Enough talent, but too much inconsistency.
That’s been the story of the Michigan baseball team’s bullpen all season.
“I feel like we have a lot of talent in the bullpen, a lot of guys who can pitch, so now we just need to pitch better and be more consistent,” fifth-year senior right-hander Kolby Wood said last week.
There’s no denying that the Wolverines (9-11 overall) have plenty of relief options. Sophomore right-hander Alex Lakatos has allowed only one earned run in nine-plus innings. Freshman right-hander Matt Ogden and freshman left-hander Trent Szkutnik, both have received early praise from Michigan coach Rich Maloney. And then there’s Wood and fellow fifth-year senior hurler Travis Smith, who are reasserting themselves as contributors in the Wolverine bullpen after missing most of last year with season-ending arm injuries.
But if there’s one thing the relievers have struggled with, it’s reliability. After the Snowbird Invitational in Port Charlotte, Fla. at the beginning of the month, during which the relievers relinquished late leads in games against Ohio State and Xavier, Maloney noted that the bullpen had faltered in most of team’s six losses at that point. He cautioned that the relief-pitching struggles could be problematic if they continued.
Sure enough, Maloney was correct.
In its last eight games, Michigan has a 3-5 record. Out of those five losses, the bullpen has allowed at least three runs after the sixth inning on three different occasions.
“We need to limit our freebies,” Wood said. “We’ve walked some guys out of the pen, so we need to work on that.”
So far, Maloney has relied heavily upon his two freshmen — Ogden leads the team in relief innings with 12, while Szkutnik has been the third-most active reliever, hurling nine innings. Despite his loyalty, Maloney has received varying success in return.
After allowing three earned runs and walking four in the seventh and eight innings during a 6-4 defeat to LSU on March 10, Ogden bounced back to pitch two hitless innings to earn his first career save in a 7-5 victory against Connecticut last Sunday.
Skutznik has been just as inconsistent. Despite getting hit with a line drive off his pitching hand against Xavier on March 4, Szkutnik pitched two solid innings the following weekend in a 6-5 victory against Notre Dame. This past weekend, he allowed three runs in one inning while walking five in Michigan’s 6-2 loss to Coastal Carolina.
Though the relievers have mixed poor performances with effective outings — Ogden owns a 4.50 ERA and Szkutnik has a 10.00 ERA — Maloney’s faith hasn’t waivered.
“I still really like Ogden and Szkutnik,” Maloney said.
Not just the freshman have been inconsistent, and it has caused Maloney to tinker with how he plans to utilize his relief pitching, as five different pitchers each have earned a save, and none of them have recorded more than one.
“I think there (are) some options there, but we need somebody to step up,” Maloney said. “We’ve got to find who that go-to guy is going to be.”
Maloney hopes that Wood and Smith can provide some stability with their experience. In 2010, Wood led the Wolverines with 21 appearances out of the bullpen. And last year, Smith pitched four-plus innings without allowing a run before sitting out the rest of the season. Maloney has said that the fifth-year seniors could be the team’s back-end pitchers in relief when they become strong enough to pitch multiple times in a series, but neither has shown that ability yet. In three appearances, Wood has pitched less than two innings. Smith has only made one appearance so far this season.
Whatever, or whoever, the solution is, Maloney understands that the bullpen needs to find it fast.
“I think one of the keys for the team the rest of the year is going to be ‘can we finish games?’ I am very pleased with what we’ve been getting from our starting pitching — they’ve been doing outstanding — but our bullpen has been struggling.”