Michigan Wins CWS Finals Opener As It Creates Unique Legacy

Image credit: Michigan first baseman Jimmy Kerr (Photo courtesy of Michigan)

OMAHA — On Monday, as the College World Series finals against Vanderbilt began, Michigan threw it back to 1962. They wore their 1962-inspired uniforms and two members of that team—John Kerr, who threw 313 pitches to win both games of a doubleheader to send that team to Omaha, and Dick Honig—spoke to this year’s Wolverines before the game.

Michigan hasn’t been the national champion since 1962, but on Monday it played like one. Powered by a home run from Jimmy Kerr, John Kerr’s grandson, and another excellent postseason start from lefthander Tommy Henry, the Wolverines beat the Commodores, 7-4, to open the best-of-three series.

Michigan is now just one win away from its first national title in 57 years, a title that would cap a magical postseason run after being one of the last four teams selected to the NCAA Tournament field.

“This has been a dream that we haven’t woke up from yet,” Kerr said.

Monday evening was a Maize and Blue dream. The Wolverines scored twice in the first and second innings, quickly handing Henry a four-run lead. The lefthander threw a three-hit shutout last Monday against Florida State, and while he wasn’t quite that sharp this week, he delivered an excellent start against a powerful Vanderbilt lineup.

Michigan got insurance runs when it needed them, as Kerr hit a two-run home run in the seventh and Joe Donovan added a solo shot to lead off the eighth. The Wolverines stepped up defensively as well, like in the eighth inning when right fielder Jordan Brewer threw a lightning bolt to third base to catch the speedy Austin Martin trying to go first-to-third and quell a rally.

It was an all-around performance for a Michigan team that is trying to do what the 1962 team did and leave a legacy in Ann Arbor.

“They told us today they won the national championship 57 years ago and for 50 of those 57 years, their team still gets together and that’s remarkable,” coach Erik Bakich said. “That’s what it’s all about. Teams that win together stay together.

“That team will forever be bookmarked in the Michigan history book and, ultimately, I think that’s what this team wants to do as well.”

No matter what happens the rest of the finals, these Wolverines have earned their place in Michigan’s history. The team stared the end of its season in the face once already at TD Ameritrade Park, down to its final strike in an elimination game a month ago in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan rallied to walk-off Illinois and ran off two more wins to ensure its berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines played must-win games in both the Corvallis Regional and Los Angeles Super Regional to get to Omaha. They have learned not to make too much of the moment, to play within themselves and shut out all the outside expectations and distractions, which have only increased as the stakes grow larger every round of the tournament.

Michigan will keep that same mindset the rest of the finals, even as the Wolverines know another win will end in a dogpile and a trophy presentation.

“We need to shrink the moment to be just about baseball, to be just about them immersing themselves with each other,” Bakich said. “We’ve made the moment too big in the past and it’s just not a good recipe. If you can just make it about baseball, how they play, how much fun they’re having with each other, that’s what we’re going to continue to stress.”

It was a good combination Monday night. Henry, the D-backs’ second-round draft pick, delivered another strong start on the big stage of the NCAA Tournament. In his last two starts he had sent Michigan to Omaha with a win against UCLA, the No. 1 overall seed, in super regionals and then pitched a three-hit shutout against Florida State in a College World Series winners’ bracket game.

On Monday, Henry went 8.1 innings and held the Commodores to four runs (three earned) on seven hits and one walk. He struck out eight batters and worked efficiently, throwing 110 pitches.

Those performances, Bakich said, have shown future generations of Michigan pitchers what it takes to be successful.

“He’s inspired a future generation of Michigan pitchers of what hard work, what leadership, what intangibles, what character, what toughness, what all the things look like that allow good performances to take place,” Bakich said. “He’s been outstanding. He’s been awesome. He’s going to be missed. But there’s a lot of younger guys in this program that are going to remember what they saw.”

Kerr is doing the same for future Michigan hitters. The senior began his college career as a walk-on and has worked his way into becoming an everyday player and this year was voted a captain by his teammates and drafted in the 33rd round by the Tigers.

On Monday, Kerr, whose grandfather and father both also played for Michigan teams that reached Omaha, hit his third home run of the College World Series. He has seven home runs in the postseason and now leads Michigan with 15 this season.

Kerr had homered twice in 82 career games before this season. Bakich joked that after last year, he thought it might be time for Kerr to start working on his speed. But Kerr spent the summer in the weight room and the results were apparent when Michigan started fall practices. They’ve shown up in a big way in the spacious TD Ameritrade Park as he’s added to his family’s Michigan baseball legacy.

“What we’ve seen is a kid who’s stronger, more mature and college at-bats,” Bakich said. “But at the end of the day, he’s fueled by two generations before him of Michigan baseball players. Maize and Blue blood that runs through his veins and deep appreciation of being on a team that wants to leave a legacy.”

Kerr said growing up he didn’t hear many stories about his grandfather’s playing career. But now that he’s on this stage, they’ve started to come out.

“It’s starting to come out a little more, especially with his teammate Dick Honig around,” Kerr said. “We’ve started to hear some more stories, and it’s fun to hear about it.”

Kerr and the rest of the Wolverines have created some stories of their own this season that they will no doubt be telling future Michigan teams. They’ve made it further than any other Michigan team in 57 years. But their story isn’t over yet. They need one more victory over the next two days to earn the perfect ending to this month-long Maize and Blue dream.

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