Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich said he won't "make the moment too big" with one win needed for a national title. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Omaha, Neb. — Michigan, wearing its 1962 throwback uniforms to commemorate the last team to win a baseball national championship for the program, is now one win away from making history of its own.
But UM coach Erik Bakich has taught this team to not focus on making moments too big. This is one of those times.
The Wolverines, one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament, has had an improbable, surprising run and came a step closer with a 7-4 win over Vanderbilt, the No. 2 team in the country, before 24,707 at TD Ameritrade Park in the first game of the best-of-three championship series. The teams will play again Tuesday night. First pitch is 7 p.m.
“We have to shrink the moment, and this is what we've kept talking about, shrinking the moment and making it just about baseball and immersing these guys — these guys just need to immerse themselves into each other,” Bakich said. “That's really all it is. And if it can be just about baseball and just about immersing themselves into another one, then they're not thinking about winning a national championship. They're not thinking about what happens, we're about to win a regional at Corvallis and then we start to get tight.
“The way this has been working is to not get outside of ourselves and not make things too big, and our guys have done a great job of that. They know what they're playing for. These are — they know what the stakes are. They know the stage. They know everything. But they're not acting like the stage and the lights and the moment is too big because I think they're doing a really good job of just staying in the moment with each other and having as much fun as they can and being as loose as they possibly can.”
Senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr, who has had a magical postseason, delivered his 15th home run of the season and seventh of the tournament, in the seventh inning that gave Michigan significant breathing room and all the momentum.
Kerr, who had two solo home runs last Friday against Texas Tech to clinch a spot in the championship series, took an 0-2 count and sent a towering shot over right to give the Wolverines a 6-3 lead, also scoring Jordan Brewer.
Shortstop Jack Blomgren was 3-for-4 and catcher Joe Donovan was 2-for-4 with a solo home run.
But it was Kerr’s home run that gave the Wolverines an enormous lift.
“It was just an elevated off-speed pitch,” said Kerr, who led the team with two RBIs. “I kinda got a slow breaker ball, and I was able to stay on it. We haven’t had a lot of pressure at the plate. Even getting down 0-2 and even with a couple strikeouts before that, I’m not too worried about it because how much fun we’re having and guys throughout the lineup are having great at-bats.”
Starting pitcher Tommy Henry, who pitched a brilliant complete-game shutout a week earlier in the Wolverines’ second World Series game, had another impressive performance. He responded in the bottom of the eighth getting the Vanderbilt lineup out in order in the bottom of the seventh, fist-pumping as he walked off the mound.
He was working efficiently, having thrown 89 pitches by the end of the seventh and six strikeouts. His offense gave him some additional cushion the top of the eighth when Donovan hit a lead-off home run to expand the lead to four.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich on pitcher Tommy Henry's final outing as a Wolverine Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
“Another gutsy performance by Tommy Henry,” coach Erik Bakich said, who spent time sharing thoughts on Henry’s career with him while they met on the mound before taking him out. “Just the thing about his last three outings, for him to finish his Michigan career tonight, the way he pitched and to know that he's emptied the tank for three straight years and poured his heart and soul into our program, and we wouldn't be here without him, and to pitch with the flu and pneumonia in Los Angeles, to do what he did against Florida State, to pitch into the ninth inning tonight, just an incredible performance.
“And that's what we needed, we needed a guy to put the team on his back, so to speak. He's been a great captain, great leader, an inspiration to a lot of younger pitchers about what hard work looks like, and showing up here tonight.”
Henry gave up a lead-off double in the top of the ninth, then got the first out of the inning before being replaced by Jeff Criswell. Henry went 8⅓ innings and threw 110 pitches and had eight strikeouts. Criswell could get the start — he said after the game he wants the start — Tuesday night.
Michigan broke out their ‘62 throwback uniforms for the series-opening game not long after John Kerr and Dick Honig, members of that ’62 team, spoke to the Wolverines Monday sharing stories of similarities, including how both finished second in the Big Ten before making their postseason runs. Kerr has attended all of Michigan’s tournament games to watch his grandson, Jimmy, during his final season.
