AJ Garcia controls outfield in series win against Ohio State

AJ Garcia controls outfield in series win against Ohio State
AJ Garcia controls outfield in series win against Ohio State

It’s not often that you see a freshman leading a unit, especially when they’re surrounded by veteran athletes. But the Michigan outfield is freshman center fielder AJ Garcia’s dominance, and against Ohio State on Sunday, he led with a showmanship that helped secure the series win.

The Wolverines were looking to win their fifth consecutive Big Ten series in their final matchup against the Buckeyes. But unlike the previous two games, the Michigan baseball team started on its back, allowing Ohio State to strike first with a quick run in the top of the first inning. Sophomore right-hander Mitch Voit struggled to control the strike zone and restrain the Buckeyes’ powerful batters. Voit didn’t have to worry, though, because he was supported by an aggressive outfield that continually stole runs from Ohio State.

“I love the mindset of ‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to help my team win.’ Michigan coach Tracy Smith said. “There was a great importance of just playing the game and (keeping) an even keel. …We talked with our play.”

Garcia wasn’t alone though, he was winged by two experienced athletes. Senior left fielder Dylan Stanton maintained the left line expertly from the start of the game. At the top of the first inning, Stanton bounded down the left line, tracking a ball that was at the will of the wind. But this proved to be little issue for Stanton, who caught it behind his shoulder in stride to get the first out of the game for the Wolverines.

Opposite of Stanton, graduate right fielder Stephen Hrustich continued his diligent work in the outfield. Hrustich grabbed fly-outs easily and did n’t flinch against the consistent hammering from the Buckeye balls that often went in his direction. His powerful arm controlled the right line cleanly and relayed the ball into the infield often, considerably shortening innings for Michigan. The unit played quality defense, but no one did more for the outfield than Garcia.

Unperturbed by the wind, Garcia easily tracked the ball in the sky, lifting his glove and taking potential Ohio State runs off the board. This wasn’t new for Garcia, who has been a dependable presence in the outfield since he took over the position after sophomore Jonathan Kim’s injury.

But Garcia wasn’t just consistent on Sunday — he put on a show.

At the top of the fourth inning, the game was tied and tensions were growing. It seemed that at any moment, one team would gain an edge over the other. Buckeyes outfielder Josh Stevenson looked to do just that for Ohio State when he stepped up to the plate. Ahead in the count, Stevenson hammered the ball out to center field, seemingly leading to an easy home run. But Garcia had other plans. He darted toward the outfield wall with his eyes locked on the ball and his glove high in the air. Garcia had no mind for obstacles in his way and came into full contact with the outer boards, falling into the dirt while still holding onto the ball to secure the out.

“AJ is unbelievable at center,” junior third baseman Cole Caruso said. “Most of his plays were with no outs too, so being able to get that first out makes it so much tougher for them to score that inning. (That unit has) been working all year at it, so I like to see it show up, it’s good.”

In the sixth inning, Garcia stepped up once again, this time sprinting away from the boards. Hustling to get underneath the ball, Garcia called off graduating shortstop Kyle Dernedde and claimed the out for himself. Still racing through the field, Garcia hurled the ball to first base in stride, looking for a second out. The throw came just a few seconds too late, but the intensity of his play was felt throughout the matchup.

“I just looked at the insertion of (Garcia) out there and he’s really changed the dynamic,” Smith said. “He’s got a major league tool which is his speed. He’s shown up, which has allowed the other guys to play and not put so much pressure on them. But our outfield play has picked up significantly.”

Garcia’s play in the outfield kept the Wolverines competitive against the Buckeyes. The cherry on top of his already successful outing came in the seventh inning, when his drought at the plate came to an end. In his first swing, Garcia smashed the ball to left center for a double. Later in the inning, he was brought home by Hrustich, who had a double of his own. The outfield cemented his success of the day.

Michigan refused to lose on Sunday, playing every pitch like the game hinged upon it. And Garcia led the battle, refusing to stop performing and cementing his presence in the outfield.

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