A 17-1 victory in the opening game of a series would seem to predict a relatively easy weekend for the winning team.
It wasn’t as much of a breeze as that result would indicate for the Michigan baseball team, but the Wolverines managed to secure a series victory at Illinois.
Michigan (6-3 Big Ten, 23-12 overall) dropped Saturday’s affair, 6-2, but rebounded in the finale, winning 11-4 to remain tied atop the Big Ten standings.
The final score of Sunday’s game belies how close it was, as the two teams were tied 3-3 for the majority of the afternoon. The Fighting Illini chased Michigan’s starter, sophomore right-hander Brandon Sinnery, in the third inning after the Worcester, Massachusetts native allowed four hits and three unearned runs, as Illinois tied it up.
But junior right-hander Tyler Burgoon continued his dominance out of the bullpen, relieving Sinnery and pitching a flawless 5.1 innings.
“(Burgoon) gave us a valiant effort, and we really had to have it,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “The game was in the balance, and we brought him in early, and to his credit, he was just marvelous. He came in with a couple runners on, had the momentum switched to their way … to Tyler’s credit, he was just huge.”
Burgoon’s performance gave Michigan the opportunity to win the game. The Wolverines did just that when the team’s bats exploded for six runs in the seventh inning to put the game out of reach. Senior catcher Chris Berset knocked the winning run home with a single to right field with no outs, scoring junior outfielder Ryan LaMarre.
It was an outburst akin to the events of Friday night, when the Fighting Illini (4-5, 16-15) helplessly looked on as the Wolverines came into Illinois Field and laid a beating on them in the series’ opening game.
Michigan got on the board early, putting up two runs in the top of the first. And by the time the next inning was over, the team was up 9-0, and the rout was on. Maloney stresses the importance of “big,” “shutdown” innings all the time, and his team answered the bell Friday and Sunday.
The offense wasn’t even necessary in the opener, as the Wolverines’ ace, senior right-hander Alan Oaks, shut down the Illini to the tune of just five hits and one run over eight innings.
It was a welcome sign, as the big righty had struggled recently. Oaks began the season on a tear, accumulating a 2.63 ERA over his first five starts, including solid performances against ranked teams North Carolina, Louisville and Coastal Carolina.
But Big Ten play had been his bane during the first two weeks, as he was subpar against Indiana and Purdue. That changed in Champaign, though.
“We needed to get him back on track,” Maloney said. “We’re going to have to pitch really well, especially on (Friday), through the rest of the season if we’re going to have some success. It’s good to see Alan get going, and hopefully he’ll build momentum and get back to where he was.”
The other bright spot was the long-awaited first home run of the season for senior Mike Dufek, who led all Big Ten first basemen with 17 a year ago.
While the rest of his offensive game remained strong, earlier this season Dufek nonetheless had to watch painfully as less powerful teammates like freshman centerfielder Patrick Biondi and redshirt junior second baseman Anthony Toth went deep.
The co-captain finally got on the board with his blast in the third inning Friday, part of a 4-for-5, four RBI day. And though his teammates mockingly greeted him with silence back in the dugout, it was a satisfying moment.
“It’s a huge relief,” Dufek said. “Right when I hit it, I knew it was out, with the wind blowing out like it was. Really, (Maloney) just wants us to knock in runs, the guys in the middle of the line-up. But it was nice to have it.”
The team’s goal every weekend is to win the series, and three weeks into Big Ten play, Michigan is 3-for-3, good enough for a first-place tie in the conference with Ohio State.
While a home stand against the Buckeyes looms in two weeks, Michigan first hosts Iowa next weekend.
“We’re in the hunt,” Maloney said. “We’re where we need to be right now. When you’re in first place at this point and in the thick of things, that’s huge.
“I definitely like the way the team’s shaping itself out right now.”
Krantz update: Redshirt freshman outfielder/infielder Kevin Krantz, who fractured his thumb in the March 26 game against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, is likely out for the rest of the season.
Krantz had been one of a number of players attempting to replace LaMarre in the lineup when he was out with his own broken thumb, though now with senior Mike Kittle’s emergence and LaMarre’s return, Krantz was unlikely to see much playing time had he not gotten injured.
Maloney said he will be re-evaluated in about three and a half weeks, but as of now, it does not look good for the Traverse City native’s return.