EAST LANSING, Mich. — Bases loaded with no outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game is exactly the kind of situation a player dreams of being in. Even one on the defensive side of the equation.
“Attack the hitter, all the pressure is on him,” Michigan closer Jackson Lamb said. “We’re not supposed to get out of that situation.”
Lamb and Michigan were in that predicament Saturday afternoon at McLane Stadium against rival Michigan State. The Wolverines had trailed 1-0 since the fourth inning but finally tied the score in the top of the ninth off stingy Michigan State senior starter Walter Borkovich. All that struggle was about to go for naught.
Michigan (42-13, 16-8 Big Ten) is having its best season in nearly a decade, and that hasn’t happened by the Wolverines shuddering in tough spots. They didn’t Saturday, either, scoring a run in 10th to secure a 2-1 come-from-behind victory — and the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament that begins on Wednesday at Indiana.
Michigan went into the day with a chance to win the Big Ten regular-season championship. That possibility went away before Borkovich delivered the first pitch of the game as Nebraska scored 7 runs in the first inning of its game at Penn State to send the Huskers on to a 21-3 win that clinched the title. While the Wolverines didn’t get the regular-season championship they were seeking, the way they won on Saturday is a good reason why they’ve got a legitimate shot at winning their second Big Ten Tournament title in three seasons.
“I think when a team has a certain mindset, they believe they can achieve anything on the field,” manager Erik Bakich said. “Our guys have a mindset that they’re going to fight every pitch and, they may be down but they’re not out. They’re extremely tough and extremely gritty in that, and that was evidenced with the come-from-behind win in the ninth and the 10th. They found a way.”
The ninth inning: The rally begins
Michigan dropped the first game of the series on Thursday, 6-1, but found its offense Friday in Ann Arbor in an 11-6 win, picking up 8 hits in 19 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Borkovich didn’t give the Wolverines many scoring opportunities Saturday as he made his first start of the season in his final college game.
Third baseman Drew Lugbauer led off the ninth inning for the Wolverines with a single that somehow found the grass in front of right fielder Dan Chmielewski. Ako Thomas replaced Lugbauer as a pinch-runner, moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Miles Lewis and then stole third base without a throw. Thomas scored on a groundout to first base by Nick Poirier.
Lamb had relieved starter Michael Hendrickson in the eighth inning and survived walking 2 and giving up a single by not allowing a run. Trouble found him again in the ninth when he gave up a leadoff single to Marty Bechina and then Michigan first baseman Jake Bivens threw the ball into center field after fielding a sacrifice bunt attempt, putting runners on second and third.
An intentional walk loaded the bases, bringing up that dreamy situation.
‘You don’t see that often’
Lamb got a grounder to third base by Zack McGuire that Jimmy Kerr turned into a force out at home. One out.
“[Shortstop] Michael Brdar is great. He’s always talking to me between every play, making sure we’re on the same page and know what’s going on,” said Kerr, who had moved over from second base after Lugbauer left the game in the top of the inning. “He just told me I had a bunch of time, I don’t need to turn the double play, home-to-first, just make sure you get that one out. That’s the most important thing.”
Right fielder Jonathan Engelmann made a running catch of a pop-up near the infield, avoiding a collision with second baseman Joe Pace in the process, for the second out. Brdar turned a routine ground ball into a throw to Pace covering second base for the final out.
“That was absolutely incredible by Jackson Lamb,” Brdar said. “Bases loaded, no outs, on the road against our rival. That was special. You don’t get to see that often. The bottom of the ninth inning, that was special. That’s the kind of kid he is. We trust him to do that. He’s done that all season long.”
The 10th: The rally is completed
The first two Michigan batters were retired by Michigan State reliever Ethan Landon in the top of the 10th inning but Bivens made up for his throwing error in the ninth with a 2-strike single to left field. Johnny Slater followed with another 2-strike single, this one to right field.
Michigan was hitless in 6 at-bats with runners in scoring position when Brdar came to the plate. He made the Wolverines 1 for 7 in that situation with a single to right on a 2-2 pitch, driving in Bivens for the go-ahead run.
Reliever William Tribucher walked a batter and hit another but closed out the Wolverines’ 42nd victory in 55 games this season.
“Those last two innings are something you’re not going to see very often,” Lamb said. “Pitching out of a bases-loaded jam, and then two outs, two strikes for the top of the order and they all got hits. That was something that you’re not going to see every day. An unbelievable way to end the season, really.”
On to Chik-Fil-A … and Northwestern
Only the season isn’t over. This team has the chance to do a whole lot more.
Michigan will face No. 7-seed Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. ET in Bloomington.
“We’re going to enjoy this one for a couple hours on the way home,” Bakich said. “We’ll stop at Chik-Fil-A, which is always a treat for the guys, and then once we get back to Ann Arbor I’ll start turning our attention to Northwestern, putting the scouting report together and then going from there.”