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. -- This is exactly how Erik Bakich saw Michigan’s future playing out three years ago.
OK, maybe not exactly. Maybe he didn’t see the Wolverines advancing to the championship finals of the College World Series in just a few seasons. And he couldn’t have predicted that his squad would change the way the Big Ten Conference and northern baseball as a whole are viewed.
What he did forecast was a team headlined by strong defense, timely hitting, and a pair of homegrown talents silencing opposing bats.
Karl Kauffman (Birmingham Brother Rice) and Tommy Henry (Portage Northern) were the gems of Michigan’s 2016 recruiting class, and their postseason performance is the reason the Wolverines will play for the national title next week.
“We figured that keeping two elite players from that state of Michigan would give us a great chance to have those guys at the front end of the rotation some day,” Bakich said. “That’s the one recruiting pitch we’ve really stressed and focused — the best players in Michigan go to Michigan.
“When we keep guys like Karl Kauffmann, who was an All-American, when we keep guys like Tommy Henry, who was a Gatorade Player of the Year, it means a lot. Those two in particular grew up Michigan fans, and to get to represent Michigan and the Block M in the World Series, I know they’re extremely proud and blessed.”
Michigan’s surprising run through the postseason wouldn’t have been possible without the pair. Kauffmann (2.25 ERA in four postseason starts) and Henry (1.93 in three starts) have been masterful, and their value has been magnified since the Wolverines arrived in Omaha. Kauffmann allowed just three runs over seven strong innings in the College World Series opener, a 5-3 UM win over Texas Tech. Then Henry muzzled Florida State on Monday, allowing just three hits in a complete-game shutout.
Kauffmann wasn’t quite as dominant in Friday’s rematch with Texas Tech, surrendering three runs in six innings. But he rebounded from a wobbly second frame to fire four shutout innings thereafter as Michigan won 15-3.
“I think it's something where everybody's kind of slowing the game down, so to be able to minimize the situation and just kind of keep playing,” Kauffmann said. “That's all I've been thinking about.”
Those two aren’t the only homegrown stars powering Michigan.
The only other pitcher Bakich has had to use is Jeff Criswell (Portage Central), who’s submitted five shutout innings. Jordan Nwogu (Ann Arbor Pioneer) has been an on-base machine from the leadoff spot, scoring three times, and Jordan Brewer (St. Joseph’s) has driven in a pair of runs.
But Kauffmann and Henry that have been the steadying force, and not just in the World Series. Kauffmann’s last six starts have all lasted at least six innings (three have gone at least eight), and he hasn’t surrendered more than three runs in any appearance.
Henry fought off midseason illness and inconsistency and found his groove at just the right time, as he has 2.15 ERA since May 24. For a team with an at-times shaky bullpen, the pair’s ability to reliably pitch deep into games has been necessary.
Their success has proven Bakich’s strategy prescient. He doesn’t want Michigan’s top players to escape the state borders, especially the best arms. And if the Wolverines are able to win the final series, which begins Monday at 7 p.m. against Vanderbilt, he’ll have little trouble convincing the top talent to stay home.
“We recruit more on par with all the conferences at the top of college baseball,” Bakich said. “And so the goal for us is 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 championship series
Monday: Michigan (49-20) vs. Vanderbilt (57-11), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday: Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Wednesday (if necessary): Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Dan Hoppen is a freelance writer.