Bakich’s Patient Plan Pays Off With CWS Finals TripCollege World Series
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OMAHA — Even when others didn’t, Erik Bakich always believed in the Michigan dream.
Bakich earned a stellar reputation in the coaching community for the job he did as an assistant at Vanderbilt. He also did a solid job in his three-year stint as the head coach at Maryland, guiding the Terps to 32 wins in his final season in 2012. Then, Michigan called.
The Wolverines were looking to make a move in the Big Ten Conference, while also hoping to jockey for position on the national stage. The Wolverines hadn’t reached the College World Series since 1984 when Barry Larkin and others graced the roster. But Michigan had the facilities, it had the national brand. Now all it needed was a transformative coach who had a history of working wonders.
Bakich has believed in this program since day one, and that belief came to fruition Friday afternoon as the Wolverines punched their ticket to the CWS Championship Series with a dominant 15-3 win over Texas Tech. Michigan hopes to earn the Big Ten’s first national title since 1966.
“I feel like I handed the keys off and am letting someone else drive right now,” Bakich said. “A month ago at the Big Ten tournament, we were playing not to lose, and we were squeezing it. And you could tell we were just puckered up, and we weren’t playing well.
“And now, they’re loose,” he continued. “They’re laughing, smiling and having a great time. And they’re not thinking ahead. They’re not making the moment too big. They’re just playing pitch to pitch and competing as hard as they can. So, to be able to see — we’re not here if we’re not staring down not even making the postseason a month ago and seeing the difference in the way we play. And we’re not here if we don’t get knocked to the ground and have those moments of adversity along the way with the Corvallis Regional and the Super Regional.
“It’s just all those experiences have calloused our mind,” he said. “And it’s made this a very resilient group.”
Not everything about Bakich’s tenure at Michigan has been as easy as it has looked at the CWS today or over the past week. The Wolverines finished two games over .500 in his first season at the helm before finishing his second season just one game over .500. Bakich won 39 and 36 games, respectively, the next two seasons before guiding the Wolverines to a 40-win campaign in 2017.
That campaign caught the attention of a college baseball power — Stanford. While Stanford ultimately ended up hiring alum and California head coach Dave Esquer, Bakich would’ve been the choice for the Cardinal. Instead, he surprised many around the college baseball community when he decided to stay put at Michigan. Bakich had turned down a program with consistent trips and success in Omaha for one where Omaha seemed somewhat like a pipe dream.
But he believed in this program, its vision and had no doubt Michigan would make a splash on the national stage. So, he stayed put.
“I’m not sure if I had exact thoughts about winning a national championship, but I just thought that the group of recruits we had coming in couple with the guys we already had returning, we had a chance to have, you know, some really special teams. And you know, just to see it through.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in building something and seeing the fruits of your labor. I think at a place like Stanford, people expect you to get to Omaha. Michigan, maybe not so much, so it’s pretty cool,” Bakich continued. “It would have been really hard to walk away from something knowing that we had done all this work to lay the foundation and build it, and then turn around and watch someone else take this program the distance.”
Bakich expounded on his decision to stay at Michigan.
“I think there’s a lot of satisfaction in building something and staying and continuing to make it grow,” he continued. “And there haven’t been a lot of programs that have done the same thing. Programs like Vandy and Louisville, along with UCLA and Virginia, that 15 or 20 years ago, weren’t juggernauts in college baseball. But those coaches dug their heels in and stayed and built those programs despite having opportunities to go elsewhere.
“You know, if we can build this into a national championship contender year in and year out, that would be great. Nowhere is perfect, and yes we have a tough winter,” he continued. “But we’re continually supported by our administration, and there’s no reason why we need to go 35 years without returning here. Hopefully we’ve moved the needle enough to get over the hump and to become a mainstay who competes for these things on a consistent basis.”
It’s well documented by now that Michigan was one of the final four teams in the NCAA tournament field. It entered the season with high hopes, a Top 20 national ranking and with a roster more than capable of making big waves on the national stage.
But for much of the season, the Wolverines didn’t play like an elite team. They were dominated by Texas Tech 29-10 on the road earlier this year and entered the Big Ten tournament in need of some wins just to make the NCAA postseason. They didn’t have any marquee wins outside of a single win over UCLA. In the conference tournament, the Wolverines lost to rival Ohio State and narrowly defeated Illinois in an elimination game to stay alive. Michigan proceeded to advance to the tourney title game before losing to Nebraska. Michigan had to deal with adversity again in the Corvallis Regional after blowing a lead to Creighton in an 11-7 loss. But the Wolverines came back the next day and blew out the Bluejays, 17-6 to advance to the Super Regional round. They disposed of UCLA in grueling but impressive fashion, setting the stage for the current run in Omaha.
Michigan is playing on another level right now.
Though Karl Kauffmann didn’t have his best stuff against Texas Tech on Friday, he still allowed just three runs on six hits in six innings. Meanwhile, the offense continues to show an incredible amount of balance. Jimmy Kerr had a huge day at the plate, going 4-for-6 with a pair of home runs. He also reached base via a bunt, something Texas Tech’s Tim Tadlock didn’t see coming. He never saw Kerr bunt on film.
“I think every guy we saw in their starting lineup, and obviously. Kauffmann and Criswell, and watching Henry throw the other night, that’s pretty much the blueprint for how you get to the title series,” Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said. “We played them a while back and that’s not the same team we played. And their staff is to be commended for that. Their starting pitching is phenomenal. To a man, their lineup, every guy in their lineup has gotten better since we’ve seen them.
“And really, I was just impressed,” he continued. “I think to get to next week you either got to be a lot better than everybody to begin with, or you gotta continue to get better. And my experience with this is if you have a team that wins the last day, most of the time those guys want to keep working. You can just see their team has continued to work at it, that’s for sure.”
Michigan is one of those teams where you pick your poison. It can beat you with pitching, it can beat you with the long ball and it can do the little things right. This team also is in a terrific mindset. After beating Tech this afternoon, Kauffmann and other players were asked about advancing to play for a national title. Kauffmann didn’t flinch and he didn’t crack some sort of huge smile. He adjusted himself in his chair, leaned toward the microphone and perfected this team’s mindset throughout this run.
“I think something that’s kind of been beneficial for us is not really thinking about playing for a national championship or the stage we’re on,” Kauffmann said. “It’s literally been a one-game, one-pitch mindset. And I think we kind of learned our lesson in the Corvallis Regional about making the moment too big.
“So, I think it’s something where everybody’s kind of slowing the game down,” he continued. “So, to be able to minimize the situation and just kind of keep playing. That’s all I’ve been thinking about it.”
Michigan’s players might be taking everything one game at a time here in Omaha, but today was a magical moment for the program, Big Ten and Bakich.
Bakich had an opportunity to head for greener pastures not too long ago. It was tempting, there’s no doubt about that. But he had a feeling the Wolverines were close to turning a corner, and he wanted to see that process through.
Now, he’s two wins away from winning a national title.