'Focused, but loose': Michigan baseball set to take College World Series by storm
Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich knows what’s hit him and the Wolverines — a trip to the World Series in Omaha — but it is still taking time to unwind from the grueling postseason NCAA Tournament process that has allowed them to reach this point.
Bakich, in his seventh season with the Wolverines (46-20), and the team returned Monday from Los Angeles and have a brief stay in Ann Arbor before heading to the World Series site on Wednesday.
Michigan, which upset No. 1 seed UCLA last weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional, will face Texas Tech on Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN).
“The games were very high-stress, high-leverage situations, so I still feel like I have a permanent furrowed brow like I need to make a decision, like an in-game decision. Should we steal? Should we bring in a left-hander or right-hander?” Bakich, laughing, told The News late Monday night. “So I haven’t relaxed. I haven’t exhaled yet. The game’s over and now you’re typing away, returning messages. It’s all good things. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
“You look at some of the Super Regional scores, when the game gets out of question like that, it’s not as intense. It’s still a good game, but we had three nip-and-tuck, come-down-to-the-final pitch of three games in a row. I mean, UCLA is an unbelievable team. Just an absolute juggernaut. The best pitching we’ve seen. The best team by far. They are absolutely one of the best eight teams in the country, there is no doubt about that. We were better on one weekend, and that’s all you have to be.”
To find out how they reached this point, taking the program to the World Series for the first time since 1984, the momentum swing came on May 23 in the Big Ten tournament in a 5-4 victory over Illinois. Bakich preaches being in the moment, focusing on pitch-by-pitch and staying loose, having fun. The Wolverines had drifted from that approach and had struggled late in the season, falling just a half-game short of winning the Big Ten regular-season title.
Bakich can prepare his players for what they need to do, how they need to approach situations, but it’s always quite another thing to see how they react when the moment is real and the consequences are bigger. They had that moment against Illinois.
“We caught lightning in a bottle with that walk-off winner against Illinois,” Bakich said. “We were lifeless, we were dead, we had no energy. Our season was one strike away from being done. Completely over. Ako Thomas, out of the nine hole, draws a huge walk to get Jordan Nwogu up. Ako fouled off a 3-2 pitch at his eyes on a 93 mph fastball running into him that he had no business fouling off but somehow got a piece of it and then walked on the next pitch.
"That set the stage for a first and third play with Jordan Nwogu up who doubled in the gap, and ever since then — it’s interesting, you do all this training, you do all these drills, you can train mental toughness, you can put the team through some team bonding, some really tough character-, gut-check type exercises, but what you’re really hoping for is that you do enough and prepare them enough so that you have some kind of authentic, organic moment in the season that ignites the team and sparks a hot streak and you hope it happens at the end of the year when you get this.
“Like any team, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them. You just want to catch that lightning in a bottle and get the team hot at the end. Those are the teams that make the runs, the teams that get hot at the end. Especially when you haven’t done it before or at least done it in a while, that’s what you need. Some teams know how to do it. They’ve done it before, so they know how to do it again.
"Other teams like us, it just has to happen. Something has to happen. A defining moment has to happen. And so that Illinois game was it, and ever since then, the guys have been loose, they’ve been confident. It’s just a different feeling. The looser we are, the better we play, and they know that. We’ve had moments where we get tight, we blow a three-run lead in the ninth inning in the regional championship game. It’s like, ‘OK, all right, that was it. We got tight. We can’t do that.’ And the next day they come out loosey-goosey, and it’s fine. Same thing with the Game 2 of the Super Regional. We made five errors, we walked 10 guys, and it’s just those character-check moments where you use that adversity to your advantage and it makes you stronger the next day.”
The Wolverines have regained their composure every time they’ve had those gut-check moments. Late in Game 2 of the Super Regional at UCLA, with two outs in the top of the ninth, left fielder Christan Bullock dropped a ball that allowed the go-ahead run to score. Michigan tied the game in the bottom of the inning and the game went 12 before the Bruins won.
