Off The Bat: Michigan Starts Hot, Ole Miss Scores Upset
Michigan Rises To No. 1 After Impressive Opening Weekend
Michigan finished last season on a magical run, going from one of the last four teams the selection committee put in the NCAA Tournament to one of the last two teams standing in the matter of a month. The stakes of Opening Weekend and the NCAA Tournament are vastly different, but it sure looked like the Wolverines are still riding the same wave of momentum that last season took them to the College World Series.
Michigan went 3-1 on Opening Weekend in Arizona, beating Vanderbilt, Cal Poly and Arizona State before losing its finale against Connecticut. It went 2-1 in the MLB4 Tournament, held at Salt River Fields in Talking Stick and added an extra game at Arizona State.
Adding that game made a big difference for Michigan. It picked up three wins in 24 hours to start the season, including victories against the No. 1 (Vanderbilt) and No. 3 (Arizona State) ranked teams in the Preseason Top 25.
With some carnage at the front of the Top 25 – Vanderbilt going 1-2 in Arizona, Louisville losing a series at Mississippi and Arizona State going 2-2 on the weekend – it was Michigan that emerged as the top-ranked team in the nation. Those three marquee wins, all coming away from home, set it apart. The Wolverines become the first Big Ten team to rank No. 1 in the 40-year history of the Baseball America Top 25.
Coach Erik Bakich isn’t going to overreact to Michigan’s Opening Weekend success, just like he wouldn’t have had things gone the other way. But he said he comes away feeling good about the way the Wolverines played in Arizona.
“I think we knew going into the weekend that if we came out of this weekend 4-0, we’re probably not as good as we seem and if we came out 0-4, we’re probably not as bad as we seem,” he said.
It would have been hard to script a better start to the season. Michigan started with an Opening Day win against Vanderbilt in a rematch of last year’s College World Series finals. Redshirt senior Matt Schmidt played hero with a two-run home run in the ninth inning to give the Wolverines a 4-3 victory.
They followed that up with an 8-5 victory Saturday against Cal Poly. The lineup, led by shortstop Jack Blomgren (4-for-6, 2 R), combined for 13 hits and six walks. Michigan then got on a bus to head across town to Phoenix Municipal Stadium to play the back half of its split doubleheader. Led by six scoreless innings from lefthander Steve Hajjar, the Wolverines silenced the Sun Devils’ powerful lineup in a 5-0 victory.
A reality check came Sunday morning with a 7-1 loss to UConn in the Wolverines’ third game in 24 hours. Still, the Wolverines left Arizona feeling good about their start to the season.
“Last year was a magical year and hopefully we can capture some of last year’s magic for this year’s team,” Hajjar said. “Everybody in the dugout is pulling for each other. We have a great group of guys who all love each other, are all pulling for each other.
“We have a great group of guys that if we can just capture some of the magic from last year, we’ll have a great season.”
Michigan got a lot of big contributions from new faces across the roster, starting with Hajjar. The redshirt freshman was supposed to be one of the Wolverines’ best pitchers last season until he tore his ACL playing basketball in late January. Redshirt-sophomore outfielder Danny Zimmerman delivered some big hits at Arizona State after getting just one at bat the last two years. Schmidt played in just 14 games last season and delivered in the clutch Friday. True freshmen Ted Burton, Clark Elliott and Jimmy Obertop showed they can be regulars this season.
Bakich was excited this weekend to see players taking advantage of their early opportunities.
“I really liked that there were so many different breakout candidates that could be on the horizon,” he said. “Guys that had their moments in different games that could be positive contributors for the whole season.”
Of course, Michigan also got some big performances from its reliable standbys. Outfielder Jordan Nwogu stepped in at center field with Jesse Franklin sidelined by a broken collarbone and went 8-for-16 with two stolen bases. Blomgren went 6-for-17 and anchored the defense. Righthander Jeff Criswell turned in a quality start against Vanderbilt.
Michigan showed off impressive roster depth in Arizona and did so without Franklin, a Preseason All-American. It also only got a brief appearance out of the bullpen from lefthander Ben Dragani, who was a key member of its rotation in 2018. As he continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery, he’ll add another quality arm to the Wolverines’ staff.
No one had a better Opening Weekend than Michigan. But there’s a long way to go this spring and, after last June, the Wolverines are well aware of the importance of peaking at the end of the season. Michigan will face another tough test next weekend with a series against UConn in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
But Michigan goes home feeling good about itself, knowing it put its best foot forward on a big stage to start the season.
“Overall, to grade out the weekend, it’s mostly positive,” Bakich said. “This was already a hell of a tournament and we made it harder. Overall the takeaway, pleased with the overall capability of our team and very impressed with this tournament as a whole.”
