Despite having already played 22 games, the Michigan baseball team is determined that its 2009-10 season begins today.
The Wolverines will travel to Bloomington, Ind., where they will open their Big Ten season with a weekend series against Indiana. Michigan (13-9) is looking to extend its current seven-game winning streak and take home its first Big Ten wins of the year.
“Getting back into conference play, all the teams step it up and it’s really good baseball,” senior pitcher Eric Katzman said following Tuesday’s game against Eastern Michigan. “I want to see how our team will compete — the most hostile atmosphere you are going to find is within the conference.”
Like most sports in the Big Ten, baseball is wide open for teams to reach the top. The Wolverines are currently ranked third in the conference according to their overall record, following Michigan State and Ohio State. But that is all apt to change after a competitive Big Ten opening weekend.
Michigan began its play at Ray Fisher Stadium just a week ago, easily sweeping its three-game series against Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne. On Tuesday, Eastern Michigan gave the Wolverines a greater challenge, as they battled back into the game from a 7-2 deficit. But Michigan maintained a one-run advantage, and senior outfielder Mike Kittle made a big base hit in the bottom of the seventh to get the winning tally on the scoreboard.
For the Wolverines to claim the series this weekend at Sembower Field, as with all their conference games, they’ll need to overcome the inconsistency at the mound and the plate that has been plaguing the team for most of the season.
“We’re just going to have to battle and claw like the rest of the teams in the Big Ten to find a way to get it done,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “It’s just a matter of (the team) executing a littler bit better.”
Although the Hoosiers are in fifth place with a 12-11 record, they will still prove to be a tough series for Michigan, with their main threat being sophomore left-handed pitcher Drew Leininger.
Leininger was recently named to the College Baseball Foundation’s National Pitcher of the Year Watch List and he has established himself as one of the most improved college baseball players this season. Leininger boasts a 0.79 ERA, a 3-0 record and 26 consecutive scoreless innings.
“They know that they’re facing [Leininger],” Maloney said. “But he’s not a big, overpowering type of pitcher. But a left-hander who mixes up his stuff and hides the ball can be difficult, so we’re going to be in for a dogfight.”
Michigan will be utilizing its ace pitcher, Alan Oaks, to return the pressure on Indiana. If Oaks can control the mound and Wolverine batters produce at the plate, then the team should be able to subdue Leininger’s golden arm.
“Every year, Michigan’s expectation is to win,” Katzman said. “We don’t think there is a team better than us. So, if we play our game, no matter how good anybody else plays, I think we are going to finish on top. We should.”