Michigan baseball players and coaches were a jovial bunch Monday afternoon as they gathered at Ray Fisher Stadium for the NCAA Tournament selection show.
Just two weeks ago, the Wolverines (32-26) were in jeopardy of missing the Big Ten tournament, let alone in the conversation for receiving an NCAA Tournament bid.
But they flipped a switch the final week of the regular season, winning three of their last four to earn the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament. They carried that momentum to Omaha, Nebraska, where they knocked off the top four seeds en route to a league championship and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“They made the adjustment,” head coach Erik Bakich told reporters Monday after seeing his team will head to the Louisville, Kentucky regional and will open against Oregon at 7 p.m. Friday. “All the credit goes to the players because they’re the ones who could have got down and mailed it in and they didn’t. That’s really a program thing. We feel like we’re never out of the fight. It’s one thing to say, ‘You got to get up off the mat.’ It’s another thing to do it.
“Not to use the Rocky IV analogy, but we have a lot of gadgets and tech and things here, but we kind of put the Ivan Drago fancy stuff away and just got back to good old-fashioned Rocky Balboa competing. I thought it really paid off for our guys. They embraced and it gave us the spark that we needed the last couple of weeks.”
The team hit its nadir May 15 as Maryland pummeled it 15-10 to complete a three-game sweep. Michigan had been outscored 43-23 and returned home on a five-game losing streak in conference play.
For a program that had reached two straight NCAA Tournaments and was predicted to finish second in the conference, the struggles baffled Bakich.
“I think it just got to that point where we’re legitimately staring in the face the option, mathematically, of not even making the Big Ten tournament,” Bakich said. “I think for some guys, it’s just like, ‘What are we doing?’ We just need to go back to old-fashioned blue collar compete and have some fun playing a kids game. They did all those things. They had great focus while they competed but yet they were loose and having fun at the same time. That’s a tough combo to have both, because you can be super locked in and really tight or you can be loose and get sloppy. But they managed the best of both worlds.”
The Wolverines’ offense has been the staple of their success all season, and their bats remained hot during the Big Ten tournament. They batted .331, had a .440 on-base percentage and scored 48 runs in the five games.
But the team’s drastic turnaround on the mound is what helped change shootout losses earlier in the season into victories in Omaha. Michigan finished 12th in the conference with a 7.03 ERA but stifled some of the league’s best offenses in the tournament.
Sophomore Chase Allen, who has the team’s lowest ERA at 3.95, allowed just two runs on five hits in eight innings during the tournament. Junior Cameron Weston pitched seven innings and gave up just one run while striking out 11. Even Jacob Denner, who allowed three runs without recording an out in Saturday’s 7-3 loss to Iowa, bounced back with arguably his best performance of the season in Sunday’s championship against No. 2 seed Rutgers, which boasts the league’s top offense.
He came on in relief in the second inning and allowed just one run over 4 1/3 innings, striking out seven.
“I wouldn’t say something flipped,” Allen said. “We’re really just getting hot at the right time. I think we got a great group of guys who put in hard work all year. I think early, it was a little up and down. It’s not what we wanted; it’s not what we expected, especially with how much guys care and how much guys put the work in. But I think we’re starting to see those results now.”
Bakich credited the stark improvement on the mount to a shift in philosophy.
“Picking ourselves up after that series (against Maryland) was step one, but then making the necessary adjustments,” Bakich said. “Instead of focusing on what our stuff is and how hard we’re throwing and how the ball’s moving, put the gadgets away, put the radars away, put the cameras away and just be about throw it where you want to and compete while you’re doing it. It really just got off of the Ivan Drago and onto the Rocky Balboa. It was a mindset shift. Not that every game was perfect after that, but it was just the mindset was right. When you have the right mindset and you’re competing and you understand location and commands of your pitches may be more important than stuff or how hard it is or how it’s moving.”
Michigan’s late-reason run has drawn parallels to the program’s 2019 season, when it won three games in the Big Ten Tournament before falling to Nebraska in the semifinals. The victories were enough to earn the final at-large bid into the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, and the Wolverines fell one win short of a national championship.
They are hoping to engineer another deep tournament again in 2022. But a return trip to Omaha can’t happen unless it advances through the regional, which is hosted by No. 12 overall seed Louisville.
“In general, I think there’s a lot of talent,” said shortstop Riley Bertram, one of three current Wolverines to appear in a 2019 College World Series game. “A lot of people look at that 2019 team as a Cinderella story, but they don’t look deep down about the talent on that team. There’s skilled players from top to bottom. I think this team is the same way in terms of, in a couple years, you’re gonna look back and say, ‘Wow, that team had some talent.’”