Image credit: Karl Kauffman (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Getty Images)
OMAHA — There’s something different about winning a College World Series game, even when compared to other postseason games. The stakes are higher, sure, but it’s more than that.
It takes playing well, and perhaps some luck, but it also often takes bucking convention and taking some chances.
In a 5-3 win Saturday against Texas Tech to begin its stay in Omaha, Michigan did both, and it paid off.
On its face, betting on righthander Karl Kauffmann doesn’t seem like taking much of a chance. He’s been steady all year, and in his two starts so far this postseason, he allowed all of two earned runs in 17 innings against Creighton and UCLA.
In the context of this particular game, however, Michigan coach Erik Bakich took a chance by sticking with his righthander, because the first few innings weren’t easy.
He stranded a runner in the first inning after a one-out, Brian Klein single and left two more on in the second. Then, in the third inning, the Red Raiders broke through on a two-run homer from Klein.
As things moved into the middle innings, in a game this big and protecting what was then a 4-2 lead, the easy move might have been to turn things over to the bullpen, or at the very least, have someone hot in the bullpen ready to come in.
On top of that, history wasn’t on Michigan’s side. Back on March 22, Kauffmann took the mound against Texas Tech and things didn’t go well. In five innings, he allowed nine hits and six runs in a 10-3 loss. Perhaps the best move was to have a contingency plan and prepare for the worst.
But beginning in those middle innings, Kauffmann fought to stay in the game rather than letting things snowball. He allowed just one base runner between the fourth and fifth innings, and even in the sixth, when Texas Tech scored a run, he did a masterful job of limiting the damage.
Josh Jung led off the inning with a single and Cameron Warren followed with a double into the left-field corner. But after a pair of groundouts and a strikeout of Kurt Wilson, the Red Raiders came away with just one run and Michigan still led 4-3.
After working around a leadoff single by pinch-hitter Easton Murrell in the seventh, Kauffmann finished off a performance that was short on snappy, breezy innings and long on toughness and moxie.
“He’s a mature pitcher, he’s a junior,” Bakich said. “He has advanced feel for three pitches. He throws a ton of strikes. He didn’t walk anyone today and that’s his bread and butter. You know, early in his career, he was more enamored with trying to get more velocity and now he has really leveraged that turbo sinking arm-side run fastball because it just gets off the barrel and he generates so much ground ball contact, that’s why the Colorado Rockies drafted him.”
In the end, Kauffmann, who two weeks ago was drafted 77th overall, threw seven innings, allowing eight hits and three runs with no walks and three strikeouts. He didn’t dominate, but as Bakich alluded to, he induced a ton of weak contact.
Catcher Joe Donovan, agrees with his head coach on what has made Kauffmann such a success of late.
“He’s just done a fantastic job this postseason forcing that ball low in the zone, which is going to get weak contact, which is one of the reasons he got drafted so high is because of his fastball movement,” Donovan said. “He’s just done a fantastic job with that.”
Where Bakich bucked convention was in his bullpen usage once Kauffmann exited after 101 pitches. His team had added an insurance run in the seventh, so with a 5-3 lead, the conventional move would have been to go to one of his typical relievers like righthanders Isaiah Paige and Willie Weiss or lefthander Ben Keizer.
But instead, he turned to righthander Jeff Criswell, the Wolverines’ Sunday starter, who undoubtedly would have started a game later in this event, and now that Michigan is in the winner’s bracket, still might. It mirrored the strategy of the Los Angeles Super Regional, when Criswell got the final two outs of 3-2 win in Game 1 before starting Game 2. Criswell pitched out of the bullpen last year as a freshman, but this season has been a part of Michigan’s excellent rotation.
Bakich wasn’t going to save anyone for the possibility his team might make a deep run. Today was all about winning today.
“We thought going in we were going to not save anybody,” Bakich said. “The way we’ve been approaching all these tournaments is we’re just going to worry about Game 1 and do whatever we have to do in Game 1 and worry about Game 2 in Game 2.”
The approach paid off again, as Criswell got the final six outs to close out the win, working around a walk in the eighth and two base runners in the ninth. Further driving home the point that he wasn’t thinking ahead, warming in the bullpen in case Criswell couldn’t finish was lefthander Tommy Henry, another weekend starter.
Pitching won the day for the Wolverines, but they had the benefit of working from ahead all game long. After scoring its first run on a Jordan Brewer sacrifice fly in the first inning, Michigan made it a 4-0 lead with a three-run third inning, highlighted by a two-run double off the bat of first baseman Jimmy Kerr.
“Guys did a great job setting the tone, getting on base, and our two-strike approach as a team, choke up on the barrel, put it in play and make something happen, and (I) just got a pitch that I was able to put something in play on,” Kerr said. “We had guys on base all day, good at-bats throughout the lineup and that allowed us to get a four-spot early.”
With the win, Michigan collected its first victory in Omaha since 1983. Considering its relative lack of experience on a stage like this with 24,148 fans in the stands, Michigan looked unaffected and comfortable, and for that, give an assist to Nebraska.
“That’s the first time any of us have probably played in front of 24,000 people,” Kerr said. “It’s helped us a lot to have the Big Ten Tournament here, especially playing Nebraska twice in that tournament, a lot of Nebraska fans showed out. I think we had maybe like 11-12,000 Nebraska fans the last couple of games against Nebraska. So we know what it’s like to be in a hostile environment, so I think that’s prepared us for this week.”
On Saturday, by purposely not making decisions based on assuming a long stay in Omaha, Michigan set itself up well to do just that.