Michigan baseball is ranked No. 1 nationally after the opening weekend, the first time in the 40-year history of the Baseball America poll that a team from the Big Ten occupies that spot, but excuse coach Erik Bakich if he’s not exactly giddy.
The Wolverines were No. 8 in the preseason rankings, but upsets of defending national champion Vanderbilt, the team that beat Michigan for the World Series title, and a shutout of highly regarded Arizona State pushed them to the top ranking revealed Monday. Michigan went 3-1 on the weekend, with a loss to Connecticut.
Michigan plays UConn three games this weekend in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
“It’s February, so I’m sure we’ll use it in recruiting,” Bakich, in his eighth season with the Wolverines, said, sounding exasperated discussing rankings this early in the season. “I know our guys will draw some confidence from it, but they also have been trained to not let their mentality ebb and flow with what people write about them or say about them, so hopefully it will be short-lived and they’ll be able to get back to the middle.
“I don’t know if a Big Ten team has had that type of recognition, so it’s good for a lot of reasons, but (it's) not going to have any impact on the outcome of future games, that’s for sure. It seems high. Unexpected for sure, appreciated at the same time.”
In the D1Baseball.com poll, Miami (Fla.) is No. 1, Vanderbilt dropped from No. 2 to No. 4, and Michigan moved up to No. 9 from No. 13.
Steve Hajjar, a left-handed pitcher, missed all of last season after tearing a knee ligament, on Monday was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week and Pitcher of the Week after throwing six shutout innings against Arizona State. Hajjar struck out seven and gave up three hits.
“To think he’s never pitched one inning of college baseball and to go up against one of the top teams in the county with one of the most dangerous offensive lineups and to put up six innings of scoreless baseball is a testament to a lot of things," Bakich said. "No. 1, his physical ability, but No. 2, the work ethic it takes to rehab an injury like that and come back as strong as he did. Excited about the type of pitcher he can be in our program.”
There’s still so much baseball to be played and the Wolverines don’t open at home until March 13 against Canisius, but Bakich was able to learn plenty about his team last weekend.
“We knew going in in order for our team to be successful we were going to need some candidates to have some breakout performances,” Bakich said. “Very pleased with Steve Hajjar, Blake Beers, Jack White specifically on the pitching side. And then see some guys who haven’t been in the spotlight offensively, but have been patient in our program the last two years like Matt Schmidt and Danny Zimmerman, and see some newcomers make some contributions like Teddy Burton and Clark Elliott and Jimmy Obertop.”
Bakich already felt good about the Wolverines’ up-the-middle defense with catch Joe Donovan, shortstop Jack Blomgren and outfielder Jesse Franklin, when he returns soon from injury, and outfielder Jordan Nwogu.
“But who would be this year’s players that not necessarily emulate what Jordan Brewer and Jimmy Kerr did (last season), but be those type of guys you didn’t expect before the season would end up being huge contributors during the season,” he said.
Bakich did offer more clarity on Obertop getting tossed from the opener against Vanderbilt when, after a called second strike, he appeared to drag his bat in the dirt, drawing a line.
“It was a complete misinterpretation,” Bakich said. “The rule does state if a kid draws a line and shows a lack in sportsmanship, he is eligible for immediate ejection, but I don’t think that's what that kid did, nor was his intent. We do a lot of routine building in our program. They’re taught to have awareness of, internally, themselves. We call it signal lights — green, yellow, and red.
“Any time you go from green into yellow, you need to do some kind of physical release to release the previous pitch, so you can get back focused on the next one. Everyone has a different physical release. Some guys take their helmet off. Some guys unstrap their batting gloves. Jimmy Obertop takes his bat and flicks dirt with it. It’s like he’s swiping away that previous pitch.
"I think the umpire thought he was drawing a line, and he wasn’t drawing a line. That’s what he does in his physical release to release the previous pitch. He wasn’t happy about the call being where it was, but that wasn’t to show the umpire up. I don’t think that would cross his mind to do that. And if he did, his suspension by our coaching staff and myself would be greater than what the ejection was.”