A banner year for the University of Michigan baseball team came to a close last night as the Wolverines fell to Oregon State 8-2. The loss eliminated Michigan from the College World Series and punched Oregon State's ticket to Omaha.
Like yesterday's 1-0 loss, walks cost Michigan. A lead off walk in the top of the ninth lead to Sunday's only run. Similarly, walks accounted for the first run scored in Monday night's game and sealed a Michigan defeat.
That was where the similarities ended. Unlike Putnam's masterful performance on Sunday, Mike Wilson, Michael Powers, and Chris Fetters looked lost on the mound. Early on it was apparent none of Michigan's first three pitchers had much in their tank. Pitches were in the dirt. Arm angles were off. Pitches were being guided rather than thrown.
Sadly, things started well. Wilson started the game with a walk and three strike outs. It was over the next third of an inning he completely fell apart. Wilson walked the bases full with one out in the second inning, and walked in a run on four pitches to Hopkins. Wilson was lifted after missing badly on his first offering to Joey Wong. Michael Powers came into the game inheriting Wilson's 1-0 count and walked Wong on four pitches, forcing in another run. Powers would give up an 2 RBI single before finally getting out of the inning. Despite failing to give up a hit, Wilson's final line was: 1.1 innings; 0 hits; 4 runs; 4 earned runs; 4 BB; 4 Ks; 10 batters faced.
Things didn't get much better after he left. Oregon State plated three more runs before Michigan got on the board.
The story of the game was simply that Michigan's pitchers could not locate the strike zone. While some of the blame can be placed on home plate umpire Mitch Mele's floating strike zone, the majority must be placed on the shoulders of Michigan's first three pitchers. During the second inning neither Wilson nor Powers were anywhere near the plate. Seemingly convinced their fastballs were not good enough, both pitchers relied on an assortment of dirt bound breaking pitches to load the bases and clear them with base hits. Close pitches were called balls, but in fairness to the umpire, when a pitcher isn't anywhere near the plate on his three prior pitches he's not supposed to get the benefit of the doubt.
Curves were not curving. Sliders did not slide. It appeared as thought Michigan's pitchers were afraid to throw a fastball. Michigan was down 2-0 before the first hit of the game put them down 4-0. It is said when you're confident, pitching is like throwing a stone in the ocean. When you're not, it's like threading a needle with barbed wire. After yesterday's performance it is a safe assumption no one's fingers escaped unscathed.
The same could not be said for Oregon State starter Mike Stutes. Stutes went 8 strong innings, fanning 9 and giving up only 3 hits and 2 runs. He constantly kept Michigan batters off balance with a mid 90's fastball and a high 70's change up. Despite working behind in the count the majority of the game, Stutes seemed to control the at bats knowing Michigan's hitters were desperate for base runners. Falling behind on several 3-0 counts, Stutes fired lasers across home plate to fill the count and then finished his victims with his change up.
I wasn't until Eric Rose turned on an inside fastball in the top of the 6th that Michigan finally got on the board. His home run made it 7-1. Rose would homer again in the top of the ninth, but the game's outcome was decided by that point. Through 8 innings Michigan managed only two hits including Rose's first home run. The Wolverines normally potent lineup fell silent in Corvalis, going .133 (8/60), securing a single walk, striking out 11 times, and scoring only 2 runs.
Another popular baseball saying is "Good pitching beats good hitting." That axiom was on full display Monday night. My congratulations go out to Oregon State and to Jake over at Building the Dam, best of luck in defending your title.
Despite the bitter ending to a sweet season, Michigan's loss in the Super Regionals does not eclipse the superb season this team had. Michigan went 42-18, won the Big Ten regular season crown, won a regional championship for the first time since 1984, and defeated the No. 1 ranked team in the country twice on their home field.
Michigan has a bona fide Ace in sophomore Zach Putnam. Despite losing key cogs like Rose and Roblin to graduation, this is a very young team comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Next year's team will have senior leadership in VanBuskirk and Pickens, and experience from this season's triumphs.
This team put Michigan back on the National Baseball stage after twenty years of purgatory. They gave us a season to remember too. Thanks guys. Job well done.
* photos courtesy AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens and UM Photo Services