifth-year senior Matt Gerbe will have its hands full with a powerful Penn State lineup.
The Nittany Lions possess the conference lead in home runs, as well as three of the Big Ten’s top sluggers. Junior center fielder Sean Deegan leads the Big Ten with 10 home runs, with senior utility man Mario Eramo on his heels with nine. Meanwhile, junior third baseman Jordan Steranka leads the conference with 54 RBI.
Gerbe will be used out of the bullpen Thursday or Friday on an if-needed basis; otherwise, he’ll start Saturday’s Senior Day.
The righty’s ERA had ballooned over 30.00 earlier this season, but the veteran has settled in of late, highlighted by 2.2 scoreless innings of relief on Tuesday, when he earned the win over Western Michigan by not allowing a Bronco to reach base.
“He really did look good the other day,” Maloney said. “He did have a rough beginning, but he sure picked it up and has been doing a nice job. I was happy to see him get a win.”
Michigan also received a lift from sophomore shortstop Derek Dennis on Tuesday. Dennis — still fighting to regain consistency after suffering a broken foot earlier this year — looks to have broken out of his slump.
Dennis had two hits against Western Michigan, including a two-run double over the left fielder to tie the game, leading to Michigan’s game-winning rally the next inning.
“It’s important because we need him to do well,” Maloney said. “Derek is a big part of our program and our team’s obviously a lot better when he goes. He’s capable of doing some pretty special things and it was nice to see him get a couple hits (on Tuesday) and hopefully he’ll carry it into this weekend and into next year. He needs to be a contributor on offense for us to be the team we want to be.”
For the Wolverines, the series is an opportunity to carry some momentum into next year to ease the pain of one of their worst seasons in memory.
“It’s been a very difficult season, and every win — it doesn’t stop the pain that we’ve all felt or adversity that we’ve all gone through — but every win makes it feel better for that day,” Maloney said. “We’re going to try to win, I can tell you that right now. The guys want to win, they’re tired of losing.”