Omaha, Neb. — The college baseball season comes down to one final game, and Michigan continues to stare at history, one win from a national championship.
Michigan had taken control of the College World Series winning the opener against Vanderbilt Monday night. But facing phenomenal freshman pitcher Kumar Rocker, who had 19 strikeouts in a Super Regional victory, in Game 2 Tuesday, the Wolverines’ bats were stymied. Rocker struck out six in 6⅓ innings.
Vanderbilt extended the best-of-three championship series with a 4-1 victory Tuesday night at TD Ameritrade Park with plenty of help from Michigan wild pitches and errors. The Wolverines used six pitchers.
Michigan had a significant loss early in the game when, in the third inning, lead-off hitter Jordan Nwogu stumbled running to first and pulled the quad in his left leg. Nwogu, who had to be assisted off the field, had five hits and scored three runs in the World Series.
The Wolverines did not seem unsettled, nor did they lack confidence after the loss. After all, this has been sort of standard in the postseason, embracing the back-up-against-the-wall approach in the Regional and then the Super Regional.
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“It only seems fitting that our team would go to three games,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “That's just kind of been our MO here in all these rounds. Just seems like we're very comfortable in that spot. After the game, just sensed a calmness of our team, and they're excited to play tomorrow.
Michigan redshirt freshman Isaiah Paige was given his first opportunity to pitch in the College World Series, making his fifth career start and first game appearance since Game 2 of the UCLA Super Regional on June 8. He pitched four strong innings.
The teams play Wednesday night to determine the national champion. Vanderbilt won it all in 2014 and was runner-up in 2015, while Michigan hasn’t won a title since 1962, the second in program history
The Wolverines had relied on three pitchers to get them to this point and will go back to Karl Kauffmann as the starter with Jeff Criswell available in relief. The two have combined on two wins in the World Series. Kauffmann started last Friday in Michigan’s 15-3 victory over Texas Tech.
“He's feeling pretty good,” Bakich said. “I know he and (pitching) coach (Chris) Fetter have had those conversations, and that's been the plan all along. He's starting on Friday against Texas Tech, and if it went to Wednesday, he was going to be ready to go. The one thing about Karl, he's older, he's mature, he knows how to take care of his body, so he has done the things he needs to do from a workout standpoint and a recovery standpoint to get his body and himself ready to go on four days' rest and pitch on the fifth day.”
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The Commodores broke the scoreless tie in the fifth on an unearned run and then added two runs in the sixth on two wild pitches from Jack Weisenburger, the third pitcher used in the game. Philip Clarke added a solo home run in the top of the seventh off Angelo Smith, the Wolverines’ fourth pitcher.
“I thought our guys that we pieced this game together with did a good job,” Bakich said. “They scored an unearned run as a byproduct of an error, we spike a couple of wild pitches that score two runs. But outside of that, the solo home run was really the one run that they had really got into.
"The six guys that pitched did a fine job, outside of the two walks and the two spiked fastballs for runs, all the other guys — five out of the six guys did pretty good. No issues with them. Feel good about the makeup of our team responding after a tough night.”
Michigan, which had two errors, also couldn’t get anything going offensively. Jack Blomgren had the best success of the night going 2-for-4. He scored Michigan’s run in the seventh on an RBI single from Ako Thomas.
This was different than all of Michigan’s College World Series game, because the Wolverines didn’t score in the first inning as they had in the previous four games, setting the tone early. But it was Rocker, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound freshman, who set the tone, striking out five of the six batters he faced on 23 pitches the first two innings. Michigan likes to be aggressive from the get-go, but Rocker took that away.
“He hides his curve ball really well,” right fielder Jordan Brewer said. “Once you sit on a curveball, he's coming with a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, either inside or outside. It's hard to see, and it comes out of his hand really well.”
Knowing that Kauffmann is on the mound Wednesday and knowing the Wolverines have faced this type of do-or-die situation, Blomgren said they’re confident.
“Our whole team always has confidence no matter what happens, and we've been resilient all year,” Kauffmann said. “Those two guys coming in tomorrow have been great all year, so we have so much confidence in them, and it's going to be about which team wants it how bad.”
Michigan vs. Vanderbilt
Series tied 1-1
What: Game 3 of best-of-three College World Series championship.
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.