College World Series Bound

In case you already didn’t hear, Michigan has one final tournament to play this season. It’s a moderately well-known tournament that takes place in Omaha every June at TD Ameritrade Park, usually featuring a handful of decent college baseball teams.

The College World Series.

For the 8th time in program history and the first since 1984, Michigan has advanced to the College World Series and turned a lot of heads doing so.

After losing the conference lead to Indiana in what feels like months ago, it felt like another chapter in the same Michigan athletics story that we’ve been reading for years: another major sport putting together a promising regular season but ultimately coming up short. Michigan saw a 2.5 game lead shrink to a .5 game lead, which ultimately evaporated after a frustrating final regular season series against Nebraska, giving the Hoosiers the regular season title. Michigan still landed the #2 overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which was also met with another frustrating opener against Ohio State. Things looked bleak; another season with nothing to show for it.

But then something clicked. Michigan defeated a very talented Illinois team and beat the ever-living crap out of Nebraska to survive through the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament; not win the tournament, but played just well enough to show the committee that they were worth a bid.

Jordan Brewer and Michigan played just well enough to survive the conference tournament and earn a bid. Photo: Ben Allan Smith, MLive

And holy hell, were they worth the bid. After defeating #1 UCLA way back in March, Michigan seesawed back and forth between being a sound group and looking lost at times. Swept by Texas Tech, then win 6 straight. Nearly swept by OSU, then win 13 straight. Lose the conference lead, and defeat the #1 team in the country at their own park for a berth in the CWS. All in a season’s work at U of M.

This run was just so…not Michigan. Toughness when it mattered, winning big games, a dash of luck, clutch performances, and toppling the best teams are things that we rarely see out of our beloved football team (Team 153 still couldn’t beat OSU though). After squeaking into the tournament as one of the Last Four In, they were the 3 seed in the Corvallis Regional with #16 overall Oregon State, Creighton, and Cincinnati. Luck fell their way when Cincinnati defeated the Beavers (intentionally walking #1 overall pick Adley Rutschman proved smart), paving a path in which Michigan could advance without having to play the top seed. Michigan promptly took that path and blew a brutal lead to Creighton and things got sour quickly because we’ve seen it so many times before. But the very next day, Michigan exploded for 17 runs on the same Creighton team, and steamrolled their way to Los Angeles.

Reliever Isaiah Paige redeemed himself against Creighton after a rough outing in the regional semifinals. Photo: Steve Dipaola

UCLA was an absolute house all year. The #1 ranked team for 12 weeks of the year, Pac-12 Champions, and program-record 52 win Bruins were 32-5 at home entering the Super Regional round. They had six players drafted in the top 10 rounds of last week’s MLB draft (and 13 players drafted overall). They didn’t lose to a single team twice all season. They were the heavy favorites in a field that still includes Vanderbilt, Louisville, and Mississippi State.

It was never impossible for Michigan, but insurmountable certainly came to mind.

But that didn’t occur to the fellas from Ann Arbor. They proved to themselves and to the nation that they were the toughest team to beat in college baseball. They jumped on UCLA early in every game, forcing the Bruins to earn every run they scored and to remind everyone in the country that a cold-weather school does not automatically disqualify you from being good at baseball.

Righty ace Karl Kauffmann, who himself was drafted very high by the Rockies not long ago, delivered his performance of the season in Game 1, allowing only two runs and two walks over 8+ innings in a hostile environment. Bakich went to the bullpen after a second baserunner reached, giving the ball to Jeff Criswell and not freshman closer Willie Weiss. Criswell surrendered a two-run single to the first batter he faced, cutting Michigan’s lead to 3-2, and it felt all too familiar. “Here we go again…”

Kauffmann was at his best in Game 1 vs UCLA last weekend. Photo: Michigan Athletics

But not so fast. Criswell slammed the door, forcing a weak pop-up and striking out another to save the first win in the series. Michigan defeated Ryan Garcia, who was 10-0 (14-1 in games he’s started) with a 1.36 ERA entering the game, grinding out two runs in the third and another in the 8th.

