Perhaps Garrett Stephens should start to dress for games around the ninth inning.
While the redshirt junior first baseman has struggled both in the field and at the plate this season, his 10th-inning heroics have led to two wins.
Stephens capped the Michigan baseball team’s home-and-home midweek series against Notre Dame with a two-out, two-run single in South Bend, Ind. to bring the Wolverines their second straight win over the Fighting Irish. Stephens had previously hit a game-winning 10th-inning home run over Purdue three weeks ago to put the finishing touch on a four-run comeback.
The pair of victories over Notre Dame — 2-1 on Tuesday, 5-3 on Wednesday — breathed some life into a team that was coming off a weekend in which Ohio State swept the Wolverines, with the latter two losses coming in extra-inning, walk-off fashion.
“It was nice to win, period,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said Wednesday. “And then certainly against Notre Dame, one of our rivals, to win both games was great. I thought from Saturday on, we played well. And then we played these two games well and this time we were fortunate enough to win them.”
Michigan got a boost from its starting pitchers in both games. Redshirt sophomore hurler Matt Broder made the most of his first start of the season on Tuesday night, going 6.1 innings and giving up only one run and four hits. Redshirt freshman Logan McAnallen surrendered just one earned run in five innings Wednesday, but both pitchers received no-decisions.
Junior left fielder Coley Crank broke the 1-1 tie on Tuesday at Ray Fisher Stadium in the eighth inning, when he lined a 1-0 pitch over the left-field wall. That second run was enough for the Wolverines to pull off the 2-1 win.
The following night, Crank hit his seventh home run to start the scoring for Michigan. The Wolverines held a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth, but Notre Dame sent the game into extra innings after scratching a run across against fifth-year senior pitcher Matt Gerbe and freshman hurler Alex Lakatos.
And in the 10th, freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill and Crank reached base before junior John Lorenz failed to move the runners over with a bad bunt and sophomore Derek Dennis popped out. After redshirt sophomore Kevin Krantz walked to load the bases, Stephens connected with the two-out single up the middle, to put the Wolverines ahead, 5-3.
Notre Dame loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning, but sophomore Ben Ballantine and freshman Jake Engels escaped the jam to seal the win.
“We’re playing a lot of close games right now, and that’s a big improvement from where we were at the beginning of the year,” Maloney said. “This team’s been through so many situations.”
Despite Michigan’s lowly record, it has been very strong in close games. With Tuesday’s 2-1 victory, the Wolverines moved to 8-3 in one-run affairs.
“I think in the big scheme of our program, this experience is going to help us,” Maloney said. “They’re all nail-biters. There’s always pressure. I don’t know if you can ever feel comfortable, but maybe the more confident you feel after you have success in those situations.
“I’d certainly like to win a game 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.”
The Wolverines were dealt a blow this week when they lost fifth-year second baseman Anthony Toth to a season-ending stress fracture in his right leg. This adds to Michigan’s list of injuries and effectively puts both team captains on the sidelines. The other captain, senior pitcher Kolby Wood, has been out the whole season with right elbow problems. Senior pitcher Travis Smith and sophomore pitcher Kyle Clark have also been hurt.
Redshirt freshman John DiLaura filled in admirably for Toth on Tuesday, going 3-for-4, but fell down to Earth with a 0-for-5 outing Wednesday evening.
“We’re going to have to have someone else step up to help with the leadership of the team,” Maloney said. “It’s a big opportunity for someone else like a (sophomore center fielder) Patrick Biondi or some other player to take hold over the team.”