WARNING: long post
THE BOYS OF SPRING
This is a story of and from the 1976 UM baseball season.
First, a little history.
Michigan baseball has a long tradition, being the oldest varsity sport, all the way back to that perfect 1866 team.
Which was 3 and 0.
Even winning two national titles, in 1953
"1953 University of Michigan baseball team (national champions)" by Rentschler's Studio (Ann Arbor, Mich.) - Bentley Historical Library, Item BBT1953 -- http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bhl/x-bbt1953/bbt1953. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1953_University_of_Michigan_bas…
The 1961 team won the Big Ten title, the first since the 1953 National Championship team, with sophomore Bill Freehan leading the way, but did not make it to the College World Series.
After Freehan left to be a Tigers Bonus Baby, the 1962 team finished second in the conference, but won the College World Series.
Don Lund then left as manager for another job in the athletic department and Milbry (Moby) Benedict took over as manager until 1979.
Though his teams finished second in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971 and 1973, and third place five other seasons, Moby's teams did not win the Big Ten title until 1975, Michigan's first since the 1961 Freehan team.
The 1975 team finished 28 and 12 overall, 13 and 3 in the conference, losing the NCAA regional final in Ypsilanti 2-1 to a loaded Eastern Michigan team, featuring Bob Welch and Bob Owchinko on the pitching staff, future Tiger Pat Sheridan in the outfield, and two more future major leaguers.
1975 MVP starting pitcher Mark Weber returned, but #2 man Chuck Rogers was off to the pros and #3 starter Craig Forhan was off to UM law school.
The 1976 team was shooting for UM's first back-to-back conference baseball titles since 1944-45.
Following the 1976 season, Weber was named co-MVP with fellow starter Lary Sorensen, a junior, who entered the year with a 7 and 6 career record, and left after the season as a Milwaukee Brewers 8th round draft pick.
It was: “Sorensen and Weber and pray for bad weather”, along the lines of “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain.”
After the pair of Boston Brave starters went 8 and 0 over a 12 day span in early September, 1948, a newspaperman wrote:
First we'll use Spahn
then we'll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain.
In the 1970s, Big Ten baseball scheduled conference doubleheaders on weekends, all 7 inning games. MSU was our travel partner, and Indiana was paired with Ohio.
Except, to close the season, we played single 9 inning games, home and home with MSU.
Games might be Friday- Saturday, or Saturday-Sunday, but, if the first date rained out, that was it, the visiting team moved on to the next town for the next day's doubleheader.
If the second date rained out, those games could be made up the following day.
The conference campaign commenced at perennial contender Minnesota, featuring All American shortstop Paul Molitor, with hard luck Weber losing the opener 1 – 0, dropping UM to 8 wins and 9 losses on the season.
Sorenson came on to win the nightcap, surrendering no runs, though the Gophers outhit the Wolverines 10 to 6.
On to baseball power Iowa.
UM struck for 14 runs in the opener for an easy 14 – 3 win, and Sorenson picked up another victory in relief in the 8 – 7 nightcap, for a sweep.
Michigan had home games scheduled the weekend of May 1 with Purdue and Illinois, but got in only one game, a 9 to 1 Weber win against Purdue.
Ohio State rolled into town on Saturday, May 8 for two scheduled games, Weber to start the first and Sorensen the second.
Michigan entered the weekend leading second place Iowa by ½ game.
Weber pitched a complete game, walking only one, striking out 3, allowing one earned run on 7 hits.
But the offense produced zero runs on three hits, and Ohio won 2 to 0.
Sorensen entered the nightcap with 6 wins and no losses for the season.
He walked two, struck out two, also gave up one earned run, on only 4 hits, yet Michigan blew a 2 nothing lead, and the game was tied at 2 going into the home half of the 7th.
Third baseman Dave Chapman (BA .309) opened the frame with a line single. Sub Chris Martucci was inserted as a pinch runner.
