Graphic courtesy of NCAA.com

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CWS Finals Preview: A Rising Power Vs. ‘The Gold Standard’

College World Series

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OMAHA — Most college baseball coaches look to Vanderbilt as a model program — the Commodores have been a consistent superpower over the last dozen years, and Vandy coach Tim Corbin is universally respected and admired by his peers because of the way he runs his program and who he is as a person. But more than any other program, Michigan has sought to emulate Vanderbilt’s culture and follow Vandy’s roadmap for success. That’s because Michigan coach Erik Bakich had a hand in building up the Vanderbilt machine during his days as an assistant to Corbin in Nashville. His style as a head coach was shaped by his years learning under Corbin.

A decade ago, when Bakich left the nest and took his first head coaching job at Maryland, he talked about trying to do what Corbin did: taking a program without a strong baseball tradition and instilling a winning culture.

“It’s a situation like Vanderbilt all over again, because we didn’t have a strong fan base in 2002 and 2003,” Bakich said in June of 2009, shortly after taking over as Maryland’s coach. “But people enjoyed seeing the energy, the kids sprinting on and off the field. We’ve got to instill that hard-nosed, aggressive, blue-collar brand of baseball, creating an identity. We’ve got to get these players to play with an edge, play with confidence.”

Those qualities have become synonymous with Vanderbilt baseball during Corbin’s 17-year tenure as head coach.

“I think I can speak for most of the young kids in America, what Coach Corbin has done for the program, that’s one of the schools that when you grow up, you think about it, you watch their highlight videos on YouTube, you watch the [between-innings stretching] stuff they do in the outfield, and obviously them coming to Omaha, and they’ve really built one of the gold-standard programs in the country,” Michigan catcher Joe Donovan said. “I know a lot of schools across the country look up to them as far as how you go to and the point you want to reach, and they’ve definitely inspired a lot of young kids to want to go play college baseball instead of pro ball, just because it looks so much fun with everything they do. And they obviously set the bar for where you want your program to be with I think it was three [Finals appearances] in the last six years, if I’m not mistaken.”

So this week, Vanderbilt finds itself right where it was expected to be: in the CWS Finals. D1Baseball’s preseason No. 1 team, Vanderbilt is the most talented team in college baseball, and it led the nation with 13 players drafted, with a slew of rising blue-chip talents in the freshman and sophomore classes. Vanderbilt is 57-11, the SEC regular-season and tournament champion, a team that has won 33 of its last 36 games. In other words, Vanderbilt is an established behemoth at the very height of its powers.

But Michigan, which will face off with Vandy in the best-of-three Finals starting Monday night, is a program that is still on the rise. The Wolverines are playing for the national title for the first time since 1962 — when current first baseman Jimmy Kerr’s grandfather John played for the team. Kerr’s father, Derek, was on the roster the last time the Wolverines were in Omaha, back in 1984. So while Michigan has a rich baseball tradition, it’s been a long, long time since the Wolverines took center stage on a national level.

Michigan’s Jimmy Kerr (Eric Sorenson)

But Bakich has spent the last seven years building Michigan to this point. He’s had good teams in Ann Arbor before, but this team entered the season with the highest expectations during his tenure, with a preseason No. 17 ranking. Back in March, when the Wolverines were 14-4, I wrote this:

So there are a lot of reasons for Michigan fans to feel good about where this team is, and where it’s heading. Michigan has the talent to win a regional and make a run at Omaha; it’s just a matter of finally putting it all together down the stretch. Last year, the Wolverines were right in the thick of the at-large race until losing seven of their last nine games and missing out on regionals. In 2017 they won 42 games and made a regional, but finished with a whimper, going 0-2 at the Big Ten tournament and then 0-2 in regionals. And in 2016 they lost nine of their final 11 games to fall out of at-large position.

“Like any team, you just want to be playing well at the end,” Bakich said. “That’s something we’ve fallen short of a little bit, haven’t won the Big Ten regular season and haven’t put our best foot forward in the postseason. So that’s something that this group has really discussed at length, just growth and ownership, continuing with those two themes really from the fall all the way through the season. Everybody taking ownership of their roles and the ability to add as much value to the team as you can.”

Erik Bakich and Tim Corbin (Kendall Rogers)

But even in March, Bakich detected something a little bit different about this group of Wolverines. “I just like the consistent approach to this group and the consistency with which they have done everything, from our training sessions to the classroom, it’s all kind of in line,” he said heading into Michigan’s Week Six series at Texas Tech. “We had our best team GPA, our best leaders. It just feels right.”

