Michigan Upends Top-Ranked Vanderbilt, Cal Poly’s Dollard Shines At MLB4 Tournament

Image credit: Michigan first baseman Matt Schmidt (Photo courtesy of Michigan)

Schmidt Powers Michigan to Season-Opening Win over Vanderbilt

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The first blockbuster game of the 2020 college baseball season looked a whole lot like the last blockbuster college baseball game of the 2019 season. 

Michigan and Vanderbilt, last seen in June battling it out in the third game of the College World Series finals, squared off against each other to begin the 2020 season in the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Ariz. Unlike last June, when Vanderbilt beat Michigan to claim the national championship, on Opening Day, it was the No. 8 Wolverines edging the top-ranked Commodores, 4-3, thanks to a late two-run home run from senior first baseman Matt Schmidt.

Even with much less on the line this time around, the game lived up to every bit of the hype, giving opening day something of a postseason feel for these two teams. 

“What a great game to kick off the 2020 season,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “You had everything. You had pitching and defense and timely hitting.”

But unfortunately for Michigan, for much of Friday evening, it looked like it was just going to be the latest verse of the same song we heard during the CWS. 

Right out of the gate, the Wolverines did what you can’t afford to do and gifted Vanderbilt a run early, when a walk, a wild pitch and a passed ball helped put the Commodores ahead in the first. 

Then, Vanderbilt righthander Mason Hickman came out and did what he did so often last season, battling his way to a solid outing, throwing five innings, giving up three hits and one unearned run. 

And while Michigan righthander Jeff Criswell was outstanding for large stretches of the game, Vanderbilt waited him out, and the two walks he surrendered in the seventh that chased him ended up scoring to put the Commodores ahead 3-2. Suddenly, the work Michigan had done to scrape across single tallies in the fifth and the top of the seventh was seemingly all for naught. 

With Vanderbilt’s Preseason All-American closer Tyler Brown on the mound, things were bleak for Michigan, right up until they weren’t. 

With one out in the top of the ninth, Michigan right fielder Clark Elliott singled off Brown to give his team life. Then, Schmidt stepped to the plate and launched a two-run homer to left to give the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Schmidt knew what he wanted and he got it. 

“I was trying to get a fastball,” Schmidt said. “I don’t want the slider. I know he’s got a good slider.”

Schmidt’s story is one of patience and taking advantage of opportunities when they’re presented. The fifth-year senior began his career at Texas before transferring to Cypress (Calif.) JC on the way to Ann Arbor. 

Even after his arrival, his waiting for a chance on the big stage continued. In his first two seasons in the Michigan program, he collected just 38 total at-bats as he found himself buried a bit on the depth chart. 

“It’s been one of those situations where he’s been patient in our program, and there’s not a better teammate out there,” Bakich said. “He’s been so supportive of everyone that’s been ahead of him.”

On the surface, Schmidt coming up big in that moment seemed to come out of nowhere, but Bakich insists that that’s not the case. He points to the time Schmidt, the son of longtime Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt, spent learning under great coaches like Texas’ Augie Garrido and Cypress’ Scott Pickler. 

He also alludes to the work that Schmidt put in during the fall and winter to earn a starting job in this, his final season as a college baseball player. He hadn’t had a chance until Friday to prove it, but Schmidt was making strides all along the way. 

“(We) talk about wanting to see some guys break out, and that was a break out day for a fifth-year senior who has earned a starting job,” Bakich said. “He’s got power, as you saw, and he was going against a really good closer. He got a fastball to hit and did a good job of putting a good swing on it.”

In the short term, this is a huge win for Michigan. It’s the type of result that can springboard a team forward and a win over Vanderbilt will always be great for a team’s resume. But as the season rolls on, it’s also a win the Wolverines can point back to as a victory they pulled off when things didn’t look altogether promising. 

When you’ve come back from a run down in the ninth against the defending national champions with an All-American closer on the hill, perhaps it has a way of making everything that comes after it look that much more manageable. 

“We always talk about ‘never out of the fight,’” Schmidt said. “Fight and compete, and that’s what this team’s all about and we showed that tonight.”

