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Michigan Baseball 2019, a summary
Due to the recent ESPN telecasts, college baseball fans outside of the Big Ten may now have some familiarity with Michigan. But I have no idea what their announcers may have said, watching with the sound off; these are my takes from having watched them in person this year, about 18 games or so in all. Plus some background.
Michigan has a long and significant baseball history, highlighted by two national titles, in 1953 and 1962. Among the list of important baseball graduates are George Sisler, Branch Rickey, Don Lund, Bill Freehan, Elliott Maddox, Steve Boros, Steve Ontiveros, Rick Leach, Steve Howe, Barry Larkin, Jim Abbott, Chris Sabo, Mike Matheny and Rich Hill. But it has not been since the 1984 Larkin team that Michigan has been in the CWS. First baseman Jimmy Kerr's father Derek was the catcher on that team, and his grandfather John pitched on the last (1962) title team. In the 1962 Kalamazoo regional, John Kerr pitched a double header win--not in a double header but the double header--as in, 19 innings, straight, winning both games. Jim Abbott you may know as the guy who showed that a second arm was somewhat superfluous for a pitcher, even at the highest level.
Branch Rickey was of course instrumental in breaking the MLB color barrier, bringing a former UCLA track star by the name of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, a fact which transcends baseball in American historical importance. If you walk straight north out of the office doors of Ray Fisher stadium, you cross a small parking lot and then enter onto the track where one Jesse Owens set four world track and field records there one day in 1935. This was about a year before a similar feat in Berlin, where Jackie Robinson's brother also won a silver medal. George Sisler, as it turns out, was also Robinson's hitting coach early on with the Dodgers, and was responsible for helping him raise his average significantly. So, there's some history here.
Michigan's head coach is Erik Bakich, in his seventh year, was formerly head coach at Maryland, and before that a longtime assistant of Tim Corbin at Vanderbilt. Pitching coach Chris Fetter played for UM about a decade back, on teams that won three Big Ten titles and made four NCAA tournaments. He owns the all-time innings pitched record at UM (332) and ranks third in wins (28), and fstrikeouts (281).
Overall, the Maize and Blue are a very well-balanced team, with no obvious weaknesses in any aspect of the game, arguably moreso than any other Big Ten team. Offensively, it's a good balance of power, speed, plate discipline, baserunning and sacrificing. Michigan uses their DH differently than most teams: Jordan Nwogu (local product of Pioneer High School, across the street from the Big House), bats leadoff, has very good speed, and hits for both average and power. Junior right fielder Jordan Brewer hits third, and is the key position player, a true five-tool player, hitting for average and power, stealing bases and making great plays in the outfield. He was a key addition this year, coming in from Lincoln Trail Community College in Illinois. Virtually unkown just one year ago, he was taken in the third round of the draft last week by the Astros. Brewer is part Potawatami Indian (the tattoo on his left arm is of a Potawatami chief), and Michigan benefitted from the tribe's scholarship program covering about 70% of his tuition. Michigan also has a strong Native American scholarship program, stemming from the school's 1817 charter and ensuing land purchases for the campuses.
Every position player has come up with big hits at various times, including recently--the load is well distributed. Second baseman Ako Thomas and center fielder Jesse Franklin both had very slow starts offensively but eventually came around and made important contributions down the stretch. The one playing the most above his seasonal norm lately has been Kerr, who hit four home runs in the Corvallis regional (including one over the batter's eye in center). Kerr and Franklin carried the offensive load from the left side this year; both can hammer it and they also draw a lot of walks. Lately, Christian Bullock has joined them. Bullock replaced an injured Brewer for a few games in the Big Ten tourney, and did so well that when Brewer came back that he then replaced Miles Lewis in left field, who did not play at all in Los Angeles. Whether with Lewis or Bullock, the Michigan outfield is outstanding and fun to watch.
