‘Loose and free’ mentality pays off for Michigan in College World Series

By Dan Hoppen
Special to The Detroit News

Omaha, Neb. – Every time Jesse Franklin steps into the batter’s box, he uses his cleats to scrape a pattern in the dirt and glances at the foul pole in right field.

As Jordan Brewer sprints toward his position in right field each inning, he has something goofy to say to second baseman Ako Thomas, and often tries to knock the senior’s glove off his hand.

Michigan's Jesse Franklin pumps his fist as he runs past the Texas Tech dugout to score on a throwing error in the seventh inning Saturday.

Several of Michigan’s pitchers have taken to meditation sessions before games.

Every player developed a particular strategy to stay loose as Michigan shocked the college baseball world by making the NCAA tournament, winning the Corvallis Regional, and knocking off top-ranked UCLA in the Super Regional. That sense of calm was on display again Saturday afternoon as the Wolverines took care of business against Texas Tech, dismissing the Red Raiders 5-3 in the opening game of the College World Series.

“It’s the same game, even though there are 25,000 people here,” Franklin said. “Everyone has developed a routine throughout the year to get locked in, stay focused, and play their best.”

Despite their lack of experience on the big stage, the Wolverines didn’t succumb to the pressure that devours even veteran teams on college baseball’s biggest stage. Michigan didn’t commit a single error. Starter Karl Kauffmann didn’t walk any batters over seven innings. Four of UM’s five runs came with two outs.

Such an effort wouldn’t have been possible less than a month ago, according to head coach Erik Bakich. On May 22, the Wolverines dropped their opening game in the Big Ten tournament, 2-1, when Ohio State scratched across two runs in the eighth. Bakich noticed his hitters pressing, his pitchers aiming.

“They were puckered up,” Bakich said. “For a program who hasn't been here and hasn't navigated its way through the postseason, we needed something to happen to ignite a hot streak.”

That moment came one day later, when Jordan Nwogu’s two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the ninth gave Michigan a 5-4 win over No. 20 Illinois. Staring the end of their season in the eyes, the Wolverines didn’t blink. And they haven’t looked back since.

That calm nature would come in handy several more times as Michigan’s improbable run continued, perhaps none more so than June 2. The Wolverines led Creighton 7-4 heading into the ninth inning, just three outs away from a Super Regional berth. But the Bluejays scored seven runs in the final frame to force another game the following day.

There was no rousing speech after the game, no late-night pick-me-up session. Catcher Joe Donovan said the Wolverines simply went to bed. They’d built up so much confidence in the proceeding weeks, there was no need to console one another.

Michigan walloped Creighton 17-6 the next day.

“Earlier in the season if we would have blown that ninth-inning lead, I don't know if we come back and respond the next day and put up 17 runs,” Bakich said. “But that's all confidence. That's all belief. Total credit to the kids for just being able to get up off the mat and get back in the fight.”

Michigan has gone out of its way to help its players stay level-headed, teaching the players breathing techniques and adding those mediation sessions. Those are helpful, but it’s the individual calming techniques each player has, combined with the shared confidence gained through adversity, that has the Wolverines treating a nationally-televised game in front of 24,000 fans the same as it would a fall scrimmage.

After all, as Brewer notes, “It’s a kid’s game.”

“We played loose and we had fun out there,” Franklin said. “That’s what I’ve noticed with this team. We don’t really get nervous. It’s just loose and free kind of feeling with everyone in this group. That helps a lot.”

Michigan vs. Florida State

What: Michigan’s second game in the College World Series

When: Monday, 7 p.m.

Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.


Records: Michigan 47-20, Florida State 42-21