Omaha, Neb. – Jeff Criswell is the living embodiment of the difference between Michigan and Texas Tech.
When the two teams meet Friday at 2 p.m. in the College World Series, the Wolverines will have the far fresher squad. Because they defeated the Red Raiders 5-3 last Saturday in the CWS opening game, the Wolverines have only played twice in Omaha.
Texas Tech has had to claw its way back through the loser’s bracket and tax its bullpen, arguably its greatest strength. Its relievers have already pitched 12 innings. Half of those have come from bullpen ace Taylor Floyd, who was called upon for 75 pitches Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ relievers are as rested as can be. Only two innings (37 pitches) have been thrown by a non-starter in the CWS – and those came from Criswell, a first-team All-Big Ten starter during the regular season.
The tournament’s setup has created an interesting dynamic for Criswell. After thriving as a freshman reliever last year (2.23 ERA in 24 appearances), Criswell made a smooth transition to the rotation this season, posting a 7-1 record and 2.74 ERA. His lone relief appearance (pre-CWS) came when got the save in Game 2 of the Los Angeles Super Regional. Criswell returned to start and pitch 5.1 effective innings the following day to help Michigan advance to the CWS.
Criswell likely would be the No. 1 or 2 starter on most CWS teams, but Michigan’s strong rotation has regulated him to a super-utility role. Karl Kauffmann (7.0 innings, three earned runs against Texas Tech) and Tommy Henry (complete-game shutout against Florida State) have been so dominant that coach Erik Bakich hasn’t had to dip into the bullpen often. The tournament’s format – and Michigan’s success – have allowed Bakich to use his starters on normal rest, shifting Criswell from a crucial starter to a bullpen luxury.
“Having days off gives us the flexibility to pitch him in relief,” Bakich said. “Him having the versatility of doing both roles is a huge weapon for us, because he’s comfortable in both roles. When you have a guy like Jeff Criswell at the back of the game with electric stuff, it just gives us another arm back there and another boost.”
Such a fluid situation could create an awkward dynamic. Some starters, especially those coming off a standout regular season, might pout about being regulated to a bullpen role. Others might struggle to adopt the different mindset required to enter a game in relief.
Criswell has no such issues. On a team that prides itself on being even-keeled, Criswell might be the most level-headed Wolverine.
“For me, it’s just whenever I get out there, whether it’s the ninth inning or the first inning, I’m just going to focus on the pitches that (pitching) coach (Chris) Fetter calls and put our team in position to win,” he said. “You have to show up every day ready to play, whether that’s in a starting role or in the bullpen.”
Whatever manner Bakich chooses to deploy Criswell, the sophomore has a chance to help Michigan do the unthinkable. If the Wolverines win Friday, they’ll advance to the CWS Finals, which begin Monday. Lose, and they’ll face off with Texas Tech again on Saturday.
Friday will be a rematch between Kauffmann and Tech’s Micah Dallas, who surrendered six hits and four runs (three earned) in 3.0 innings against the Wolverines in the opener. Michigan hopes Kauffmann is able to continue his stellar run (at least 6.1 innings and three earned runs or fewer in his last five starts), but if he exits, Bakich has an excellent option waiting in the wings.
“I show up every day just ready to do my thing,” Criswell said. “The way tournaments go, you never know how things are going to shake out.”
College World Series schedule
At Omaha, Nebraska; Double Elimination; x-if necessary
Saturday, June 15
Game 1 — Michigan 5, Texas Tech 3
Game 2 — Florida State 1, Arkansas 0
Sunday, June 16
Game 3 — Vanderbilt 3, Louisville 1
Game 4 — Mississippi State 5, Auburn 4
Monday, June 17
Game 5 — Texas Tech 5, Arkansas 4
Game 6 — Michigan 2, Florida State 0
Wednesday, June 19
Game 7 — Louisville 5, Auburn 3
Game 8 — Vanderbilt 6, Mississippi State 3
Game 9 — Texas Tech 4, Florida State 1
Thursday, June 20
Game 10 — Louisville (50-17) vs. Mississippi State (52-14), 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Friday, June 21
Game 11 — Michigan (48-20) vs. Texas Tech (46-19), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 12 — Vanderbilt (56-11) vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, June 22
x-Game 13 — Michigan vs. Texas Tech, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
x-Game 14 — Vanderbilt vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
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)