Looming in a week for the Michigan baseball team: the Big Ten Tournament — the Wolverines’ lone hope to make their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
And the postseason is the ultimate endurance test.
To win it all, Michigan would need to play between four and six games within less than a week span in Omaha, providing little rest for its pitching staff.
While none of the top-end pitchers were highlighted in Tuesday’s loss against Xavier, many of the Wolverines’ utility relievers — some of which are likely to feature in critical junctures throughout the tournament run — pitched in short stints.
But seven of Michigan’s eight pitchers utilized in the blowout defeat allowed at least one earned run, with one lone exception: surging junior right-hander Ahmad Harajli throwing a scoreless ninth inning after the game was already done and dusted.
“Tough day all the way around,” Michigan coach Tracy Smith said. “And if we’re going to do this thing, once we get into the tournament … of the guys that threw today, somebody’s got to step up.”
As Smith alluded to, no one truly stepped up Tuesday for the Wolverines on the mound. And much of that resulted from the inability to close out innings.
The Musketeers batted 9-17 with two outs, scoring 10 of their jarring 14 runs through those at-bats. Six of those came in the seventh inning, where junior right-hander Ryan Zimmer and freshman right-hander Brandon Mann could not get out of the inning before letting Xavier balloon the final tally.
Yet Zimmer, whose ERA skyrocketed from 5.40 to 10.45 after allowing six earned runs, was tabbed by Smith multiple weeks ago as one of those guys that could “step up” and play that envisioned role in the Big Ten Tournament. But his performance, along with the rest of Tuesday’s arms, caused a pause in evaluating how to curate the arms against Ohio State next weekend and the subsequent Big Ten Tournament.
“(Today) certainly was not a level that gives us much of a chance to win, but that has to obviously get better moving forward,” Smith said.
The level will likely have to improve, and then some, as the batting lineups Michigan is due to face in Omaha are much stronger and deeper than the Musketeers’ midweek squad.
However, the Wolverines can temporarily sideline some of these deficiencies, still jostling for seeding that can put them anywhere in the eight-team double-elimination bracket. They remain confident in their starters and top relievers, though, planning to throw out their top pitchers over the weekend in their final Big Ten series against Ohio State.
And that plan starts with ace junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran leading off from the middle of the diamond on Thursday night against the Buckeyes.
“Get a quality start from Connor,” Smith said. “… Our focus will be on Thursday night, but taking that thing one game at a time because we still mathematically have a chance to win the outright title, regular season, which would be awesome.”
Taking everything “one game at a time” has been at the core of Michigan’s season, which has been “all-hands-on-deck” from the first pitch of the season.
But for that approach to come full circle for a Big Ten Tournament Championship, its backend pitching will likely have to show through the grueling week in Omaha.
Unlike Tuesday’s midweek debacle against Xavier.