Scottsdale, Ariz. — It would have been insulting to have flown so far, to have pulled in MLB Network’s prime-time cameras, and then have treated everyone to a snoozer of a season-opener.
And so Michigan and Vanderbilt decided their baseball warfare needed extra spice Friday at Salt River Fields.
The Wolverines unleashed all manner of antics in their 4-3 victory over the Commodores, none more dramatic than Matt Schmidt’s booming, two-run homer in the ninth that sailed high beyond the left-field wall and crash-landed on a grass-matted berm.
It blew away a 3-2 lead Vandy had taken on a pair of runs in the seventh. Then, after a ninth-inning that saw Vandy load the bases on a bunt-single and two hits batsmen, Isaiah Page got Isaiah Thomas to loft a high fly to center that Jordan Nwogu snagged for the put-away against the same guys who beat Michigan for last June’s NCAA title.
“Great game,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said, and no one at Salt River on a cool night in Arizona’s sand lands was arguing.
“Emotional game, back and forth. What a great game to kick off the 2020 season.”
Five nights after the Academy Awards in Hollywood, it was as if Michigan and Vandy yet had designs on Best Picture.
There was steady drama, particularly in the ninth. The script included a heave-ho of Michigan third baseman Jimmy Obertop, who after a called second strike, made a semi-animated mark in the dirt with his bat that home-plate umpire Ramon Armendariz decided was more protest than penmanship.
Obertrop was tossed, and so might have been Bakich during a long, loud rebuttal to Armendariz.
But the manager stayed. He even half-conceded the umpire’s call afterward. Bakich elaborated in front of Michigan’s dugout, where moments earlier a loud and lively players' celebration, with all the essentials this side of champagne, had been carrying on.
“That he drew a line,” Bakich said of Armendariz’s explanation. “Which is a sportsmanship violation.
“I’m not disagreeing with the rule. I’m disagreeing with how it was made.
“I know that kid (Obertop) would never show up an umpire. It certainly didn’t look to me like the punishment fit the crime.”
Bakich wasn’t into punishment Friday night, even if some spankings were in order. He lamented three on-base mess-ups: Nwogu running into an out at third on a ground ball to shortstop in the first; Riley Bertram getting picked off first in the fourth; and Obertop getting doubled off first on Ted Burton’s liner to the second baseman in the third.
But, as he acknowledged, Michigan had also benefited from some screw-ups by the national champs. UM scored its first two runs, the last of which came in the seventh to give UM a 2-1 lead, on a pair of Commodore errors and a wild pitch.
That lead lasted only until the eighth, when a pair of one-out walks in what otherwise was a sterling start by Jeff Criswell, helped Vandy push ahead, 3-2, all before the ninth inning and Schmidt’s berm-blast ensued.
Vanderbilt had managed only three hits against Criswell until he departed, just after his second walk in the seventh pushed his pitch-count to 87.
It was something of a surprise, a deep start by Criswell, given his opening moments when he insisted on going to three-ball counts on the first three Vandy batters.
He tossed in a wild pitch, also, in the first, which all helped Vandy to a quick 1-0 lead.
The tag-game turned in Vanderbilt’s favor, 3-2, thanks to Criswell’s walks and a hard ground single against Wolverines reliever Cameron Weston. Michigan then decided it had one more turn.
With one out, Clark Elliott banged a single to left. That brought up Schmidt, the 23-year-old first baseman who has played at the University of Texas, and at Cypress College, but who until further notice seemingly plans on settling in Ann Arbor.
His ninth-inning at-bat was homespun-heroic.
On a 1-1 count, he got a fastball from Tyler Brown that, as location goes, was a filet mignon. It was belt-high, middle of the plate – and in one whip of a swing it arced like a space satellite.
“Good barrel on it,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt wasn’t sure if it had enough juice to clear the fence, although he was the only one at Salt River who had any doubt. Schmidt is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and this ball was launched.
Bakich understands what he has in Schmidt — a potential game-breaker who could do immense damage all the way into June. He appreciated so many others Friday, just as much, including shortstop Jack Blomgren.
It was Blomgren’s running, short-hop scoop on a ground ball in the seventh that saved a couple of runs. Blomgren then bid for some kind of Arizona high-jump record when he snared Carter Young’s leadoff liner in the ninth.
Such moments in this rematch between last June’s College World Series finalists suggests, at least plausibly, that a repeat act could be in the cards.
Vandy, after all, is college baseball’s No. 2 team.
Or, rather the Commordores were until Friday.
Schmidt conceded this game had a slice of satisfaction to it that was hard to explain, precisely. Then he offered a half-grin and admitted what everyone knew.
“Especially,” he said, getting to the heart of Friday’s payback, “after what they did to us.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.