Michigan coach Rich Maloney talks the talk, but can the baseball team refrain from walking the walks?
For the second week in a row, the Wolverines (0-3 Big Ten, 12-16 overall) will get a midweek opportunity to boost their record before weekend conference play, but they’ll only do so if they can limit the “freebies.”
Michigan’s bullpen will either lead the team to a much-needed win or it will be the downfall of today’s matchup against Central Michigan.
The Wolverines and Chippewas (12-16) are almost a mirror image of one another in every facet of the game: Both teams will most likely have young pitchers on the mound. Both teams are being piggybacked by their top three hitters. And both teams carry identical records.
In the balanced matchup, Maloney is looking “to play the game (the Wolverines) are capable of playing — good fundamental baseball.”
At practice yesterday, volunteer coach Wayne Welton worked to clean up those fundamentals, while pitching coach Steve Merriman assessed the bullpen for its potential contenders.
Though Maloney is still uncertain of who the starting hurler will be, he knows his bullpen will see a lot of action. It will be a constant rotation with just a couple innings for each reliever.
Central Michigan posted its probable pitcher, left-hander Matt Trowbridge, who has a 4.01 ERA and is looking to record his fourth win. Meanwhile, Michigan has limited options to pick from.
Suffering a three-game series sweep to Minnesota last weekend, Michigan used up the majority of its resources — the pitching staff is looking slim. Junior center fielder Patrick Biondi expects freshman right-hander James Bourque to throw out the first pitch.
If Maloney is right and the game comes down to a matter of walks, Bourque may not be the best candidate. In his last 9.1 innings of work, Bourque has given up 11 walks, which contributed to the seven earned runs on the stat sheet. But there isn’t much choice.
Because Maloney yanked redshirt junior left-hander Bobby Brosnahan and junior right-hander Ben Ballantine from the mound in early innings against the Golden Gophers, two potential midweek starters are no longer available.
Sophomore right-hander Alex Lakatos and freshman left-hander Trent Szkutnik came out of the bullpen on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in an attempt to revive the team’s chances.
Each gave up just two hits, and neither allowed a single run nor walk in a combined 11.2 innings. Though Maloney was pleased with their production, he’s now shorthanded against the Chippewas.
So, what’s Maloney’s game plan?
“Take one pitch at a time,” he said. “Take one at-bat at a time.”
But that strategy requires a productive batting order, something that has fallen soft and silent in the last month of play.
The outfielders — Biondi, freshman Will Drake and sophomore Michael O’Neill — have carried the team. Each hits well above a .300 average and they combine for 108 hits and 68 runs. But the trio can’t keep the whole team afloat on their own.
Even O’Neill has shown symptoms of the contagious slump going around — in the last seven games, he’s gone just 5-for-27.
But Biondi picked up the slack and still runs on a hot streak, spearheading the Wolverines with confidence and a .466 on-base percentage.
Now he’s just waiting for the others to catch up.
“Baseball is a funny game,” Biondi said. “You could go out tomorrow and somebody that’s hitting .200 could go 4-for-4.”
Similar to Michigan’s lack of hitting support, Central Michigan’s three best hitters also lug the weight of the offense. Middle infielder Jordan Dean eclipses everyone with a .376 batting average, 32 runs and 47 hits.
When factoring in catcher Arnold Williams and first baseman Nate Theunissen, the Chippewa threesome stack up right next to the Wolverines’ batting leaders.
“Hopefully we can catch fire,” Maloney said. “We just haven’t been able to get over the top yet. But I’m still optimistic that at some point, something is going to happen to spark this team.”