Wojo: From sick beds to celebrations, Michigan baseball on improbable ride

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This isn’t supposed to happen, historically or geographically. Big Ten teams and cold-weather teams don’t crack the college baseball elite, almost never.

Christan Bullock (5) celebrates after Michigan defeated UCLA to advance to the College World Series.

A lot of things weren’t supposed to happen for Michigan, which is headed to the College World Series for the first time since 1984. The Wolverines (46-20) will face Texas Tech (44-18) in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday, and they enter the eight-team field with the longest odds, yet again. The truth is, it takes a whole heap of improbabilities to make something like this happen.

You could begin before the season, when the Wolverines weren’t even favored to win the Big Ten, and follow it all the way to a California hospital room, where the pitcher who would clinch it was hooked to an IV, battling the flu. Put the pieces together, from the talented starting pitchers to the dynamic offense to the sharp, motivational manager, and it doesn’t seem nearly as improbable.

“If we believe we can recruit and develop the best players in the country, then we should believe we can play at the highest level in the country,” said Erik Bakich, 41, the youngest manager among major college programs. “That recruiting class a couple years ago that was top 10 in the country? That wasn’t supposed to happen, either. You just hope as you build a program, you can move the needle enough and 35 years doesn’t have to pass until you’re able to do this again.”

More: 'Focused, but loose': Michigan baseball set to take CWS by storm

This Michigan team is branded such a tough, spirited underdog — self-branded, by the way — it’s easy to overlook the talent. Five players were taken in the recent major-league draft, including two pitchers (Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann) among the top 77. Five Michigan players in total were drafted, which isn’t a ton for some traditional powers, but significant for a northern program.

For instance, No. 1 UCLA had 13 players drafted, shortly before losing two of three at home to Michigan in the Super Regional. The Bruins were bested by the ingredients the Wolverines wear proudly, most aptly etched in Henry’s glazed look.

The junior left-hander from Portage started feeling lousy on the long flight to Los Angeles last week. By Friday, he was so woozy, he was sent to the hospital for rest, meds and fluids. By Sunday night, he was pitching seven innings of half-numb, all-guts baseball, surrendering two runs, walking none and striking out six as the Wolverines ousted UCLA, 4-2.

That victory came one night after they committed five late errors and lost a 5-4, 12-inning crusher to the Bruins. The Wolverines eliminated Creighton the previous weekend with a 17-6 thumping, one day after surrendering seven runs in the ninth inning of an 11-7 loss.

The point is, they’re pretty darn good at jumping out of their sick beds.

“He was barely able to stand up when we first got to L.A.,” Bakich said. “I thought there was no way — he was not gonna get out of bed, let alone take the mound and throw seven innings. I’d call it the gutsiest performance I’ve ever seen in college baseball. If he doesn’t do that, we don’t win.”

Last four in

Now it’s two days later, back inside Michigan’s Wilpon Complex, and Henry is politely turning his head to cough into his sleeve. His voice is scratchy, his eyes a bit watery, his resolve stronger than ever.

“With what we’ve been through, it had to be a broken leg or something to prevent any of us from being on that field,” Henry said. “If I didn’t pitch, I knew I’d be letting those guys down, and I wasn’t going to let that be a possibility.”

When you’re talking improbabilities, it is that urgent. Michigan isn’t nearly as deep as UCLA, but it had the key weapon to win it. The Bruins lost two games to a left-hander all year — both to Henry.

Henry is the highest draft pick on Michigan’s roster, taken 74th by Arizona, and the three-man rotation with Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell is formidable. The team ERA of 3.46 led the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally, well-developed by pitching coach Chris Fetter.

More: Wolverines have been worth watching for a while: Here's a primer

The Wolverines are here thanks to a lot of guys who weren’t supposed to be here. Bakich is in his seventh season, and when South Carolina courted him two years ago, he committed to Michigan, and vice versa.

Same thing with Fetter, who has turned down two major-league pitching coach positions, according to Bakich. Same with Henry, who was dominant early in the season, struggled late, then had strong outings against Creighton and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. He woke up Tuesday feeling better, but learned he also had signs of pneumonia. He plans to pitch as scheduled in Omaha, third in the rotation.

They weren’t supposed to be here, but then, nobody from the Midwest is. Michigan lost the Big Ten regular-season title by a half-game to Indiana. It lost the conference tournament to Nebraska. When the NCAA bids came out, the Wolverines were one of the last four teams to get an at-large bid.

You’d understand if they didn’t make it. Their last appearance was 1984, a pretty good baseball year around here, no? Since then, the only other appearance by a Big Ten team was Indiana in 2013. The last Big Ten team to win the CWS? Ohio State in 1966. Before that? Michigan in 1962.

‘Beyond ready’

Outside of perennial power Oregon State, cold-weather schools simply don’t make it this far. Just don’t tell these guys they’re not supposed to be here. Definitely don’t tell right fielder Jordan Brewer, who was recruited to play football at Michigan as a preferred walk-on receiver, opted to grind away in junior college baseball, and returned to become the Big Ten player of the year.

Brewer leads the team with a .338 average, 12 home runs and 55 RBIs, and exemplifies Michigan’s aggressive running game with 24 steals in 28 attempts. Sometimes the intangibles in sports get overblown, and sometimes they fit perfectly.

“The energy on this team is unreal, this is crazy, like a dream,” Brewer said. “We’re beyond ready. We don’t have any pressure on us, we’re just playing. The other guys have all the pressure.”

It’s gotten to the point the baseball players occasionally get noticed around campus like the football or basketball guys, and they feel it.

More: Michigan's 'team-only' baseball cap went viral; here's how you can get one

“Shock the world,” Brewer said with a smile. “Just like Juwan Howard, we’re bringing it back.”

That comparison can be a little tricky, considering Michigan will face Texas Tech, whose basketball team pounded the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament. The baseball Red Raiders swept Michigan in three March games in Texas by a cumulative score of 29-10.

Bakich shakes off the notion. Michigan is a far more confident team now, better equipped to do something that supposedly can’t be done. For the past several days, he sifted through his 500-plus congratulatory texts, trying to answer each one, trying to explain what’s possible.

“Our message has been, you don’t have to go to another part of the country for great baseball,” Bakich said. “I think people see we’re a gritty, spirited underdog team. Then they do a double-take and see we have as good a starting rotation as there is in college baseball and a deep, balanced lineup. I think making a run like this will certainly open some eyes.”

They might be rubbing their eyes too. It’s something no one has seen in 35 years, still improbable, no longer impossible.

College World Series schedule

At Omaha, Nebraska; Double Elimination; x-if necessary

Saturday, June 15

Game 1 — Michigan (45-20) vs. Texas Tech (44-18), 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 2  Florida State (41-21) vs. Arkansas (46-18), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday, June 16

Game 3 — Louisville (49-16) vs. Vanderbilt (54-11), 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 4 — Mississippi State (51-13) vs. Auburn (38-26), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Monday, June 17

Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 6  Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Tuesday, June 18

Game 7 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)

Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)

Wednesday, June 19

Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Thursday, June 20

Game 10 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)

Friday, June 21

Game 11 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)

Game 12 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Saturday, June 22

x-Game 13 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)

x-Game 14 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)



Monday, June 24: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Tuesday, June 25: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

x-Wednesday, June 26: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)


Twitter: @bobwojnowski