Wolverines have been worth watching for a while: Here's a primer
The Michigan baseball team's immediate rewards for making it to the College World Series: Contact lens solution and a much-needed change of clothes.
The Wolverines had been on the road since May 29, having taken the Corvallis, Oregon, regional by storm, before staying on the West Coast to travel to UCLA, the top-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament — which Michigan defeated, two games to one, in the best-of-three Super Regional that came to its dramatic conclusion Sunday night.
Between the Big Ten tournament last month and the NCAA run, Michigan has been on the road for all but a couple of the last 21 days.
Michigan (46-20) finally headed back to Ann Arbor on Monday to briefly catch its breath before making the Holy Grail of jaunts, to Omaha, Nebraska, for the eight-team College World Series, starting Saturday against Texas Tech (44-18).
It's the Wolverines' first trip to Omaha since 1984, and it's just the second appearance for the entire Big Ten Conference since that run 35 years ago. Indiana made it in 2013.
"It's hard to do, it's hard to do for anybody," Michigan coach Erik Bakich said following Sunday night's 4-2 win over UCLA, which kicked off a raucous celebration not only at Jackie Robinson Stadium but also throughout the blue corners of social media — everyone suddenly paying attention to college baseball for a change.
"So, yeah, it's great for our conference, but it's more about the belief of this group and just seeing the process of how these guys have come together. This has been a long time coming, and it's a culture. It's a set of standards that they uphold every single day."
Given that college baseball is well down the pecking order of fan interest, at least in the north, we're going to safely assume you haven't been following the Wolverines since before they opened the season with a 10-0 win against Binghamton in February.
No worries. We've got you covered.
Here's your Michigan baseball primer, as the Wolverines go hunting for their third national championship, and first since 1962.
Been there before
Of the teams in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have the richest history in baseball — this is their eighth College World Series appearance, to 13 total for every other Big Ten team. (That doesn't count Penn State's, Nebraska's or Rutgers', since those came before they joined the conference.)
Michigan baseball alums include such greats as Hall-of-Famers George Sisler, Charlie Gehringer and Barry Larkin, as well as Tigers legend Bill Freehan, Jim Abbott, Hal Morris, Chris Sabo and current Dodgers pitcher Rich Hall, among 79 major-leaguers.
This Michigan team, despite all the feel-good Cinderella narratives, didn't entirely come out of nowhere, having beaten UCLA in Los Angeles in March, and having missed out on a Big Ten regular-season championship by a half-game to Indiana.
That said, Michigan and Texas Tech did play a series this year, in March in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders swept the three games by a combined score of 29-10, having roughed up each of the top three members of the Wolverines' rotation.
The Wolverines are here for a lot of reasons, starting with their starting pitching — left-hander Tommy Henry (10-5, 3.54 ERA), and right-handers Karl Kauffmann (10-6, 2.59) and Jeff Criswell (7-1, 2.74).
Henry, out of Portage Northern, was the 74th overall pick in last week's draft, by the Diamondbacks, and Kauffmann, out of Birmingham Brother Rice, went three picks later to the Rockies. And Criswell, a sophomore from Portage Central, could be a first- or second-round pick next year.
Five Michigan players went in this year's draft, bringing Bakich's total to 30 in seven years. That includes a whopping 11 in the 2017 draft alone.
The offense must gets its share of the credit, too, especially junior outfielder Jordan Brewer, out of St. Joseph. Despite missing several games down the stretch and into the postseason with a nagging turf-toe injury, he leads the Wolverines with 75 hits and 19 doubles, and has 12 homers and 55 RBIs.
Brewer was the Big Ten's player of the year, a nod to his sheer athleticism, which once made him a target of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.
Packing a Wolverine wallop
The Wolverines' lineup features plenty of thump, with four players at 12 homers, including sophomore outfielder Jordan Nwogu (Ann Arbor Pioneer), senior infielder Jimmy Kerr (drafted by the Tigers in the 33rd round) and sophomore outfielder Jesse Franklin. Another player, sophomore catcher Joe Donovan, has eight.
This has to be an emotional run for Donovan, whose older brother, Charlie, a former top prep player in Illinois, died unexpectedly in 2015, just before he was to go to Michigan.
"Charlie will always be a Wolverine," Bakich said before the start of the 2016 season.
One College World Series in the family is something, two is unbelievable, but three? Well, meet the Kerrs.
Kerr's father, Derek, played baseball at Michigan from 1983-86, putting him on the 1984 College World Series team, while Kerr's grandfather, John, played for the Wolverines from 1960-62, putting him on the 1962 national-championship team.
Derek Kerr was a catcher, and John Kerr was a pitcher and a good hitter.
So, we've established the Wolverines can pitch and they can hit, and oh, they can run, too. Like, a lot. Michigan is absolutely fearless on the bases, successfully stealing 98 bases in 120 attempts this season.
Brewer is 24-for-28, Nwogu is 16-for-18, senior infielder Blake Nelson is 15-for-15, and junior outfielder Christan Bullock is 13-for-14. Kerr is 5-for-6, Franklin 4-for-4.
That work on the bases has paid off big-time lately, especially in the UCLA series.
Then there are intangibles, the things you can't measure with a box score or a stop watch, but are equally as important. Bakich has repeated called this team tough, and that showed up in the regionals and Super Regionals. Brewer played through his turf toe, Henry pitched a brilliant game Sunday despite being hospitalized earlier in the week with a flu so bad he wasn't even at the ballpark for Friday night's game, and sophomore shortstop Jack Blomgren finished Sunday's game with a broken finger. We could go on.
"They’re fighters, they’re believers, they’re gritty," Bakich said.
And they're resilient. Michigan has fought through the injuries, and they've fought through some serious adversity.
The Wolverines blew a championship game against Creighton in the regional when the Michigan bullpen imploded to allow seven ninth-inning runs. No matter, Michigan brushed it off and demolished Creighton, 17-6. Similarly, it was the defense that melted down late in a potential Super Regional clincher against UCLA, with five errors in a 5-4, 12-inning loss. And less than 24 hours later, Michigan had punched its ticket to Omaha.
"They're able to just flush any negativity or adversity," Bakich said.
You can see why Michigan is here. They do so much well, physically and mentally.
But the fact remains, the Wolverines were one of the last teams to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. If not for a walk-off win over Illinois in an elimination game in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan not might be here at all.
Florida State, another College World Series team, was among the last four in, along with TCU (lost in the regional) and Duke (lost to No. 2 Vanderbilt in the Super Regional).