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Fighter mentality stokes UM’s Big Ten tourney hopes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Mental toughness wasn’t exactly the staple of Michigan baseball a season ago.

While chasing a Big Ten championship, the Wolverines faltered down the stretch, losing seven of their last eight regular-season games before bowing out quietly in the conference tournament with just one win in three games.

So as coach Erik Bakich assembled the team back in September to prepare for the 2017-18 season, he knew they needed to have a different attitude.

The Wolverines needed to be fighters.

Consider it mission accomplished as Michigan (42-13) enters this week’s Big Ten tournament as the No. 2 seed with a good shot at winning its second conference tournament title in three seasons.

“They’ve fought all season, really since September first,” Bakich said Monday as the team headed to Bloomington, Ind., for Wednesday’s matchup with Northwestern.

“We developed a grit and toughness and the fighter mentality. It’s something you have to train for and so that was one area of focus with this group. We wanted to train to be able to come back in the ninth and win close games and hold leads and get timely hits and make clutch pitches and big-time web gem plays. You’ve got to train for it and so we have since September.”

It paid off at various times during the season for the Wolverines but was on full display in the regular-season finale on Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans had been knocked out of postseason contention a day earlier in a loss at Michigan but had no intention of going quietly on their senior day and led, 1-0, entering the ninth inning.

That’s when the fighter emerged in Michigan.

The Wolverines managed to scratch out a run to tie the game, then got out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs in the top of the 10th, three straight singles drove in what proved to be the decisive run. Senior Michael Brdar, hitting .314 on the season, drove in the winner in the 2-1 triumph.

“That game is a testament to the preparation and training,” said Bakich, in his fifth season leading the Wolverines. “I wasn’t surprised it happened based on the kids we had.”

The key now for the Wolverines, ranked No. 15 in the nation by USA Today, is carrying that over to the conference tournament. They’ll face Northwestern (24-28) at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bart Kaufman Field, the first time they will have played the Wildcats this season.

Bakich isn’t sure there’s an advantage either way for teams that are seeing each other for the first time, but he’ll have the benefit of four players batting better than .300, the second best team ERA in the conference and the top fielding team in the Big Ten.

In addition to Brdar, Ako Thomas is hitting .363, Johnny Slater .309 and Miles Lewis .305.

Oliver Jaskie is the ace with an 8-2 record and 3.36 ERA over 14 starts and 80.1 innings. He has a team-high 104 strikeouts.

And there’s the minor detail of missing out on a regular-season championship by only a half-game. Nebraska’s tie with Indiana earlier this season proved the difference as the Cornhuskers won the championship with the Wolverines in second and Minnesota checking in third.

“I’d be lying to you if I said that it didn’t bother our team,” Bakich said. “To lose out on a championship by a half-game while at the same time recognizing there were plenty of opportunities to be one game better.

“Yeah, that motivation is going to be extremely high. They want to be remembered as a team that was a championship team. When they pass on the culture and foundation to future generations of Michigan baseball players, the 151st version of Michigan baseball will be a group that is remembered as champions.”

Bakich believes the team makeup is right to deliver that championship, and having good players is only part of it. Developing that fight has been just as critical.

Getting that to carry over this week and likely into the NCAA Tournament — it would be Michigan’s second NCAA berth under Bakich — will be the goal.

“Mental approach is a huge part of it so getting good players is the backbone of what we do,” Bakich said. “But then once you have players here developing their mental skills becomes probably the most important thing we do, building the strongest muscle in their body which is the one between their ears.

“So regardless of what happens in any of these tournaments coming up, we’ve got the right mindset. We got tough kids and they’ve got a high level of belief that they can do anything.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Big Ten tournament

When: Wednesday-Sunday

Where: Bart Kaufman Field, Bloomington, Ind.

Format: Double-elimination; top eight teams in final regular-season standings qualify.

TV: All games on Big Ten Network

SCHEDULE

Wednesday

Game 1: 3 seed Minnesota vs. 6 seed Indiana, 10 a.m.

Game 2: 2 seed Michigan vs. 7 seed Northwestern, 1:30 p.m.

Game 3: 1 seed Nebraska vs. 8 seed Purdue, 5 p.m.

Game 4: 4 seed Maryland vs. 5 seed Iowa, 8:30 p.m.

Thursday

Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10 a.m.

Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1:30 p.m.

Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 5 p.m.

Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 8:30 p.m.

Friday

Game 9: Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.

Game 10: Loser Game 8 vs. Winner Game 6, 5 p.m.

Saturday

Game 11: Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, 10 a.m.

Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 1:30 p.m.

Game 13 (if necessary): Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 5 p.m.

Game 14 (if necessary): Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

Championship: Winner Game 11/13 vs. Winner Game 12/14, 2 p.m.