Ole Miss Delivers Weekend’s Biggest Upset
College baseball has no tune-up games, no spring training. Teams get a few weeks of practice to scrimmage, but it’s a poor substitute for real games. As a result, Opening Weekend sees few marquee series as many coaches opt for a conservative approach with the schedule.
Louisville and Mississippi bucked that trend, however. The Cardinals, which were ranked No. 2 in the Preseason Top 25, traveled to Oxford to take on the Rebels in the best on-campus matchup of Opening Weekend.
Louisville won the opener behind Preseason All-American lefthander Reid Detmers, but Ole Miss bounced back to win the next two games, clinching the series with a 7-6 victory Sunday. That series win pushed the Rebels up to No. 15 in the Top 25.
The Rebels came into the season unranked, largely because of the newness of their roster. They have 20 newcomers this spring – 16 freshmen and four junior college transfers – after losing many key contributors from last year’s super regional team. Ole Miss’ recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the nation and they got thrust right into action.
Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said while he might have preferred a series that allowed the newcomers a chance to get their feet wet without feeling like the game was riding on every pitch, the Rebels relished the opportunity.
“I like the way we competed,” he said. “With a new club you just don’t know. We’ve been saying it for weeks, what a huge challenge. And it is. Every reporter this winter, it was the first question they asked. But the truth is kids relish that. Not just us – anybody. They want a marquee weekend to open it up.”
Ole Miss responded well to the challenge. After the Opening Day loss, it bounced right back Saturday and scored three runs in the bottom of the first against Louisville flame-thrower Bobby Miller. The Cardinals bounced back to tie the game in the fifth, but the Rebels were able to answer at every turn. DH Cael Baker, one of the junior college transfers, hit a two-run home run in the seventh to push Ole Miss out in front for good and it went on to win, 8-6.
On Sunday, Ole Miss had to come from behind after getting down 3-0 in the fifth. But it kept fighting, with junior infielders Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, two of the returners, leading the way offensively.
The Rebels had to hold on through a nail-biting ninth inning. Trailing 7-4 going into the ninth, Louisville pushed two runs across and had the tying run on first base with one out. The game ended on a strike ‘em out-throw ‘em out double play, as freshman catcher Hayden Dunhurst gunned down Justin Lavey at second base with a throw from his knees.
“The last two games, for our fans in the stands, what a great two college baseball games,” Bianco said. “They were back and forth, pretty well played. We both made mistakes, its early, but what a great way to get off to the start of the season.”
There will be growing pains to come for Ole Miss and it’s still working out its best lineup. The Rebels used 15 different position players on Opening Weekend and only five players started all three games.
But some things seemed to crystallize this weekend. Servideo, who moved to shortstop to replace Grae Kessinger, went 5-for-10 with three walks and two strikeouts. A step forward from him would be a boost for the Rebels. Freshman righthander Derek Diamond delivered a solid start Sunday and looks ready to round out a solid rotation with Nikahzy and Hoglund.
One of the biggest developments was the play of Baker, who went 5-for-12 with two home runs and a double. He last year was named junior college player of the year after winning the triple crown at Wabash Valley (Ill.) and came to Ole Miss with significant expectations. He scuffled in the fall, but Bianco said he’s been one of the Rebels’ best hitters since the team returned in January and carried that into game action.
“He’s a good player, brings a lot of energy and passion,” Bianco said. “He’s swinging it well, more like who he is.”
Ole Miss will look to get more of its newcomers comfortable in the days and weeks to come. Getting them steeled for the rugged SEC West race will be critical. But if Opening Weekend was any indication, the Rebels will be in the thick of it.
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Eight for Omaha
Arizona State, Auburn, Georgia, Louisville, Miami, Michigan, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt
Look, it was a weird Opening Weekend. There’s no getting around that. The top three teams in the Preseason Top 25, three teams I count as national championship favorites, went a combined 4-6. So, yes, I could rip this thing up and go nuts. Instead, I’m just going to ride with the same eight teams I picked at the start of the offseason to get to Omaha in 2020. Notably, that leaves out No. 2 Florida, a team I really believe in. If the Gators win this weekend at Miami, they’ll be here next week. Check back then.
Five players or programs who put together big weekends.
Grand Canyon: It was a strong Opening Weekend for GCU (2-1), which won a series against Oklahoma State and outscored the Cowboys by a combined 23-12. That offensive output came with first baseman Cuba Bess, the Antelopes’ top hitter last year, limited to one at bat due to a hamstring injury. GCU also got strong support from in the stands, drawing 6,190 fans on the weekend.
