With Michael O’Neill back in the lineup against Iowa, the Michigan baseball team gave a glimpse of what could have been this season.
Playing in his first games in a month, the sophomore right-fielder ignited the offense as the Wolverines took two of three games from the Hawkeyes, scoring 21 runs in the process — the most they have scored in a three-game series since their series victory against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne in late March.
“(O’Neill) changes the whole lineup,” said Michigan coach Rich Maloney. “He puts fear in the lineup because he’s a star player. With him in the lineup, we’re better in three areas – running, hitting and fielding.”
Though Michigan (6-12 Big Ten, 19-28 overall) was unable to complete the sweep — losing the second game of the doubleheader on Saturday, 7-2, the Wolverines took the first two games of the series in dominating fashion, 11-0 and 8-2, respectively.
In the late game on Saturday, Michigan struggled to find any consistency on either side of the ball. After exploding in the first two games of the series, the batting order managed just one earned run against Iowa’s freshman Sasha Kuebel, who pitched a six-hit complete game.
Junior right-hander Ben Ballantine, who allowed three earned runs while walking three batters in four innings, was tagged with the loss.
“We gave too many freebies away,” Maloney said. “We weren’t able to overcome our mistakes and (Iowa) really capitalized on them.”
In the early game on Saturday, the Wolverines scored two runs in the top of the ninth inning to come back and tie the game at two. Then, they tallied six more runs in the first frame of extra innings to secure the victory.
“(Going into extra innings) we knew that we had a chance to win the series in that second game – that was the biggest thing for us,” O’Neill said. “We wanted to win that (second) game and not have to go to a rubber match in the third game.”
The offense was sparked by junior center-fielder Patrick Biondi and O’Neill. The two outfielders each had three hits and two RBIs. The duo played a pivotal role in the six-run inning, as they each knocked in runs. Biondi also recorded three stolen bases in the matchup.
Sophomore right-hander Alex Lakatos pitched well in his first start of the season. In six innings of work, Lakatos allowed four hits and two earned runs while fanning four batters.
On Friday night, senior right-hander Brandon Sinnery turned in a dominating performance, throwing a complete-game shutout — his first of the season and second of his career. Mixing his pitches, he kept the Hawkeyes (7-11, 19-24) off-balance all game, limiting them to six hits. He retired nine straight batters between the fourth and sixth innings.
The only moment when Sinnery’s shutout appeared to be in jeopardy was near the end of the game. Iowa’s shortstop Kasey Carling led off the ninth inning with a walk, which was followed by left fielder Phil Keppler’s lone single of the contest. After retiring the next two batters, he allowed another Hawkeye to reach base on a fielder’s choice, loading the bases. Displaying a calm demeanor on the mound, Sinnery struck out catcher Dan Sheppard to end the game. He finished with eight strikeouts, while walking just one batter.
“Brandon Sinnery was outstanding,” Maloney said. “That game was just one of those games where just everything was clicking.”
On offense, O’Neill and senior catcher Coley Crank led the Wolverines. O’Neill, who missed the last 15 games due to a left-hand injury, seemed to be the spark plug that Michigan had been missing over the past month.
O’Neill singled in his first at-bat, stole second base and gave the Wolverines their first run when he scored on first baseman Brett Winger’s single.
“The first at-bat was the biggest at-bat for me,” O’Neill said. “I told everyone that I talked to that the first at-bat – it felt like it was opening night again. I had some jitters and I just wanted to get that hit out of the way.”
In his first game in a month, the right-fielder went 3-for-5, scoring three runs and driving in another. Crank, who has been ripping the cover off the ball, went 3-for-3 with two home runs and five RBIs.
“We didn’t get the sweep that we were hoping for, but it took a lot of pressure off of us and we played really well,” O’Neill said.