With all the sweeping and digging the Michigan baseball team has been involved in recently, you’d think it was part of a grounds crew.
After being swept by Ohio State last Saturday, Michigan coach Rich Maloney described what the team will have to do to salvage what has turned out to be Maloney’s toughest season ever at the helm of the Wolverines.
“The guys are going to have to really dig deep,” Maloney said. “I mean they keep having to dig deep, and they dig deep. And then they have to dig deeper.”
After the devastating sweep at the hands of Ohio State last weekend in which the Michigan lost two extra inning games in one day, it busted out brooms of its own in a two-game sweep over Notre Dame earlier this week.
The sweep was nice and winning both games in late innings potentially saved the team from four straight losses decided in the eighth inning or later. But to make any difference in their postseason hopes, the Wolverines will have to dig even deeper in a weekend series against Minnesota (8-7 Big Ten, 16-18 overall).
The series will feature the two preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, both now fighting to remain a factor in the conference race.
This season has been a rollercoaster for Michigan (6-9, 15-28), albeit with a few more downs than ups. Any time it catches a little momentum, like in its two straight series wins over Illinois and Iowa, it falls back down to Earth (e.g. the sweep by Ohio State).
Any good news — the sweep of the Fighting Irish — has been tempered with bad — the loss of redshirt senior second baseman and captain Anthony Toth for the season with a stress fracture.
The Wolverines’ inability to sustain any momentum can be partially attributed to inconsistency on the mound. Against the Golden Gophers, Maloney has named junior right-handers Brandon Sinnery and Kevin Vangheluwe as the game one and two starters. Both pitchers are the only Michigan hurlers with over ten innings of work with sub-3.00 ERAs.
Tellingly, Maloney has yet to name a starter for Sunday, meaning redshirt sophomore left-hander Bobby Brosnahan could be out of the rotation. Brosnahan was slated to be the Wolverines’ ace this year but has struggled mightily in 11 starts, going just 1-8 with a 7.71 ERA.
With Brosnahan out, none of the three starters that opened Big Ten competition remain in the rotation.
The lineup, too, has yet to find a combination that has proven it can be productive. The loss of Toth doesn’t help things. Redshirt sophomore Kevin Krantz, who filled in at shortstop and second base after the injury of sophomore shortstop Derek Dennis, and redshirt freshman John DiLaura, will take over second-base duties for Toth.
Without a set nine to fill out the lineup card, Maloney has been forced to shift players around between games. No matter where junior Coley Crank plays, though — whether it be at catcher, left field or designated hitter — he’s been on a tear lately at the plate. Crank is batting .357 in official Big Ten competition and leads the team with seven home runs and 25 RBI overall.
“He’s really been on a tear,” Maloney said. “He’s up to seven home runs, which is pretty impressive considering he didn’t hit a bunch in the first 20 games. He’s been carrying us.”
Michigan will need him to produce against a Minnesota team that lost six of its first nine in the Big Ten, but has been hot in the conference ever since, taking the next five of six.
The Golden Gophers have received production out of their top-three starters who combine for a 3.61 ERA, but like the Wolverines, they have struggled to put runs on the board.
Together, they are the only two teams in the Big Ten who score under four runs per game.
The Wolverines also surrender two more runs per game on average than they score. It’s a wonder that they’re still in the Big Ten race at all.
But Michigan finds a way to win close games. It boasts an 8-3 record in one-run contests, with two of those losses coming in one day against Ohio State.
“This team’s been through so many situations, having to make a play, having to make a pitch,” Maloney said. “They’re all nail-biters. There’s always pressure.
“I’d certainly like to win a game where you won it 7-3 or something, but we’ve had trouble scoring runs. So it’s kind of hard when you don’t score more than five runs very often. So that means if you are going to win, it’s going to be close.”
Sitting in a three-way tie for seventh place in the conference and just one game out of the last spot in the tournament, Michigan could desperately use a series win over the Golden Gophers.
They’ll just have to dig deep.