The newfound depth of Big Ten baseball was on display in Sunday’s conference championship game at Target Field.
Though Michigan entered the eight-team tournament as the No. 3 seed, the Wolverines had the lowest RPI figure of the bunch and were long shots for the NCAA tournament. No. 4 seed Maryland was playing for a championship in its first year in the conference.
Michigan’s desperation to continue its season was enough to survive what’s been touted one of the most well-rounded fields the conference tournament has ever seen. The Wolverines beat Indiana, nationally ranked Iowa and Illinois, and closed out the championship run with a 4-3 victory over the Terrapins on a wet morning.
“The depth is huge,” said Michigan infielder/pitcher Jacob Cronenworth, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “Nebraska is a really good team and they were the eight seed, and so is Michigan State. I don’t think anyone would have ever expected us to win it all, and even to have us and Maryland in the championship at the same time. I think everyone was hoping for Illinois and thought they were going to win it all. But [my teammates] and even the rest of the conference showed up and played their A games.”
Cronenworth hit .337 in the tournament and saved all four of the Wolverines’ victories.
Entering the weekend, Michigan (37-23) wasn’t among the six programs in consideration for what will be a historic number of NCAA tournament bids for the conference. But it will add to the Big Ten’s postseason presence after claiming the automatic berth.
The NCAA tournament field will be selected Monday, and regionals begin Friday. Illinois (47-8-1) was announced as a regional host Sunday and is guaranteed a spot. Maryland, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska also have résumés that warrant consideration for the 64-team tournament. The conference has never had more than three bids.
“We feel great about making it this far,” Maryland third baseman Jose Cuas said after driving in one of the Terrapins’ runs. “Having a chance to play Illinois, one of the hottest teams in the country, if not the hottest team, and putting an end to their 27-game winning streak — we felt great about that. This conference is tough. … Michigan, a team with a low RPI, was able to come up here and beat us. But … they played better than us and they deserve to win.”
One big inning was all Michigan needed. The Wolverines took advantage of three walks, an error and a passed ball and produced two base hits with runners in scoring position to score four runs — three of them unearned — in the fourth.
Michigan’s Brett Adcock, pitching on three days’ rest, held the Terrapins (39-21) to one run in 5 ⅓ innings in his second start of the tournament.
Pinch hitter Jamal Wade’s two-out RBI single in the top of the ninth pulled Maryland within a run, and the next two batters reached to load the bases, but Cronenworth got All-America Brandon Lowe to fly out to end the game.
“Our route to getting here was pretty tough,” Wolverines coach Erik Bakich said. “Our guys, again, they just weren’t going to be denied. They just found a way to compete, and that four-run inning proved to be enough. … The conference is deep, there is no question about that, and fortunately for us we got hot at the right time.”