Second basemen Dick Walterhouse (BA ..328) sacrificed Martucci to second.
After designated hitter Bill Haslerig (BA ..307,yes, Clint's younger brother) was retired, cleanup batter Rick Leach (team leading BA .377) was walked.
First baseman “Boomer” Wasilewski (BA .248, but team leading 23 walks) was down in the count, one ball, two strikes, when he blasted a double over the left fielder's head, and his third game winning hit of the season.
Michigan wins, 3 – 2, running its conference record to 5 and 2, still good enough for first, over 8 and 4 Iowa, and Ohio's 5 and 3, going into Sunday's games with Indiana.
Wayne DeNeff covered baseball for the Ann Arbor News, and closed his story with:
“Michigan coach Moby Benedict hasn't had much luck trying to find third and fourth starters but has a couple of pretty good arms in sophomores Bill Stennet and Crag McGinnis and they're the likely starters against Indiana today.
“It would be a good time for them to get going” said the Michigan coach.”
Bill did start game one, and Wasilewski picked up where he left off, crashing a two run homer in the first inning, which turned out to be his fourth game winning hit of the year.
Stennet pitched into the 7th, when Weber relieved him after the inning started with 3 straight singles, for the only run the Hoosiers scored.
Weber threw 7 straight strikes to get the save; Stennet gave up only two hits and a walk in the first six innings, for his first and only conference win of the year.
So who would start game two?
McGinnis had only won Big Ten win, and that was over the Hawkeyes the second day of the conference season.
Like most Michigan athletes, Sorensen dreamed of being a major leaguer as long as he could remember.
But he put all that on the line, risking his arm, and his future, by telling Moby he could start again on Sunday, even after he pitched a 7 inning complete game Saturday.
The Wolverine bats finally came through, with a 6 run first inning, and 11 total runs on 15 hits.
Sorensen surrendered 3 runs in the 5th, but that was after an 11 to 1 Wolverine lead.
Moby said the plan was for Sorensen to go 3 or 4 innings, then another pitcher, then Weber, if needed.
He threw another complete game, allowing 4 runs, though only two were earned, to go with 5 hits and 4 walks, striking out 8.
Michigan ended the day 7 and 2 in the conference, ahead of 8 and 4 Iowa and 6 and 4 MSU, who had swept Ohio.
With the comfortable lead, and a true Michigan man pitching, no relief was necessary.
Michigan traveled to Wisconsin-Northwestern the next weekend, but the Badger games were rained out.
Weber's luck finally turned and he beat Northwestern 3-2.
It was Sorenson's turn to pitch well and lose, as UM outhit the Wildcats 4 to 2, but 3 Michigan errors contributed to a 2-1 Northwestern victory.
The next weekend was the home-and-home with the Spartans.
Sorenson again went for his 9th win, which would tie the all time single season record, in the first game at Michigan State, but got hammered 10 to 2.
Nevertheless, the Spartans were eliminated, as Minnesota split with Iowa to end the season at 12 and 6, the only team to actually play all 18 scheduled contests.
A Spartan win over us in the finale would put them at 8 and 4, in a percentage tie for first. They split their season series with the Gophers, but the next tie breaker was total runs scored, head to head, and Minnesota won that, 5 to 1.
In spite of an overall 18 win – 18 loss season, the Wolverines needed only to beat Sparty at home to clinch the conference crown, though MSU would still pass us in the standings if they won.
UM outhit Sparty 11 to 10, and each side made two errors, but Weber won easily, 11 to 3, for his team to repeat as champions with a 9 and 4 Big Ten record.
Sorensen and Weber combined for 7 of those 9 wins, pitching 147 and 1/3 of Michigan's 277 innings overall.
Weber finished the regular season with a win-loss record of 4 and 4, completing 7 of his 9 starts, 42 strikeouts to 21 walks, and a team leading 2.37 ERA.
Sorensen closed at 8 and 2, completing 6 of 11 starts, 46 strikeouts, 29 walks and a 2.64 ERA.
