Omaha, Neb. — So many times during this College Baseball World series run, Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich has referenced that ultimate back-against-the-wall moment in the Big Ten Tournament that the team believes put them in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines are one of the final two teams standing, and will face Vanderbilt on Wednesday night at TD Ameritrade Park for the national championship, which would be the program’s first since 1962. They’ve split the series, with Michigan winning the first game before the Commodores evened things up with a 4-1 victory Tuesday night.
But, Michigan will be without Jordan Nwogu, the Wolverines’ leadoff hitter and, they believe, the reason they reached the NCAA Tournament. With their season on the line on May 23 against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, Nwogu hit a walk-off two-run double to beat the Illini.
Nwogu strained his left quad when he stumbled running to first in Game 2 Tuesday night, and had to be helped off the field.
“The way he limped off the field, he wasn’t able to put my pressure on it,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said after the loss. “I don’t know if that will be a 24-hour recovery. We’ll see how he feels. Maybe. A little Kirk Gibson.”
Based on Nwogu’s Twitter post, he won’t be available to pull off any Gibson-like heroics when, in the 1988 World Series, he pinch hit for the Dodgers despite injuries to both legs and hit a two-run walk-off home run to defeat the A’s in Game 1.
“I’ll be fine,” Nwogu wrote on Twitter. “One man goes down and it’s the next man up. I’m gonna be the best cheerleader I can be for my team tomorrow. Let’s bring this thing home.”
Bakich said he is leaning toward playing freshman Riley Bertram in Nwogu’s place as designated hitter, hitting him ninth and moving up everyone else in the lineup. That would push Jesse Franklin to leadoff.
Bakich told reporters Bertram has been a “spark” in the postseason but also said he could go with Miles Lewis or Dominic Clementi, who played Tuesday night for Nwogu. Clementi was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in the loss.
First baseman Jimmy Kerry described Nwogu’s loss and said the team now takes a “next-man-up” approach.
“He’s been our table setter all year long,” Kerr said. “One of the best in the country.”
Nwogu was batting .321 and had 12 home runs — he is among four Michigan players with 10 or more home runs this season — and had 46 RBIs and 58 runs scored.
“He’s the spark plug at the top of the lineup, but the thing we are so confident about is we have guys on the bench chomping at the bit, waiting for their number to be called,” catcher Joe Donovan said after the game. “They will be ready.”
What the Wolverines will miss with Nwogu’s absence is his consistency at the plate. He leads the team in on-base percentage (.435).
But it was his walk-off double against Illinois that will forever highlight Nwogu’s season. It was that special moment Bakich said propelled the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament and sparked this run to the brink of a national title.
“We caught lightning in a bottle with that walk-off winner against Illinois,” Bakich told The Detroit News after the Wolverines upset No. 1 UCLA in the Super Regional to advance to the College World Series. “We were lifeless, we were dead, we had no energy. Our season was one strike away from being done. Completely over.
"... It’s interesting, you do all this training, you do all these drills, you can train mental toughness, you can put the team through some team bonding, some really tough character-, gut-check type exercises, but what you’re really hoping for is that you do enough and prepare them enough so that you have some kind of authentic, organic moment in the season that ignites the team and sparks a hot streak and you hope it happens at the end of the year when you get this."
Nwogu's hit helped the Wolverines into the Tournament and it certainly gave them life. It's also a reminder heading into this final game for the national championship that anything can happen and anyone can give them that spark.
“Like any team, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them," Bakich said at the time. "You just want to catch that lightning in a bottle and get the team hot at the end. Those are the teams that make the runs, the teams that get hot at the end. Especially when you haven’t done it before or at least done it in a while, that’s what you need. Some teams know how to do it. They’ve done it before, so they know how to do it again."