Michigan Baseball traveled to Evanston this weekend expecting to play a two-game series against Northwestern followed by two games against Illinois. However, due to COVID-19 complications within the Northwestern program, the weekend was changed on Friday morning to a four-game set between the Wolverines and the Illini. The teams played doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday.
Michigan came into this series off their first series loss of the year last week against Rutgers and dropping out of both D1Baseball and Baseball America’s Top 25 lists. Meanwhile, Illinois came into the weekend looking for their second straight series win and trying to get back into the conversation for an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
Both teams are probably a little disappointed in the result of the weekend with how each squad looked in their respective wins, but Michigan (now 21-11) has to feel the sting a little bit more than Illinois (now 15-16) given the Big Ten standings after this weekend’s action. Had the Wolverines been able to take one more game in this series, they would be in sole possession of first place in the B1G as a result of Nebraska - the leaders coming into the weekend - being swept by Rutgers and Indiana taking two of three against Iowa. Instead, Michigan sits tied with Nebraska at 0.5 games back of the Hoosiers.
As a word of caution when looking at the numbers from this weekend, the wind on the Northside of Chicago was a factor in all four games and while the steady gusts blowing out to left field led to some exciting action, I would take the stats from this series with a grain of salt.
With that disclaimer aside, let’s take a look at how things shook out in each matchup:
The weekend began disappointingly for the Wolverines, despite out-hitting Illinois by a 7-6 margin. This was arguably the most wind-affected game this weekend, though, as four of the six Illini hits were home runs and accounted for all five of their runs in the game.
Michigan actually led for most of the shortened game after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning thanks to RBI doubles from Clark Elliot and Jimmy Obertop, the latter making his return to the top half of the lineup after dealing with a leg injury and seeing limited action for the last couple of weekends. The Wolverines remained out in front while trading homers with Illinois until the fifth inning when two Illini longballs drove in three runs to give them their first lead of the game at 4-3. A double steal in the top of the sixth led by Christian Bullock forced a throwing error and tied the game at four, but yet another home run in the bottom half of the frame gave Illinois a 5-4 lead that they would hold onto in the top of the seventh inning to take the series opener.
Michigan pitching surrendered zero free passes and the only extra-base hits allowed were those wind-aided home runs. Staff ace and starter Steven Hajjar worked five innings while striking out nine batters and got a no-decision to his name before turning the ball over to closer Willie Weiss for the sixth, who allowed the two-out, go-ahead solo home run to Cam McDonald and took the loss. Neither looked bad on the mound and had very clean outings outside of the home runs, which seems like a good sign overall when these two are pitching in friendlier weather conditions. That goes especially for Hajjar, who seemed to struggle with his command in his last couple of starts but was able to reign things in for the most part during this outing.
Similarly to the first game, the eventual loser of the game jumped out to a first-inning lead, as Illinois leadoff man Taylor Jackson scored his first of three runs on the day on an RBI single by Justin Janas. From the top of the second through the top of the fifth innings, Michigan put the game away. The Wolverines scored 11 unanswered runs, featuring back-to-back home runs to start the fourth inning by Danny Zimmerman and Tito Flores along with four RBIs on a couple of hits by Christian Molfetta. Illinois rallied a bit in the bottom of the fifth to make it an 11-6 game, chasing Cameron Weston, but Michigan added enough insurance down the stretch to never let Illinois back within striking distance.
This was a great showing for the Michigan offense - recording a season-high 21 hits - in a game where it was really needed. The normally reliable arms of Cam Weston, Joe Pace, and Will Proctor all had sub-par outings for their 2021 standards but it didn’t matter much in the game overall thanks to the firepower the offense provided. Blake Beers got the win after a scoreless 1.2 innings out of the pen and Logan Wood made his third collegiate appearance in a clean ninth inning with two strikeouts.
The action started right away for the third time in three games, as Illinois jumped out 2-0 on a home run by the second batter of the game Jackson Raper. Raper would impressively go on to hit for the cycle in the shortened game and drive in seven runs as a thorn in Michigan’s side the entirety of the early afternoon. Michigan battled back with a leadoff home run by Christian Molfetta - his second of the weekend - in the bottom of the frame and after Illinois stretched the lead to 5-1 in the top of the fourth, the Wolverines had solo homers from Benjamin Sems, Tito Flores, and Christian Bullock in the bottom half to make it 5-4. Illinois put up a five-spot in the fifth inning against three different Michigan pitchers to stretch the lead back out and, despite a three-run bomb from Jimmy Obertop in the sixth, the Wolverines couldn’t claw all the way back from that hole and dropped their second straight doubleheader opener.
This game was exactly the game Illinois likes to play in 2021. The Big Ten batting average leaders were driving the ball down the foul lines and into the gaps all day long and no Wolverine on the mound seemed to have an answer. Starter Jacob Denner and relievers Blake Beers and Jack White each gave up at least three earned runs, with the biggest ERA blow landing on Blake Beers, who only lasted 0.1 innings in relief of Denner in the fifth.
Unlike the other two shortened games in this series, this one was not scheduled to only go seven innings. That came about as a run-rule for the latter half of doubleheaders implemented this year by the Big Ten.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the first inning featured a team jumping out to a lead right away. Illinois scored two runs on singles by Justin Janas and Kellen Saver against Michigan closer Willie Weis, who was starting his first collegiate game in his 41st appearance for the Wolverines. Weiss had a bit of a rocky outing as an Opener, allowing those two runs on two hits and three walks while striking out two over two innings, but it didn’t ultimately matter.
The bottom of the first inning saw Michigan score a TD and kick the extra point, batting around and scoring seven runs highlighted by a Ted Burton grand slam and Christian Bullock’s second opposite-field home run of the weekend in his hometown. The Wolverines sprinkled in another twelve runs in the middle innings - the loudest coming from Danny Zimmerman’s two-run shot as part of a six-run sixth. Ben Dragani came in and kept Illinois to just two runs over four innings, picking up the win, and Angelo Smith closed things out with a quick seventh inning to secure a series split.