A reliever with less than 16 innings had an ERA of 2.87, and the rest of the staff was 4.50 or higher.
Michigan's 9 and 4 record put Minnesota in second place, ½ game back at 12-6,(38-11 overall record)
Indiana finished 3rd at 10-7, one game back, and Sparty dropped all the way to 4th, at 7-5.
1976 POST SEASON
The NCAA regional was again hosted by Eastern; for reasons known only to himself, Moby declined the opportunity.
Back in the day, there were 32 teams in the NCAA baseball tournament, 8 regional sites with 4 teams each. They usually put one in the Mid-East and one in the North East, the rest usually in the South and West. There was no formula for overall seeding. All the tournaments were double elimination, with the winners meeting in Omaha for the College World Series.
The then Hurons, 46 wins against only 16 losses on the season, (including a 4 – 0 record vs. the Wolverines) again beat us the on the first day, 6 to 0, Sorensen giving up only 5 hits while going all the way, but the Wolves managed only two Jim Berra hits off EMU ace Owchinko, who picked up win #11.
So, Michigan was forced into the loser's bracket on day two.
Weber shut out Southern Illinois , with their NCAA leading .360 batting average, 2 – 0, in the morning game.
After Eastern beat Illinois State, we faced Illinois State in the 3rd game of day two.
Michigan was down 4-2 in the bottom of the 8th, when junior Mark Grenkoski, 1 for 12 at that point in the tournament, smacked his first home run of the year, with two men on for a 5-4 Michigan win, Bill Stennet throwing a complete game.
So, another UM-EMU regional final was set up for day three.
Coming from the loser's bracket at 2-1, we had to sweep 2 and 0 EMU to win the regional, while they only had to beat us once.
As in 1975, we won the rematch, this time, 9 to 3. McGinnis started, but was pulled with one out in the second inning, having surrendered the 3 Huron runs.
Sorensen came in to throw 7 and 2/3 innings of shut out relief, surrendering only two hits, and finally nailing down win number 9.
It was not easy, as the Wolverines scored a run in the 8th to tie the game,and 6 runs in the top of the 9th to force the decisive second game of day three.
Moby came back with Bill Stennet, in spite of the 9 innings he threw just the day before.
Eastern answered with Owchinko, who at least had one day's rest after his shutout of us on Friday.
Their #2 starter, future NL All Star Bob Welch, had also tossed a shutout, on Saturday, but the Wolverines pounded him for 4 runs in less than one inning relief in that 9 to 3 win in the first Sunday game.
Stennet lasted into the 5th, but gave up a walk and 3 consecutive singles. Moby pulled him for Weber, who gave up only one hit, but wild pitched in a run in the 6th. Sorensen came in, again, to throw scoreless 8th and 9th innings, but Owchinko, after two hitting us Friday, three hit us Sunday, and, beat us, again, 6 to zip.
Those were days of the iron men of the mound, no worries about pitch counting.
18 shutout innings for Owchinko, on Friday and Sunday.
For Weber, 9 shutout innings on Saturday, and 3 more innings Sunday, giving up just one run.
For Bob Welch, a shutout Saturday, followed by a 4 run relief stint of less than one inning on Sunday.
And Sorensen. 8 inning complete game loss Friday, 5 hits but 6 runs allowed.
7 and 2/3 2 hit shutout innings for the win Saturday.
And the final two innings of the Wolverines season on Sunday, again, no runs allowed.
1976 did not boast the most talented team, outscoring its opponents overall just 180 runs to 178, hitting only 5 home runs for the entire regular season, and finishing in the middle of the conference in fielding.
But a team with heart, none bigger than the the co- MVPs, Mark Weber, and, Lary Sorenson, the starter who risked his arm and his future, for the team, when he threw back to back complete game victories one weekend in the spring of 1976.
Thanks to Debbie Gallagher of the archives staff at oldnews.org for finding Ann Arbor News stories, with box scores.