Still, Michigan needed an “organic” and “authentic” moment (to use Bakich’s phrasing) in the Big Ten tournament for everything to click. The Wolverines failed to hold a 1.5-game lead in the Big Ten standings in the final weekend, finishing in second place and with zero series wins against regional teams on their resumé, which meant they needed to do some work in the conference tournament to bolster their at-large chances. On the brink of going 0-2, the Wolverines came from behind to beat Illinois in walk-off fashion, and that served as a springboard. They wound up going 3-2 in the Big Ten tournament to squeak into regionals as one of the last four teams in the field of 64. Then they won the Corvallis Regional, despite blowing a 7-4 lead against Creighton on Sunday night, when they allowed seven runs in the ninth. The next day they hammered the Bluejays 17-6, earning them a trip to Los Angeles to face No. 1 national seed UCLA in super regionals. And they took down the Bruins in three tense, competitive games.

Corbin said Michigan’s coalescence reminded him of the 2014 Vanderbilt team that won the national championship.

“There was a moment in 2014 where we were very similar to Michigan, where we found our playing personality,” Corbin said. “And I don’t ever like the word ‘hot’ because I think ‘hot’ means that you can play well just in certain circumstances. I think sometimes teams, it takes them a while, 30, 40, 50 games to find their playing personality. In 2014 we did that. We did it after the SEC tournament. We had spurts of it, but we didn’t develop that consistency that you need in order to finish something off until right about the same time Erik’s team did.

“So I think there’s a lot of similarities that way, and you develop into an elite team. And you might not have been an elite team in April, but you have the parts and the components to be an elite team if you find yourself in experiences that will allow you to do that, and we found ourselves in that situation in 2014, and Erik’s team has certainly found that this year.”

Both these teams have played at an exceptionally high level here in Omaha during their 3-0 runs to the Finals. Vanderbilt’s pitching has smothered Louisville twice and Mississippi State once, allowing just six runs total in those three games for a CWS-best 1.67 ERA. Vandy is hitting just .217 as a team in Omaha, but its power has been a difference maker, as Vandy has four homers and five doubles in its three games.

Michigan actually leads the CWS in batting (.276) and on-base percentage (.398), and it is the only team that has not made an error in three games. The Wolverines also have allowed just six runs in three games, and their pitching staff is holding opponents to a .196 batting average. So while Michigan is clearly an underdog against the most talented team in college baseball, it sure isn’t playing like an underdog here in Omaha.

To illustrate the point: Michigan wound up getting waxed in that three-game sweep at Texas Tech back in March, getting outscored 29-10. But when the two teams met up again twice in Omaha, Michigan did the waxing, outscoring TTU 20-6. Seeds don’t matter now, and regular-season successes or failures don’t matter either. Michigan has found its “playing personality,” and it has proven it can beat anybody in the country.

Vanderbilt ace Drake Fellows (Mandy Sorenson)

We know what to expect from Vanderbilt on the mound: ace Drake Fellows in Game One, electrifying freshman Kumar Rocker in Game Two, and Mason Hickman in Game Three if necessary, with Tyler Brown anchoring the bullpen. It will be interesting to see how Michigan handles its pitching; the Wolverines have used just three arms in Omaha, getting a complete-game shutout from lefty Tommy Henry, two strong starts from righty Karl Kauffman, and two shutdown relief appearances from Jeff Criswell (who spent all season in the rotation). Will the Wolverines continue to ride Criswell’s mid-90s heat and wipeout power slider out of the bullpen, or will they save him for a Game Two start and call upon Ben Keizer, Isaiah Paige and Willie Weiss out of the ’pen, as they have all season?

Henry will start the opener, and given the way he neutralized FSU’s lefthanded hitters last week, he figures to have a shot to contain the four dangerous lefties in the heart of the Vandy lineup (JJ Bleday, Ethan Paul, Philip Clarke and Stephen Scott). But Florida State is not Vanderbilt, and don’t expect Henry to go the distance and shut out the Commodore offense. Odds are, Michigan will need some more arms to take the mound and perform well in order to win this series. If the series gets to Wednesday, expect Kauffmann to come back on four days’ rest to make his third start of the CWS. Henry and Kauffmann were both second-round picks in the draft; they have the talent to beat anybody, including Vandy, if they continue to pitch as well as they have in the postseason. But they face a menacing challenge against the nation’s best offense.

It should be a compelling matchup because of all the talent in both dugouts, and because of how well both teams are playing. And the coaching storyline only adds more intrigue. Can the program that has aspired to become a Northern version of Vanderbilt take down the program that already is Vanderbilt?

“This is the first time seeing this guy not in the same uniform together, and I know I wouldn’t be here without him,” Bakich said of Corbin. “We were talking last night, there’s not a better way for our friendship, our families to see each other than to be, like he said, at the pinnacle of our game right now. But we’re both just so incredibly happy for our players and their families, our coaches and their families, and to be the last two teams standing, that’s special.”

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