Wojo: Wolverines back to the brink — just how they like it

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Their strategy is to shrink the moment, make it less imposing. The funny thing is, the more they shrink it, the larger it gets. And the tougher it gets.

Michigan team members react to their team's 4-1 loss to Vanderbilt in Game 2 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals Tuesday in Omaha, Neb. The series is tied with the deciding Game 3 scheduled for Wednesday night.

Michigan fell to Vanderbilt 4-1 Tuesday night, and is down to one last chance, once again, to complete the run from improbable to extraordinary. To win their first College World Series national championship since 1962, the Wolverines will have to beat SEC powerhouse Vanderbilt in the finale Wednesday night.

The moment hasn’t been too big yet, but this is as big as it’ll get, and Michigan will have its ace right-hander Karl Kauffmann on the mound against another Vanderbilt star, Mason Hickman. Vanderbilt’s freshman sensation Kumar Rocker was too much for the Wolverines Tuesday night, striking out 11, as the Commodores avoided elimination and pushed the season as far as it can go.

It’s still a daunting task for Michigan to capture a title no one saw coming, partly because we never see it. The Wolverines hadn’t reached the College World Series since 1984, and no Big Ten team had done so since Indiana in 2013. College baseball is the historic domain of warm-weather teams with powerful recruiting pipelines, not of programs that practice in the snow.

Coach Erik Bakich and his spirited players will say they saw signs, and in the next breath, they’ll admit to pinching themselves. After beating the Commodores 7-4 in the opener, you knew the No. 2 team in the country would be ready, and now we’ll see if Michigan has one more answer.

“I think it only seems fitting that our team would go to three games,” Bakich said. “That's just kind of been our MO here in all these rounds, seems like we're very comfortable in that spot. After the game, I just sensed a calmness of our team, and they're excited to play.”

Road tested

It’s the type of spirit that comes from taking the road most traveled, and the Wolverines have been traveling just about forever. Since May 14, they’ve played at Kentucky, at Nebraska, at the Big Ten tournament in Omaha, at the NCAA Tournament in Oregon, at the Super Regional in Los Angeles, and now back in Omaha for the championship round. Six weeks on the road, approximately three days at home.

“We’re having the time of our lives, having a blast,” Bakich said before the game. “We’re trying to shrink the moment and make it just about baseball.”

The Wolverines (50-21) play with nerve and verve, reflected in their aggressive base-running. They weren’t supposed to make it here and then surely weren’t supposed to win it, and all they’ve done so far is alter odds and perceptions. 

Northern teams simply don’t win college baseball championships. The last to do it? If you count Kansas or Oklahoma as a Northern state, it’s Wichita State in 1989 and Oklahoma in 1994. If you count an outlier with a rich history, it’s Oregon State last season. If your geography is more climate-inclined and Midwest-tilted, it was Ohio State in 1966, Minnesota in 1964 and Michigan in 1962.

This Michigan team didn’t win the Big Ten regular season or tournament titles, and in fact, was one strike away from falling to Illinois on May 23 before rallying. If the Wolverines lost there, they probably wouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament. Since then, they’ve faced elimination in the regionals and the super regionals and prevailed each time.

“We've had a lot of repetitions with these types of games,” Bakich said. “All the adversity that we've faced in the last month, month and a half, it's just callused our mind.”

You loosen up and toughen up once you’ve been to the brink. It helps to have terrific starting pitching and the Big Ten Player of the Year, right fielder Jordan Brewer. The Wolverines were one of the last four teams to sneak into the Tournament, and when they reached the 16-team Super Regionals, they were tied with Duke for the longest odds at 50-1. At the start of the eight-team CWS, Michigan again had the longest odds at 12-1, with Vanderbilt and Arkansas the co-favorites. 

“We’re trying to stay loose and trying to have fun, and we’re playing for the right reasons,” star lefty Tommy Henry said after the opener. “We’re playing for each other, and for the eight letters on our chest.”

Under Bakich, Michigan has upgraded its recruiting but the obstacles are still daunting. Vanderbilt had a school-record 13 players taken in the recent MLB Draft, including JJ Bleday, the No. 4 overall pick. The Wolverines had five selected, topped by second-rounders Henry and Kauffmann.

Led by the ever-upbeat Bakich, the Wolverines don’t lack confidence. You don’t get to Omaha by accepting the norm. Instead of shivering in the cold, they embrace it, not that there’s any other option. The season began Feb. 15 but Michigan didn’t play a home game until March 14. In a team hype video, images of baseball and snow are framed by the catchphrase “You’ll never get hot if you don’t know the cold.”

In the deep of winter, the Wolverines are still apt to practice outside.

“We don’t allow cold weather to be an excuse,” Bakich said. “If it’s above zero degrees, we’re outside. It might only be 20-30 minutes, but it’s a mindset. Our players know it, our recruits know it, and we don’t shy away from it.”

Risky business

They don’t shy away from much of anything. With a chance to clinch Tuesday night, Bakich held off on starting Jeff Criswell, and instead went with redshirt freshman Isaiah Paige, who hadn’t pitched in the postseason. He was excellent before the bullpen faltered. The dominant Rocker was the story of this game, but not the only obstacle.

While trying to beat out a grounder in the third inning, Michigan leadoff hitter Jordan Nwogu fell as he crossed first base, clutched his left leg and was helped off the field and didn’t return. Go back a couple weeks and there was Henry, emerging from a Los Angeles hospital after battling flu and pneumonia, then pitching Michigan to a stunning upset of No. 1 UCLA.

The stories are as deep and diverse as the team itself. On a recent ESPN broadcast, Bakich laid out the program’s aim for a wide reach.

“We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” Bakich said. “We target a lot of inner-city kids. We want to have a diverse roster, and we want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over country that we can.”

An honorable goal with a competitive motive too. Only six percent of Division I baseball players are black, an untapped talent pool. The Wolverines have seven players of color, the same as Vanderbilt, far more than most teams. 

When he arrived seven years ago, Bakich wanted to expand the horizons, in every direction, in every way. Simple, really. Shrink the moments, grow the possibilities. The Wolverines are down to their last possible moment, and the evidence suggests they’re not likely to be intimidated by it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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.