Ray Fisher Stadium is ready for the Michigan baseball team to come home.
After a long pre-conference-season road trip to escape the early spring chill, the Wolverines may or may not be prepared for Big Ten play. Though they’re given something of a clean slate going into the conference schedule after a 9-11 start, this might not be the year they live up to their motto of “Flip It.”
But it’s all about baby steps — Michigan doesn’t expect to jump from 225th in the NCAA Baseball RPI in 2011 to a top-ranked team this season.
In Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, the Wolverines posted a few close losses and a couple of lopsided wins. But what they need to find is consistency. Who will Michigan be the rest of the season — the team with a winning record after the Big Ten/Big East Challenge and Iona series, or the team that posted a combined two wins in eight games during the Snowbird Invitational and LSU Tournament?
Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, Michigan still has an opportunity to bump up its record, with a handful of non-conference games remaining before the first Big Ten series against Minnesota.
Freshman left fielder Will Drake added to the one-two punch at the top of the batting order between junior center fielder Patrick Biondi and sophomore right fielder Michael O’Neill.
To lead off his collegiate career, Drake went 3-for-5 against Pittsburgh, starting his seven-game hitting streak. Not so coincidentally, that’s when the Wolverines were climbing to the top of the charts with a 5-2 record to open the season.
Then, after two games without a hit, Drake posted a perfect 6-for-6 against Chicago State. In the same game, he batted in three runs and scored four of his own to add to his already promising season.
Though he’s been a little inconsistent, with another three hitless games, Drake recorded a short multi-hit streak over three games during the LSU Tournament against Michigan’s toughest opponents thus far.
On a young team that’s growing play by play, Drake lends his veteran-like skill set and .329 batting average to the hopeful season ahead.
Junior shortstop Derek Dennis was a 10th-round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays back in the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. He chose the maize-and-blue uniform instead, even after being labeled by Baseball America as the sixth-best shortstop coming out of high school.
The sound of it was nearly perfect. And it seemed to be: during his 2010 rookie campaign, he tallied 151 assists and 75 put outs. But last year, Dennis injured his ankle midway through the season, which kept him off the field for three weeks of crucial conference play.
Coming back into action this year, Dennis put up decent numbers. But after just six games, three hits and two runs, he’s not expected to return until May due to a thumb injury.
That put pressure on Michigan coach Rich Maloney to find a replacement. And even though freshman Dylan Delaney has stepped in, he still has some growing to do.
It was the first game of the season, and the Wolverines had an untarnished 0-0 record in Dunedin, Fla. They were hopeful to quickly bury their last-place conference finish from the year before.
The Panthers scored three runs in the first three innings, but Michigan answered with O’Neill’s bomb over the left field fence. The Wolverines rallied to an 8-5 advantage going into the final inning — their lead was comfortable, and it seemed like smooth sailing.
But it wasn’t over yet. Pittsburgh recorded four more runs in the top of the ninth inning, and that’s how it ended. Michigan faltered, losing 9-8 after the last three uneventful at-bats.
After the close loss to the Panthers, the Wolverines accumulated enough wins to finally heal the aches and pains of last year. But after facing Florida Gulf Coast, they went into a slump.
Michigan continued its road travel to Baton Rouge, La., where they were pinned against then-No. 13 Louisiana State and Notre Dame.
The Wolverines suffered back-to-back shutouts, their first since 1979. But after posting goose eggs across the board and just two hits against the Tigers in their first matchup on Friday, Michigan came back with 11 hits and four runs in their second meeting.
The Wolverines carried a narrow lead into the fifth inning after senior catcher Coley Crank homered down the left field line and Delaney hit a sacrifice bunt for Lorenz to score another. But Louisiana State retaliated and eventually boasted the 6-4 win. Despite the results, Maloney was more than satisfied with his team’s performance and progress.
Though a win is a win, no matter what the score, Michigan should’ve been exceptionally pleased with the down-to-the-wire 6-5 victory against Iona.
It was the last game against the Gaels in Port St. Lucie, Fla. — the New York Mets’ spring training home — and the deciding factor between a split weekend and a Wolverine series win.
After two stolen bases, Drake, Biondi and Crank accumulated a three-run lead in the first inning. But by the ninth inning, the score was locked in a 5-5 tie. With runners on second and third, Drake singled up the middle for a walk-off win.
After a tough loss to Ohio State the night before in Port Charlotte, Fla., Michigan came back and crushed Chicago State in a 17-8 final. At first glance, it looks impressive, but it’s not.
The win wasn’t an indication of how well the Wolverines played, but rather how poorly the Cougars produced. It was too easy, which wasn’t effective preparation for Michigan as it heads into Big Ten play.
It seems that Maloney treated it like a scrimmage. He relieved a few of the starters and gave some of the younger players a chance to see some action. The bullpen was acceptable, but Chicago State’s pitchers were near awful.