EAST LANSING, Mich. — Ako Thomas stood in the right-handed batter’s box in a real game for the first time in nearly a month Thursday. It felt good. It felt really good for the Michigan sophomore second baseman — and the rest of the team.
The last time Thomas took an at-bat was April 21 against Indiana in Ann Arbor, a game Michigan lost 1-0. He singled leading off the bottom of the first inning and reached third base before being stranded there. Thomas left that game in the third inning with a broken bone in his left hand. He returned to play a couple innings as a defensive replacement in two games last weekend at Purdue, and again on Tuesday against Eastern Michigan, but it wasn’t until Thursday afternoon at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium that Thomas got a chance to do what he has done better than anyone else in the Big Ten this season.
Maybe it’s a bit ironical that the Big Ten’s leader in batting average and on-base percentage went hitless in 3 at-bats and failed to reach base for the first time this season when he’s had a plate appearance, but the fact that Thomas is back in the lineup is a bigger deal for the Wolverines than the 6-1 loss they suffered on Thursday. Getting on base is something Thomas does very well and it’s just one reason why the Wolverines are happy to have him back in the starting lineup.
“He’s a positive life force,” Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said. “It’s his personality as much as his play-making ability. He’s a catalyst, he’s an energy-giver. He’s one of those guys that has a smile on his face all the time. When he’s on the field it’s contagious and infectious, and when he’s in the locker room, he’s a guy that people gravitate to, want to be around.”
Thomas flew out to center field twice, hitting the ball well each time, and then was thrown out attempting to bunt his way on base in the sixth inning. Michigan State sophomore Alex Troop retired the first 16 batters he faced and didn’t allow a hit until the seventh inning. Michigan, which has scored more runs than any other team in the Big Ten this season, managed just 2 hits against Troop in 8 innings.
“I feel like I hadn’t missed three weeks,” Thomas said. “I was seeing the ball pretty well. I’m back a little earlier than expected, so it didn’t feel that great but not too bad today.”
The loss damages Michigan’s hopes for the Big Ten regular-season title. The Wolverines (40-13 overall, 14-8 Big Ten) entered the weekend one-half game behind Minnesota and Nebraska in the conference standings. Michigan hasn’t won the Big Ten regular-season title since 2008, and it is focused on this three-game set with Michigan State. The Big Ten Tournament is next week at Indiana, and even if the Wolverines weren’t to win that title and the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they’ve done a good job of building a tournament-worthy résumé. Baseball America and D1Baseball.com project Michigan comfortably into the field of 64 as a No. 2 regional seed.
That’s why getting Thomas back now is important. Michigan lost three of the first four games following his injury, including that first game. It went 6-5 without Thomas before a sweep at Purdue last weekend and the win against Eastern Michigan on Tuesday. Sophomore Jimmy Kerr replaced Thomas in the lineup and played well, even earning Big Ten Player of the Week honors on May 1 after hitting .700 and collecting consecutive three-hit games in wins at Rutgers. He’s hitting .286 with an on-base percentage of .346 and a slugging percentage of .429 this season but Thomas is hitting .363/.475/.397 with 36 runs scored despite the missed games.
“Jimmy has been swinging well all season,” Thomas said. “When I first went down, he was like ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll pick you up, I’ve got you.’ I never had any doubts about it. He’s a hell of a player. It doesn’t seem like we’ve missed a beat at all since I’ve been out.”
Thomas started 52 of the 53 games he played last season as a freshman, hitting .258 with an on-base percentage of .387. He did lead the Big Ten with 11 sacrifice bunts but he has become a bigger offensive threat this season. Playing last summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League helped. Playing for the Sanford Mainers, Thomas made the All-Star team after hitting .313/.429/.400 with 17 walks and 15 runs scored in 22 games.
“Coming in as a freshman and having the responsibility of being a starter, I was a little nervous, trying to be perfect and not mess up. I was in my own head,” Thomas said. “Last summer, I had a good summer. I just relaxed and tried to be more aggressive and it carried over to the season, so I had a really good start.”
He’s hoping to recapture that good start as the postseason approaches. Thomas left the game against Michigan State in the seventh inning after telling coaches his hand was hurting. It was the first day back, so no reason to push it. The loss hurt but Michigan still has everything it hopes to play for in front of it.
“We wanted to come out and win this game, and win this series to potentially be regular season Big Ten champs,” Thomas said. “It didn’t go our way [but] we’re not going to let it hold us back. We’re going to come out tomorrow more aggressive, more disciplined at the plate and try to get a win there.”