Not that long ago, Michigan’s baseball team was riding a 20-game winning streak and squarely in the discussion for an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines are limping into the Big Ten tournament, which starts today in Omaha, Nebraska.
But with an RPI that’s slouched to the mid-50s, at least they know right where they stand: Win the tournament, or go home. Last year, Michigan was No. 35 in the RPI after the Big Ten tournament and made the NCAA field as an at-large, but as one of the last teams in the field.
“It’s pretty black and white,” coach Erik Bakich said during a layover in Chicago on Monday. “It’s not about the rear-view mirror anymore. It’s about the windshield, looking forward. That’s history. We can’t do anything about that.
“We’re shifting all our focus onto the tournament.”
As the No. 3 seed, Michigan (32-19, 15-8 Big Ten) opens the double-elimination tournament at 10 a.m. today against No. 6 Iowa (33-18, 13-9). Michigan State (20-30, 11-12), the eighth and final seed to make the tournament, plays regular-season champion Minnesota (37-13, 18-4) at 6 p.m.
The tournament runs through Sunday’s championship game at TD Ameritrade Park.
Michigan’s season can be split into three segments. It was 4-11 in the first 15 games, the 15th a loss to NAIA school Lawrence Tech. Then it rattled off the 20 wins in a row, tied for the third-longest winning streak in program history. It then went 8-8 over its last 16, starting with a series loss at Iowa and closing with a series sweep by Purdue to close the regular season.
Despite one of the Big Ten’s top offenses, the Wolverines scored just four runs in the three losses to the Boilermakers.
“This was the first weekend where we seemed to not really have anything going,” Bakich said. “It was just not a good weekend. We didn’t do enough. We just had one of those offensive weekends.
“But it’s not like we went from 20 in a row to all of a sudden we can’t do anything right. We had some decent weeks. We just have to get back to fundamentals.”
Bakich said he believes the team remains confident, as it did in 2015 — a year he said felt a lot like this one.
In 2015, the Wolverines also struggled down the stretch in the regular season, but then rattled off four consecutive victories to win the Big Ten tournament and make the NCAA Tournament, the first of two NCAA berths with Michigan for Bakich, who is in his sixth year.
Michigan also was the No. 3 seed in 2015. In the last three Big Ten tournaments, a 3, two 4s, a 5, a 7 and an 8 seed have made the Big Ten final. The championship has been won by a 5 seed, a 4 seed and a 3 seed.
A 1 or a 2 hasn’t made the final since No. 1 Indiana and No. 2 Nebraska played for it all in 2014.
That’s baseball for you, which is why Bakich and Co. remain optimistic.
“Somebody has to win it,” he said. “Why not us?
“The Big Ten is probably deeper and more-balanced than it’s been in years past.”
The Wolverines — who lost 15 players from last season’s team, including a program-record 11 picks in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft, but regrouped with a recruiting class ranked in the top 10 nationally — are led by junior outfielder Jonathan Engelmann, who’s batting .359 with six homers, 43 RBIs and a team-leading 105 plate appearances, and sophomore designated hitter Dominic Clementi, who’s hitting .358 with four home runs and 29 RBIs. Both were first-team All-Big Ten.
Sophomore left-hander Tommy Henry (Portage), with 77 strikeouts in 801/3 innings and a 7-3 record and 3.14 ERA, is the ace of the staff and will get the ball for the Big Ten tournament opener. Henry was second-team All-Big Ten, along with freshman outfielder Jordan Nwogu (Ann Arbor Pioneer), who had a team-best .603 slugging percentage.
“When you look at our slow start to the season, we knew we’d have to really play well in conference and finish on top,” Bakich said. “We’re not talking about that anymore. We’re talking about the (tournament) championship.
“Keep climbing, keep advancing, you never know.”
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
At TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
Game 1: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Iowa, 10 a.m.
Game 2: No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 7 Ohio State, 2 p.m.
Game 3: No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 8 Michigan State, 6 p.m.
Game 4: No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 5 Indiana, 10 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10 a.m.
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m.
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 10 p.m.
Game 9: Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, 4:30 p.m.
Game 10: Loser Game 8 vs. Winner Game 6, 8:30 p.m.
Game 11: Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 10 a.m.
Game 12: Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, 2 p.m.
* Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 6 p.m.
* Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 10 p.m.
Game 15: Winner Game 12/14 vs. Winner Game 11/13, 2 p.m.
* If necessary
Note: Game 14 moves to 5 p.m. if Game 13 doesn’t take place