Ahead of UConn baseball’s NCAA tournament opener against Michigan on Friday in the South Bend Regional, The UConn Blog caught up with Maize n Brew, SB Nation’s Michigan blog, to learn a little more about the Wolverines before first pitch Friday night.
You can follow Austin Falco, the Maize n Brew baseball writer who previously called games for the student radio station at Michigan, on Twitter @AustinFalco. He’ll be on-site this weekend for most of the games including Friday’s contest with UConn.
The UConn Blog: Overall, how has Michigan done in their past few games leading up to the NCAA tournament?
Maize n Brew: Michigan has skidded for the last few weekends headed into the tournament. After taking a series at home against then-Big Ten leader Indiana, they dropped two of three at home to red-hot Maryland and then another two of three to Big Ten champs Nebraska in Lincoln to close the season. I don’t think there was one thing that really went wrong consistently to cause the skid, but they also very rarely played the complete ballgame they are capable of and were playing earlier in the season.
Michigan’s game against UConn will be the first non-conference game the Wolverines have played all season due to the Big Ten’s decision to only play conference games for baseball. How was the Big Ten as a conference this season?
It’s hard to tell for sure without having a way to measure up to other conferences, but the Big Ten certainly seemed to be as good as they’ve been in recent memory this season. In a more normal year, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Nebraska was in the hosting conversation and I think 5-6 teams could’ve possibly found themselves in the tournament discussion with a decent non-conference showing or two. Ultimately just three teams did, though, as Iowa and Indiana played themselves out of contention over the last few weekends.
Do you think the lack of non-conference games will hurt Michigan in the tournament?
It’s hard to say for sure. I think an offense like Michigan’s, which doesn’t strike out much and is willing to see pitches to get a feel for new pitchers, is pretty well-equipped to adjust quickly to new opponents. On the mound, it’ll all come down to the nerves of facing new lineups on a big stage and whether that affects the command of the less-experienced arms that will be called on at some point.
What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses for this Wolverines team? What has to go right for them to make it to Omaha?
The biggest strength for Michigan is definitely the depth across the board. The lineup is filled with guys that have great command of the strike zone and will grind across plenty of runs, as shown in their Big Ten-leading OPS and runs scored. The pitching staff also has a number of reliable arms with different strengths that Erik Bakich can deploy situationally if the starters find themselves in trouble. There aren’t really many standouts on the roster, though, for one reason or another, so Michigan can find it hard to have a reliable anchor in any given game if they get off-schedule. In order for them to go far, they’ll need to regularly grind through pitching staffs while playing good defense, as they’ve occasionally fallen into streaks of backbreaking unearned runs.
Who will take the ball for Michigan against UConn on Friday night?
Lefty Steven Hajjar is the guy on Friday nights for Michigan. Coming into the season, D1Baseball.com had him ranked as one of the best 2021 college pitching prospects (partly thanks to an excellent outing against Spencer Torkelson and company in his collegiate debut in 2020,) but he’s only shown flashes of that potential this year. He’s only had a few starts where he has command of each of his pitches - a low-mid 90’s fastball, low 80’s sinking slider and disappearing changeup, and a sparingly-used mid 70’s curveball - but he still managed to rack up the second-most strikeouts in the Big Ten and earned First Team All-Big Ten honors. When he misses, it’s usually low and out of the zone where not much damage can be done, but it does run up his pitch count and lead to shorter outings.
Offensively, which hitters will Huskies fans have to be especially worried about in Michigan’s lineup?
Like I said earlier, the strength of the lineup definitely lies in the depth. You could look at each weekend of the season and pick out a different top hitter almost every time. The hottest guy over the last month of the season is definitely infielder Ted Burton, who missed the start of the season but still played his way into a First Team All-Big Ten Selection by ripping the ball all around the field with authority. Outside of him, there are several other Wolverines with extra-base and home run power, but the biggest pop has to belong to IF/DH Jimmy Obertop, who leads the team with 10 homers and is a 2021 draft prospect himself.
Who is the Wolverines’ best pro prospect? Any names we should keep an eye on ahead of this year’s MLB Draft?
The two guys mentioned already, Hajjar and Obertop, will almost certainly hear their names called this year. Hajjar has the edge as a lefty starting pitcher with legit offspeed offerings, but Obertop could become a force at the plate for an organization that works with his great frame and natural ability to square the ball up with authority. After them, Michigan’s No. 2 starter Cam Weston may be eligible (pending his college enrollment date) and will garner looks from MLB teams, and a trio of grad transfers - C Griffin Mazur, SS Benjamin Sems, and IF/C Christian Molfetta - have all probably earned themselves a shot at the next level in some capacity.