Aside from Brewer, the starting pitching probably draws the most attention. Originally, the rotation order was Henry, Kauffmann, Criswell, but Henry struggled mid-season and in April, Kauffmann and he switched spots. In the playoffs, Criswell has now been moved into the #2 spot, although Henry getting sick in LA was a complicating factor there. Henry is pitching much better lately, and Kauffmann even moreso. The biggest wins of the year arguably belong to Criswell--he has stopped the bleeding so many times that I think he is a co-MVP of this team, along with Brewer. You'd be hard pressed to find a more important third starter in the country, as illustrated by Bakich bringing him in to finish game one against UCLA, and then starting him the very next day.
Probably the biggest concern right now is the bullpen, and in particular, freshman closer Willie Weiss. He is the reason Criswell was used to close the first UCLA game. Weiss has a good fastball and a great slider, but just cannot find the zone right now and Bakich has him on a super short leash. Without a doubt, UM will be using this off-week to work with him intensively to help find it again--and if he does, look out. Jack Weisenburger has also had some similar issues at times, and also similar stuff. On the positive side, southpaw reliever Ben Keizer came through in a very big way in games two and three against UCLA last weekend. So the group meltdown against Creighton may well have been a one-time anomaly.
Starting with the obvious, Michigan is hot, playing their best baseball of the year, beating several high to very high caliber teams over the last three weeks or so. But a month ago it was another story. If college baseball had a "Morgue Escape" award, Michigan would win it this year: they were exactly one strike away from the off-season on May 23rd in the 2nd game of the Big Ten tourney, facing Illinois closer Garrett Acton, one of the best in the country. But second baseman Ako Thomas coaxed a full count walk, and a subsequent double by DH Jordan Nwogu gave them a walk-off win. Had they lost, it would have capped a disastrous 2-7 end to the season, very similar to last year. Instead, two more wins followed and that was enough to send the mortician away.
The season started well, but against weak competition down south. The California spring break trip March 1-10 was much tougher, scheduled opponents including UCLA, USC, Oklahoma State, Northridge, Irvine (rained out), and Long Beach; overall success was mixed but playing one on UCLA's field turned out not to hurt anything. A shorter trip later to Lubbock involved four games with Texas Tech and Stetson, and Tech swept a series that was not close. The home schedule was fairly weak, San Jose State (who played well early on) and Indiana State being the main non-conf. competition. The Indiana and Minnesota series were in Ann Arbor, but on the year, UM played far and away their toughest competition on the road.
Always a fun topic. I think there is something to be said for this team's ability to respond when their backs are against the wall. The Illinois game is just one example, but the third games of the series against Ohio State, Indiana, and Nebraska are others, Michigan narrowly avoiding being swept each time. The bullpen meltdown against Creighton was as demoralizing as it gets, but they came back with a strong win, and the game two loss at UCLA just about as bad and could very well have been the end. The Wolverines also have five games at TD-A under their belts, and three more against Saturday's opponent, Texas Tech. That's won't hurt anything either.
Negatives: night games, very little experience there.
One of the stranger moments of the season came in a game against Manhattan in March. I was not at this game but was watching a live stream of it. When I came back from a short break, the stream was still running...but with no human beings to be seen anywhere. Nobody on the field, none in the dugouts, none in the stands, no announcers talking, nothing coming over the PA...no sign of life whatsoever. Just a silent view of the field from near the first base dugout, with the flag waving out there beyond the left-center field fence, going on for several minutes. It turns out that an "active shooter alert" had just been issued and the entire field and stadium evacuated in a matter of minutes, including the camera person. Fortunately, this was a false alarm, but it took several hours to confirm this and so the game did not resume until the next day.
The Bowling Green game was also interrupted but it was more fun. Already pretty entertaining from stellar defensive plays all around, a nice light show was then added, courtesy of mother nature. In a teachable moment I found that lingering near the flag pole during an official lightning delay increases one's chances of being yelled at by the staff. But a little yelling is a fair exchange for an unplanned personal barbecue when you think it through a second time. Fortunately Bowling Green ended up being the barbecue-e.
submitted by jrbouldin