Ann Arbor – The theme for the Michigan baseball team all offseason, throughout the fall and now entering the opener, has been “one more.”
What team could be better for the Wolverines, runners-up for the national championship last June in a whirlwind postseason that put Michigan back on the baseball map under coach Erik Bakich, to face in the season opener Friday than Vanderbilt? After all, the Commodores are defending national champions and executed one more win when it mattered most.
They beat the Wolverines in the best-of-three series, winning the final two games for the national title, the program’s second in the previous six seasons under coach Tim Corbin, a mentor and close friend of Bakich. Bakich, named national coach of the year, is aiming to get the Wolverines back to the World Series this season – they would be the first Big Ten team in back-to-back College World Series since Michigan in 1983 and 1984.
Michigan plays Vanderbilt in the first game of the MLB4 Collegiate Tournament in Arizona. The Wolverines also will face Cal Poly, Connecticut and Arizona State.
“Win one more pitch, one more game we win ourselves a national championship,” pitcher Jeff Criswell said earlier this week.
“We’re trying to build off what we did last year. But to some extent you’ve got to leave (last season) behind. There’s a lot of good learning opportunities. Coming up short has been a big motivator for a lot of us to lock things in and end up on top this year. You’ve got to take the positives away and the learning moments from last year but move on to the new team, new season.”
The ”one more” mantra is not said in regret, nor does it pose as a “what if?’ It was formed from reality and sends a message to every player who returns from last year’s team what needs to be done and what the freshmen need to know to achieve the biggest award in the game.
Bakich, entering his eighth season with the Wolverines, tags each season by its year in the history of the program. This is Team 154.
“Last year we wanted page 153 in the Michigan baseball history book to be a bookmark for all-time, and it’s the same goal this year,” Bakich said after a practice on Sunday. “The thing that we’ve got is the experience and the confidence of making the run that we did. And as magical and wonderful as that was, at the end of the day, we still finished second. Not to minimize it. It was a great achievement. But I think the motivation is just as high and if anything else, we recognize how close we were. So we’ve talked being one more better.
“We were one win away from a national championship, from being alone on the top of the mountain. And so we’ve reduced that ‘one more’ to one more day of training, one more inning better, one more pitch better. And then, obviously, the things we do here is just one more repetition. One more weightlifting session, one more meeting, one more breath. We needed to be just one percent better to be the final team.
"So that’s been a very motivating perspective for our players, to see how close they got and to use that and say, ‘Hey, let’s not forget everything.’ We had the laser focus on all the little things to even get to that position. And now let’s be just one percent better at all of it.”
They will have to be better after losing some key players from last year’s team, including the one-two punch of starting pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann. Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Brewer and Jimmy Kerr, who led the team with 15 home runs, are gone as well.
But the Wolverines aren't depleted, far from it, which is why they are ranked so high in several preseason polls. Vanderbilt is the preseason No. 1 in the USA Today coaches' poll while Michigan is No. 11.
There is experiencing returning in addition to Criswell, who played for Team USA during the summer and will be relied on as the Wolverines’ ace. Outfielder Jordan Nwogu was strong as leadoff hitter last season and had 12 home runs and 46 runs batted in and will start in left. Jesse Franklin, the starting center fielder, returns but will be out for a few weeks while recovering from a collarbone injury. Catcher Joe Donovan and shortstop Jack Blomgren also return.
"One of our biggest topics of conversation among our coaches is who's going to play center and right," Bakich said, in light of the Franklin injury. "We need to figure that out really quickly. And then again, are we prioritizing defense or do we need offense in there as well? So we'll be taking a look at center and right very closely, but I would guess you might see a few guys rotating through there."
Criswell was 7-1 last season and pitched 106 innings while striking out 116. In 7.2 innings pitched for Team USA, he earned a save and had a 2.35 ERA.
"Jeff's got a ton of confidence, and he's earned that," Bakich said. "The confidence that he got from (Team USA), in addition to the confidence of pitching both as a starter and as a reliever closing down games, he was very valuable for us last year "
The returning players aren’t out to prove that last year’s run was a fluke. They don’t care about that. What they want is to continue that magic they discovered in the postseason when they relaxed and had fun. That’s easier said than done.
“I think a lot of people forget last year wasn’t a perfect season,” Nwogu said. “We had a lot of bad times.”
“Ups and downs,” Blomgren said, chiming in.
“We choked in the Big Ten,” Nwogu said. “It came down to coming together at the end. A big thing this year, we’re not going to try to be perfect. It’s all about coming together at the right time and catching the spark.”
The Wolverines want to find that spark early and hang onto it. They learned what it means to play loose and relaxed.
“There’s ups and downs to every season,” Criswell said. “Last year we definitely felt that pressure a little bit at the end of the Big Ten season. We kind of got that out of the way, got into tournament time and let things loose. That’s where we let the magic happen. Learning from that and being able to take that mindset into the whole year, obviously you’ve got to play with intent and focus, (but) just remember it’s a kid’s game and go out and have fun and win games for Michigan.”
All times Eastern
►Friday: Michigan vs. Vanderbilt, 7 p.m., at Scottsdale (MLB Network)
►Saturday: Michigan vs. Cal Poly, 3 p.m., at Scottsdale
►Saturday: Michigan vs. Arizona State, 8 p.m., at Phoenix
►Sunday: Michigan vs. Connecticut, noon, at Scottsdale