Phoenix – Supposedly, this is Sunbelt country. It’s the land of Saguaro cactus and blue skies and, of course, college baseball teams that love to dump their climatic advantage square on the heads of cold-weather visitors.
Michigan doesn’t buy it. The Wolverines conked Arizona State, 5-0, Saturday night at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, which made it three victories in 24 hours for UM coach Erik Bakich’s gang.
“We’ve been outside every day,” said Bakich, speaking of the Wolverines’ winter training routine, which features at least part of a practice session outdoors – unless it’s zero or below.
“Even if it’s single digits,” said Bakich, who might be open to coaching offers in Siberia if UM isn’t careful. “That’s what it’s all about – playing well early in a long season.”
In fact, it was the Wolverines who from Friday night through Saturday evening’s wipeout of the Sun Devils looked as if they were the looser, more seasoned crew, all as UM prepares for a Sunday finale against Connecticut at Scottsdale.
The Wolverines had scarcely finished breakfast Saturday, not long after they had popped No. 1 Vanderbilt Friday night on Matt Schmidt’s ninth-inning two-run homer, when they reported for duty against Cal-Poly in the first of Michigan’s two Saturday games.
The Wolverines used 13 singles and a nice start by Blake Beers to win, 8-5, at the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields.
They then hopped a bus for the 20-minute trek to Phoenix Municipal and Saturday’s main bout: a showdown against ASU, the Pac-12’s top-billed team, and its Superman first baseman, Spencer Torkelson, who in a few months could be wearing Detroit Tigers togs.
Michigan acted as if the Sun Devils had shown up for a mid-winter game in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines iced them, mostly with the help of 6-foot-5, Massachusetts-bred, left-handed magician Steve Hajjar.
Hajjar’s first inning, particularly in the way he subdued Torkelson, was a Cliff’s notes version of what he did for six innings and 87 pitches Saturday: Fastballs at 93 – they later hit 94 – followed by a finish-him-off, 79-mph circle change-up that made Torkelson do something he rarely does: miss a pitch and finish off-balance.
This is lovely news for the Wolverines, given that Hajjar a year ago was expected to be pitching pretty much in the fashion displayed Saturday. Except there was this problem: a torn ACL in his knee, which came on an envisioned 360-degree dunk during a pick-up basketball game a month before the 2019 season was christened.
Hajjar has foregone basketball and embraced his safer vocation: bullying hitters. He was rough on a good ASU lineup Saturday, allowing but three hits in his six innings, while walking two and whiffing seven hitters.
“It helps when a guy who hadn’t thrown any innings last year goes six tonight,” Bakich said, allowing that “it’s hard to hit when you’re behind in the count.”
Hajjar was regularly on top of hitters and inclined to finish them off with that semi-eephus pitch, which can float anywhere from 75-80 mph.
“He has the most induced vertical depth of any player we’ve had,” Bakich said.
The elevator-shaft range of his pitches helped explain much of the Sun Devils’ stress Saturday.
Hajjar said he had a “little nerves” early, even if it wasn’t obvious. The only baserunners allowed through his first four innings came in the second, on a walk and a single, all before he pulled out his change-up for an inning-ending strikeout. He allowed only two more hits, matching the two hits Jack White allowed as White worked the final three frames against ASU.
The Wolverines were doing much better against Sun Devils starter Cooper Benson.
In the third, with nothing yet on the scoreboard, Danny Zimmerman drove a 3-1 fastball from Benson high into the Arizona sky and beyond the left-field fence for a 1-0 Wolverines lead.
Michigan made it 3-0 in the fifth when Clark Elliott began with a single through the box. Zimmerman next scalded a double down the third-base line. ASU left-fielder Trevor Hauver got to the ball for a quick relay – until the ball squirted like soda-pop foam from his hand, allowing Elliott to score.
Michigan got its final two runs in the ninth. Riley Bertram turned a swinging-bunt squibber into a single, which was followed by Elliott’s scorched single, all ahead of a wild pitch that moved the runners to second and third.
Dom Clementi sent both home when he torched a double past Torkelson to make it 5-0.
The Wolverines finished with nine hits, with Zimmerman, Elliott and Bertram each getting a pair.
In the afternoon tussle against Cal-Poly, Michigan used 13 hits – none for extra bases – to give Beers and his bullpen friends all the help needed.
Jack Blomgren, whose defense has more been the weekend story for Michigan, had four singles in Saturday’s opener, while Jordan Nwogu added three.
“It hasn’t been perfect – there’s a lot to improve upon,” said Bakich, who had to cringe at three errors in Saturday’s first game – really the only defensive blemishes in UM’s first three games.
“Pitching and defense, and a lot of timely RBIs,” the Wolverines coach added. “We had three two-out runs tonight.”
There was work remaining Sunday against Connecticut. But no one wearing blue Saturday night was ignoring reality: This already had been a good trip, and a grand start.
“Knocking Vandy and knocking off Arizona State,” Hajjar acknowledged with a nod. “It’s gonna be a good year for us.”