After losing three of four games to Iowa despite holding leads late into each game, the Michigan baseball team showed this weekend that resilience was not its strong point. But, freshman Doug Pickens managed to stay resilient and raised his batting average by 49 points after struggling for most of the season. If the Wolverines plan on using next weekend’s trip to Illinois to begin to salvage any chance of a Big Ten Title, they will have to rely on players like Pickens to step up when the going gets tough.
While the team amassed a 16-3 nonconference record and had Michigan fans and players optimistic about their team’s chance to compete for the Big Ten Championship, Pickens was struggling at the plate for the first time in his career. Through those 19 games, Pickens hit only .180, a far cry from his .525 average and the 15 home runs that earned him Gatorade High School Player of the Year honors for the state of Michigan last year while playing at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills. The adjustment to be made from high school to college baseball was immense, and Pickens began overcompensating for his mediocre batting average by swinging for power during each trip to the plate.
“Early on, I was just trying to do too much,” Pickens said. “With the guys we’ve got on our team, you just have to try and get base hits and get on for them. We’ve got some big bats in our lineup — Bohm, Getz, Butler — so you just have to let them knock you in.”
After he began to slump, Pickens found that Michigan coach Rich Maloney held him out more often, giving him little or no action in most games. But when shortstop Leif Mahler suffered a hip flexor injury on Friday, second baseman Chris Getz was called to fill in for Mahler, leaving a starting position open for Pickens. While starting a freshman can be a risky venture, Maloney’s choice has paid dividends.
“We needed (Pickens) to come in when Leif got hurt,” Maloney said. “For him to answer the bell and come on in there and play, it’s huge. I’m glad to see him get some hits there, it’s much needed for him and for our team.”
During this weekend’s series against Iowa, Pickens went 6-for-13 at the plate, finding gaps in the defense that had been eluding him all season long. Getz had advised Pickens that, because of the positioning of Iowa’s middle infielders, hits up the middle would come easily.
“Especially against Iowa this weekend, their second baseman and shortstop were split open,” Getz said. “I told him, ‘If you just hit a chopper up the middle it is going to go through.’ You just play it up the middle because there was so much room for error up there, and that’s what he was doing — aiming up the middle makes for a better swing.”
While success at the plate seemed imminent based on his records in youth and high school ball, playing as an infielder is an entirely new experience for the freshman. Pickens was a catcher in high school and began the year playing in rightfield. While the adjustment to infield has proven difficult for players in the past, Pickens believes his experience behind the plate have helped him adjust quickly.
“It’s not too bad,” Pickens said. “It’s kind of like catching. You just stick your body in front of the ball, and you’ve got time to make the play.”
While Getz serves as shortstop, Pickens has been left with big shoes to fill. Getz was named a preseason third team All-American at second base and was a member of the All-Big Ten team last year. Getz played shortstop at Grosse Pointe South High School. He switched to second at Wake Forest before transferring to Michigan before last season and knows that a change in position can be difficult. Getz is dually impressed with Pickens’s versatility.
“What’s pretty impressive is that, coming into college, I don’t think he’s ever played infield, period,” Getz said. “The way he’s playing right now, it shows how athletic he is and how quickly he picked it up. He’s still a little rusty around the edges, but he’s pretty much done whatever we’ve asked him to. I’m impressed.”