PHOENIX — What began as a hectic Saturday for Michigan and starting pitcher Steven Hajjar ended in jubilation after silencing Spencer Torkelson and hard-hitting Arizona State Saturday night.
In the minutes after Friday’s season-opening win over Vanderbilt, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said he might’ve gotten a little overly ambitious with his scheduling out in Arizona this weekend. In addition to playing Cal Poly at Salt River Fields early Saturday afternoon, he scheduled a game down at Phoenix Municipal Stadium against No. 9 Arizona State.
After a long and drawn out game against the gritty Mustangs, the Wolverines had to travel down the highway and face Torkelson, Gage Workman and the Sun Devils? Didn’t seem optimal, and as Hajjar called it, the Wolverines had to do “JUCO style” pre-game prep.
OPENING WEEKEND: Scores, stats for every game
On top of that, the Wolverines were sending Hajjar, the left-hander, to the mound against the Sun Devils. It was his first test. As Michigan went on its postseason run and played for the national title last season, Hajjar was forced to watch from the dugout. He entered the season as one of the team’s best pitchers but missed the spring after tearing his ACL during a pickup basketball game in January before the 2019 campaign began. He was devastated but determined.
As you might suspect, Hajjar had some nerves on Saturday. But in a way, he didn’t have time to think too much about it. The Wolverines were locked in against Cal Poly, drove the 20 minutes to face Arizona State and were forced to do a speed warmup to make the 6:30 p.m., start time.
It was a busy afternoon for Hajjar and the Wolverines, but it didn’t change the way they played. The Wolverines were once again outstanding defensively against the Sun Devils, the timely hitting, just like Friday, was there and oh yeah, Hajjar was simply magnificent in his 2020 debut.
“It helps when a guy who didn’t throw any innings last year goes out there and throws six scoreless. I thought it was Steve Hajjar’s night,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “It was a coming out party for him, that’s for sure.”
Hajjar seemed unfazed by the suboptimal preparation time against the Sun Devils. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder had a presence about him on the mound, and he showed electric stuff in the first inning and beyond. In that first, though, he made a statement by striking out leadoff hitter Drew Swift on a 92-mph fastball and punching out Torkelson on a filthy 79 mph changeup. This after starting Torkelson off with 93 (FB), 82 (SL) and 94 (FB). Torkelson watched the changeup go by and Hajjar was locked in the rest of the night, striking out seven, walking two and allowing three hits in six shutout innings. Hajjar admitted after the game he hadn’t really read any scouting reports on Torkelson.
“I thought he threw a lot of strikes and worked ahead. He commands his fastball very well and commanded his breaking ball and changeup, too,” Bakich said. “He was able to wiggle out of jams and let his defense to go to work. He did a great job of staying poised and not making any situation too big. He just executed pitches.
“His pitches just seem to complement each other,” he continued. “He’s got the most induced vertical break of anyone on our team — it’s almost two feet. He’s got depth with the curveball to complement that and he’s got a changeup. He stays behind the ball so well that it plays up. He can pitch at the top of the zone and have that breaking ball come out of the same slot.”
Hajjar, ranked as one of the top 2021 College Prospects, showed excellent stuff in the first couple of innings and good stuff the rest of the night. His fastball ranged anywhere from 91-94 mph from a steep downhill angle and was especially effective on the inner half against right-handed hitters. He also showed that 78-79 mph changeup a few times throughout the night, most notably in that first inning at bat against Torkelson. The 79-81 mph curveball was his go-to secondary offering. It had good depth and was almost unhittable at times, particularly against right-handed hitters. Everything looked easy for the rising left hander.
“I had a little bit of nerves. I know Arizona State is a great program and team, but I have an unbelievable defense behind me,” Hajjar said. “I have all the confidence in the world in the guys behind me.
“I was babying the curveball a little bit at the end,” he continued. “But I mean, I really felt good going out there. We got some huge timely hits. We’ve got a lot of studs on this team.”
With a strong start under his belt, Michigan can now accurately say it has a terrific one-two punch in Jeff Criswell and Hajjar. We all expected Criswell to be a bonafide ace this spring, but Hajjar was at least somewhat of a question mark. After all, you’re never 100 percent sure how anyone bounces back from an injury.
Bakich spent much of fall workouts talking about how good he thought Hajjar could be in 2020. We got to see it with our own eyes against the Sun Devils.
It’s been a tough road back for Hajjar, but it led to a night to remember on the desert.
“I mean, the coaching staff has been so supportive of me through my ups and downs. Getting hurt doing something stupid last year, their confidence in me never wavered,” he said. “I’m so thankful to have a coaching staff that believes in me and us the way they do.
