A red-hot freshman pitcher and a well-balanced offense have the Michigan baseball team on a bit of a run lately.
After a successful 3-1 record in last weekend’s Snowbird Invitational in Port Charlotte, Fla., the Wolverines (8-7) headed to San Diego for the USD Tournament, where they logged the same 3-1 mark.
In Thursday’s game against Holy Cross (2-11), Michigan knotted a 6-3 victory. Quality offensive production from the top to bottom of the order stood as the base of the Wolverines’ early-tournament success, as four different players recorded an RBI.
But defensively, senior right-handed pitcher Ben Ballantine stole the show with his second win of the season. Through six innings of work, he allowed just two earned runs off four hits. Even more impressive, he walked only one batter and recorded three strikeouts.
“Any time starters can get us into the sixth or seventh inning, it’s huge,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “We were able to build our lead, and without that start (from Ballantine) we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
After a few scheduling changes due to Friday’s inclement weather, Michigan finally took on St. Louis (10-6) on Saturday. The optimism surrounding the pitching staff, especially after Ballantine’s quality start, quickly faded, as numerous walks and errors hindered the Wolverines in a 9-5 loss to the Billikens.
Michigan’s pitching staff allowed eight walks, compared to just two for St. Louis. Bakich preaches pitching to contact on a consistent basis, and the failure to do so greatly thwarted Michigan’s chances.
The Wolverines also gave up 13 hits and committed two errors, resulting in over twenty base runners for St. Louis throughout the game. After surrendering those countless opportunities to the Billikens, Michigan was unable to recover.
“You can’t give any team free passes,” Bakich said. “We were playing catch-up, and that limits what you can do offensively as far as putting guys in motion and putting pressure on (the defense). We gifted them a few runs right away and that shouldn’t have happened.”
The first game of a Sunday doubleheader was a rematch with Holy Cross, as the Wolverines took care of business yet again with a 7-4 victory. Michigan got off to a quick start and never looked back, scoring four runs throughout the first four innings. Sophomore first baseman Kyle Jusick went 4-for-4 with a run and an RBI, sealing another balanced day offensively for the Wolverines, as six players tallied an RBI.
“We preach quality at-bats, and we continue to have a lot of balance and consistency in our lineup,” Bakich said. “It especially helps when you get a lot of production from the middle to bottom of the order.”
Defensively, pitching woes subsided to a certain extent, as the staff combined for six walks and eight strikeouts. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Trent Szkutnik got the start and allowed three earned runs off just four hits in five innings of work. Freshman Jacob Cronenworth pitched the last three innings without allowing a hit, capping off the first order of business that afternoon.
In the second half of the doubleheader, Michigan took on tournament-host San Diego (11-6). In a back-and-forth affair, the Wolverines topped the Toreros, 5-2, thanks to three eighth-inning runs and another solid outing from Hill. His early-season success continued as he held San Diego to just two runs, none of which were earned. He added five strikeouts and just two walks in 6.2 innings.
“He’s a special talent (and) he’s got a bright future, but he has a long way to go before he is firing on all cylinders,” Bakich said. “(But) we’ve been pretty fortunate that he’s been able to pitch out of jams, and using his make-up and competitiveness he’s put us in a position to win.”
For opposing teams, it’s extremely scary, according to Bakich, that Hill has yet to master sufficient consistency with all four of his pitches, particularly his cutter and changeup, despite Hill’s 1.45 ERA heading into Sunday’s game.
Likewise, senior center fielder Patrick Biondi and junior right fielder Michael O’Neill have been on a tear lately, as they knocked in two of the three timely runs late in the game. Additionally, they both recorded a hit in every game this weekend, which extended Biondi’s hitting streak to 22, and O’Neill’s to 19, dating back to last season.