Jason Hinchman, 1B, Tennessee Tech: Hinchman hit three home runs Sunday - including a walk-off blast - as he helped to key Tennessee Tech’s comeback victory against Evansville. The Golden Eagles (3-0) scored the final nine runs of the game to win 11-10 and complete the sweep. Hinchman, a junior, finished the day 4-for-5 with four runs, five RBI and a stolen base. For the weekend, he went 9-for-13 with five home runs, seven runs and seven RBI.
Joey Lancellotti, RHP/DH, North Carolina: Lancellotti, a junior, drew the Opening Day start for UNC (3-0) against Middle Tennessee State and delivered in a big way. He held the Blue Raiders to two runs on two hits in 5.1 innings and struck out five batters, while adding two hits of his own at the plate. He again came through in the clutch the following day, blasting a walk-off home run in a 2-1 victory. Lancellotti came to UNC with two-way potential, but he didn’t have a hit in his first two seasons in college.
Judd Ward, OF, Auburn: In an 18-1 victory Saturday against Illinois-Chicago, Ward hit for the cycle. The junior tripled in the first inning, singled in the fourth, homered in the sixth and doubled in the eighth inning to become the first Auburn player to hit for the cycle since 2005. Ward finished the weekend 6-for-17 with six runs as the Tigers swept the four-game series.
Youngstown State: The Penguins last year won just 13 games and finished in last place in the Horizon League. But they looked much improved on Opening Weekend and won a series at Houston. After losing the opener, YSU bounced back to win the next two games in extra innings, including erasing a 6-2 deficit in the ninth inning of Sunday’s finale. The Penguins are now 2-1 for the first time since 2001.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(2) Florida at (3) Miami: One of college baseball’s best rivalries has plenty of juice this year as both the Gators and Hurricanes come into the weekend as top-three teams. Florida (3-0) has won this series five years in a row and is 31-13 against Miami in Kevin O’Sullivan’s 12 years as head coach. The Hurricanes (3-0) have their most talented team in years, however, and will be eager this weekend to flip the script in Coral Gables.
Oregon State at (9) Mississippi State: This series provides an entertaining inter-regional showdown, as well as a rematch of the 2018 College World Series, when Oregon State beat Mississippi State twice en route to the national title. The Beavers (2-1) have a lot of new faces this year and had an up-and-down Opening Weekend. Taking on Mississippi State (3-0) in Dudy-Noble Field is a tough test, but we should learn a lot more about both teams.
(23) Dallas Baptist at (19) North Carolina: DBU (3-0) has become a consistent regional team under Dan Heefner and has made the NCAA Tournament in eight of the last nine years. Thanks to some premium talent on the roster this spring, led by Preseason All-American closer Burl Carraway and shortstop Jimmy Glowenke (who missed Opening Weekend due to injury), DBU has the potential for more this year. To take that next step, it’ll need to prove it can compete with the likes of UNC (3-0). The Tar Heels are coming off an Opening Weekend sweep, but the Patriots will present a greater challenge than Middle Tennessee State did.
Two tournaments to watch
Round Rock Classic, Round Rock, Texas: Run by the organizers of the Frisco Classic, the Round Rock Classic makes its debut this weekend. With a field of Houston, Stanford, Tennessee and No. 4 Texas Tech, it should produce a solid event. Houston (1-2) and Stanford (1-2) are looking to bounce back after tough home series losses, while Tennessee (3-0) and Texas Tech (4-0) will face a step up in competition after rolling through Opening Weekend.
Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament, San Diego: Co-hosted by San Diego and San Diego State, the Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament brings in No. 22 Arizona, Iowa, Nebraska, Seattle, Southern California and Southern Illinois. It’s a big weekend for both hosts. USD (2-1) had a chance for a perfect weekend at the Angels College Classic in Tempe, Ariz., but settled for wins against Minnesota and Oregon. With Iowa and Nebraska on its slate this weekend, it’ll have the chance to add some more solid wins. SDSU (2-1) went cross-country to Coastal Carolina’s Opening Weekend tournament and scored wins against Coastal and Virginia Tech. The Aztecs have the chance to make a splash this weekend back home with games against Iowa, Nebraska and USC.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(24) Oklahoma State at (8) Arizona State, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET: Neither Oklahoma State (1-2) nor Arizona State (2-2) got off to the start it would have liked on Opening Weekend. But with a Top 25 matchup on tap Tuesday, they both have a chance to quickly get back on track. The Cowboys need to get their pitching turned around after giving up 23 runs in three games at Grand Canyon, while the Sun Devils are looking to get their potent lineup going after being held to 11 runs in four games against Michigan and Villanova. Something’s got to give Tuesday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.