“Last year, I was able to watch Tommy Henry, Criswell and Karl Kauffmann go after hitters, and saw what they were able to do,” he continued. “I wanted to emulate that. They were great role models for me. Last year was a magical year and hopefully we can capture some of what we had last year into this year’s team. Everyone in the dugout is certainly pulling for one another.”
Expect the unexpected
Texas coach Augie Garrido was famous for always uttering the phrase, “Expect the unexpected.” And through three games this spring, Michigan is certainly a testament to that.
For Michigan to rack up wins early in the season, it needed some unexpected contributors to step up and carry the torch. Jesse Franklin is out with a collarbone injury until April and right-hander Willie Weiss is on the shelf for the time being — that’s two of Michigan’s better players. Suboptimal, but not something that’ll let Michigan get deterred.
In Friday’s season opener against Vanderbilt, Matt Schmidt, who had a limited number of at bats last season, was the hero with a big-time blast off All-American righ-thander Tyler Brown in the ninth inning to lead the Wolverines to victory.
In the early game on Saturday against Cal Poly, Michigan was looking to preserve some pitching for the nightcap against Arizona State. Blake Beers, who made just 14 appearances and had an ERA north of six last season, stepped up, striking out five, not walking anyone and allowing two runs — all unearned — on four hits in 5.2 innings.
“It was a coming out party for Beers, too,” Bakich said. “What he did against Poly and what Steve did against Arizona State, it gives us a lot of excitement about what our rotation could be like.”
Then, to top it all off Saturday night against the Sun Devils, redshirt sophomore Danny Zimmerman smashed a home run off Cooper Benson early in the game to set the tone. ASU’s Cooper Benson was attacking Michigan’s lineup with a sinking fastball, but left the sinker just a little in the middle of the zone and Zimmerman unloaded on an 89 mph fastball. Zimmerman had just one at bat the last two seasons and missed all of last season.
And sophomore right-hander Jack White joined the party, too. White made just two appearances and threw two innings last season. Yet, the right hander entered the game against ASU after Hajjar threw six shutout frames. The result? White tossed three shutout innings and allowed just two hits against one of the nation’s premier lineups.
Not a bad 24 hours for the Wolverines.
“Knocking off Vandy and ASU. Pretty good,” Hajjar said. “I mean, I think it’s going to be a pretty good year for us.”
Michigan moving forward
“Happy, but not satisfied.”
The Wolverines had just finished a total domination, on the road, of the No. 9 team in the country. The energy in the Michigan dugout was palpable. Players were yelling, coaches were smiling. These Wolverines knew they’d just won a big game. Bakich brought his players together in the dugout for a team meeting.
It got quiet. Then, he sang the praises of redshirt sophomore Danny Zimmerman after his huge night at the plate. Then, he gave plenty of love to Hajjar for his dominant showing against the Sun Devils. “He hasn’t pitched in a year!”, he exclaimed.
Players cheered in response.
Everything got serious again — at least for a split second.
That familiar phrase in the Michigan program came out: “Happy … but not satisfied.”
Through the first weekend of the season, Michigan has looked the part of a national title contender for a second-straight season. On Friday, the Wolverines got a gritty start from junior right-hander Jeff Criswell. But after surrendering the lead in the middle innings, they looked like a team ready for a familiar collision course with a loss at the hands of Vanderbilt.
Matt Schmidt had something else to say about that, as he smashed a home run in the ninth to give the Wolverines the win over the Commodores.
On Saturday, Hajjar put together a brilliant start, shortstop Jack Blomgren was again terrific up the middle, Zimmerman hit his home run and smacked a double and the Wolverines as a whole oozed with confidence. Despite their lofty national ranking, the Wolverines are playing like a team with something to prove. And that’s a dangerous development for opposing teams.
The national title isn’t won in February and Bakich made it abundantly clear the Wolverines still have a lot of work to do. They dropped a couple of balls in foul territory against the Sun Devils, and Bakich pointed to some negatives in the Cal Poly game earlier in the day as well.
“I’m not going to get too high because it’s early and it’s a long season,” Bakich said. “We have fresh in our minds what it takes to go on a run and that’s playing well at the end, not at the beginning. But for us, it’s all about growth.
“It hasn’t been perfect now. We have a lot to improve on. In the earlier game against Cal Poly, we allowed some extra 90s (free bases), missed a couple of cut off men and allowed some runners to move up. So, we have plenty of things to improve on, but that’s all getting covered up right now because of our pitching, defense and timely hits. I told our guys; we’re playing some championship level defense right now. Not just with the routine plays, but with the double plays, too. Outside of a couple of dropped foul pop ups, it’s been pretty good.”
But the Wolverines certainly passed the eyeball test this weekend. The statement made was loud and clear — Bakich’s program plans to say in the national limelight.
Now, they hope to have a season that ends in satisfaction — with a national title.