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Cole Martin: Baseball's general of the infield

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Ben Fidelman, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 16, 2014

Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich will tell you the catcher is the general of the infield. And as hard as it has been, senior catcher Cole Martin has grown into just that — though it would have surprised those who watched him play as an underclassman.

After experiencing the worst year in Michigan baseball history in 2011, Martin, a freshman at the time, realized he had a chance to make an immediate impact on the program, which needed a leader to step up.

Martin came to Michigan as a quiet walk-on out of John Glenn High School in Bay City, Mich. and had a role on the team right away, starting 52 games in his first two seasons. Although he was a true catcher coming out of high school, there’s a bigger learning curve at that position than any other between high school and college.

Bakich says confidence, leadership and conviction are all things Michigan looks for in its catchers, but these are the skills that Martin lacked through much of his early career.

“At the catcher position in high school you’re never really taught that the whole game revolves around the decisions you make,” Martin said. “When I was a young kid playing as a freshman and sophomore (at Michigan), I had a lot of older guys surrounding me on the field. I didn’t really have that confidence in myself to make decisions.”

Although Martin didn’t excel at leading vocally through the first years of his career as a Wolverine, something started clicking for him following his sophomore season. That confidence allowed him to fully blossom into the dominating player that the team knew that he could be.

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Bakich was introduced following the 2012 season, and the program knew that as a catcher and rising upperclassman, Martin would have a higher than average influence on the transition — and just one more way to help the program progress into a new era.

“He bought in from day one,” Bakich said. “We talk about having a high standards in everything we do, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field, and he was a guy that was a role-model for that, but not in a vocal way.

“Last year he was more of a lead-by-example type of player, and was a huge part of the stability that allowed us to make a run to the Big Ten Tournament.”

The team won four of its last six conference games to sneak into the Big Ten Tournament, where it suffered an early exit.

Martin’s role in the coaching transition masked an important hurdle that he overcame during that junior year both on and off the field. He was adding some diversity to his leadership, and had become the vocal leader the team needed behind the plate.

“The transition from sophomore to junior year and now from junior to senior year has shown myself that I’m the old man on the field, and I need to take responsibility for that,” Martin said.

That quiet freshman has transformed into one of the more fiery players on the field for the Wolverines — it’s common to see Martin screaming into the dugout after scoring a big run, or throwing an emphatic fist-pump after an inning-ending strikeout.

Martin identified one of his greatest weaknesses and conquered it. He was on the way to being that general Bakich wanted.

* * *

All of these improvements came together in Martin’s senior year, putting his name on the preseason watch list for the Johnny Bench Award, which goes to the nation’s best catcher. The team opened the season at the Texas State Tournament, where Martin got off to a hot start, going 4-for-12 with a three-run homer.

Then came a sudden decline. Martin hit in just two of his next 32 at bats, and the coaching staff decided to give him some time off while starting freshman Harrison Wenson for a few games.

He ran into another problem on April 2, when he was replaced in the middle of a midweek game because of soreness in his throwing arm. Although it was nothing major, he wasn’t able to play in the field for about a week, which Martin believes helped his performance in the long run.

“I was playing as the designated hitter against Minnesota and in some midweek games, and that helped me get in there and focus completely on my swing and not have to worry about going out there and catching as well,” Martin said. “That helped me hit the reset button on my swing.”

Martin’s .338 batting average in conference games leads the team, and his commanding tone on the field is now there in both numbers and emotion.

Martin said his status as a veteran member of the team contributed to his sense of responsibility regarding his performance off and on the field.

“At one point, I was the only senior on the field,” Martin said. “That put a lot of responsibility on me to make sure the ball went to the right spot on the field and that everyone understood what our plays were. That wasn’t something that I was used to.”

Martin didn’t buckle under pressure, even when the upcoming MLB Draft could cloud a player’s mind. His team has a preemptive solution to that problem.

Bakich has been working with the team all year on breathing techniques to clear the players’ heads.

“I’ve never been much of a guy to believe much in stress or that baseball needs to be this stressful thing, because in the end it’s just a game, and we all love to play it because it’s a game,” Martin said. “There’s no reason to get so worked up and stressed out that you can’t play the game that you love.”

This young 2014 squad is learning from Martin on the field and from his new-age stress-relief tactics — two factors that have contributed to the team’s second straight above-.500 conference record.

* * *

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming Big Ten Tournament is, Martin believes that the results of his senior season will define much of his career as a Wolverine.

“We haven’t gone deep into the (Big Ten) tournament since I’ve been here,” Martin said. “Last year was a good way to go and build up a foundation to be able to leave some sort of legacy, and I think this year if we can put some sort of charge in the tournament and win one game at a time, it would definitely leave a lasting mark.”

So how much progress has this team seen since Martin came along four years ago? When he came to Michigan, it was at one of its lowest points of its 148-year history, and now it’s one of the top five teams in the Big Ten.

Although he only stands 5-foot-11, Martin’s shadow on the program will be seen for years to come. It’s not going to show up in the record books or stat sheets, but the members of this year’s squad look up to the fearless general of the infield — and his legacy will continue for years to come.