Rising ace leads Michigan into Big Ten tournament

Michigan's baseball team entered 2024 needing to fill holes in its starting rotation after losing its top two pitchers from last season.

Second-year head coach Tracy Smith was forced to juggle her rotation during the first half of the year due to inconsistent results, but a surprise ace has emerged for the Wolverines (30-26, 14-10), who finished fourth in the Big Ten and open conference tournament play against No. 5 seed Iowa on Wednesday at 3 p.m. in Omaha, Nebraska.

Sophomore Kurt Barr threw just 23 2/3 innings as a freshman in 2023 and started in the bullpen this year, but two consecutive outstanding performances at long relief in mid-March propelled him into the starting lineup.

The Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggitt School alum took advantage of the opportunity and will face the Hawkeyes on the mound in the double-elimination Big Ten tournament.

He leads the team in ERA (3.52) and innings pitched (76 2/3) and is a third-team All-Big Ten selection.

“It's earned,” Smith said of Barr's larger role. “It's not something that's given to anybody. That's what I tell the guys all the time: You've got to go out there and put one good performance after another, and when you do that, you create more opportunities for yourself.

“I think Kurt has done a really good job of stacking good performances on top of each other this season. He has put himself in a position to lead the staff.”

During final season meetings last season, Barr told Smith he wanted to be a weekend starter in 2024 and pitch in high-leverage situations. As a rookie, he posted a respectable 4.18 ERA in limited action, but also struck out 19 in 23 2/3 innings – a glaring stat that needed to be solidified.

The 6-foot-3, 175-pound player spent a month last summer working with private pitching coach Dom Johnson in San Diego, refining his mechanics. He gave up the overhead windup and focused on simplifying his execution so he could find a more consistent and reliable arm slot.

In the fall — essentially the preseason for NCAA baseball — Barr said he wouldn't get the results he envisioned, but his new-and-improved pitch began to pay off this spring. His walk speed has dropped significantly and he also leads the team with a WHIP of 1.26.

“It just simplified things,” Barr said of his adjustments. “It didn’t add much. It overhauled the way my arm moves a bit. It took me a while to get used to it. Now I'm grateful for that because it has made my performance much more consistent and repeatable.

“I was able to land my curveball a lot better in every way. This throws the batsmen a little more off balance. This new movement has helped me get my curveball and fastball downfield more consistently.”

Barr's first eight appearances this season came out of the bullpen, but he pitched at least five consecutive innings before making his first start on March 23. On March 12, he pitched six scoreless innings and allowed just three hits in 12 innings in a 7-6 Michigan win.

Five days later, he appeared in a 1-1 game against San Diego and pitched five one-run innings in the Wolverines' 3-2 win.

“I think I just needed to see it click again,” said Barr, who was twice selected to first-team all-state honors in high school. “Not that I really lost a lot of confidence, but early in the season I got one or two reliever-type innings and then I had a game where I was able to build on it. Since then I feel like I've made a big step. Seeing that (success) again and saying to myself, ‘This is me.’ I was able to deal with it.”

Barr will make the most important start of his career on Wednesday in a crucial opening game for Michigan. The path to a tournament title becomes more difficult with a first-round loss, especially for a Wolverines team that finished eighth in the conference in ERA and doesn't have the pitching depth of others in the league.

Michigan won the season series against the Hawkeyes (31-21, 14-10), taking two of three games in early April. Barr suffered the only loss in the series, but allowed just one run on four hits in 4 1/3 innings.

“Our attitude has been more or less the same since Big Ten play began,” Barr said. “The attitude was, 'Win the weekend, be the weekend warrior.' It helps that we saw her a bit. I threw four or five innings against these guys and we won the series against them last time, so that gives us a little bit of confidence going into this game.”

Barr will likely be pitted against Iowa's Brody Brecht, a projected early-round pick in the MLB draft. Michigan touched him for five runs in 5 2/3 innings in April, but he's a tough opponent when he's at his best. He has a high-90s fastball and has struck out 118 in 71 innings.

The Wolverines need to win the tournament to reach the NCAAs after missing last year for the first time since 2018.

“Our thing is, 'Who are we playing today?'” Smith said. “It’s always Michigan. We will worry about what we do in our dugout because we believe that if we do it well it doesn't matter who we play. If you look back at some of our box scores, you'll see that they generally aren't very pretty, but we find a way to win. Just keep fighting and keep fighting, and that’s served us well all year.”

Anna Harden

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