As four Michigan baseball players were taken in the second day of the shortened Major League Baseball Draft this week, coach Erik Bakich, who led the program to a runner-up finish in the College World Series last year, was delighted for them and for any kid in the northern climes who dreams of playing pro ball.
Jeff Criswell was a second-round pick going No. 58 overall on Thursday, and teammates Jordan Nwogu (88th) and Jesse Franklin (97th) went in the third round and Jack Blomgren was No. 140 overall in the fifth and final round of the two-day draft this week. It was cut from 40 rounds to five because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan has had least one player taken in the MLB draft each of the last eight years under Bakich. Criswell, the right-hander who like his father, Brian, in 1984, was selected by Oakland, is the highest draft pick to play for Bakich.
Bakich noted that Criswell and Nwogu grew up in Michigan, while Blomgren is from Wisconsin. Franklin is from Seattle.
“That’s six of the top-three picks in the last two years and five of those kids are from the state of Michigan and seven in the top-five rounds total all from not warm-weather states,” Bakich said Friday during a Zoom call with reporters. “Just goes to show you, kids in the Midwest or kids in cold-weather regions can play ball, can develop in the right situations, and kids from Michigan need to pay attention. All future recruits, take a note from what our players have done and are doing because these guys are inspiring. All of them, all seven of them, and really our whole team, but these guys, in particular, are inspiring future generations of baseball players and that’s as big of a storyline as their personal success.”
Criswell said it’s important for the local players to stay local.
“It tells us the best players in Michigan should go to Michigan, and that’s how we feel,” Criswell said on the call, referring to the draft. “That’s the example we wanted to set for the future guys and for the guys EB is going to recruit. It’s really cool and people are starting to realize you don’t have to go down south to get drafted. That’s important to be able to show guys that and set that example. Very happy I was able to be among other guys in the Midwest and be a part of that group.”
Nwogu, who was football-first at Ann Arbor Pioneer, switched to baseball because he loved every aspect of the game. He said he was a bundle of nerves until he heard his name called Thursday night.
“It definitely was really stressful,” said Nwogu, taken by the Cubs. “I was really nervous, but I don’t think there was a more rewarding thing than hearing your name called or seeing your name up there. It was definitely worth everything.”
Bakich said Nwogu, who arrived at Michigan on an engineering scholarship and walked on to the baseball team, completely evolved during his time in college.
“Jordan Nwogu is the most improved player I have ever seen physically in my time coaching,” Bakich said. “To think he started as a kid we just said he could try out in the fall who was here on an engineering scholarship, wasn’t going to make the team, was told at no point in his first freshman fall that he would have a spot on the team, he was gonna have to redshirt because his physical skills were just lacking. He was a football player. That was always his No. 1 sport. And to see him grow and improve and get better, I couldn’t be more proud of that guy. There’s no finish line on how he continues to improve.”
Criswell was always a strong player, but he needed to improve his mental approach.
“Jeff and I butted heads his freshman fall,” Bakich said. “He was a little bit of a knucklehead. He has grown so much as a man, as a leader, as a person. When he really improved between the ears and when he really matured and made the decision that school and baseball were going to be his focus, he just took off. He reached a different level.”
Blomgren, a captain this season which was cut short because of the pandemic, has been the pulse of the team and showed that in the postseason last year. He played with a broken finger and was named to the College World Series All-Tournament team
“What can I say, that kid was the heart and soul of our team in the postseason with his toughness on display,” Bakich said. “Toughest kid I’ve ever coached, playing with broken fingers, playing with strained obliques, always plays and always is 100 percent every day, all out, and never, ever takes it off 100 percent.
“Who doesn’t love that guy, because you don’t see that guy very often anymore. You don’t see the rub-the-dirt-on-it type of kid as much. Even the tough guys of today’s age aren’t the tough guys of a generation ago. He’s two generations ago. Jack Blomgren is a guy who makes every World War II veteran proud for being a tough guy. He’s an amazing kid.”
Blomgren called his time at Michigan the best of his life and was proud to be part of the resurgence that led to the World Series championship series.
“Very grateful I was able to be part of a great team that had so much success at the end and really wrote history for Michigan baseball to come and hopefully change Michigan baseball forever.”