'So fun to watch': Ex-UM All-American Zach Putnam sees the key to Wolverines' success

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Former Michigan All-American Zach Putnam is enjoying the Wolverines’ run in the College World Series.

Putnam, who helped the Wolverines knock off No. 1 Vanderbilt and David Price in a best-of-three NCAA Tournament regional back in 2007, said he has watched every pitch of every game since the postseason started. That goes all the way back to the Big Ten tournament more than a month ago in the same place the Wolverines are now – in Omaha.

Michigan's Zach Putnam pitches against Oregon State during the 2007 Super Regionals.

“I haven’t missed a single pitch I don’t think this postseason, been having a ball watching them play,” said Putnam of the Wolverines, who were 38-16 and unranked heading into the Big Ten tournament before getting hot to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney. “I love it. It’s the beauty of the sport. It’s not about how you start but how you finish and these guys have embodied that slogan about as well as anybody.

“When you watch them in the postseason, they are such a well-balanced team from top to bottom. They play fundamentally sound baseball. Obviously, they pitch. Their ‘Big Three’ pitchers can hang with anybody in the country. Their offense does its job. They are well coached. They are disciplined. It’s been tons of fun watching them.”

Junior left-hander Tommy Henry (Portage Northern), junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann (Birmingham Brother Rice) and sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell (Portage Central) make up the Big Three on the mound for the Wolverines. Henry and Kauffmann were second-round picks in the MLB Draft earlier this month.

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Putnam recalls Michigan’s upset of Price and Vanderbilt well, even though it was a dozen years ago when Chris Fetter – now Michigan’s pitching coach – started and worked seven innings in the 4-3, 10-inning Game 3 victory, which handed Price his lone loss of the season, putting the Wolverines into a Super Regional for the first time in school history.

Putnam did all he could do in the opener of the Super Regional against then-defending national champion Oregon State, going a strike away from a nine-inning no-hitter before a two-out single gave Oregon State a 1-0 win.

“Strangely enough, (Erik) Bakich was an assistant coach for that Vanderbilt team,” said Putnam of Erik Bakich, who is now in his seventh year as head coach of Michigan. “These guys have ascended past a level that even my group (42-19, Big Ten champions, NCAA regional champs) reached. We never got there (College World Series) so I can only imagine how good of a feeling it is for those guys.

“You always hear the broadcasters talk about how they were one of the last teams in the tournament, but I know that these guys believe in themselves. I’ve spent enough time around the team and the coaching staff to know the confidence has always been there, but when you’re one of the last teams to make the tournament I don’t think a lot of people are betting on you to A, go to Omaha and B, be one game away from winning a national title, so it has to be like a dream come true. They’ve earned it. They are a scrappy, gritty baseball club that hasn’t backed down from anybody, and it’s made me proud to be an alum.”

Zach Putnam pitches against Vanderbilt as Erik Bakich coaches first base for the Commodores.

Putnam knows all about Bakich, Fetter and some of the players since he worked out at Michigan’s facilities during the winter to prepare for the MLB season. He is currently at the Red Sox spring training facility in Fort Myers while recuperating from an injury, hoping to help the World Champion Red Sox during the second half of the season.

The biggest thing that Putnam has noticed of the NCAA Tournament run, which included a best-of-three Super Regional win over No. 1 UCLA in Los Angeles, is that the Wolverines are playing loose and having fun.

“The brand of baseball they are playing right now, more than anything it’s loose,” Putnam said. “They are not playing not to lose, and for teams who are kind of in an underdog position coming into a big moment like this, that’s hard to do.

“They are playing against teams that have been nationally ranked in the top five all year, that have first-rounders all over the place, kind of a pedigree of success. It can be intimidating.

“You can just tell they are playing loose, stress-free ball. They are not pressing and having a blast. They are just so fun to watch.”