'Opportunity to get better': Michigan gets rematch with No. 1 Vanderbilt in season opener

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Opening a baseball season against top-dog Vanderbilt is not every college team’s idea of fun.

Michigan had a different view Thursday as it fled snowy, frosty Ann Arbor for a long weekend at the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament at Scottsdale, Ariz., which begins at 7 p.m. Friday (MLB Network) when the Wolverines reunite with a Vandy team that, by an eyelash, beat them for last year’s NCAA championship.

Erik Bakich runs a practice at Ray Fisher Stadium on Feb. 9.

Connecticut and Cal Poly are playing in the tourney, as well.

But note another partner on Michigan’s weekend dance card.

UM will play one of the Pac-12s top teams, Arizona State, at 8 p.m. Saturday, five hours after an earlier game against Cal Poly.

The Wolverines are ranked 11th in the land in the USA Today coaches’ poll and Vandy is No. 1. UM coach Erik Bakich realizes this trip isn’t necessarily designed to fatten Michigan’s rankings. Not in February.

“How much stock can you put into an opening weekend?” Bakich asked during a Wednesday conversation. “Probably not much. Not on any individual weekend series. If we go there and boat-race everybody and go 4-0, we’re probably not as good as it seems. And if we get our hats handed to us, we’re probably not as bad as it appears.”

More: Michigan baseball hopes to ride 'one more' theme to national championship

Bakich said playing teams with Vandy’s and ASU’s muscle was probably as important for his players – and, yes, some coaches – as trading 20 degrees and snow for a four-hour flight to 70 degrees and sun.

“I think, if you frame it as, ‘Every day is an opportunity to get better and realize growth,’ which is what we try and do, that’s kind of what the mission is this weekend,” Bakich said. “You just hope to compete as hard as you can. And that’s the number-one reason why our team did what we did last year.”

The “last year” reference speaks to Michigan’s 2019 season, which has exhausted a dictionary full of adjectives, “remarkable” being among the trendies.

The Wolverines a year ago were unranked. They decided that was an insult and went on a 50-22 romp. They made it to the College World Series finals, the first Big Ten team in 53 years to have landed there.

And then, in a best-of-three duel with Vanderbilt, Michigan won the first game before dropping the final two, and, of course, the grand prize.

It might be noted Michigan and Vanderbilt weren’t finished in 2019. They played again, Nov. 10, in the David Williams Fall Classic at Nashville, Tenn. Michigan won, 3-2, albeit five months after the stakes had been a good deal higher at Omaha, Neb.

Bakich isn’t sure what to make of 2020. In baseball, it always depends on variables: Pitching, primarily. Also, how many players you can keep from walking-casts and shoulder slings.

Already, Jesse Franklin, a wonderful athlete and center fielder, will be gone until at least late March after he had surgery a month ago following a ski accident. Bakich says Franklin will be back soon enough, but not much before the Big Ten season begins.

Franklin hurts, doubly, when Michigan already was busy filling jobs vacated when three stars were lost from last year’s virtuoso: Jordan Brewer, Ako Thomas, and slamming Jimmy Kerr.

Michigan baseball players watch as Vanderbilt celebrates its national championship in June.

But enough lineup lumber is back in 2020 to soothe Bakich: Joe Donovan, Jordan Nwogu, Jack Blomgren, Riley Bertram, Christian Bullock, and Dominic Clementi, as well as freshman first baseman Jimmy Obertop.

Bakich this weekend has a different challenge with his pitchers: He isn’t sure what he’s going to do.

Four games in three days is the problem. Early-season stints must also be kept on a short leash, especially for a left-handed pitcher like Ben Dragani, who’s making it back after Tommy John surgery.

Bakich knows only that Jeff Criswell will start Friday against Vanderbilt. After that, it could be a swirl of arms, straight through Sunday against Connecticut.

Isaiah Page, Steven Haijar, Willie Weiss, Ben Keizer, Walker Cleveland, Cameron Weston, Blake Beers, Angelo Smith – Michigan will welcome all available arms, in appropriate doses, as 2020 takes root in the Arizona desert.

Friday night’s game has enough national stature to make it a live telecast on the MLB Network.

Given last June’s drama, that’s no programming surprise.

“Yeah, we’ve seen them quite a bit,” Bakich said, mentioning also the autumn follow-up that UM won. “I just have so much respect for their (Vanderbilt’s) program. I’ve learned everything from Coach (Tim) Corbin.

“So, the opportunity to play against the best, as we try to build a consistent championship team here, is great. We want to challenge ourselves against the best.”

MLB4 Tournament

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