Led by newcomer Bischel, NCAA-bound CMU players fall in love with baseball again
Avon, Ohio — Hugs, smiles and cheers were aplenty Saturday night at Sprenger Stadium.
Reliever Grant Frazer embraced catcher Griffin Lockwood-Powell after making the final out. Zach Kohn sprinted out of the dugout while screaming and holding a plastic John Cena action figure over his head. Winning pitcher Jordan Patty was hoisted up by his teammates and carried around like a king.
It’s been a long time coming for the Central Michigan baseball program – 24 years, to be exact.
CMU Athletic Director Michael Alford watched the celebration as tears began to form in his eyes. First-year coach Jordan Bischel, who did something in Year 1 that others were unable to do for more than two decades, couldn’t stop smiling.
“These kids are going to remember that forever,” Bischel said. “They’ve earned it and should be proud.”
The Chippewas (46-12), with a 6-0 victory over Ball State, completed the journey as Mid-American Conference Tournament champs and members of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. It was CMU’s 18th-straight win for 46 total on the season, just one shy of the school record from 1988.
Patty, after tossing eight scoreless innings, said the group knew it could have a special season during the transitional period from winter to spring. The game became enjoyable again, and everyone was making the most of it.
“We just knew we were having so much fun and everything flipped,” Patty said. “We knew something was going to be right.”
The Chippewas will learn their NCAA Tournament seed and region during the 64-team bracket release at noon Monday on ESPNU.
‘He’s the best coach I’ve ever had’
Bischel walked through the door on June 28, 2018 and took over a lifeless baseball program that didn’t take time to have fun, smile or shed tears of happiness.
Back then, junior right-handed pitcher Cameron Brown was just beginning to fall out of love with baseball. He’d been playing it since he was a child but no longer obtained the same burning passion to take the field.
Then, that youthful coach from Division II Northwood University showed up.
“He has rejuvenated the love of baseball for me,” Brown said of Bischel, the 2019 MAC Coach of the Year. “For a while, it felt like a job. At 18, 19, 20 years old, it shouldn’t be like that. The way this team plays, I’ve fallen in love with this sport all over again.
“It’s because of him. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
During the second weekend of the season, the Chippewas were playing Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. The players from Lamar were calling the CMU athletes lucky after each win.
In turn, the Chippewas mouthed back.
“Guys, you can be rowdy. They told you that you weren’t good and were getting lucky, get loud,” Bischel said that day, as Brown recalls.
For most on the team, it was a shocking surprise. Under longtime former coach Steve Jaksa, that would’ve never been allowed. Highly frowned upon, actually. But Bischel plays a different game, and it all starts with putting fun before winning.
With a new type of approach to the game came a tough adjustment period during the fall baseball season to prepare for the 2019 campaign. Not fully knowing what to expect, a majority of the team members were afraid of enjoying themselves based on knowledge of the previous coaching staff.
“Guys were scared,” Brown said. “In fall baseball, the rowdiest thing we did was hand a football off to a guy that scored. That was it, but we’ve got it down now.”
‘It was meant to be’
Prior to going 6 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run in CMU’s May 18 victory to clinch the MAC regular-season title, Patty had never gone deeper than five innings. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t even supposed to pitch down the stretch in the 2019 season.
Patty broke his hand during his first start this season against Troy in mid-February. Bischel immediately thought to get him a medical redshirt, but the young right-hander managed to get back out there in late March.
After successful performances from fifth-year senior Pat Leatherman and Brown, Patty was on the bump for the MAC Tournament championship. He delivered eight scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and three walks with six strikeouts. It took him 122 pitches.
“I knew he was a competitor, but he took it to another level,” Bischel said. “You don’t expect something that big to happen. He just exceeded.”
Patty got help from his offense in the bottom of the first innings, as catcher Griffin Lockwood-Powell drove a two-run shot to center field. It only continued with another run in the fourth, one in the sixth and two more in the seventh for a 6-0 lead.
While Lockwood-Powell took home the most coveted personal accolade as MAC Tournament Most Valuable Player, Brown, Patty and shortstop Zavier Warren were also named to the All-Tournament Team.
“He was commanding the ball really well,” Lockwood-Powell said of his starter. “He was doing a really good job, and he’s been pitching like that all year. I think he’s the tournament MVP.”
Over the course of Patty’s two seasons as a Chippewa, Leatherman helped train the right-hander and even gave him an old pitching glove he once used. He knows what it takes to win and is one of three players on the 2019 team that was around for the 2015 regular season title.
Leatherman, the expected starter for CMU’s opening NCAA Tournament game, said Patty threw like there was nothing to lose.
“His work ethic and attitude toward putting in his time is remarkable,” Leatherman said. “He’s worked so hard to put himself in this position.”
As a sophomore from Midland, Mich., Patty said he never expected to step up as he did for the Chippewas. In the 2018 season, he pitched just seven games (12 innings) and spent a majority of his time in the infield.
To put it in perspective, Patty tossed a combined 14 2/3 innings over his last two starts without allowing an earned run. Both were for championships.
“Last week, we clinched it and were on top of the world, but we had to flip the switch really quick,” Patty said. “We come here and do it again, I feel like it was meant to be.”
‘That’s our expectation’
When Alford went to receive his medal from MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, multiple players shouted at him, “Great hire!”
Once Jaska stepped down in early June, Alford took it upon himself to find someone that would fit the new culture. He wanted a person that would connect with the players, treat them like family and win baseball games.
That’s exactly what he found in Bischel, just 27 miles down M-20 West in Midland.
And it paid off in less than a year.
“Jordan does a great job of bringing the team together,” Alford said. “They buy into his systems and processes, and they have fun. That really makes a difference when you get to this type of atmosphere.”
Due to his baseball background as a player at Mississippi State and UAB, Alford said he’s spent plenty of hours in Bischel’s office talking about the game each love. Their baseball philosophy matched from the moment they met, creating a perfect match for the program.
The Chippewas rank fourth in the nation in wins and winning percentage, just behind teams like UCLA and Vanderbilt. One season ago, CMU finished 29-30-1.
“Everyone knows Central Michigan baseball throughout the country,” Alford said. “It’s nice to get back in the NCAA Tournament, which is where we belong.
“That’s our expectation of this program.”
What: NCAA baseball tournament selection show
When: Monday, noon
Bids: Central Michigan earned the MAC’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.
May 31-June 3: Regionals
June 7-10: Super Regionals
June 15: College World Series begins
Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.