“We drop a fly ball, and everyone is there to pick up Chris Bullock, and look at the day he has the next day,” Bakich said. “He has a double and a triple, just a huge day. That’s where we are right now. That’s the place we’re at. There’s no panic. It’s the most confident we’ve been the entire season. It’s the loosest we’ve been the entire season. You can’t be this way in the fall in training, you can’t be this way in practices. But in the games right now, when it’s just about playing games, this is exactly how you have to be.
“This is hard. Making a postseason run is hard no matter how many draft picks you have and what your accolades were in the regular season. Getting hot at the right time is a tough thing to do.”
But here they are, hot at the right time.
“This is fun for me,” Bakich said. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had coaching baseball. I’m enjoying this team as much or more than any team I’ve ever been around. That has a lot to do with the guys on this team, the coaches we have, the staff we have, the fans we have. We had such great following of Michigan fans in L.A.”
The Wolverines had their share of what Bakich would call character moments in the Super Regional. Jack Blomgren dislocated his finger during the final game. A medical trainer attempted to pop it back in place, and Blomgren remained in the game despite the discomfort.
“Even if it wasn’t good to go, nothing is keeping that guy out,” Bakich said.
And then there was pitcher Tommy Henry, sick with flu, but went seven innings in the 4-2 win over UCLA on Sunday.
“That was one of the gutsiest performances I’ve ever seen in college athletics,” Bakich said. “That kid looked like he was on his death bed. He was in the ER with an IV hooked up to him 48 hours earlier. We thought there was no way he was going to be able to pitch, and if he did pitch maybe he could give us a couple of innings. For him to go seven innings in a quality start, just tremendous, inspirational pitching performance.
“What it did, it inspired the entire team. Our entire team got so much energy off watching him empty the tank every pitch. If he had 12 to 15 seconds in between pitches, he needed those 12 to 15 seconds to recover from throwing the last pitch. Just such a gutsy performance from a really tough kid and a terrific competitor. He’s probably still on the road to recovery. That’s what you need at this time of year. You need guys to put how they feel aside and if the team needs them to compete, they compete, and that’s exactly what he did. We wouldn’t have won the game without him, I know that.”
Michigan played Texas Tech in late March in a three-game series at Lubbock Texas. The Wolverines were swept and the run differential was 29-10. The Red Raiders (44-18) are heading to the World Series for the second straight year and fourth time in the last six seasons.
“This is totally different,” Bakich said. “This is on a neutral site. It’s the College World Series. It’s not a three-game non-conference set at their home field with their home fans. Anything can happen. “
Karl Kauffmann will be the starting pitcher for Michigan on Saturday.
Bakich has been moving the program to this point and to reach the World Series certainly isn’t the only goal — the Wolverines want to win it all.
But to establish a program as a regular this deep in the postseason takes some version of muscle memory. He said he’s hopeful the program has moved the needle enough these last few weeks and the players understand what it takes, so they can replicate this next season and beyond.
“We’re focused, and we’re locked in, but we’re loose,” Bakich said. “Because we’re loose, we’re having fun, and because we’re having fun we’re able to play free and not have fear and not have doubt and not be restricted and just be able to feel like we can just go get it and trust your teammates and trust your ability.
"It’s just a belief. You just know that good things are going to happen. If they don’t, you just bounce back and it’s fine.”
College World Series schedule
At Omaha, Nebraska; Double Elimination; x-if necessary
Saturday, June 15
Game 1 — Michigan (45-20) vs. Texas Tech (44-18), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2 — Florida State (41-21) vs. Arkansas (46-18), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, June 16
Game 3 — Louisville (49-16) vs. Vanderbilt (54-11), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4 — Mississippi State (51-13) vs. Auburn (38-26), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Monday, June 17
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 6 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 18
Game 7 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Wednesday, June 19
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, June 20
Game 10 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Friday, June 21
Game 11 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 12 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, June 22
x-Game 13 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
x-Game 14 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Monday, June 24: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 25: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
x-Wednesday, June 26: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)