Michigan Baseball: Wolverines Aim for NCAA Berth in B1G Tourney

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The stage is set for the Michigan Wolverines as they prepare to battle in the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday. With postseason baseball heating up, Head Coach Tracy Smith and Michigan aim to secure an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. Can Michigan’s mix of veteran leadership and young talent propel them to victory in Omaha?

Tournament Overview

The Michigan Wolverines (30-26, 14-10 Big Ten) enter the tournament as the fourth seed. They will play against the fifth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (31-21, 14-10) on Wednesday, May 22, at 2 p.m. CT in Omaha, Nebraska. The Illinois Fighting Illini enter the tournament as the number one seed. The double-elimination format means Michigan will play again on Thursday, either at 6 p.m. CT if they win or 10 a.m. CT if they lose. All games will air live on Big Ten Network.

Familiar Foes

Historically, Michigan holds a 9-5 record against Iowa in Big Ten Tournament games. Michigan won the regular season series in Iowa this season, falling in extra innings in the series opener on Friday before sweeping the Hawkeyes in the Saturday doubleheader. However, Iowa has also dealt blows to Michigan, notably eliminating them from last year’s tournament with two wins, 13-3 and 5-0. Michigan did clinch a 13-1 victory over Iowa in the 2022 tournament, on their way to the Big Ten title.

Key Players to Watch

Mitch Voit

Mitch Voit has been the Wolverines’ offensive anchor this season, leading the team with 61 hits, 20 doubles, and 116 total bases. His doubles tally is second in the conference, trailing only Indiana’s Tyler Cerny, and he’s just six doubles away from breaking Michigan’s single-season record. Voit has also launched 11 home runs, tying for second on the team.

On the mound, Voit has pitched 62.1 innings, recording a complete game and 41 strikeouts. Impressively, on days he pitches, Voit is hitting .333 with a .632 slugging percentage, including nine doubles and two home runs. Over the past 12 games, he has four home runs, including a clutch pinch-hit homer against Kent State, and homers against MSU, Purdue, and Akron.

Kurt Barr

Sophomore Kurt Barr has emerged on the mound, leading the team with a 3.52 earned-run average, ranking fifth in the conference among qualified pitchers. Barr’s impressive stats include a 5-3 record, 50 strikeouts, and a .222 opponent batting average. In Big Ten play, he boasts a 3.64 ERA, underlining his reliability. Notably, Barr pitched a complete game against Minnesota, allowing only one run, earning him Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors on March 18. In conference play, Barr is 3-2 with 29 strikeouts, showcasing his growth and consistency throughout the season.

Jacob Denner

Jacob Denner’s flexibility has been a significant asset for Tracy Smith in 2024. With an 8-4 record and four saves, Denner has demonstrated his ability to excel in multiple roles. He has appeared in 26 games, starting four, and maintains an overall ERA of 3.91.

Denner has twice earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors this season, the first U-M pitcher to achieve this since Tommy Henry in 2019. In conference play, Denner leads the team with a 2.09 ERA, recording 32 strikeouts in 47.1 innings and holding a 5-2 record. His ERA is second in the Big Ten for pitchers with more than 30 innings and third for those with over 20 innings. Over the season, Denner has made 26 appearances, striking out 57 batters. His 26 appearances in a single season tie him for 13th place all-time.

Will Rogers

Will Rogers has been heating up, hitting .348 over his last 10 games. He’s racked up five extra-base hits and six runs in this span. Rogers tends to come up big in conference matchups, posting a .294 batting average, .559 slugging percentage, and four home runs. Against Ohio State, he hit .400 with three runs and a home run, and he added three runs against Michigan State, including a pinch-hit homer. Rogers continued his hot streak with three hits, including a home run against Purdue and a two-run double in a 3-2 win over Indiana. This season, Rogers has seven home runs, 33 hits, and 31 runs. He’s also an option for Tracy Smith on the mound with 15 appearances and 31 strikeouts this season.

Stephen Hrustich

Hrustich is hitting .301 with 50 walks, the latter ranking second in the conference and 19th nationally. He’s one walk away from tying Michigan’s single-season record. After hitting eight home runs in the first 28 games, he went through a 16-game drought before regaining his power, smashing six homers in the last 13 games.

Kyle Dernedde

Shortstop Kyle Dernedde is the only Wolverine to start all 56 games this season for the Wolverines. He’s fifth on the team in batting average (.251) and boasts a .375 on-base percentage. Dernedde’s patience at the plate is evident with 25 walks and 14 hit-by-pitches, both team highs. His recent power surge includes three home runs in the last five games.

Lineup: What To Expect

After extensive experimentation throughout the season, Coach Smith seems to have settled on a lineup late in the season. Will Rogers is now the team’s starting catcher while batting 7th (with Brock Leitgeb as the backup). The first base position rotates among Mitch Voit, Collin Priest, and Joe Longo, who also share designated hitter duties with Dylan Stanton. Voit and Longo often alternate in the outfield, filling the last spot.

Stephen Hrustich has manned the outfield for 47 consecutive games, batting 3rd for the last 44 games. Since his return from injury, Jonathan Kim has anchored center field and taken the leadoff spot in the lineup. The infield has remained largely unchanged, with Mack Timbrook at second base for 18 straight games, Cole Caruso at third for 31 consecutive games, and Kyle Dernedde playing every game at shortstop.

Voit has batted second for the past 11 games, while Priest or Longo usually bat cleanup. Caruso hits fifth, followed by Stanton or Longo in the sixth spot. When Rogers starts, Timbrook and Dernedde hit eighth and ninth, respectively. If Leitgeb starts, Timbrook and Dernedde move up to the seventh and eighth spots.

Fun Defensive Stat

Michigan ranks second nationally with 59 double plays, just one behind the College of Charleston. Dernedde and Mack Timbrook are among the best double-play duos in the nation. Michigan has turned a double play in 38 of its 56 games, achieving a season-high of four double plays twice. This defensive strength will be crucial in tight tournament games.

Fun Coaching Note

The Wolverines benefit from the experience and expertise of former Michigan All-American Zach Putnam, who serves as one of the team’s assistant coach. Putnam had a remarkable college career with historic performances in the Big Ten tournament and multiple NCAA Tournament runs. During his three seasons with the Wolverines, he earned All-American honors each year.

As a freshman, Putnam achieved a .286 on-base percentage and pitched 57.1 innings with a 2.51 ERA, earning First Team Freshman All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball. In his sophomore year, he hit .330 with eight home runs and maintained a 3.87 ERA over 102.1 innings, securing Second Team All-American recognition from several organizations. In his final season, Putnam posted a .306 batting average with 11 home runs and a 2.58 ERA. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 5th round of the 2008 MLB Draft.

Championship Chasin’

With a rich history in the tournament and a roster full of talent, the Wolverines are poised to vie for the title. Michigan’s journey in the Big Ten Tournament begins Wednesday. Fans can catch all the action live on the Big Ten Network.

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For more from our Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21

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Original Photo Credit: © Brett Patzke – USA TODAY Sports