Tenacious Offense Continues To Shine For MichiganCollege World Series
OMAHA — Michigan’s starting pitching has been so good in the College World Series that it would be easy to lose sight of just how good the offense has been. Michigan pitchers Tommy Henry, Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell have been lights-out through four CWS games, combining to go 4-0, 2.25 with 33 strikeouts and seven walks in 36 innings. That’s a big reason Michigan finds itself one win away from its first national title since 1962.
But the Wolverines have also been the best offensive team in Omaha, by a wide margin. The other seven teams have hit a combined .228 in the CWS. Michigan is hitting .299, and it has drawn 24 walks in four games, leading to a .410 on-base percentage. No other team has better than a .361 OBP in Omaha.
For the fourth straight game, the Wolverines scored in the first inning Monday in the CWS Finals opener against Vanderbilt, and they kept the pressure on throughout the game, en route to a 7-4 victory. There has been no anxiety about playing on college baseball’s biggest stage; this team has come out loose and aggressive in all four of its CWS games, setting the tone in the first inning and never losing control.
“Everybody has said that. Everybody has commented on that: ‘You guys look so loose, you guys look like you’re having a lot of fun.’ And we are,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “We’ve been on the road for six weeks and having the time of our lives. So we are loose. I would say that it’s just the recognition of the difference of when we weren’t loose and how we played, and how we play when we are loose and what a stark contrast it is in not only the execution on the field but the enjoyment factor of playing the game.”
On Monday, it was obvious once again just how much fun these Wolverines are having together. Their sheer joy was infectious.
After building a 4-0 lead through two innings, Michigan watched as Vanderbilt clawed back into the game, cutting the lead to 4-3 after six innings. And then Jimmy Kerr smacked a two-run homer in the seventh to give Michigan some breathing room once again. Big Ten player of the year Jordan Brewer was on first base when Kerr hit his huge homer — his third long ball of the CWS.
“That was huge, that was so huge. Once we got that run, it was over,” Brewer said. “As soon as he hit that, it was like, ‘This is ours again. This is ours. This is ours.’
“I sat there and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ That feeling right there, just knowing the ball’s going out, you’re just standing there, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It’s amazing. I’m surprised I even have a voice right now, I’m screaming out, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!’ That’s the fun of it, screaming with your teammates enjoying it. We’re never going to forget that moment.”
Vanderbilt had a shot to get back into the game in the eighth, when Austin Martin led off with a walk and Ethan Paul delivered a single to right field two batters later. But Martin attempted to go first-to-third, and right fielder Brewer cut him down with a bullet throw, short-circuiting Vandy’s last legitimate comeback attempt. Henry, Michigan’s starting pitcher, pointed to Brewer in appreciation.
“I don’t think I’ve yelled that loud on the baseball field in a long time,” Henry said. “I mean, just how big of a spot it was, how tough of a throw it was, and how easy he made it look was awesome. Honestly, like when I saw the guy rounding second base, in my head I was saying, ‘Eat it, eat it, eat it,’ but you’ve got to trust Brewer’s arm, and he let it show. So it was a huge moment, a huge momentum swing. Yeah, I owe him dinner or something.”
After Henry ended the inning with a strikeout one batter later, Brewer sprinted back to the Michigan dugout, leaping and shouting, with an ear-to-ear smile splitting his face.
“It was unreal. I’d rather do that than hit a home run,” Brewer said. “I looked at my card, I knew he was a green runner before it even happened, so I knew he was going to go if the ball got in my way. I already envisioned it, I already saw it in my head, and it was amazing. As soon as I did it, I just instantly tried to hype everyone up, just trying to get everyone going again. Get the energy going in the stadium again. It was unreal. It was an unreal feeling.”
But back to that Michigan offense. Jordan Nwogu led off the first inning with a walk against Drake Fellows, and just like that Michigan was in business. Jesse Franklin followed with a single, and Nwogu was thrown out trying to go first-to-third, but that couldn’t deflate the Michigan rally. Brewer followed with an RBI double into the right-field corer, and Blake Nelson drove him in with a single two batters later. Just like that, Michigan had a 2-0 lead that it would not relinquish.
The Wolverines padded that lead with two more runs in the second, as Jack Blomgren and Joe Donovan began the inning with back-to-back walks, and both of them came around to score. Michigan is averaging six walks per game in Omaha — its plate discipline is a huge reason for its CWS success.
“I think as a team, we just try to hunt fastballs as much as we can, and if it’s in the zone and a good count, then just try to drive it,” said Donovan, who added an insurance run with a solo homer in the eighth. “Coach said there’s only two counts: there’s non-two-strike counts and then there’s two-strike counts. If you’re in a non-two-strike count and then you just look for a pitch that you can smash, and if you are, you just try to fight off as many as possible.
“Like Jack Blomgren today is an example of that, using two-strike counts, just fouled them off, fouled them off, fouled them off. It’s so great for our entire team for that because you’re able to get a guy’s pitch count so far up, and Drake, who’s such a great pitcher, we were able to get his pitch count pretty high and get into their bullpen.”
Michigan wound up out-hitting Vanderbilt 14-7 and drew six walks against Vandy’s one. So even though the Wolverines left 12 runners on base, they were able to apply constant pressure throughout the game, and they converted on enough of those scoring opportunities to win.
Pitching has been Michigan’s greatest strength this year — and it remained a strength on Monday, as Henry pitched into the ninth and held Vanderbilt’s high-octane offense in check. But that disciplined, tenacious offense has also peaked at the perfect time, making this Michigan offense extremely difficult to navigate.
“Well, Joe alluded to it. We shrink the zone with less than two strikes. We look for pitches to smash,” Bakich said. “A lot of times that’s — could be a fastball, could be an elevated mistake offspeed pitch, whatever. It doesn’t always have to be a fastball. But shrinking the zone, every hitter knows where they hit the ball the hardest. For us it’s all about how hard you hit it. We don’t care about launch angle, we just care about how hard you hit it.
“And understanding that having the discipline to try to shrink the zone and just go after those pitches you can hit the hardest with less than two strikes is going to put you in good hitters’ counts. And when you do have two strikes, we talk about it becoming a team at-bat. It’s no longer your at-bat, it’s a team at-bat, and your job is to get in there and be as gritty as you possibly can and fight to win the next pitch and see another pitch. If it means you’ve got to stick your butt out and foul a pitch off, we’re not interested in twitter swings with two strikes, we just want to be gritty. Gritty, not pretty. Our guys have bought into that so well, and you see it when it’s on display there, and having some of the two-strike battles that we had tonight that led to runs or led to guys getting on base, I’m just so impressed with our guys and how they fight pitch to pitch, especially with two strikes.”
The Wolverines know they’re up against a major challenge Tuesday with ultra-talented freshman Kumar Rocker slated to take the mound for Vanderbilt, but this Michigan offense is playing with so much confidence, maturity and discipline that it won’t be easy to contain. Rocker has one of the best breaking balls in the country, but Michigan is ready for it.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us tomorrow because the deal with Rocker is just the breaking ball is tough to pick up and it’s late and it’s got depth,” Bakich said. “So we know he’s very good. We know Fellows is very good, too, and the whole pitching staff is good. The whole team is good. These types of games, it’s who can play the best.”
And there’s no question, to this point in the CWS, Michigan has played the best. It just needs to play the best one more time in order to hoist the national championship trophy.