Ann Arbor — Coaches embrace teaching moments to enhance a current season or to build for the next one.
That doesn’t mean Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich loved that the Wolverines started 4-11 last season, but he believes what they learned to flip that trend and then win 20 straight will help a more mature group find success this year.
The Wolverines, under Bakich’s guidance as he enters his seventh season, are the only Big Ten team to make all six preseason polls, including No. 20 in Baseball America. They kick things off Friday beginning with three games against Binghamton in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“It’s nice to get recognized,” Bakich said. “It’s good for the kids, it’s good for the program. It means people respect our program and how we’ve recruited and developed. Right now, the record is 0-0. The one poll we’ll pay attention to is the last one.”
Michigan was a young team a year ago, and what he saw from his players at the conclusion of the 4-11 stretch was a re-commitment to the small details a narrowed focus on what it takes to be good.
That can only pay off this year, right?
“Sometimes you don’t always know the deeper meaning and purpose behind when you’re struggling like we struggled getting out of the gate, but what it created was an opportunity to get back to a team-first mentality,” Bakich said. “Put the target right back on Michigan and the Block M and all the cultural behavioral standards that apply to unselfish behavior and truly being a team. We recommitted to that, and that was the impetus that sparked the win streak.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t finish strong last year, had some injuries and some whatever, but it fueled our guys to start this year. Where maybe we lacked a little bit of leadership in 2018, we had some veteran guys that were a part of the slow start in 2018, the 20-game win streak.
"They saw the commitment to the little things and the micro-details, how taking stretching seriously and keeping the locker room clean and just the small behaviors and small actions that affected the outcomes of games, how important those were. Those have been at the forefront of our training from day one.
"Just seeing this group have the discipline to do the little things on a daily basis … whatever happens in the season, I don’t now, but I certainly feel optimistic because of the character of the kids we have in this group and the leadership they’ve shown thus far.”
Bakich credits some of the older players, including left-hander Ben Keizer and infielder Jimmy Kerr for keeping the players zoned in on the little things that led to the long win streak last season. And left-hander Tommy Henry and right-hander Karl Kauffmann, now juniors, have also jumped into leadership roles.
“Really, what it comes down to, a lot of the guys who have been in the program understand the importance of playing well at the end, doing those little things,” Bakich said. “They want to be as consistent as possible. That’s been a commonality just from late August when he we had our first team meeting.”
It is clear that Bakich thinks this could be a special team. He wants the Wolverines to come out swinging and charging from the outset, being tone-setters while dominating opponents.
“I just want to be the team that’s applying the pressure,” he said. “I think that’s how we all feel as a team — we want to be applying the pressure. We want to be so prepared and so bought in and have the team-first mentality with playing for Michigan and the Block M, that it’s just going to be an attack, whether it’s pitchers pounding the strike zone, hitters hunting pitches they can smash, defense playing consistently and communicating loudly, whatever it is, it’s just to have the other teams feel like we are applying a lot of pressure on the game.”
Part of the issue early last season was over-ambitious scheduling. That doesn’t typically bode well for a young team. Bakich wasn’t deterred, however, and said he scheduled harder this year knowing the team he has coming back.
“The expectations are extremely high for this group in terms of representing Michigan well, wanting to be one of the best teams in our 153-year history,” Bakich said. “The Michigan history book, if it’s 153 pages long in baseball, we want this chapter to stand out, to be bookmarked for all time. So in order to do that we’ve got to put together a schedule that, if we play well -- which I think we will -- we’ll put us in position to where maybe some of these goals we set for ourselves in June can become a reality.”
Some of the small details the Wolverines have focused on include yoga. They’ve done more yoga this year than in the past, and it’s an important discipline not only for flexibility and injury prevention but also, Bakich said, for mindfulness. He has always had a different approach to training and preparing for games and while some teams just practice the basic fundamentals, Bakich wants his team to focus on things like breathing techniques.
He also thinks playing in the wintry cold of Michigan gives the Wolverines an advantage. The program released a video recently highlighting the fact they practice and play in the cold.
“We certainly use it as a motivating factor,” he said. “We don’t hide from the fact it’s cold here. You have to hit it right in the face. We certainly don’t shy away from it in the recruiting process. It’s cold here in the winter, and the winter is tough, but we are tougher, and we are going to go outside.
"Even if the temperature gauge is reading single digits or the teens, we might not play a full game outside, but we’re certainly going to go out and take some ground balls or fly balls or do something physically active outside.”
The Wolverines have a solid group of returning players like outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwogu, who were All-Americans. Infielder Ako Thomas, All-Big Ten in 2017, missed part of last season because of injury.
“Obviously, Ako Thomas is a catalyst in our program, a spark plug,” Bakich said. “He’s healthy now and back.”
Bakich mentioned infielder Jack Blomgren and catcher Joe Donovan as players who gained considerable experience last season, and outfielder Dominic Clementi and Christan Bullock are “a year better”, he said. Players who have been in the program for a while but only sporadically contributed, like Kerr and Keizer, are finally getting their patience rewarded and will be playing more.
A big addition to the roster is outfielder Jordan Brewer, a St. Joseph, Mich.-native and junior college transfer.
“We’re very excited about him and we’re looking at him in the outfield and first base. He’s maybe as dynamic and explosive of an athlete we’ve had in several years.”
Bakich is convinced the strength of this team is that it’s a “special group from a character and leadership standpoint.’ He knows that, bottom line, it’s about how hot the bats are and how strong the Wolverines’ pitching is. But he also knows — and they know – it’s about the little details.
“It’s definitely a core of returning players that saw both ends of the spectrum last year,” he said. “Saw how maybe a lack of leadership and not committed to small things led to a 4-11 start and then putting their total focus on Michigan and the Block M and taking away all selfish thoughts and behaviors and doing everything for the team, how that sparked a huge win streak. It’s them and them wanting to be champions and understanding what acting like a champion is all about.
"Long way to go still, but it certainly feels right.”