Michigan coach Erik Bakich on keeping the team loose heading into the College World Series championship series. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Omaha, Neb. — The magical postseason ride continues for Michigan as the Wolverines have advanced to the College World Series championship series with a major statement and will play for a national title.
Michigan, making its first appearance in the World Series since 1984, will have a few days rest before facing Vanderbilt when the best two-of-three series begins Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park. The Wolverines haven’t won a baseball national title since 1962 and their only other came in 1953.
Behind a two-home run performance by senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr, the Wolverines mauled Texas Tech, 15-3, on Friday afternoon before 20,944, to remain unbeaten in World Series play. Michigan beat Texas Tech in the opening game and shut out Florida State in the second game before eliminating the Red Raiders, who were making their second straight CWS appearance.
“The win means more than anything and being able to represent the Big Ten and Michigan in the championship series, it’s special,” Kerr said after the game. “Today, as a whole team, we were firing on all cylinders, pitching, defense and hitting. That was a fun game.”
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, who's in his seventh season with the Wolverines, remained even keel after the win. He said it’s important to maintain the loose approach he and his staff have taken that the players have mirrored.
“I don’t want to change now,” Bakich said. “I don’t want the moment get too big. We’re just going to keep playing tournament. Whoever we face next week is whoever we face. It’s not going to be about any story lines or anything to add onto the fact we’re playing another baseball game. If we can make it that simple — pitching, defense, timely hitting — that’s been a great recipe for our success, and I don’t see any reason to do anything different now.”
This moment didn’t feel too big for the Wolverines, but they found it difficult to put into words just what this means.
“This whole thing hasn’t really hit me,” said Jordan Nwogu, who drove in three runs. “As a kid, you watch this on TV. As a college baseball player, you watch other teams compete on TV, and actually being here is a lot different than watching on TV.
"It doesn’t feel the same. It’s amazing. It doesn’t feel like it’s actually happening. I don’t know how to describe it. We’re all enjoying our time here, and we know what we have to do at this point. We’re happy right now, but we’re not satisfied."
Kerr, whose grandfather John played on the ’62 national title team and whose father, Derek, played on the ’84 World Series team, had two solo home runs — in the bottom of the seventh, then the bottom of the eighth — for a team-best 14 this season. Kerr was 4-for-6 in the game for three RBIs, while Jesse Franklin batted in four runs to help lead the Wolverines (49-20).
Michigan first baseman Jimmy Kerr launched two home runs in Friday's win over Texas Tech. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Pitcher Karl Kauffmann went six innings, giving up six hits and three runs on 100 pitches, before Jeff Criswell came in and polished off the Red Raiders with six strikeouts in three innings. As in the first World Series meeting with Texas Tech, Kauffmann started that 5-3 victory and Criswell shut the door.
“To kind of follow the same philosophy we’ve had all year, which is to try to pound the strike zone, get ahead of hitters and make good pitches to put them away,” Criswell said.
Texas Tech started Micah Dallas who suffered his first loss of the season against Michigan in the first game of the College World Series, was bumped from this game early after giving up five hits and four runs. He was pulled early in the second inning after the Wolverines tied the game 3-3, and the Red Raiders would end up using seven pitchers in the beatdown. The Red Raiders didn’t help themselves — they walked in a run, hit a batter to walk in another and allowed a score on a wild pitch.
“We played them a while back, and that's not the same team we played,” Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said, referring to the Red Raiders’ three-game sweep at home of Michigan in March. “And their staff is to be commended for that. Their starting pitching is phenomenal. To a man, in their lineup, every guy in their lineup has gotten better since we've seen them.
"And obviously we didn't see what was coming today. Disappointed in the result."
Michigan struck first taking a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Kerr ripped the first pitch down the right-field line for a double scoring Franklin from first with two out. The Wolverines added another run with Blake Nelson singled to left scoring Kerr.
But Texas Tech responded in a big way in the top of the second, taking a 3-2 lead — the first time the Wolverines have trailed during the World Series. Kauffmann walked the first batter for the second straight inning and the Red Raiders scored three runs with one out. Kauffman had thrown 52 pitches by the end of the second and got out of the inning on his first strike of the game.
The Wolverines responded quickly in the bottom of the second when Jack Blomgren singled and reached third on an error by the center fielder. Joe Donovan walked and with runners at first and third, Ako Thomas singled in Blomgren to tie it at 3 with no outs. The Red Raiders made a pitching change, as John McMillon, a Tigers 11th-round draft pick, relieved starter Micah Dallas. McMillon struck out the first batter he faced, Nwogu, before walking Franklin to load the bases for Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Brewer. On a 1-2 pitch, Brewer was hit by the pitch advancing Donovan home for the 4-3 lead.
Texas Tech would never score again as Michigan put on a hitting clinic. The Wolverines scored two runs in the bottom of the third inning on a double by Franklin to build a 6-3 lead and had a five-run sixth-inning.
“We've been getting a lot of clutch hits and a lot of production up and down the lineup for a while now,” Bakich said. “So it shows that we've got a very balanced lineup. It's a dynamic lineup because it's got speed and power. But it's just got a lot of mature hitters and guys that have good approaches and are focused on quality at-bats more than their own personal staffs and just getting to the next guy and staying connected with each other.
“And this is a very good Texas Tech team, and so for us to come out on top against them twice, especially after getting smoked by them at their home park, I think is definitely a credit to how well we're playing now versus maybe earlier in the year. The guys are just continuing to improve and that's something we stress is just keep getting better. So our three off days we talked about improvement and getting better.”
That series in Lubbock and those three losses back in March crossed Nwogu’s mind.
“First thing I thought of, we kind of owed them for earlier in the year when they swept us,” he said. “That’s a really good team, and we came to play today. That gave us a lot of confidence. They had a good bullpen and good starting pitching, and we came out and showed them we have a good offense. We’re definitely feeling good going into the next game, but we’re not going to get too high off this game.”
It has been decades since Michigan has been able to deliver this kind of postseason threat, and Bakich enjoys waving the Big Ten flag as the Wolverines head to the championship series.
“It's great for the conference,” Bakich said. “The conference has grown in baseball. In 2015 it was a coming-out party. We had five teams go to the postseason for the first time ever. We had 53 drafted players, which tied the Pac-12. And ever since then we've done a good job as a conference of sending teams to the postseason, of having players go off to professional baseball or get drafted. And so the more we can do this, I think the more the Big Ten in baseball can continue to grow and be perceived as a major sport on par with some of the other major conferences in baseball.
“So it's a great step. We don't want 35 years to go by before we get back here. But we don't recruit that way. We recruit more on par with all the conferences at the top of college baseball. And so the goal for us is to have — hopefully this experience has moved the needle enough to where our program now is consistently competing to have these types of runs.”
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 4, Mississippi State 3
Friday, June 21
Game 11 — Michigan 15, Texas Tech 3
Game 12 — Vanderbilt 3, Louisville 2
Monday, June 24: Michigan (49-20) vs. Vanderbilt (57-11), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 25: Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
x-Wednesday, June 26: Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)