The No. 19 Michigan baseball team clinched the Big Ten regularseason title yesterday. With four games to spare.
While the Michigan players spilled out of the dugout to celebrate the 12-8 win, which completed a sweep over Minnesota and the program’s third straight conference championship, Wolverine coach Rich Maloney quietly walked across the field to shake hands with legendary Minnesota coach and friend John Anderson.
“The classy guy that he is, he congratulated us,” Maloney said. “We respect each other far more than the baseball game itself.”
No trophy presentation for Maloney. Just a handshake. But this year’s championship is a little more special than the previous two. It’s the first time in the stretch Michigan (23-4 Big Ten, 38-11 overall) clinched the title before the last weekend of the regular season.
“I don’t know if it has really sunk in yet because we’ve been planning and expecting to win all year,” Powers said. “But to go out every year that I’ve been playing and come home with three championships – it’s something you don’t see everyday in the Big Ten.”
The Wolverines have already tied the mark for most conference wins in program history and are just two wins from tying the Big Ten record.
“We’re having one of the best seasons in the history of the league,” Maloney said. “And that’s really special considering all the great coaches and players that have been in this league.”
The Wolverines swept the Golden Gophers (8-19, 18-33) without starting pitcher and designated hitter Zach Putnam, who is recovering from a severe case of strep throat.
“Do we want Zach in the lineup? Are you kidding me? No question,” Maloney said. “But the flip side of it is, the guys went to Minnesota and just took three from them. A lot of guys really stepped up.”
One of the players who came up big was sophomore Mike Dufek, who until Tuesday, had yet to homer as a Wolverine. This week he has blasted three over the fence, including a crucial grand slam to center field in the sixth inning of the first game of yesterday’s doubleheader. Dufek was also key in a six-run ninth, adding an RBI single that propelled Michigan to an 11-5 win. The Scottsdale, Ariz. native continued his hot streak in the second game, blasting another home run and driving in two more runs.
“I had an opportunity to be in there day in, day out this week,” Dufek said. “Every time you see pitching on a consistent basis, you definitely start to get into a groove and see the ball better.”
To cap everything off, Dufek pitched two innings of relief to earn the save. Dufek fanned three batters and helped pull Michigan out of a jam in the sixth inning.
Junior pitcher Mike Powers also shined from the mound in the series. In the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Powers pitched five innings in relief, holding Minnesota scoreless when the game was on the line going into extra-innings.
“He got better as the game went on, which is pretty special because a lot of guys get rattled with adversity,” Maloney said.
The Wolverines have faced adversity all season, especially when they struggled out the gate to an 8-6 record. But Michigan bounced back, and now owns another Big Ten regular-season title. When Maloney met with the Minnesota coaches after the game, assistant coach Rob Fornasiere told him, “Your team has great poise and confidence.”