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June 22nd, 2019

An improbable run to the Championship Series

by John Peters @johnny_omaha_

After Michigan dropped Game Two of the Los Angeles Super Regional in a 12-inning battle, no one would have been surprised if the Wolverines had gone out quietly in Game Three to top-seeded UCLA. The Pac-12 Champion Bruins led the country with 13 picks in the Major League Baseball Draft (tied with Vanderbilt) and had yet to drop a series—or even a midweek game—all year. UCLA had already survived four elimination games in the NCAA Tournament and looked poised to return to the College World Series for the first time since they won the title in 2013. Michigan, on the other hand, had already overachieved; exiting the tournament as one of the last 16 teams standing would have been an impressive accomplishment for the Midwest squad. However, the Wolverines had different goals in mind.

A few weeks before their Super Regional run, Michigan was on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament. Widely considered a “bubble” team, the Wolverines needed to win a few games in the Big Ten Tournament to lock up their postseason bid. After a first-round loss to Ohio State, Michigan’s postseason berth was in jeopardy. Michigan was moments away from seeing their season come to an end in their second-round game versus Illinois. Down to their last out, Michigan received a season-saving double from sophomore Jordan Nwogu to walk off Illinois, 5-4. This sparked a run to the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals that included a 10-4 win over Maryland and an 18-8 win over Nebraska. The Wolverines ultimately lost to Nebraska in the semifinals, but their mission was accomplished—their season would continue.

Michigan’s run to the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals earned the Wolverines a “Last Four In” bid to the NCAA Tournament and a three seed in the Corvallis Regional at Oregon State, over 2,300 miles away from Ann Arbor. The Wolverines opened the Regional by shutting out Creighton, the Big East Regular Season and Tournament Champion, by the score of 6-0 to move into the winners’ bracket. After Cincinnati upset the host, Oregon State, Michigan was set up to play the American Conference Tournament Champion. A five-run 6th inning propelled Michigan to a 10-4 victory over Cincinnati and put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat in the Regional.

Creighton survived the losers’ bracket, and Michigan faced off against the Blue Jays once again in the Regional Final. The Wolverines were on track to sweep the Regional as they held a 7-4 lead over Creighton in the 9th inning of Game Six, but Creighton would go on to score seven runs in the frame on their way to an improbable comeback. The Wolverines’ fortitude was put to the test in a winner-take-all Game Seven against the Blue Jays, but Michigan did not falter as they cruised to a 17-6 win and a Regional Championship.

The road ahead was tough for Michigan as they traveled down the West Coast to face the #1 overall seed, UCLA, in the Los Angeles Super Regional. The Bruins had spent 11 straight weeks as the top team in the country and carried a gaudy 50-10 record into the series. Perhaps a sign of things to come, Michigan entered the three-game series as the only team with a winning record against the Bruins on the season (1-0). Michigan won Game One, 3-2, and would have two chances to eliminate UCLA. After UCLA took a one-run lead in the top of the 9th in Game Two, it looked certain that the series would be forced to a deciding Game Three. However, once Michigan scraped across a run in the bottom of the inning, a College World Series berth was suddenly just one run away for the Wolverines. That chance was dashed for Michigan as UCLA pushed a run across in the 12th and sent the series to Game Three.

Once again, in the face of adversity, the Wolverines were not deterred. After a pickoff miscue by UCLA in the top of the 5th inning of Game Three led to a 2-RBI single for Michigan, the Wolverines took a 3-2 lead. An insurance run in the top of the 9th made it 4-2, but the game would not end without drama. UCLA put two runners on base with just one out, but a fly out to sophomore Jesse Franklin in center field and a ground out to sophomore Jack Blomgren at shortstop sealed the deal and clinched Michigan’s first trip to the College World Series since 1984.

Jump ahead one week, and Michigan was back at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha where they had battled through the Big Ten Tournament. The highs and lows of the conference tournament provided the Wolverines valuable experience. Senior Jimmy Kerr believed his team would not be intimidated in Omaha. “[W]e know what it’s like to be in this stadium and we know what it’s like to be in a hostile environment.” Despite this experience, Michigan was not picked by many to advance in the College World Series as they would face the Big XII Champion, Texas Tech, in the first round. The Red Raiders swept Michigan in Lubbock earlier in the season, outscoring the Wolverines 29-10 in the three games.

Michigan looked like seasoned veterans in their College World Series opener against Texas Tech. Junior Karl Kauffmann pitched 7.0 innings giving up just 3 runs against a potent Red Raider offense, en route to a 5-3 Wolverine win. Michigan Head Coach, Erik Bakich, liked what he saw from his squad. “Our guys did a great job. They're loose, they're confident, and they're playing aggressive.” This confidence is something that Bakich has worked on instilling in his team since the sweep in Lubbock. “[W]e’re a completely different team since then. And we’re confident right now, and that’s probably the biggest change in us. We have a little bit more of an identity of a team and how we need to play to play our best . . .”

Michigan carried this confidence into their second game in Omaha where they took on Florida State and Head Coach Mike Martin for a spot in the Bracket One Final. Behind junior Tommy Henry’s complete game shutout, the Wolverines clinched a spot in the final four in Omaha with a 2-0 win over the Seminoles. Mike Martin said after the game, “I can see why Tommy Henry is a second-rounder. That was a beautiful—that was a masterpiece. He just really, really made it tough on us.”

After three days off, Michigan once again faced Texas Tech with two chances to book their ticket to the National Championship Series. With three lead changes in the first two innings, the game looked as if it would be a back-and-forth affair. However, that was not the case as Kauffmann, facing the Red Raiders for the second time in a week, settled the game down and limited Texas Tech to just 3 runs over 6.0 innings on the way to his fourth win in the postseason. The Michigan offense blew things open with a five-run 6th inning that ultimately put the game out of reach for the Red Raiders. In the most important game in modern program history, Michigan dominated one of the best teams in the country, 15-3, to return to the National Championship for the first time in 57 years.

When asked about the game, Texas Tech Head Coach, Tim Tadlock, shared how the Michigan team had grown. “We played them a while back, and that's not the same team we played. And their staff is to be commended for that. Their starting pitching is phenomenal. To a man . . . every guy in their lineup has gotten better since we've seen them.”

Bakich echoed Tadlock’s comments about his own team. “The guys are just continuing to improve and that's something we stress . . . .” Bakich’s team will have to continue to play well if they hope to win the National Championship. They face off against Vanderbilt, the #2 overall seed and the SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champion. Michigan will be ready. As Kauffmann describes, “It's literally been a one-game, one-pitch mindset” for the Wolverines. So far that mindset has taken Michigan from the “Last Four In” to the last two standing, and starting Monday night, we will find out if Michigan can do what no Wolverine baseball squad has done since 1962—win a National Championship.