The Michigan baseball team’s late-season surge through the postseason that ended with a national championship runner-up finish last summer was remarkable and memorable.
But that’s what it is now — a memory from which to build.
As Erik Bakich enters his eighth season as baseball coach, he understands history and its significance and also knows that dwelling on that captivating run can be trouble.
Students return to Michigan on Wednesday, and that’s when Bakich will hold the first team meeting. One thing that won’t be part of the discussion is the Wolverines’ 50 wins last season and becoming the first Michigan baseball team to reach a College World Series since 1984. It was the program’s best finish since the 1962 national championship team.
“We’ve celebrated last year’s team,” Bakich said this week. “... That team will be celebrated forever. What they did is significant, and that page in the history book will be bookmarked for all of time. Ultimately, what we talk about for the goals of our program, what we tell our team in Meeting 1, your goal is to add as much value as you possibly can to an already storied program in the short amount of time you’re here.
“We’ve turned the page. ... The goal is the same — to add as much value as we possibly can. As great as we feel about what we did last year, we came in second place. This team is very motivated to build off last year’s success, and that’s what we said we’re going to do. We aren’t going to rest on the success of last year’s team. We’re going to build on it. The guys have heard me say for a long time, ‘History is just a point of reference, not a place of residence.’ We’re just gonna keep moving forward, keep trying to get better and build off last year’s success.”
In a “way-too-early” national ranking last November by NCAA.com, Michigan was ranked No. 3 behind defending national champion Vanderbilt and No. 2 UCLA.
“We’re not a top-10 team, I can promise you that. Not coming out of the snow in February,” Bakich said, with a heavy sigh. “I really don’t care what the ranking is except the last one, and I think our players feel the same way, too. At no point were we a top-10 in the country until we were at the end. We educate our players on just controlling the controllables, and those rankings are simply the opinions of other people. Those rankings ebb and flow based on how you perform each week. Is it nice to recognized? Sure. Does it matter? No. I’m sure they like that they’re recognized and if they get some confidence from it, then I like it, too.
“But I don’t think they care. They know where the destination is, and they need a laser focus on what’s important and that’s how are we going to improve today. ... There’s no shortcuts. It’s going to take hard work, it’s gonna take a lot of time, and we’re going to have to be very efficient with our time because we’re not out on a sun-soaked field in January and February.”
A Michigan baseball hype video was shared on social media early last year and featured the players and coaches running onto the field, the pre-dawn morning still dark and snow falling. Practicing in this climate is a point of pride for the Wolverines.
“There’s something about getting up early and early morning workouts. There’s something about going outside in the cold,” Bakich said. “There’s something about having an ability to be comfortable even when it’s uncomfortable for everybody else, just because you’ve callused your mind with so many different repetitions of something that’s out of your comfort zone.”
Michigan’s season begins just more than a month from now when the Wolverines face Vanderbilt on Feb. 14 in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the MLB4 Collegiate Tournament. Key players, including Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Brewer, Jimmy Kerr and pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann were taken in the MLB Draft.
The Wolverines return pitcher Jeff Criswell, 7-1 last season with a 2.72 ERA and outfielder Jordan Nwogu, who batted .321 as a sophomore last year before suffering a leg injury in the College World Series.
Per NCAA rules, the team hasn’t formally worked together since the first week of December.
“The good thing about this group and last year’s team I felt the same way, it’s a very mature team,” Bakich said. “You’ve got some older guys that kind of know what to do and have taken on a very good leadership role and policing the team and making sure everyone is held accountable.
“The players are more motivated than ever. I thought we had a very motivated, consistent group last year, and I think all the same things this year. They know what needs to be done in order to put in the time, the work, to grow and improve."
Michigan played at Vanderbilt in an exhibition game on Nov. 10, and now the two teams will have another rematch since the best-of-three World Series in Arizona. Vanderbilt, again?
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Bakich said, laughing. “They’re the best program in college baseball over the last six years, last decade. I would compare them to Alabama football. You climb the mountain, then you want to become the mountain. That’s where they are. I feel good about the growth of our program and the progressions. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best, you’ve got to beat the best. I like playing them. I do like starting the season that way, a really good test and maybe the best team we’ll see all year. I think our players like that. They want to be challenged right away.”
To be the best, teams have to play the best, as Bakich said, and by the end of the long regular season and then postseason, the Wolverines will see just how far they’ve come.
“Time will tell if we’ve truly moved the needle and tipped the scales and gone from a top-25 program to a perennial top-10 program, top-5 program, but that’s going to be done in the trenches, the daily actions of our guys,” Bakich said. “That’s the one thing I feel really good about with the older guys on this team — it’s a very hard-working, very mature group and that’s the one legacy they’re leaving behind to the younger kids is there is a standard here of working your ass off, putting in the time, there are no shortcuts for the time it takes — it just takes what it takes.
“A lot of it is done on their own, and they understand that’s part of our culture. We’ve got a great group of hard-working guys, even when nobody’s looking, they’re going home, going off to wherever they are, and they’re getting after it. I do trust that about them. They know that that’s what they’re doing.”