Ann Arbor — Carmen Benedetti doesn't know when the epiphany happened, but he estimates it was sometime around spring break.
Benedetti, the sophomore first baseman, is having a breakout season, leading the Big Ten in doubles (23) and RBIs (65) and second in batting average (.364). He leads third-seeded Michigan into today's Big Ten tournament opener against Indiana, the two-time defending tournament champion.
"There probably was a time throughout a series or a couple series where I consistently had quality at-bats," Benedetti said. "That's something I've noticed throughout — the way I've been hitting the ball a little bit harder and farther.
"I'm thanking the coaches enough for that, helping me throughout the offseason, helping me on my swing and my mechanics."
After his first year, Benedetti was selected to the Louisville Slugger freshman All-America team. But he wanted more. He worked even harder during the offseason with a strict nutrition program and committed to weight training to build strength.
That work paid off for Benedetti, who has settled into the cleanup spot and taken advantage of the opportunities to generate runs.
"Carmen is a special offensive talent because he can hit the ball hard from the left-field line to the right-field line, and he's not a guy who pulls the ball all the time," Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. "He's hit a lot of doubles; he's got a good line-drive swing, and it's a credit to him staying within himself and executing an approach."
Two years removed from a solid career at Grosse Pointe South High, where he was a three-time first-team all-state selection and shared the Mr. Baseball award his senior season, he's been Michigan's most productive all-around player.
But the improvements haven't only come on offense. While playing catch with Benedetti one day, Bakich noticed something unusual about the way Benedetti was throwing the ball.
"I found myself playing more hockey goalie than catch," Bakich joked. "I couldn't see the ball and he was hiding the ball for a long time and all of a sudden, it was out of his hand."
The deception led Bakich to try Benedetti out at pitcher, just to see whether he could make the transition. One of the other pitchers was hurt, so Benedetti was able to throw during a scrimmage.
"We plugged Carmen in that spot and he was 90-92 mph — I thought, OK, we found ourselves a two-way guy and now he's going to pitch too," said Bakich, in his third season. "One thing leads to another and he's touching 94 mph and working on a pretty good breaking ball.
"His command has really improved. He was more of a thrower when we first experimented with this in the fall and he's learning how to pitch."
Benedetti, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound left-hander, has come out of the bullpen and has a 2.03 ERA with two saves in 15 appearances.
"He's got some upside there; there's potential," Bakich said. "You have a big physical kid who's throwing low-90s from the left side — that triggers prospect status for the next level."
But Benedetti doesn't see the pitching role moving to a spot in the starting rotation now that he's settled into a consistent role — first baseman and designated hitter, where he was named first-team all-Big Ten.
Still, it's a far cry from last season, where he was just getting used to playing in college.
"Last year, I was maybe scared in the beginning, and it was an adjustment," Benedetti said. "Coming into this year, I'm feeling more comfortable with it and recognizing our approaches to the plate. Eliminating certain pitches helped me see the ball better and pick out pitches I want to drive."
Despite his success this season, Bakich doesn't have to worry about Benedetti slacking off.
"He's a pretty driven kid," Bakich said. "He knows the second he gets complacent or settles, he's going backward. He's one guy that you look, from last year to this year and his improvement, he's gotten 1 percent better every day, and what we're seeing is a lot of days compounded."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
(Times listed are Eastern.)
Game 1: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Indiana, 10 a.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 2: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 7 Ohio State, 2 p.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 3: No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 8 Nebraska, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 4: No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 5 Michigan State, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Game 5: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 10 a.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 6: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 7: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 8: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 loser, 4:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 10: Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 11: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 10 a.m. (BTN)
Game 12: Game 7 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Game 13 (if necessary): Game 11 winner vs. Game 11 loser, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 14 (if necessary): Game 12 winner vs. Game 12 loser, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Championship: Game 11/13 winner vs. Game 12/14 winner, 2 p.m. (BTN)