As the Big Ten baseball tournament begins, the Michigan Wolverines don’t have time to dwell on what might have been and what was.
They know they should be entering the tournament, that begins for them Wednesday against Ohio State at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, as the regular-season conference champions. But they went 2-5 their last seven games and lost three of the last four games, including a 7-0 shutout to Nebraska. Indiana won the regular-season title. The tournament features the top eight teams in the standings, and Michigan is the No. 2 seed.
The Big Ten Tournament concludes Sunday and the winner earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with a bracket reveal next Monday.
“We blew it. There’s no sugar-coating it,” Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich told The News on Tuesday. “We didn’t get it done, and for the second time in three years we lost the championship by a half a game. That stings quite a bit and is callusing the mind.”
Baseball is as much a mental game as it is physical, in many ways more, and as the Wolverines closed in on their target of a Big Ten regular-season title, they began to play tight, more focused on the big picture than the inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch approach Bakich wants to see. His message has been consistent throughout the season, encouraging his players to have fun and play loose.
But players know how to do the math, as he pointed out, and knew what they would need to do to win the title. And therein was the problem — they began to think about the big picture instead of focusing on the smaller details.
“There’s no question about the investing and the care level of our players,” he said. “Baseball is funny sport — the harder you try, the worse it gets. That type of thinking makes us press. We didn’t play our best baseball. While we’ve won games and finished toward the top of the conference. we just didn’t get it done. We had it in our grasp, had it well within our control and we let it go.
“No sense crying over it now. This is a new season. Doesn’t matter what’s happened the past couple of weeks.”
Not that it would take much to grab the attention of the Wolverines (38-16) right now, but their first opponent is arch-rival Ohio State. The teams played a three-game series at Ohio State last month, and the Buckeyes had the edge, 2-1, with Michigan winning the final game.
“We’ve all learned that lesson of playing tight and playing with too much pressure,” Bakich said. “We know we play our best when we’re loose. That’s the recipe for us, and we will get back to that tomorrow, no question. There will be emotion because it’s a rivalry game, it’s Ohio State, but we will make sure we won’t let that emotion limit our performance. We’ll add that to fuel. That will be on every player, that the rivalry and the disappointment playing them last time doesn’t limit our maximum performance. I have full confidence the team that comes out tomorrow will be the best version.”
Karl Kauffmann, a junior right-hander who played high school baseball for Brother Rice, will start against Ohio State. He was one of nine Wolverines to earn Big Ten All-Conference honors announced Tuesday. Michigan junior outfielder Jordan Brewer was named Big Ten player of the year, and Kauffmann was a third-team selection.
Kauffmann leads the team with 89 2/3 innings pitched, struck out 83 batters and held opponents to a .227 batting average. He has a 2.91 ERA and an 8-5 record. One of those losses, however, was at Ohio State, but Bakich is confident Kauffmann will be in solid form. It's probably no coincidence Bakich is going with a pitcher who grew up a Michigan fan in a Michigan family and feels deeply about he Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
“He got shelled. Did not do well,” Bakich said of Kauffmann's loss at OSU. “He gave up eight runs the first three innings, but Karl has been consistent for us all year. And growing up a Michigan fan growing up in Bloomfield Hills, he grew up with as intense a hatred and love of the rivalry as anyone on the team. He’s motivated.”
The winner will play the winner of the Illinois-Maryland game on Thursday.
“At this point of the season, the seedings don’t matter, the regular-season doesn’t matter. You can toss aside everything that’s happened,” Bakich said. “It’s tournament baseball, and it’s going to be about pitching defense and timely hitting. It’s not the best team, it’s the team that plays the best. I think our guys feel like they’ve got something to prove. What we have to do, we’re not thinking about this tournament all the way through Sunday. We’re just thinking about Wednesday, like 2015.”
In 2015, the Wolverines entered the Big Ten tournament as the No. 3 seed and had lost two of their last three regular-season games. They rolled through the tournament and won, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It will be tough for Michigan to earn an at-large to the NCAA Tournament this year, so winning the Big Ten tournament feels like a must for them.
“As a Big Ten school you don’t want to leave your tournament fate to the NCAA selection committee,” Bakich said. “We know what we have ahead of us. We are breaking it up as one game at a time. It’s a very similar feeling to 2015. That’s exactly what our mindset was. We take each game and we’re treating it like the only game we’re playing the entire week.”
Big Ten awards
Jordan Brewer, of St. Joseph, was the ninth Michigan player to earn Big Ten player of the year honors, and the first since Nate Recknagel in 2008. He has hit .358, slugged .637, stolen 19 bases and driven in 52 runs and scored 51.
Brewer is joined on the first team by sophomore starting pitcher Jeff Criswell (Portage) and sophomore DH Jordan Nwogu (Ann Arbor Pioneer).
Michigan shortstop Jack Blomgren and Michigan State second baseman Royce Ando made second-team; Michigan catcher Joe Donovan, first baseman Jimmy Kerr, outfielder Jesse Franklin and Kauffmann made third-team; and Michigan State outfielder Zaid Walker and Michigan relief pitcher Willie Weiss made the all-freshman team.
Big Ten tournament
At TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
All games on Big Ten Network
Game 1: No. 3 Illinois (36-17) vs. No. 6 Maryland (28-27), 10 a.m.
Game 2: No. 2 Michigan (38-16) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (31-24), 2
Game 3: No. 1 Indiana (36-19) vs. No. 8 Iowa (30-22), 6
Game 4: No. 4 Minnesota (26-25) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (28-20), 10
Game 5: G1 loser vs. G2 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 6: G3 loser vs. G4 loser, 2
Game 7: G1 winner vs. G2 winner, 6
Game 8: G3 winner vs. G4 winner, 10
Game 9: G5 winner vs. G7 loser, 4:30
Game 10: G6 winner vs. G8 loser, 8:30
Game 11: G8 winner vs. G9 winner, 10 a.m.
Game 12: G7 winner vs. G10 winner, 2
x-Game 13: G11 winner vs. G11 loser, 6
x-Game 14: G12 winner vs. G12 loser, 10
Game 15: Championship, 2