That was the motto for the season. “From worst to first,” the Michigan baseball team proclaimed at “Meet the Wolverines” night on February 15 — and the players meant it.
On that night, the Wolverines were adamant that this season would be different. They talked about how last year was a fluke and how they were certainly not as bad as their 17-37 record indicated. They set out to prove that this was no 2011 and that their tenure as the worst team in the conference was over.
And through the first week or so of the 2012 schedule, Michigan did look like a changed team. It opened up the season 5-2 behind a red-hot lineup and great starting pitching.
But then the Wolverines began to struggle, and the losing snowballed. All of a sudden the 2011 version showed up — the offense couldn’t hit and the bullpen fizzled in the late innings. At one point, the Wolverines lost seven of eight games, including five in a row. And as they scratched and clawed to a 12-13 nonconference record, they offered up phrases like, “it’s all about preparing so we can play our best baseball entering the Big Ten season” and “as long as we can pick it up during Big Ten play, we’ll be okay.” For them, it’s been about the Big Ten season from day one.
Well now it’s come time for the Wolverines to make good on their bold preseason prediction, to finish what they set out to accomplish: collect a 36th Big Ten Championship.
But if they’re serious about achieving that goal, they’ll need to improve — and do it fast.
It’s time for the offense to show us that the lineup doesn’t just consist of Patrick Biondi, Will Drake and Michael O’Neill. At least one of the three outfielders leads the team in every major offensive statistical category, and in many categories, they rank as the top three. Brett Winger, Coley Crank, John Lorenz, Dylan Delany and Cole Martin have slumped terribly since the first two weeks of the season, and none are batting above .265. It’s time for them to prove that they can score runs consistently, or at least put the bat on the ball — the team entered Big Ten play ranked first with 200 strikeouts.
And it’s time for the pitching staff to show us that it can be elite and that it can get a strikeout when it needs one — it ranked eighth in the conference with 142 strikeouts before Big Ten play started. It’s time for the erratic hurlers to show us that they can take care of their control issues and limit their “freebies.” The pitching staff ranked first in walks given up and wild pitches, with 98 and 30, respectively. They also ranked second with 30 hit batsmen. It’s time for the relievers to show us that they can be a reliable bunch and close out games on a consistent basis, and that someone can step up and take control of the late innings. Five different relievers have recorded at least one save.
The Wolverines don’t need to finish first in the Big Ten, they just need to improve enough to finish in the top-six of the conference. If they can make the Big Ten Tournament, they will give themselves an opportunity to steal the Big Ten’s automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference’s postseason tournament.
So if the Wolverines want to play their way into a NCAA Tournament berth, this motto can’t just be some motivational tactic. It needs to be a necessity for them because it’s unlikely that there will be another route to the NCAA’s.
The Big Ten offers up a chance for a clean slate. So forget about the five-game slide in early March and the current sub-.500 record. The slumping lineup, the inconsistent bullpen, the erratic pitching — it all needs to be left in the past.
My calendar says it’s not 2011 anymore. It’s time for Michigan to start playing like it.