In what will hopefully not, but is looking increasingly more likely, be a sign of things to come, the Michigan Wolverines dropped an early season series with the Lipscomb Bisons over the weekend and struggled in all facets of the game at different points.
On Friday, the Wolverines bats finally came alive in a 16-11 victory. The offense looked phenomenal for one of the first times this year with Jonathan Englemann leading the charge. The centerfielder slapped his first home run of the year, one of three hits on the day.
It was downhill from there however, as four errors in game number two and three more in the rubber match sent Michigan spiraling to a pair of defeats. Karl Kauffman struggled in the second game — though he did tally eight strikeouts — and Jayce Vacena succumbed to his third loss of the young season.
As Michigan looks to take on Lawrence Tech on Wednesday — the first ever meeting between the two programs — and Bowling Green this weekend, there are some things that bare watching.
Austin Batka Is Deserving Of Longer Look
While it has largely been the bats that have failed to show up for Michigan this season, the pitching staff has faltered at different points as well. Of the 14 players that have thrown a pitch for the Wolverines this year, eight of them sport ERAs over 4.50.
With the bats not showing up at a consistent level, the Wolverines will need to find some consistency in their pitching staff if they want to salvage this season. One option for Manager Erik Bakich is to turn to left-hander Austin Batka, who has pitched just once this year.
A transfer in 2016, Batka is able to sit in the low 90s with his fastball and also mixes in a changeup and a curveball. His 2015 season with the University of Illinois-Chicago was a bit of a disaster, as he walked 10 batters in just four innings and allowed seven earned runs.
That track record did not get any better over the summer season in 2017 with the Muskegon Clippers of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, as Batka again struggled with control. He walked 25 batters over 27.1 innings and threw a spectacular 14 wild pitches.
It?s not likely that Batka is ever going to show Greg Maddux levels of control, but he has shown signs. Over 8.2 innings with Michigan last season, Batka walked ?only? four over 8.2 innings and struck out 12. At every level he?s pitched at, Batka has been able to maintain impressive strikeout stuff despite the lack of control.
If he can even just maintain his walks per nine of last season at 4.15 (or it could slip to five), Batka could be an improvement over what the Wolverines have been using out of the bullpen so far.
Ako Thomas? Struggles Crushing For Team
A breakout star last season, junior middle infielder Ako Thomas was a burst of energy atop the Wolverines lineup and managed to set the pace for the team all year long. He scored 41 times through 47 games and stole 23 bases to go along with that.
His .354 batting average helped him reach base as often as he did, as did the 28 walks that he took. Thomas was the ideal leadoff hitter and changed games with his ability to get on base and then advance on the basepaths once he got there.
This year however, has been a different story. Thomas has seen his strikeout percentage jump from 9.5% all the way to 16.9% and his batting average has bottomed out all the way to .208. This lack of contact has been concerning and it has hampered the Michigan lineup all the way through.
The .397 batting average on balls in play that he sported last season was sure to drop going into this year, but his contact numbers have cratered. The impressive 88.4% contact rate that he posted last year has dropped nearly 10% to 79.2%, a clear sign of his struggles at the plate.
His current batting average on balls in play of .262 should stand to rise, but that doesn?t dismiss the amount of swings and misses that he?s had this year. A member of the All-Conference team for the Big Ten last year, Thomas is going to have to start putting the bat on the ball for the Wolverines lineup to be operating at its fullest capacity.
Harrison Salter Should See More Playing Time
With Harrison Wenson making his way to the Los Angeles Angels organization over the offseason, Michigan was going to be looking for a new backstop. With Joe Donovan, Harrison Salter and Marcus Chavez all slated to suit up, it appeared that they were in good hands.
Donovan was a highly touted recruit as the best catcher out of the state of Illinois and has generally lived up to that billing through the first stretch of this season. He?s hit .263 so far and has shown some patience at the plate.
Beyond him however, it appears that Chavez has claimed a more prominent portion of the rotation over Salter. It may be due to Chavez?s ability behind the plate, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Salter offers far more with the bat.
So far this season Chavez has struggled to a .182 average and has just two extra base hits in 33 at bats. Salter has managed the same number of extra base hits, but he?s done so in twenty fewer at bats.
Salter?s 6?3, 205-pound frame may not be suited for a career behind the plate, but he uses it to his benefit with the bat in his hands. Over the summer with the Grand River Loggers, Salter hit .290 with a .355 on base percentage and managed to knock in 12 runs over 21 games.
The Wolverines have struggled at the plate this season for the most part and they need to focus on getting consistent offense anywhere they are able to. Salter may be a drop off behind the dish compared to Chavez, but the boost on offense is exactly what the team needs at this juncture.
Adding Salter into the lineup and Batka into the bullpen more often might not propel the Wolverines into contention immediately, but as the team currently stands this level of experimentation could be useful. As the team looks towards four winnable games, this week could be telling.