Forget all the big-picture reasons why Michigan shouldn’t be able to make the College World Series — the location, the cold weather, the travel.
As the NCAA Tournament was approaching, these Wolverines had more immediate problems.
“We were down to our last strike — of the season. Our season is over if Ako Thomas doesn’t draw a walk and Jordan Nwogu doesn’t hit the two-run double,” coach Erik Bakich said. “Ever since then, our guys have been filled with confidence, belief.”
Bakich called that ninth-inning rally in the Big Ten Tournament a “defining moment” of the season. The victory over Illinois helped the Wolverines slip into the NCAAs as one of the last four at-large teams. Once there, Michigan advanced through its regional and then beat top-seeded UCLA in a pulsating super regional to reach its first CWS since 1984.
The Wolverines are the first Big Ten team to make the CWS since Indiana in 2013. Like many northern teams, Michigan has a schedule reflective of the weather. The Wolverines played their first 13 games away from home. A few years ago, there was talk that the Big Ten should move its baseball schedule to the summer and maybe give up on competing for the NCAA title in this sport, but there’s been improvement in the league.
Michigan went on a 20-game winning streak last season. That wasn’t enough for an NCAA berth, but this year, the Wolverines had three players picked in the first three rounds of the draft — pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman and outfielder Jordan Brewer.
After avoiding elimination against Illinois, Michigan won two more Big Ten Tournament games before bowing out. In the NCAA regional, the Wolverines gave up seven runs in the ninth inning in an 11-7 loss to Creighton, but they pounded the Blue Jays 17-6 in the next game to advance.
The UCLA series was a saga in itself. Kauffman pitched into the ninth inning in the opener, a 3-2 win. Then the Bruins avoided elimination with a 5-4, 12-inning victory the next night.
“It was fun. It’s the nerves. … Those are the games you live up to,” Brewer said. “Everyone was smiling out there ’cause we knew we had it. It was ours.”
Easy for him to say now. Henry, who has been dealing with the flu and pneumonia and had spent time in the hospital Friday to hydrate, took the mound Sunday night and pitched seven innings. Bakich called it the gutsiest college baseball performance he’s seen in his years coaching.
“I just knew that, what the 35 of us had been through … it had to be something, for any of us, like a broken leg or something, to prevent any of us from being on that field,” Henry said.
Michigan won 4-2. The Wolverines now face Texas Tech in the CWS on Saturday. The last time Michigan was in it, Barry Larkin was on the team. Barry Bonds was also in the CWS that year, playing for Arizona State.
Now this year’s Wolverines are leaving their own legacy.
“It’s extremely exciting,” said Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Clayton Richard, who went to Michigan. “It’s a difficult proposition in the Midwest, the North Midwest, given your competition in the South and West, to play baseball so much earlier outside. So it’s a great accomplishment. I’m excited to see how they do. … I don’t even know when college baseball starts now, the practice part of it, but when your season starts you either have to travel south or play a really cold, wet game close to home.”
Bakich has overcome those obstacles in leading the Michigan program, and this year the Wolverines have made it past additional roadblocks to reach rare heights.
“You just hope as you build a program that at some point you can move the needle enough to where you get over the hump,” Bakich said, “and 35 years doesn’t have to pass before you’re able to do this again.”
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