'Crushed': Michigan's improbable ride falls short in CWS Finals
Omaha, Neb. — This wasn’t how Michigan envisioned its fairy tale postseason run ending. This was never the last page in the Wolverines’ minds. Ever.
The Wolverines had been in multiple back-against-the-wall moments during the NCAA Tournament. They faced elimination in the Corvallis Regional and again in the Super Regional against UCLA, the top-ranked team in the country. They were unfazed by the prospects of an even series in the best-of-three College World Series national championship.
But Vanderbilt, the second-ranked team in the nation, had something to say about how the final chapter would be written in the deciding game Wednesday night at TD Ameritrade Park. The Commodores, national champions in 2014 and runners-up in 2015, gave coach Tim Corbin another national title with a 8-2 win over the Wolverines.
Corbin said he felt a bit conflicted after the victory because of his relationship with Michigan coach Erik Bakich, a close friend who was an assistant for seven seasons at Vanderbilt.
"I wish he was part of something like this with the same uniform," Corbin said. "I would have loved to celebrate with him because he's a very deserving guy. But in saying that, he will enjoy this at some point. He will have that opportunity."
Michigan’s magical season ended with a 50-22 record in Erik Bakich’s seventh season. It was the Wolverines’ first trip to the College World Series since 1984 and were playing for the program’s first national championship since 1962. They wore their blue jerseys from this season with the throwback pants and stirrups commemorating the 1962 national championship team, hoping to blend the successes of both memorable seasons.
“The feeling is crushed, just because when we walked off the field, we were wanting to be in that dogpile,” pitcher Tommy Henry said in the quiet locker room after the game. “We fought as hard we could. We gave it everything we had and I’m proud of everyone in this room.”
That the Wolverines reached this moment was remarkable. With their season on the line on May 23 against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament — ironically played at this ballpark — Jordan Nwogu hit a walk-off two-run double to beat the Illini. A loss that day likely would have kept Michigan out of the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it was one of the final four teams in the field.
So after dropping the second game of the championship series to Vanderbilt, led by Kumar Rocker’s 11 strikeouts, Bakich and his players were not rattled. Bakich said it seemed only fitting the team would be pushed to the brink like this. After all, it had become their comfort zone, of sorts.
While the Wolverines finished runner-up in the national championship, Bakich said he knows this has brought attention to Michigan. It makes the program a viable option for recruits who want to play for national contenders, and gave the returning players a big taste of the ultimate goal.
“I'm very proud of our team,” Bakich said. “When we talk about leaving a legacy in our program and it's not about 50 wins or stats or accolades, it’s these … seniors and the upperclassmen. They have inspired future generations of Michigan baseball players with a belief that winning a national championship is a possibility and getting to Omaha is something that can be done on a consistent basis.
“The only way you can have an Omaha program is if you first have an Omaha team, and this is very much a tipping point for us. Very proud of what these guys put in on a daily basis from day one. They were very determined to make that mark and leave that legacy, and everybody says that, but not everybody is willing to do what it takes, and these guys did it on a daily basis. The effort that they put in will never be forgotten because now everyone coming back and everyone coming in is going to know there are no little things. We're just going to find a way to get 1 percent better.”
For the seniors, like first baseman Jimmy Kerr, it was a tough way to finish their careers.
“Right now it sucks,” Kerr said. "We knew our career would end tonight, but we were hoping it would be in a better way. It's tough to think about right now, but we'll look back in maybe not a week, maybe not a month, but years down the road. It'll be fond memories.”
The Wolverines also were upbeat and confident after Tuesday night’s loss in large part because of their belief in pitchers Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell. Kauffmann and Criswell had combined for two wins in the World Series.
The Wolverines were aggressive at the start, with three straight singles off Vanderbilt starter Mason Hickman. Jordan Brewer gave Michigan the 1-0 lead scoring Ako Thomas. With leadoff hitter Nwogu sidelined with the strained quad suffered in Game 2, Thomas moved from batting ninth to fill that spot. But Hickman, who had thrown nine pitches giving up those three singles, settled down and struck out the next three batters, starting with Kerr.
“Yeah, I've kind of got to point the thumb at (me),” said Kerr, who was 0-for-4. “The last two days in the red zone, I haven't got it done. I've been striking out with runners on base, less than two outs, when my team needed me. We haven't got the two-out RBIs that we did early on. We didn't have the clutch hits that we got early on.”
Hickman got stronger as the game wore on. He threw 101 pitches in six innings, striking out 10 and giving up four hits. Michigan had one hit after that first-inning barrage in the fourth then went three innings without a hit until Jesse Franklin doubled in the eighth. The Wolverines added a run that inning on an RBI double from Blake Nelson.
In the bottom of the second, Vanderbilt tied the game on a leadoff home run from Pat DeMarco, his seventh of the season. It was the seventh home run Kauffmann had given up this season. Kauffmann responded striking out the next three batters. He had four strikeouts through two innings.
The Commodores built a 4-1 lead in the third as Kauffmann struggled with two outs. He gave up a walk, then a single and another walk to load the bases for DeMarco. Kauffmann, thinking he got the strikeout of DeMarco at 1-2, gave up an RBI hit to break the tie. Stephen Scott then scored two runs on a single to center for the three-run lead.
Kauffmann walked the first batter of the fourth before Criswell took over. But Vanderbilt added two runs off Criswell to expand the lead, 6-1.
The Wolverines had opportunities, like loading the bases in the fourth, but stranded eight on base.
“Vanderbilt got five two-out RBIs tonight,” Bakich said. “We’ve been doing that all postseason and they did it tonight. That’s what it takes to win games at this level on this stage. It’s pitching, defense and timely hitting. Unfortunately, we issued a couple too many free passes, especially with two outs, but then they capitalized and got the two-out hit. It’s a credit to them for extending those innings and finding a way. We’ve been doing that for the last month to get to this point.
“Unfortunately you give a team like that with an offense like that free passes, they’ll make you pay. And they made us pay. We put a couple innings together that were scoring opportunities in the first, three hits and it looks like we’re about to have a huge inning and then we have three strikeouts. We get runners in scoring position and we have two lineouts, so there’s some bad luck there, but that’s the game. It is what it is. They just played better than us tonight. That’s why they’re the champs.”