After losing to Lawrence Tech a couple of weeks back, the forecast for the Michigan baseball season looked grim. For whatever reason though, that game has stood as a launching point for the last two weeks and hopefully beyond.
Since that matchup on March 14th, the Wolverines have reeled off eight consecutive victories — capped off with a three-game sweep over the rival Michigan State Spartans this weekend. Michigan has outscored their opponents by a 56-30 over that time frame and they seem to just be picking up steam.
This stretch has pushed them over the .500 mark (12-11) for the first time this year since the their opening series against Army. Considering the strong performance over the last week, there have been more than a few bright spots of note.
Christian Bullock Vital For Future Of Wolverines
One of the highly touted prospects from the recruiting class of 2016, outfielder Christian Bullock came to the Wolverines as the #2 ranked outfielder in the state of Illinois and placed #25 throughout the country.
With upperclassman contributors manning the outfield grass at the Wilpon Complex throughout 2017, Bullock didn?t get much of a chance to show what he could do at the collegiate level. In 15 games however, the left-hander had an 80% contact rate while showcasing his athleticism with three stolen bases and four runs.
Over the summer Bullock was named one of the top 10 prospects in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League of the Lake Erie Monarchs. Through a span of 29 games and 106 at-bats, Bullock?s average closed out at .340 to go along with a .429 on base percentage and 22 runs.
Now with an expanded opportunity at the Division 1 level, Bullock has been able to shine and give glimpses into the type of player that he was projected to become. Last week alone in matchups against Oakland University, Western Michigan and Michigan State, Bullock raised his batting average by an impressive .050 points from .250 to .300.
Bullock has the athleticism and smooth swing to be an all-around contributor and he?s starting to tap into that as the season wears on. If he continues swinging the bat as well as he has, his speed could be an incredibly useful tool for Erik Bakich at the top of the lineup.
Jeff Criswell Becoming Key Bullpen Piece
Another one of Michigan?s highest regarded recruits, right-hander Jeff Criswell out of Portage, Michigan was the #3 prospect in the state of Michigan for the class of 2017. Unlike Bullock, Criswell has had a direct opportunity for playing time during his freshman campaign.
While Criswell has not yet carved out a defined role — going from pitching five innings in relief against Bowling Green on March 17th to closing out the game this past Sunday against Michigan State — he has been able to perform well in most all of his appearances.
His 3.29 ERA is impressive on the surface, but it?s made even better if removing just one of his appearances. He was roughed up in his third game of the season against Stanford to the tune of three earned runs in 1.1 innings, but if that outing isn?t considered his ERA would drop all the way to 1.46.
Obviously poor outings can?t be removed, but it helps to show how outstanding Criswell has been throughout the vast majority of his appearances. His fastball tops out in the mid-90s and he mixes in a decent curveball and workable splitter, so his stuff would seemingly work either at the back end of the bullpen or as a starter if he gets the chance to make a committed move to the rotation.
Regardless of where he ends up, Criswell is going to be one of the building blocks for the Wolverines moving forward. If he?s able to throw strikes a bit more often, he?d instantly be a game-changer.
Blake Nelson Coming Into His Own
Wolverines third baseman Blake Nelson did not take the same route to Ann Arbor as Bullock and Criswell, as the 6?1 junior from Normandy Park, Washington had to make a stop on the way to the Division 1 level.
Playing for South Mountain Community College for his freshman and sophomore years, Nelson?s bat became the talk of the junior college level. Hitting .333 with a .429 on base percentage and adding 12 doubles with 44 RBI, Nelson attracted eyes from all around the country.
He landed on Michigan and after a quiet start to the season with sparse playing time, he?s been able to force his way into the lineup with the strength of his bat. As the Wolverines struggled to string together hits at the start of the season, it?s no surprise that the insertion of Nelson into the lineup has coincided with a burst of offense.
Over Michigan?s eight game winning streak (he had just eight at-bats on the year before it), Nelson has hit .300 while tallying three RBI and walking four times. In just ten games throughout the season as a whole, Nelson has also been hit by pitches an impressive four times.
His knack for getting on base — whether it be through roping hits, staying patient and taking walks or just getting plunked — has been tremendously beneficial for the Wolverines lineup as a whole and there?s no reason to expect that he?ll slow down. His batting average on balls in play is a little bit inflated at .348, but even a slight drop there would still result in Nelson remaining valuable.
Michigan returns to play at Wilpon on Wednesday against Central Michigan and then Delaware will be visiting for a four-game weekend set. If the team that has played over the last two weeks shows up for those five games, it?s more than plausible that their winning streak could extend to 13 games.