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Loss to Northwestern puts UM in Big Ten tourney hole

Paige Voeffray
Special to The Detroit News
Michigan's Jake Bivens, who had reached on a double, scores on a single by Nick Poirier in the second inning.

Bloomington, Ind. — With one man on base, two outs and the tying run at the plate, it was the perfect setting Wednesday for Michigan to stage a comeback.

The 16th-ranked Wolverines (42-14) had accomplished such a feat a handful of times earlier in the season, and against Northwestern in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament all expectations fell to senior catcher Harrison Wenson. While he might not be the Wolverines’ first choice at the plate in this situation, he has been known to surprise Michigan fans.

But in the end, all it took was three pitches to strike him out and hand the Wolverines a 6-4 loss in the double-elimination tournament.

It didn’t take long for Northwestern (25-28) to figure out Michigan junior right-hander Ryan Nutof’s pitching style. After watching the top of the order fall victim to his fastballs — he retired the side on just eight pitches in the first inning — third baseman Connor Lind stepped up and took a 3-2 pitch over the right-field wall. Following Lind was designated hitter Leo Kaplan with a double to left-center field. Redshirt sophomore left-fielder Miles Lewis might have had a chance to make the catch, but timed his jump incorrectly and the ball rolled to the wall. While Nutof escaped the inning without allowing any more runs, it started the momentum the Wildcats needed.

Northwestern center fielder Grant Peikert opened the third inning with an easy single to center field. Nutof tried to get back on track and had second baseman Alex Erro down with a 0-2 count, but Erro took advantage of Nutof’s fastball and blasted a two-run home run over sophomore right-fielder Jonathan Engelmann’s head.

Nutof struck out the next two batters to minimize the damage, but he had to rely on his team to make a comeback. All season the Wolverines have never worried when they fell behind, and Wednesday’s matchup didn’t seem any different.

After the initial solo home run from the Wildcats, Michigan responded in the bottom of the second inning.

Junior first baseman Jake Bivens ripped a two-out double that hugged the left-field line and stayed fair. Bivens ended up being the tying run after coming from second on a sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier’s single up the middle, just out of reach of Northwestern’s diving second baseman.

Once the Wildcats struck again in the third inning, the offense had to go back to work. Tacking on a run in the third inning, the Wolverines cut the deficit to one on a solo home run from senior center fielder Johnny Slater. It wasn’t until the fifth inning, though, that Michigan took its first lead.

Engelmann led off and after a long at-bat in which he lost his bat and was forced to clean off his grip multiple times, he doubled to left-center field. A sacrifice bunt brought Engelmann just 90 feet away from tying the score with sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas at the plate. Thomas rapped a double around third base and into the left-field corner, bringing Engelmann home.

With the go-ahead run at second base Slater walked. It wasn’t a typical walk, though, as Northwestern thought it hit Slater and panicked when it saw Thomas charging to third base. Instinctively, the Wildcat catcher threw the ball to third base, but threw it away. The mishap sent Thomas home and Slater to second. After some debate about whether he was hit or not, the play couldn’t be reviewed and Michigan’s 4-3 lead held.

The Wolverines had managed another comeback and the game stayed relatively quiet until the final frame.

Senior right-handed closer Jackson Lamb entered the game and after allowing a lead-off single through the first and second base gap, Lamb struggled to refocus himself. A wild pitch advanced the runner and a line drive over Thomas’ head garnered the Wildcats another single. Two men were on base, but this wasn’t a situation Lamb was unfamiliar with.

But when he walked the next batter in four straight pitches, it forced Michigan coach Erik Bakich to make a call to the bullpen.

“(Lamb) will be fine, he’ll be right back in there,” Bakich said. “If you’re a closer, somedays you’re going to have that happen, you’re going to have that hiccup. That’s why (closers) have to have amnesia and just be able to forget about it and move on to the next day.

“He’s had a whole lot of good days. Fifty-five straight games of good days, leading up to this one. He’ll have plenty of good outings left in him.”

Sophomore left-hander William Tribucher took the mound for Michigan with the bases loaded and no outs.

Ben Dickey tied the score with a single between second and third base. The next hit had senior shortstop Michael Brdar on the run, and after slightly bobbling it at first, he managed to flick the ball with his glove to an awaiting third baseman for the first out of the inning, with the go-ahead run scoring. Another single up the middle scored the third run of the inning, but Tribucher ended the inning with a strikeout and a groundout and just had to hope his team had another comeback left in it.

Michigan was held scoreless in the ninth inning and Northwestern had the upset.

“I just look at this as a hiccup, a fluke, a speed bump,” Bakich said. “Our guys have responded every time they’ve gotten knocked down all season and they’ll respond tomorrow.”

Michigan will face Indiana at 10 a.m. Thursday in its first losers bracket game.

Paige Voeffray is a freelance writer.

Big Ten tournament

When: Wednesday-Sunday

Where: Bart Kaufman Field, Bloomington, Ind.

Format: Double-elimination; top eight teams in final regular-season standings qualify.

TV: All games on Big Ten Network

SCHEDULE

Wednesday

Game 1: 3 seed Minnesota 5, 6 seed Indiana 4

Game 2: 7 seed Northwestern 6, 2 seed Michigan 4

Game 3: 1 seed Nebraska 15, 8 seed Purdue 9

Game 4: 4 seed Maryland vs. 5 seed Iowa, postponed

Thursday

Game 5: Indiana vs. Michigan, 10 a.m.

Game 4: 4 seed Maryland vs. 5 seed Iowa, 1:30 p.m.

Game 6: Purdue vs. Loser Game 4, 5 p.m.

Game 7: Minnesota vs. Northwestern, 8:30 p.m.

Friday

Game 8: Nebraska vs. Winner Game 4, time TBD

Game 9: Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.

Game 10: Loser Game 8 vs. Winner Game 6, 5 p.m.

Saturday

Game 11: Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, 10 a.m.

Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 1:30 p.m.

Game 13 (if necessary): Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 5 p.m.

Game 14 (if necessary): Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

Championship: Winner Game 11/13 vs. Winner Game 12/14, 2 p.m.