College baseball: Michigan keeps 19-game win streak alive on walk-off squeeze bunt
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was a celebration scene you cannot script — one of pure joy and exuberance unfolding across the diamond at Fisher Stadium.
Freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren, his Michigan baseball teammates chasing him in full sprint into short right field, had just dropped down a successful squeeze bunt on a low curveball in the bottom of the 11th inning. Dominic Clementi scored on a head-first slide, narrowly beating the sweeping tag of Penn State catcher Ryan Sloniger, to plate the deciding run in an 8-7 triumph Saturday afternoon.
"It was like Christmas morning," Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said. "The kids ran up to the tree, and were all fired up. It was a raw, authentic moment that is pure happiness. It's real, it's genuine and that's what you're chasing. You're chasing those feelings. Those are championship-caliber feelings.
It was another case of mission accomplished for one of the hottest teams in the nation.
"I kind of looked back and I saw him score," Blomgren said of Clementi. "I was so happy. It was an awesome moment. I ran from my teammates -- ran for my life (laughter) -- and got tackled. I don't even know who got me."
It was the 19th consecutive win for the Wolverines, now ranked No. 11 and improving their overall record to 23-11 while staying unbeaten in 10 Big Ten games. It's the longest chain of victories for Michigan since winning 22 in a row in 1987, behind Golden Spikes Award winning pitcher Jim Abbott. The record is 24 by the 1985 team that was led by Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin.
So, this streak puts these Wolverines in pretty good company. But they are not ready to take any bows because the gritty Nittany Lions await them again Sunday, and winning a conference title and returning the NCAA tournament are going to take much more than this.
"We're not here to be on a streak," said winning pitcher William Tribucher. "We're here to just win the next game."
This streak began after an 8-3 loss to Lawrence Tech of the NAIA on March 14 that left the Wolverines spinning, with a 4-11 record, and wondering if they were ever going to overcome losing 11 players who were taken in the Major League Baseball Draft.
"It was just the ultimate epiphany, light bulb, wake up call, whatever you want to say," said Bakich. "It was the turning point because we knew we were losing to some good teams. But we weren't really sure if it was because we played a tough schedule and had been away from home. The thought process was, 'Once we get home, we'll be fine.'
"But it didn't matter who we were playing, if it were Stanford or Lawrence Tech. We weren't doing the little things right and didn't have the right mind-set with an approach with bringing 100 percent of our best enthusiasm, our best effort, our best attitude. That was the wake-up call to get back to playing for Michigan and representing the Block M and all the great teams and players that came before us.
"But we had an opportunity to rewrite the script on how it was going to go. All the credit goes to the players. If they don't have the right mind-set, we don't start playing well. Team chemistry is everything. The intangible skills and character traits matter, and they create the outcome."
Bakich added that his team wanted to "get in on the action" being created by the hockey team and men's and women's basketball teams in NCAA tournaments.
"Run into the roar," Bakich said. "The basketball roar and the hockey roar. All these teams are doing great, and we're over on the sideline. We said, 'We've had enough of this. We want to get in on the action. We want to represent the Block M the way these other teams are.'"
Left fielder Jordan Nwogu is one of three freshmen starting on a team that returned just two starters and touched on that "epiphany" the Wolverines experienced amid March Madness.
"There were a lot of open spots and so a lot of people were stressed and tight, trying to win their spot," said Nwogu, who played across the street at Ann Arbor Pioneer. "But once we all started showing up for the team, that's when it started in the bunker."
That "bunker" mentality is housed in the Michigan dugout.
"The bunker is probably the biggest thing for us," added Nwogu.
But now they have confidence and momentum, and have found ways to win on a regular basis. Three wins have come by just one run, and another three by two runs. This was their first extra-inning game.
"It's just been our mentality off and on the field," Blomgren said. "We do the little things and fundamentals in practice and taking care of our school work and business off the field helps us be good players and good people. That's the key for us, and it's a credit to our coaching staff.
"This has built a lot of confidence, and I was just happy to keep this winning streak alive."
Nwogu added: "If you expect good things to happen, they will happen. We all believe it now, and there's something special going on."
Tribucher: "That's just our team. We're that team. We're doing special things up and down the lineup. We've been playing really well defensively. That's one of our strong suits. Guys come off the bench to win games and the pitching staff locks it down."
This game exhibited some of the best reactions to pressure or adversity that a coach could ask for.
There was Nwogu pulling a two-run double with two out in the seventh inning that tied it at 6-6.
Nwogu said: "Coach (Bakich) just said, 'Be the man.' Getting that confidence from your coach makes you a lot more confident. I knew he believed in me, and I believed in myself."
Bakich added, "For a freshman in that spot to come in, in a big moment and get that type of hit -- that was almost like him becoming a sophomore at that point."
There was center fielder Jonathan Engelmann making it 7-6 for Michigan in the eighth with a sacrifice fly, and then seeing to it that it remained tied at 7 in the 11th with two on and two out. He came in hard on a line drive, snaring it with his glove just before it dropped for a hit.
There was Tribucher, who gave up the game-tying homer to Braxton Giavedoni in the ninth, but allowed just two other hits over 3.2 innings to get his third win of the season.
"He got ahold of a changeup and hit it well," said Tribucher, who was seeking his fifth save. "Credit him. But our defense was making plays, and Engelmann made that great play in center."
Bakich noted on junior left-hander Tribucher: "He's an older guy with a lot of confidence. He knows that was just a mistake (pitch) that caught too much of the plate. And, at this level, that's what happens. He hits it out. But it showed toughness and character to not get rattled and not lose confidence and let fear creep in.
"He not only finished that inning, but two more, and put zeroes up to put us in position to win in the 11th."
That's when catcher Brock Keener, the lone senior starter but also a first-year starter, singled on a hit-and-run play, sending Clementi from first to third with only one out, and Blomgren proceeded to send everyone home happy.
"We love the squeeze play and use it when we need it," Bakich said. "It was a gamble because there was the risk of a pitch-out after a (first-pitch) strike. But a credit to Blomgren. He got a curveball down, a tough pitch to bunt, and he did it. It was a bang-bang play at the plate. The difference can come down to one pitch, one swing, one play."
Blomgren added: "Coach told me that if I got a pitch to hit on the first pitch to swing away. The second pitch was going to be the squeeze, and it wasn't my first time doing the squeeze this season, so I have pretty good experience with that. I trusted myself to get it done."
That's what all these Wolverines are doing. They have, as Bakich said, "that right mind-set and are playing for Michigan" and trusting both the process and one another.