OMAHA, NE- Losing starting pitcher Tommy Henry in the second inning was not really in the plan for Michigan as they got their Big Ten tournament underway on Wednesday morning.
But that’s precisely what happened when Henry got hit in his throwing arm with a scorching ball off the bat of Iowa’s Robert Neustrom. He initially stayed in the game, but after issuing a four-pitch walk to Matt Hoeg, was lifted for Alec Rennard. Judging by the welt on his arm that Big Ten Network cameras captured on a closeup of the Michigan lefty, it’s tough to blame them for making the move.
Rennard gave up a bloop single to the second batter he faced, Lorenzo Elion, which moved Hoeg to third, and then the run scored on a Jesse Franklin error at first base. But that was about it for Iowa offensively while Rennard was in the game. The only other hitter to reach against Rennard was Robert Neustrom on a walk in the fourth, and he was quickly erased on a caught stealing.
In all, he threw 5.2 scoreless frames, giving up one hit and one walk with four strikeouts, helping to turn a game that could easily have devolved into a loss marked by the kind of pitching attrition that dooms a team’s chances to come back through the loser’s bracket into a 2-1 ten-inning victory that buoys the Wolverines’ hopes for a shot at the postseason.
It might not have been the scenario under which Rennard thought he would enter the game, but somewhat counterintuitively, perhaps, it was conducive to him being able to settle in right away.
“I mean, I think it was easier coming in in the second than it would have been in the fourth or fifth because I was actually still warm from playing catch pre-game,” Rennard said. “I went down to the bullpen and just started chucking as many fastballs in a row as I could, and then they said I could have as much time as I needed because of the nature of coming into the game. I felt adequately prepared, the arm felt good.”
If this is the last time Rennard takes the mound against Iowa this season, it won’t be a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, as this is the second time this year that the righty has been on his game against them. On April 27th, he threw 3.1 scoreless against Iowa, giving up just one hit. Put the two outings together and Rennard has basically thrown a complete game shutout against the Hawkeyes in 2018 with two hits and one walk surrendered.
This outing was also just the latest chapter in what has been a topsy-turvy whirlwind of a season for Rennard. He began the season as a starter before going down due to injury in early-March. Upon returning from injury six weeks later, he took on a relief role, serving mostly in lengthier outings like the one on Wednesday morning. His versatility, and experience doing something similar last season, when he started ten games and appeared in relief in eight others, makes him a fantastic weapon in a tournament setting like this.
“I think leading into the week, coach said that all the roles go out the window and be prepared for anything at any time,” Rennard said. “A lot of what makes me confident as a pitcher is the preparation work that happens before game day. So when it is game day, even if it’s not the situation that everybody expected, I know I can give my team a chance to win.”
Rennard was the star on the mound, but the Michigan staff as a whole did an outstanding job of silencing the Iowa bats. Jeff Criswell followed Rennard with two perfect innings, and then William Tribucher got the win with a clean frame in the tenth. No Hawkeye batter reached base after the walk to Neustrom in the fourth, and as the game wore on, the top-half of innings seemed to get shorter and shorter.
“I just felt like we were lacking with some focus,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said. “Had a couple chances in the first three innings to execute, get a bunt down, and stuff like that, and we didn’t do it. Couple guys chased out of the zone when we needed a walk after they were 1-0. Just wasn’t really dialed in like I would have liked today. I don’t have an answer as to why, but I just felt like, after about the sixth inning, then it went into press mode, and nothing good was happening.”
It’s not as if Michigan was barreling the ball up left and right, either, with just two runs and six hits to show for their turns at bat, but most of what they got from an offensive standpoint came off the bat of Franklin, the powerful freshman first baseman.
In the fourth inning, Franklin muscled a ball out to right-center for a solo home run, which is quite a feat under any circumstance at cavernous TD Ameritrade Park, but in particular on a day when the wind is blowing in. In the sixth, he had what ended up being the only other extra-base hit of the game, a double off the glove of Iowa left fielder Ben Norman just a couple steps shy of the warning track. And most notably, Franklin was the one who lifted the sacrifice fly to right field to bring home Christan Bullock with the winning run in the bottom of the tenth.
It was quite the day of redemption for Franklin, whose error in the top of the second allowed the only Hawkeyes run to score.
“The first thing Alec Rennard says is that it does matter, flush it,” Franklin said of his pitcher picking him up after the error. “That means a lot. He could have just yelled at me for messing up the beginning of his outing, but he didn’t, and everybody picked me up in the dugout.”
The loss for the Hawkeyes makes their path to the postseason even tougher than it was to begin the week. They came in knowing that, at a bare minimum, they would need to win enough games to get their RPI into better position, and perhaps even more likely, would need to win the whole tournament to get in.
With the loss, the chances of the former become increasingly remote, while the latter will require the Hawkeyes to rattle off five consecutive wins over the next few days. Iowa’s full resume is better than the RPI ranking might suggest, and that’s enough to make Heller more confident in his team’s chances to earn a bid, even if they don’t win it all, than you might expect.
“We’re in a good spot if we can win a couple of games,” Heller said. “To say we have to win it (to get in), no, but I think, if we win some games, we’re still in good shape. You can’t look at it as we have to win the tournament. That’s too big to look at. We just have to win tomorrow and keep winning, and hopefully things start clicking for us.”