“It might be the most I’ve ever heard him talk when he was speaking to our team,” Jimmy Kerry said of his grandfather. “I loved every single second of it. He had great things to say about what it means to the team, what it means to Michigan baseball alumni, especially all his guys who played back in ’62. We’re having a good time playing for them.”
It felt like Mardi Gras in the team hotel before the game as the Wolverines were greeted and cheered by family and friends. After all, this has been an unlikely tournament run for a program that was among the final four included in the NCAA Tournament field, and this is the Wolverines' first World Series appearance in 35 years.
How monumental has this been?
UM coach Erik Bakich on the support at the stadium from Michigan fans Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
A number of Michigan head coaches flew in for the game, including new basketball coach Juwan Howard, softball coach Carol Hutchins, women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico and men’s soccer coach Chaka Daley.
The Wolverines knocked off the No. 1 team in the country, UCLA, in the Super Regional to reach the World Series, and now they face No. 2 Vanderbilt. The Commodores won the national championship in 2014 and were runners up in 2015 — their three most recent trips to Omaha, 2014, 2015 and 2019, they have reached the championship series.
And for Bakich, in his seventh season with the Wolverines, this has been a unique matchup. He was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt for seven seasons working for mentor and close friend, Tim Corbin, and much of what he has built in Ann Arbor was inspired by his time working at Vanderbilt.
But as Bakich said he learned from Corbin, even when facing friends, business is business, and that’s what Michigan got down to Monday night.
In all of its College World Series games, Michigan has scored in the first inning, and it was no different Monday night. The Wolverines took a 2-0 lead when Brewer’s double scored Jesse Franklin — lead-off batter Jordan Nwogu who had reached first on a walk had been thrown out at third — and Blake Nelson scored Brewer on a single to left.
“It’s the name of the game in sport, score first and get a lead and expand a lead or get a lead and keep a lead. It just opens up the offense a little bit when guys are playing in a lead in any sport,” Bakich said. “There's some confidence there. There's some mental freedom there. You know, we've played with deficits, as well. We had plenty of deficits along the way to get here.
“But, you know, scoring first is an offensive goal of ours that we have every game. So we've been fortunate that our guys have put some good at-bats together early in the game and been able to take a lead. We'll certainly continue to be aggressive to look to get on the board as quick as we can, but that definitely is an advantage and allows us to open up the offense a little more, be more aggressive in certain spots.”
After an efficient seven-pitch performance in the bottom of the first by Henry, the Wolverines built a 4-0 lead in the second when Ako Thomas struck an RBI double to score Blomgren, and Donovan scored on an RBI from Franklin. Through two innings, Vanderbilt starter Drake Fellows had thrown 51 pitches.
But Vanderbilt pulled within two in the bottom of the second after Henry had struck out two of the first three batters. Ty Duvall singled to left to score Philip Clarke and Harrison Ray, who had reached on a single, scored on a passed ball.
Fellows struck out the side in the third, and then Henry went to work. After giving up a lead-off single, the Wolverines got out of the inning on a double play. Through three innings, Henry had thrown 39 pitches, including 29 strikes and had four strikeouts.
Both teams went scoreless through the third and fourth innings. Vanderbilt added a home run by J.J. Bleday in the bottom of the sixth to pull the Commodores within one. But Michigan responded the next inning with Kerr’s home run in the top of the seventh and Donovan’s in the eighth. Michigan missed an opportunity to add more runs that inning, leaving the bases loaded.
Michigan right fielder Jordan Brewer on the laser he threw for the out at third. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
With Michigan lead 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Brewer stopped Vanderbilt from having a runner in scoring position getting Austin Martin out at third with a pinpoint throw from right field.
“That was awesome,” Bakich. “You’re talking about a kid (Martin) who is extremely fast rounding second. Austin Martin is as fast as they come, and the only way he was going to be out was a throw in the air and a strike. It was a clutch throw because they were mounting a comeback. It’s a very good team. They have as explosive of a lineup as there is. To get that throw in that spot, that clutch throw, is no different than a clutch hit that scores a run, because that throw saved a run. That was a huge play to keep the momentum on our side.”
Michigan vs. Vanderbilt
Michigan leads 1-0
What: Game 2 of best-of-three College World Series championship.
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, would be Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
TV: All games on ESPN.