The Michigan baseball team is slowly, but surely, recuperating from injuries to its veteran players. These afflictions, however, have been fortunate for a handful of young players looking for more time at the plate and in the field.
Though very few freshmen get the chance at a starting spot in their rookie campaign, the Wolverines were put in a position that required inexperienced players to fill the holes in the lineup.
Michigan coach Rich Maloney has called on them, given them unlikely opportunities and as of late, they have given him the results he asked for.
“To play that many freshmen is just tough,” Maloney said. ”We’re playing way more freshmen than we would like really like to play, ideally. We (we’re) forced into that, and that’s the way it is.”
Maloney sees a bright future ahead for the team in the long run, but with constant changes in the batting order and defensive positions, he has noticed the “growing pains.”
Though there are consistency concerns, the team veterans have been pleasantly surprised. At unexpected moments, freshmen have played key roles in the team’s success.
“All of the freshmen that have played for us so far this year have done a great job,” senior third baseman John Lorenz said. “As a guy who played as a freshmen, too, I went through some of the same things they’re going though — they’re going to have their ups and downs.”
In recent outings, the young players have recorded highs and lows, but ultimately show great promise for the years ahead.
Recruited as a catcher, White has yet to play from behind the plate. In the fall exhibition game against the Ontario Blue Jays, he started in left field, posting promising numbers with two runs and two walks.
But throughout the regular season, White was given less and less opportunities — he was slumping and posted just two hits in his 40 at-bats before the Northwestern series.
When outfield injuries struck the Wolverines, White was inserted into the lineup and has started swinging a hot bat.
“We recruited him as a hitter,” Maloney said. “And in the last two weeks, he’s started to show that.”
White went 4-for-8 against the Wildcats, but last weekend was his real spotlight moment against Indiana. White notched six hits with five RBIs, including a home run in back-to-back games on Sunday.
“It was quite the struggle,” White said. “I stopped pressing, and once I got the first hit, it just clicked.”
It’s been a hit or miss year for Zott — he didn’t see much time at the plate during nonconference action, during which he posted a .179 batting average.
But when the opportunity arose, Zott was staffed in right field and earned plate appearances. Though he’s gone hitless in a handful of outings, he’s capitalized in a few crucial Big Ten situations.
“I think this freshmen class — Coach Maloney expected a lot out of us and I think we’re stepping up to the plate,” Zott said.
In the final two contests against Michigan State, Zott went 3-for-6 with three walks, three RBIs and two runs.
Looking for the series sweep over the Spartans, the bases were loaded in the second inning. On a full count, Zott tripled to right-center field, driving in the three base runners.
Zott has found similar success, but is uncertain where he’ll end up once the starting outfielders regain their strength.
“I do not know what my role is going to be,” Zott said. “Maloney always talks about just embracing your role. … I’ll do what I gotta do for the team.”
Though he doesn’t own the roster label, it’s safe to say that Delaney is a lock at shortstop for the years to come.
Maloney has been impressed with Delaney and his defensive efforts from the get-go — ever since junior Derek Dennis was left unavailable due to surgery on his thumb.
“I think Delaney is an outstanding player,” Maloney said. “I’ve been really pleased.”
Delaney has the dynamic skill set that the position requires — he lays himself out, snags grounders and covers the middle infield in double plays. But his hitting has been less than perfect since the start of the season.
He’s batting a .201 and strikes out more than anyone on the team (52). But he’s earned himself a starting spot in the batting order due to his fielding assets.
Maloney said he is satisfied with the number of at-bats Delaney has had, and said that he believes the experience will push him toward consistent hitting down the road.
The left fielder was one of Michigan’s top hitters until his recent injury. Without Drake, Maloney was forced to adjust the lineup and replace a key part of the batting order.
At the start of his career, Drake fit right in with the reliable outfielders — sophomore Michael O’Neill and junior Patrick Biondi. He was climbing conference and national ranks with a collection of doubles and triples, and his .312 batting average boosted the team’s Big Ten standings.
“I knew that I could play at this level,” Drake said early in the season. “I’ve proved it’s not just a lucky start.”
He continued building off his momentum — Drake belted 43 hits, 26 runs and 21 RBIs before the midweek matchup with Toledo.
On April 11, in the fourth inning against the Rockets, Drake grounded out to second base. But in an attempt to reach first, he ended up lying in the dirt with severe pain in his leg.
While he continues to recover, other freshmen have stepped in. But no one has equalized Drake’s offensive production. Fortunately for the Wolverines, he’s almost healthy enough to fully contribute.
After missing eight-straight games, Drake made an appearance when he pinch hit in two at-bats against the Hoosiers last weekend. Neither was a base hit, but Maloney is anxious for the journey ahead.
“Those freshmen are doing what freshmen do,” Maloney said. “They’re signs of great hope.”