'We just didn't hit': Michigan drops NCAA Tournament opener in 6-1 loss to UConn
Michigan was one of the final four in the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament, and now the Wolverines are up against it in the double-elimination Regional.
The Wolverines lost 6-1 to UConn in their first NCAA Tournament game on Friday night in South Bend, Ind., and need to win Saturday to stay in the tournament. They mustered two hits and stranded nine runners -- they had six walks and three batters were hit by pitches -- against the Huskies. UConn has won 30 of its last 37 games, while Michigan has lost four of its last five.
"We just didn’t hit," Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. "It was not a good offensive day for us, and that was the difference. We didn’t have anything going.
“Too much weak contact, too many outs in the air."
Michigan (27-18) will face MAC champion Central Michigan (40-17) Saturday at noon in the loser’s bracket, while Notre Dame, the regional host that routed Central Michigan, 10-0, in the early game on Friday, will face UConn at 6 p.m. The Irish are 31-11. The Michigan-CMU winner will advance to play Sunday at noon.
“This team, when we are competing the way we are capable of, this team could make a run through the loser’s bracket," Bakich said. "If we play like we played tonight, the season’s going to be over tomorrow.
"If I know these guys the way I think I know these guys, they’ll respond. They seem to have had a good response every time we’ve been knocked down. It’s just bad timing to lose the opener of already of a really hard regional with four good teams."
UConn took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning when Erik Stock’s RBI single scored Kyler Fedko with two out. But Michigan tied the game in the top of the fourth when Ted Burton, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, homered to left field. Burton, who entered the NCAA Tournament leading the team with a .355 batting average, now has seven home runs this season.
Michigan seemed to be getting things going in the sixth when Tito Flores was hit by a pitch, and after a fly out, Burton walked. Flores was thrown out attempting to steal third, but then Griffin Mazur walked. Michigan, though, couldn’t get any runs and stranded two.
The Huskies took the lead in the bottom of the inning, scoring three runs. Reggie Crawford singled to right and scored Stock for the 4-1 lead. Chris Brown hit a two-run single that scored Chris Fedko and Crawford.
Michigan left-hander Steve Hajjar, an All-Big Ten first-team selection, pitched six innings and gave up eight hits and four runs. He had nine strikeouts, before Will Proctor took over in the bottom of the seventh. Proctor gave up two runs on three hits in a brief appearance as the Huskies expanded their lead to 6-1 on Stock’s two-run double. Isaiah Paige relieved Proctor, then, after UConn hit into a double play, Jack White came in to pitch for Michigan.
UConn starting pitcher Austin Peterson worked 5.2 innings and gave up the two hits and one run.
There was a late-game highlight for Michigan when centerfielder Christian Bullock laid out for a stunning catch for the second out in the bottom of the eighth.
“We see him do it in practice," Bakich said. "He’s got the capability of being a highlight-reel player. That was a great, Superman, web-gem catch. It’ll probably be on SportsCenter. It’s got to be a top-10 play. I can’t imagine there’s 10 better plays than that.
"That was a fantastic catch, that’s what you need in those types of plays is something like that to happen to give you a spark. Unfortunately, we didn’t capitalize on the momentum there. We got a couple guys on in the next inning, including himself, just didn’t get the big hit tonight. That was the play of the game, for sure. That might have been the best play of the year."
In the top of the ninth, with one out, UConn pitcher Garrett Coe walked Jimmy Obertop and Bullock before being relieved by Caleb Wurster. Wurster struck out Riley Bertram and Clark Elliott to seal the win.
This is the fourth NCAA Tournament appearance for Michigan under Bakich, who is in his ninth season with the Wolverines. The last time the tournament was held – it was canceled last season because of the COVID pandemic – Michigan was runner-up to national champion Vanderbilt.
Now, the Wolverines are trying to stay alive. Bakich is going with sophomore pitcher Cam Weston, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, against Central Michigan.
"You could think, 'Save him,' but we’re not going to save anyone now," Bakich said. "Right now, our approach is, we just gotta come out on top Saturday so we can survive and advance to Sunday. That’s really all it is at this point. It’s just you’re backed against the wall, you’re in survival mode, and you’re just trying to get to the next game, so we gotta throw our best guy tomorrow to get to the next game.
"The reality is, we’re going to have to hit our way through this regional. Coming through the loser’s bracket’s tough. It’s been done. People have done it. It’s not like it’s never been done. It’s been done, but you’re gonna have to hit. You’re gonna have to slug your way through. there’s no mistaking that, so our offense is going to have to wake up here real quick."
Hajjar said he likes Michigan's chances.
“If there’s one team in college baseball that can do it, it’d be us," Hajjar said. "I’ve seen us come back late in games, had a lot of ninth-inning magic. Building off that run we made in 2019, there’s still a little magic left in this team, too. We’ll see what we can do, but I like our chances. We have the right makeup, we have the right toughness, we have the right relentlessness to make it happen. I’m excited to see what happens these next couple days."