Resilient Wolverines earn spot in Big Ten title game

By Ben Fidelman, Special to The Detroit News
Michigan's Johnny Slater, left, slides past Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein  to score during the second inning Saturday.

Minneapolis -- Scoring three times in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Michigan baseball team took down top-seeded Illinois, 5-3, on Saturday to clinch a spot in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

The Wolverines (36-23) will face fourth-seeded Maryland at 10 a.m. ET Sunday for the title. The winner earns an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

It was a sloppy game from both teams, who combined for eight runs on just 13 hits, despite being the conference's top offenses all season. There were four errors in the game, and all five of Michigan's runs were unearned.

Evan Hill started for Michigan and worked out of a jam in the first. Illinois (47-8-1) worked the bases loaded using a walk, infield single and hit batsman, but Hill was able to induce a groundout to end the threat.

He lasted just 4.1 innings, allowing five hits and two runs.

"I didn't have my best stuff, but I was just trying to pour it in and throw strikes," Hill said. "I had good defense behind me and I trusted that so long as I could pour it in and throw strikes that we would make plays."

BOX SCORE: Michigan 5, Illinois 3

The third-seeded Wolverines worked around trouble in the first two innings, and were able to jump out to a two-run lead in their half of the second.

Illini starting pitcher Rob McDonnell started the merry-go-round by plunking Michigan left fielder Kevin White. Then right fielder Johnny Slater reached on a throwing error by the second baseman, and nine-hole hitter Kendall Patrick walked on four pitches to load the bases.

While the Illinois pitching coach gathered his team on the mound to try and rein things in, Michigan coach Erik Bakich pulled his baserunners and hitter to the side to have a discussion of their own. Coming out of the break looking determined, leadoff hitter Jacob Cronenworth shot a 1-2 pitch up the middle for a two-run single, putting the Wolverines in front, 2-0.

Michigan was able to fend off Illinois' pressure until the top of the fourth, when it broke onto the scoreboard. This being a matchup of the conference's top offenses, both teams knew that two runs would likely be far from enough to win the game.

In the top of the fourth inning, Illinois began to make that clear.

As would be the case for both teams throughout the afternoon, walks and errors quickly turned into lights on the scoreboard. A leadoff walk in the fourth inning ended up on second base, sending Big Ten Player of the Year David Kerian to the plate for the Illini. Hitless in the tournament through his first 12 at-bats, he unloaded on a fastball from Hill, parking it in the left-field corner to score a run.

Continuing to jump on the Wolverines in the fifth inning, Illinois put together two singles and an error, plating another run to tie the game, 2-2. They threw another punch at Michigan in the sixth, when Kerian hit a two-out screamer off the right-field foul pole to give the Illini their first lead of the game.

"You know at this time of the year that no matter who you're playing, you're going to be trading punches," Bakich said. "You're going to have to take a blow, and when Kerian hit that home run off the foul pole to take the lead, that was a blow. Credit to our guys; they got right back up and kept fighting."

But the Illinois momentum stopped there. The Illini, ranked No. 4 nationally, committed back-to-back errors to start the bottom of the sixth inning, followed by a walk and hit batsman, allowing Michigan to tie the game, 3-3. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Michigan grounded into a double play and reached on an infield single, putting the team back up by two runs.

From there on the scoreboard went quiet, and Cronenworth, who also serves as the team's closer, worked 2.2 scoreless innings to earn his third save of the tournament.

"In tournament baseball, you need everybody to contribute positively in some way, and different guys are stepping up each day," Bakich said. "Today Jacob Cronenworth had three two-out RBI, which he was able to do because guys at the bottom of the order were able to get on base. Whoever it is, someone is always making a positive contribution to make the team come out on top."

Three Wolverines have batting averages over .300 for the tournament, compared to the six UM players who reached that level in the regular-season.

The Wolverines, who are in their third season under Bakich, have not made the NCAA tournament since 2008. They also won the Big Ten tournament that season.

"We're going to have to compete," said Saturday's winner, right-hander Bryan Pall, who threw 2.2 innings of relief. "We know they're good and we know we're good, we just have to pound the zone and play our game. Have to not worry about what they're doing over there and just play Michigan baseball."


At Minneapolis


Game 1: Michigan 4, Indiana 1

Game 2: Iowa 3, Ohio State 2

Game 3: Illinois 3, Nebraska 2

Game 4: Maryland 2, Michigan State 1


Game 5: Indiana 5, Ohio State 3

Game 6: Michigan State 9, Nebraska 7

Game 7: Michigan 8, Iowa 5

Game 8: Maryland 2, Illinois 1


Game 9: Indiana 10, Iowa 2

Game 10: Illinois 2, Michigan State 0


Game 11: Maryland 4, Indiana 2

Game 12: Michigan 5, Illinois 3


Championship: Michigan vs. Maryland, 10 a.m. ET, Big Ten Network. (Start time had been 2 p.m. ET but was moved up due to expected poor weather.)