“Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”
This adage in the sporting world can be applied to numerous championship teams and moments — title-winning interceptions, other-worldly chasedown blocks and clutch pitching performances, to name just a few.
But for the Michigan baseball team to achieve its Big Ten Championship dream, ever-more faint after getting swept by Ohio State, that cliché will have to be flipped.
With their season on the line in Omaha — on the heels of conjuring just 10 total runs against the Buckeyes — the Wolverines’ hitters will need to raise their game to have any semblance of hope at clinching that automatic NCAA Tournament bid by Sunday afternoon.
And look no further than Michigan’s 2022 Big Ten Tournament Championship run to reinforce that necessity.
“Michigan last year was in a similar position, and clicked and fired on all cylinders at the right time,” Michigan coach Tracy Smith said May 13.
While the comparisons are far from identical between this and last season’s squads, they both faced their seasons hanging in the balance with elimination from the Big Ten Tournament.
Yet unlike this year, Michigan began building its momentum at the plate in its final Big Ten regular season series against Rutgers. The Wolverines won the series against the surging Scarlet Knights, scoring nine runs in each of their wins before losing 18-12 in a wild series finale.
They then carried that momentum in the batters’ box from the Atlantic Coast to the banks of the Missouri River.
Finishing the season with a combined 7.00 ERA, Michigan’s pitching staff was not in position to win games solely at the mound. So the gameplan was simple: outscore the opponent.
The Wolverines did just that, scoring at least seven runs in all four of their victories, with 10 runs in three of those games.
However, in their lone loss against Iowa, they mustered just three runs — showing the perils if the lineup could not produce with shaky pitchers behind them.
For this year’s squad to replicate the same celebration dogpile on Memorial Day Sunday, the recipe from a season ago will need to be followed to a tee.
The pitching staff, which maintains a 5.93 combined ERA, is down its second starter for the season in junior right-hander Chase Allen. And Michigan is still searching for multiple other arms deep in its bullpen to get important outs late in games.
“If and when we do damage in the Big Ten Tournament, (other bullpen arms are) going to have to be a big part of that,” Smith said. “Some guys are going to step up and surprise you that maybe haven’t pitched in a month.”
The problem is — none of those arms have proven capable of filling the void.
The search for production from the bullpen carried over into Tuesday’s midweek game against Xavier, which almost served as an audition for many of the Wolverines’ pitchers hoping to get more outings.
But the mass audition turned into a near-catastrophe: a 14-2 blowout loss. Seven of the eight arms that pitched gave up at least one earned run, with promising junior right-hander Ryan Zimmer getting tagged for six earned runs.
Not much went Michigan’s way in the center of the diamond against Ohio State either, as the Wolverines’ staff yielded at least five earned runs to the Buckeyes’ bats in each of the three games in Columbus.
With the instability and limited upside of Michigan’s pitchers to endure an entire tournament run — requiring between four and six games to win it all — the onus falls on the offense to take the burden.
Turning things around at the plate for the Wolverines lineup starts with competitive at-bats. That doesn’t necessarily require getting on base — working pitch counts up, advancing runners, or forcing the opposing defense to make a nice fielding play can also kickstart the offensive play.
Poor strikeouts do not fall under that umbrella. Michigan has been plagued by the strikeout bug at various points all year, striking out 47 more times than its opponents across the season. This phenomenon was magnified on Saturday, as the Wolverines struck out 17 times in the 7-2 loss.
“I was just disappointed with our approach and I think (Saturday), we struck out 17 times, which I can’t remember (the) last time something like that happened,” Smith said May 20. “So it’s unacceptable. It’s not characteristic of this group.”
While 17 strikeouts in a game is extreme, the performance is emblematic of Michigan’s hot-and-cold offense. To get hot again, the Wolverines will have to convert the opportunities that have evaded them with runners on base. They have left an average of 7.71 runners on base per game, correlating with the third-lowest slugging percentage in the Big Ten.
These statistics paint a grim picture of Michigan’s fate in Omaha. But it’s not too late.
There is a chance for the Wolverines to correct it, if they’re able to stack strong plate appearances on top of each other to lead their potential charge at a Big Ten title.
After all, every team enters the Big Ten Tournament with a blank slate.
“It’s everybody’s new season,” Smith said. “Everybody’s 0-0. So it doesn’t really mean what happened the game before the series or even the entire season before because everybody’s rolling into that tournament 0-0.”
That “new season” provides Michigan its final chance to redeem itself, once and for all. And that starts from the top with its biggest hitters — who still have the memories of last year’s magical run fresh in their minds — bringing a contagious energy to the talented underclassmen.
The walls outside the Wolverines’ home locker room at Ray Fisher Stadium feature signage that reads, “You’ll never get hot if you don’t know the cold.”
The 2023 Michigan baseball team has seen nearly every degree imaginable: head-scratching losses, comeback victories, heartbreaking injuries and memorable career performances.
On the precipice of their season ending as early as Wednesday night in the double-elimination bracket, the Wolverines will have to emerge from the depths of their worst week of the season with by far their best — finally putting the puzzle pieces together to extract their winning formula.
And just like last year, that equation will rely on the bats getting hotter than ever before.