Dollard Dazzles in Cal Poly Win over Connecticut

After two seasons as a reliable reliever for Cal Poly, righthander Taylor Dollard spent the offseason preparing to take over a role in the rotation for the Mustangs. 

Early returns suggest that the transition is going well. In the opening game of the MLB 4 Tournament, the righthander threw seven shutout innings, giving up two hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts in a 5-0 win over Connecticut. 

Conversions from reliever to starter aren’t easy to pull off, even before a pitcher takes the mound in his new role. He has to get stretched out to handle longer outings, he has to consider whether he needs to change his pitch sequencing and his approach in order to account for facing hitters multiple times in a game, and often, he has to change his preparation and mindset. 

According to Dollard, it hasn’t been all that dramatic a change, but has required the development of a new routine. 

“It wasn’t anything crazy,” Dollard said of the preparation for his change in role. “The mentality is a little bit different, for sure, and the way to go about a day on a start is a little bit different for me, but it’s something that I’ve kind of adapted and adjusted to. A lot of the guys that were starters before helped me, and I know the coaches have helped me a lot too, kind of develop a routine to follow. Overall, I don’t really see a difference in it, there’s just a little bit here and there mentally that you need to adjust.”

The stiffest resistance Dollard faced on Friday came in the first inning, when he gave up a one-out single to UConn’s Kyler Fedko and then walked Chris Winkel two batters later at the end of a hard-fought at-bat. 

Given that this was his first start and with the uncertainty about how long he could be expected to go, it looked an awful lot like he was not long for this game. But that’s precisely when he hit the accelerator. He struck out Paul Gozzo to get out of that jam and then retired the next nine batters he faced, five of them on strikeouts. 

In part, what we saw from the second inning on were first-game jitters working their way out. It was opening day, after all. But it was also the product of a conscious decision to work with Dollard’s fastball more, which he spotted up well in the low 90s all game long. 

“I just think your first game of the year, we talked about this the night before and in our pregame talk, that you’re probably going to feel some nervousness and just accept it and understand that in time it will go away,” coach Larry Lee said. “It probably just took an inning and then we started going to the fastball a little bit more from the second inning on.”

While his fastball was the foundation for his outing, Dollard’s slider was a weapon as well. He showed the ability to spot it up for strikes early on and continued to use it effectively throughout to keep hitters off-balance. 

“The slider was good,” Dollard said. “I like using it as a strikeout pitch and I like using it as a 0-0 (count) pitch, so it kind of has two different shapes to it, in a way.”

Dollard was quick to credit his teammates for the win and was clearly happy to have just done everything he could to help his team get off to a good start this season, but he also admitted that he enjoyed being able to be a bigger part of things as a starter versus having to wait for his chances in the bullpen. 

“It’s cool, I mean, you have more of an impact on the game early on, and I think putting up seven shutout (innings) is a really big thing to do for a team in terms of success in the long run,” Dollard said. “Again, I think it’s one of those things where no matter where I was pitching or any situation like that, it’s just about being competitive and doing the most that you can to help the team win at the end of the day.”

Offensively, it wasn’t the prettiest day for the Mustangs. Through seven innings, they had just two unearned runs on three hits before they were able to pile on a little bit in the last two frames. But they took advantage of every UConn defensive miscue, giving Dollard all of the breathing room he needed. 

Many of Cal Poly’s most talented players are young, including those from this most recent recruiting class, which included right fielder Kyle Ashworth, who drove in two runs against the Huskies, and third baseman Nick Marinconz, who had two hits. 

Lee said he could see, early on, the effect the big stage might be having on some of his players, but they fought through that and came out on the other side with a big win. 

“They’re just young, and you saw some of the effects of the lights coming on for the first time,” Lee said. “You get just a lukewarm idea with intersquading for the three weeks prior to the season, but you really have no idea how your guys are going to respond when it’s for real. You saw Jekylls and Hydes from everybody, but it’s good.”

Maybe Lee came into the season with less than a clear idea of what to expect, but he learned a lot about his new staff ace today and learned about the way his group can fight to win ugly. And with games against Vanderbilt and Michigan still left this weekend, he’ll know quite a bit more about what he’s got by Monday.

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