Michigan’s Renard and Denner excel on the biggest stage

At the start of the 2023 season, the Michigan baseball team was in a state of uncertainty. After numerous departures through the transfer portal and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, Wolverines had one major question heading into the season: who would step in with new opportunities at stake, particularly on the mound?

Junior left-hander Connor O’Halloran was the most explosive in Michigan’s new throwing era, but two of his relievers also made bigger contributions than ever before — senior left-hander Jacob Denner and right-hander Noah Rennard. And in Wednesday’s do-or-die game against Illinois, their roles as staples of the Wolverines rotation were front and center in why they’re still fighting for a Big Ten championship.

Rennard’s role was particularly important, as he entered the season initially as a reliever, quickly proving to be among Michigan’s best. He often slotted in on Fridays to replace O’Halloran, so a big part of Wolverines’ winning formula for series openers. However, with all the question marks on the mound, Michigan coach Tracy Smith eventually moved him into a starting role. And now that junior right-hander Chase Allen is done for the remainder of the campaign, Rennard is Smith’s second-in-command behind O’Halloran.

In Wolverines’ recovery win of the season, Rennard once again showed his excellence, even when thrust into awkward situations. Rennard took the win by allowing just three earned runs, racking up a season-high six strikeouts. His efficiency establishing an early 5-0 advantage, doing his part on the mound, allowed Michigan to effectively hold the lead throughout.

“I think you react to the circumstances around you,” Smith said. “We haven’t had the luxury of having a starter on Friday, Saturday (or) Sunday… It’s just the resilience of whatever we have to do, we’ll find a way to win.”

Luckily for the Wolverines, not only did Rennard establish a winning mentality, with Allen’s absence, Denner also made his presence known in the Michigan bullpen. On Wednesday, the Wolverines really needed him the longer Rennard’s departure lasted. And again, Denner pulled it off, this time with Michigan’s season on the line.

When Smith fired Rennard in favor of Denner, Denner was instantly thrown into deep water. The Fighting Illini had runners in the corners and had already accumulated two points. And even after a bunt by Illinois infielder Brody Harding made it 5-3, Denner rallied, earning two quick outs to help the Wolverines escape their dangerous predicament. For Denner, it was not something extraordinary.

“When your name is called, you’re just trying to do anything to help the team,” Denner said. “So whether it’s me or anybody else, I’m confident we can do it.”

Denner did just that, tossing a scoreless game the rest of the way for Michigan. And while Denner entered the season as a reliever, Smith also called on him for numerous starts. That experience came in handy during his long relief appearance on Wednesday.

“I think I was lucky to be able to play both (roles),” Denner said. “It exposed me to different types of situations. A starter’s pressure was a reliever’s pressure, and really it all comes down to Coach Huntzinger and Gabe (Sotres) calling a great game… letting me compete.

Even with O’Halloran’s consistent excellence for the Wolverines, it looks like they’ve found other arms capable of delivering effective outings, especially when working together in the same game. If Michigan can continue racking up the wins and supporting his best pitchers, perhaps his time in Omaha will be longer than many had imagined.

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