Michigan's Magical Run Reaches College World Series Finals
OMAHA — Several times this season, Michigan got to the precipice of a big breakthrough only to stumble at the last step.
It happened at the Dodger Stadium Classic, where Michigan beat UCLA to open the weekend and then lost to Southern California and Oklahoma State. It happened when Michigan went to Lubbock for a series against Texas Tech and got swept. It happened down the stretch, when Michigan had an opportunity to win the Big Ten title but went 2-4 against Indiana and Nebraska and finished in second place, a half-game behind Indiana.
The story has been different in the postseason, however. Ever since Michigan beat Illinois in walk-off fashion in the Big Ten Tournament elimination game, a win that probably assured it of getting into the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines have been playing much looser.
“At first it was relief, ‘Oh, thank God we won the game,’” coach Erik Bakich said. “Then it was, ‘What are we doing? This is crazy. We’re not going to be successful if we keep playing like this.’
“It was just a light bulb moment, an epiphany moment. Our guys have been totally different ever since.”
The entire trajectory of Michigan’s season has changed over the last month since that game against Illinois. No moment has been too big for the Wolverines, and they’ve ridden a wave of momentum well beyond the breakthrough that eluded them during the regular season.
On Friday, Michigan routed Texas Tech, 15-3, to advance to the College World Series finals against Vanderbilt, the SEC champion. When the best-of-three series begins Monday, it will be the first time the Wolverines have played for the national championship since 1962, when they won it all.
Michigan’s magical postseason ride will continue for another week. After struggling all season to find that breakthrough win, the Wolverines have found their mojo in June.
Jimmy Kerr, Michigan’s senior first baseman and captain, said they were down to their last strike against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament and saw the end of their season in front of them. After their walk-off win that day, the Wolverines’ mindset has changed.
“I think that kind of made the whole team appreciate every single game that we’ve had together since then,” Kerr said. “That’s kind of the bigger picture. It’s not that we’re playing in a regional, super regional, College World Series championship—it’s just that we get another game with each other.”
Michigan is enjoying playing as a team right now. They have been on the road—almost continuously—for more than a month, and they don’t want the ride to end.
“They think they’re on vacation, they’re having a great time,” Bakich said. “I’m enjoying watching them enjoy it and seeing their smiling faces.”
There were plenty of smiling faces Friday. Michigan’s offense started early, when Kerr doubled home a run in the first inning and then came around to score himself. While Texas Tech bounced back and took the lead in the top of the second inning, Michigan never stopped scoring. It added two runs in the second and third innings and then tacked another on run in the fourth inning.
Before long, with righthander Karl Kauffman, a second-round pick, on the mound, the Wolverines had opened a commanding lead. But after everything they’ve been through this season, they weren’t going to leave any doubt. They kept piling runs on in the later innings with Kerr at the heart of it all. He homered twice and finished the game 4-for-6 with four runs and three RBIs.
Kerr is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who both also played for Michigan in the College World Series. His grandfather, John, pitched for the 1962 national championship team and threw both ends of a doubleheader—19 innings in all—to send the Wolverines to the College World Series. Jimmy’s father, Derek, was a catcher on Michigan’s 1983 and 1984 Omaha teams.
Jimmy is writing his own history at Michigan, a story that Bakich said rivaled any Hollywood script. He began his career at Michigan as a walk-on and worked his way into bigger and bigger roles, eventually this year becoming the Tigers’ 33rd-round draft pick. Kerr homered four times in the Corvallis Regional and is 6-for-13 with five runs and six RBIs in Omaha.
“To have some of the dramatics he’s putting up offensively, his son is going to have a lot of pressure to do something to top that,” Bakich said.
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Kerr said he and the rest of the Wolverines are taking a simple approach at the plate.
“Just trying to slow the game down as a team and have quality at-bats, one pitch at a time,” he said. “We did a great job of that.”
It’s all a part of Michigan’s postseason magic. The formula that has worked for the Wolverines is simple: timely hitting, good defense and strong starting pitching. It got all three Friday against Texas Tech—producing 10 two-out runs, committing no errors and the combination of Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell holding the Red Raiders to three runs on seven hits.
Michigan has only used three pitchers so far in the College World Series. Kauffmann and Criswell, both parts of the Wolverines’ weekend rotation during the season, covered Michigan’s two wins against Texas Tech and lefthander Tommy Henry threw a shutout against Florida State. In all, they have given up six runs in three games in Omaha.
Now, Michigan is on the precipice of a national championship. It isn’t quite uncharted territory for the program, which won the national championship in 1953 and 1962, but it has been a long time since the Wolverines or any Big Ten team has made it this far in Omaha. Since Ohio State won the national title in 1966, no Big Ten team has played for the national title.
In Vanderbilt, Michigan will face a formidable opponent next week on the biggest stage in the game. But after everything they’ve been through this year, the Wolverines won’t let the moment get too big for them.
“They’ve seen how bad we’ve played when we don’t,” Bakich said. “That’s a huge luxury item to know what we’ve done when we’ve played poorly and what it looked and felt like and what it looks and feels like when we’re loose and competing.”