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'Just like any other game': Michigan's Kauffmann unfazed by CWS championship contest

Daniel Hoppen
Special to The Detroit News

Omaha, Neb. — For a man with a potential national championship riding on his right arm, Karl Kauffmann seemed eerily calm.

Vanderbilt’s 4-1 victory over Michigan Tuesday night set the two teams up for a winner-take-all match for the NCAA title Wednesday. Yet after the game, Kauffmann’s demeanor suggested only confidence and excitement, not the nerves one might associate with such a high-pressure situation.

Karl Kauffmann

“I’ll prepare the same way I’ve treated it all year — just like any other game,” Kauffmann said. “You can’t make it too much bigger. You can’t shrink it. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m going to prepare like I always do and come out ready.”

Michigan has leaned heavily on its three starting pitchers — Kauffmann, Tommy Henry, and Jeff Criswell — in the postseason, and even more so in the College World Series. Prior to Tuesday’s loss, the trio was responsible for every UM pitch in Omaha, and they’d held opponents to a .202 batting average and 2.5 runs per game.

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After Henry hurled 8⅓ effective innings in Monday’s win, coach Erik Bakich considered his season — and likely the left-hander's Michigan career — completed. He opted to save the other two members for a potential rubber match Wednesday, starting redshirt freshman Isaiah Page instead.

Paige and the bullpen committee that followed pitched admirably, combining to allow just six hits and three earned runs. But they also allowed two critical runs to score on wild pitches, mistakes that doomed Michigan on a night its offense couldn’t get anything going.

Kauffmann and Criswell were Bakich’s contingency plan, and now they need to come through if Michigan has any hope of completing its improbable run to a championship. Kauffmann has already made two CWS starts, most recently last Friday, but Bakich didn’t seem overly concerned about his workload.

Michigan pitcher Jeff Criswell

“The one thing about Karl, he's older, he's mature,” Bakich said. “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.”

Kauffmann has been Michigan’s rock in the postseason, submitting a 2.40 ERA in four postseason starts. He’s 2-0 in Omaha with just four walks in 13 innings.

When Kauffmann exits, Bakich can turn to Criswell, his ace (reliever) in the hole. Criswell excelled as a starter this season and was named first-team All-Big Ten. But the sophomore has been used solely out of the bullpen in the CWS, allowing just two hits over 5⅔ shutout innings.

“Those two guys coming in tomorrow have been great all year, so we have so much confidence in them,” shortstop Jack Blomgren said.

Bakich planned on using Criswell Tuesday night if Michigan had the lead in the middle innings, but Vanderbilt struck first blood in the fifth and led the rest of the way. The loss stings, but at least the Wolverines enter their final game with a clear game plan: get a strong start from Kauffmann, then bring in Criswell to finish it off.

For that plan to work, Kauffmann needs to be at his best. Michigan utilized much of its bullpen Tuesday, and Criswell is its last truly reliable arm left — if Kauffmann falters, Bakich won’t have many options to fall back on. 

That dire scenario isn’t even on Kauffmann’s mind. He’s approaching this start, likely his final in a Michigan uniform (the junior was drafted with the 77th pick by the Colorado Rockies) in the same fashion he did his first 33: with a calm confidence.

“We’ve got one game to win a national championship,” Kauffmann said with a smile. “I’m excited. This is the best opportunity we’ve got. It’s going to be the best game I’ve ever been apart of. I can’t wait to put on the Michigan uniform and get out there and compete.”

Daniel Hoppen is a freelance writer.