Game 2 was a roller coaster in the wee hours of the morning that left us feeling despair all over again. Michigan clawed there way to an early lead, thanks to a Joe Donovan BOMB off of Jack Ralston, and things stayed that way until the late innings. The bullpen struggled to throw strikes and some critical defensive errors gave UCLA a 4-3 lead entering the bottom of the 9th. “Here we go again…”

But not so fast. Michigan gritted their way to tie the game on a sac fly, making it 4-4. The offense had been largely silent for the better part of 6 innings until it mattered most, and Joe Donovan came within literal inches of walking it off and sending UCLA home. Michigan battled through two more innings until another fielding error allowed UCLA to score an unearned run in the 12th, giving them Game 2 and a tied series in the critical Super Regional. “Here we go again…”

But not so fast. Game 3 proved to be Michigan’s finest hour, a combination of masterful pitching, timely hitting, and just gritty performances up and down the roster, resulting in a 4-2 victory, sealing the wildly improbably Super Regional and sending Michigan to their first College World Series berth since 1984, when I was -8 years old. Tommy Henry delivered his flu game; having missed the entire week of practice with an illness, he didn’t walk a batter in 7 innings of work, completely handcuffing UCLA other than a mistake that Jake Pries took deep and an RBI groundout the next inning. Ako Thomas, who has been very quiet for the majority of the season, came up with the biggest hit of the series, plating two Wolverines in the 5th inning in what would become the winning runs. Joe Donovan added a sac fly in the 9th for an insurance run and Ben Keizer did the rest, shutting down UCLA in the 8th and 9th for a historic win (not without drama though – UCLA had men on 2nd and 3rd in the 9th).

Try this one on for size:

This is a David and Goliath moment in college baseball. It would be for Michigan regardless of their opponent simply because they were one of the last teams selected to be in the tournament. And then they not only defeat UCLA twice in 3 games, but they had the Bruins on the ropes from the very start. Their entire team looked uncomfortable, as if the prestige of their name alone would be good enough to beat some lowly cold-weather team who couldn’t even win a bad baseball conference. They were completely unprepared for Michigan to fight tooth and nail for every run (Blomgren literally taped up his dislocated fingers and continued playing) and are a prime example as to why going completely untested throughout a season is not always the best conditioning come playoff time.

Blomgren greets his teammates after a huge run in Gmae 3. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

What makes me so proud of this series victory is not that Michigan defeated the #1 team in the country twice in three days and three times in the whole season; not that Michigan clinched their first CWS berth in a generation staring right in the face of the best team in the country; and not that they are the first team north of Louisville to do anything of substance in the tournament in 6 years. What makes me so proud of this series victory is that Michigan completely earned it. Despite all of the negativity surrounding the aura of Michigan athletics and despite being an incredible underdog, thousands of miles away from home, Michigan did not luck their way into a series win. They weren’t the benefactors of any weird pickle hops like they were in the conference tournament and they catch UCLA at half-strength or anything like that. UCLA played some great baseball this series and fought pretty hard themselves to scratch out some wins, but Michigan straight up outplayed the best team in the country.

How good does that look?

I’ve said in earlier posts that if Michigan can put it all together, they are an incredibly talented team. There were glimpses of that happening earlier in the season, but they never really painted the masterpiece. This weekend was Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Rembrandt combined. And if they went 3-1 against the #1 team in the country in 2019, who is to say they can’t hold their own in Omaha?

My heartiest of congratulations to Michigan and Coach Bakich, who took a perpetually average program to complete and unquestioned greatness in a matter of years. But there’s still work to be done.

Some more tweets of the night:

And some of your favorite Michigan alumni react to their team’s success:

Michigan will play Texas Tech this weekend in Omaha. Go blue!

Header photo: Michigan Athletics

Bill Getschman