On the evening of Wednesday, March 14, the Michigan baseball team’s record was 4-11, after dropping a game to NAIA school Lawrence Tech.
The win for Lawrence Tech, in Michigan’s home opener no less, was the first in program history over a Division I team.
“It was very humbling,” Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich said this week. “The first 15 games, it really couldn’t have gone any worse.”
The 15 games since, however, couldn’t have gone any better. Michigan hasn’t lost once since that day, and carries the longest winning streak in Bakich’s six-year tenure into this weekend’s three-game home series against Maryland.
The winning streak is the best for the Wolverines since they won 16 in 2008 and 16 in 2007. The program record is 24 in 1985 — a banner year in which Michigan also had a 16-game winning streak.
Bakich can’t point to anything specific statistically for the turnaround. From the coach’s side, the staff — bewildered by the start — found itself tinkering too much with lineups. When that stopped, and players got to know their roles, the tide turned. Bakich, thus, said the backbone of the bounceback was more on the mental side of things. More confidence. More energy. More pride in playing for Michigan, and trying to be a part of the run of success the athletic department has enjoyed lately.
“Just wanting to contribute to all the good, positive energy that the athletic department has got going on, between basketball (NCAA championship game) and hockey (NCAA Frozen Four), and all the other sports,” said Bakich, whose team is on its way, as the only state Division I baseball team with a winning record. “We just want to contribute, we just want to add value.
“All of those factors just contributed to, you know, us just playing with more energy and a better attitude and encouraging each other.
“All the things we can control.”
It always figured to be a little bit of an up-and-down year for Michigan (19-11, 6-0 Big Ten), which saw a program-record 11 players selected in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft — following a second NCAA appearance in three years — and all 11 signed to go pro.
Bakich reloaded with a recruiting class that Baseball America ranked the 10th-best in the nation, the best ranking in the history of the Big Ten.
A young starting pitching staff has been the crux of the success — including sophomore lefty Tommy Henry, a former Michigan Gatorade player of the year out of Portage; freshman lefty Ben Dragani, the reigning Gatorade player of the year out of Wisconsin; and sophomore right-hander Karl Kauffmann, a former prep All-American out of Birmingham Brother Rice.
“All three came in very highly touted and very accomplished players in high school,” Bakich said.
And those three have emerged as the Friday, Saturday and Sunday starters, respectively. Henry is 5-0 with a 2.52 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 50 innings; Dragani is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA; and Kauffmann is 4-2 with a 3.12 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 40.1 innings.
Moving junior left-hander Will Tribucher to the back end of the bullpen has been huge, too. In 12 games, his ERA is 1.61, and he has racked up three saves and 26 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.
Michigan’s 3.29 staff ERA is ranked 31st in the nation, heading into the games against Maryland (16-17, 3-3) — 4 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The defense has improved dramatically, too, Bakich said. All that makes up for an offense that ranks, in terms of runs scored, 105th in the country.
Junior outfielder Jonathan Engelmann leads the way there, batting .325 with 24 RBIs and three home runs.
“Well, it’s just been a newfound confidence, a shift in the mind set,” Bakich said of the dramatic turnaround, which has the Wolverines ranked 34th in the latest USA Today baseball rankings. “That was probably the biggest thing, just getting back to some fundamentals.
“And we started playing better.”
STATE BASEBALL UPDATE
Record — 11-20-1, 5-4 Mid-American Conference. Next series — vs. Toledo, Friday through Sunday. Noteworthy stat — Redshirt freshman Griffin Lockwood-Powell leads the offense, with three homers, 18 RBIs and a .438 slugging percentage.
Record — 11-19, 5-4 MAC. Next series — at Ohio, Friday through Sunday. Noteworthy stat — Junior Max Schuemann, of Portage, leads the offense with four homers, 21 RBIs and a .565 slugging percentage.
Record — 9-20, 3-5 Big Ten. Next series — vs. Valparaiso, three games, Friday and Saturday. Noteworthy stat — Michigan State is 0-5 against three teams from Michigan, including 0-3 vs. UM, and 0-1 vs. CMU and WMU.
Record — 8-20, 5-6 Horizon. Next series — at Northern Kentucky, Friday through Sunday. Noteworthy stat — Oakland’s pitching staff has allowed double-digit runs in 10 of its 28 games, including 24 in Wednesday’s loss to CMU.
Record — 13-15, 3-6 MAC. Next series — vs. Bowling Green, Friday through Sunday. Noteworthy stat — Connor Smith, a junior from Midland, was co-MAC player of the week, going 6-for-6 with four RBIs on Sunday vs. Northern Illinois.