- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 26, 2014
Indiana pitcher Christian Morris stepped up to the mound and gazed at his opponent strolling to the plate. The 6-foot, 190-pound figure 60 feet away was as cool as the March Midwestern air around them.
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Travis Maezes swung his bat around him like a toy, his still face treating every movement with the same precision and care as the last. A calm confidence sets in as Maezes digs into the left-handed batter’s box. For the sophomore, the confidence has always come easily. No matter what sport he tried growing up, he couldn’t lose.
Today, that sport is baseball, and as Michigan’s man, it was on his shoulders to prevent Michigan from losing a third straight game and falling to 0-3 in the Big Ten.
The 0-1 pitch by Morris came in low and away. But Maezes made solid contact and shot the ball into the Hoosiers’ bright new turf at Bart Kaufman Field. As the ball bounced high into the air, Maezes took off. The former hockey player glided down the line, touching the bag before the ball even reached the shortstop.
Within seconds, Maezes’ job as leadoff man was done. Energizing his teammates and getting on base, the sophomore helped pave the way for other Wolverines. After mustering just five hits the previous game, Michigan posted three in the first inning, allowing Maezes to score the opening run.
Like with many leaders, the progress of the Michigan baseball team mirrors the progress of Maezes.
Using the momentum of a freshman year full of potential, the sophomore is looking to take the reins from former outfielder Patrick Biondi as the team’s leader and sparkplug. Michigan’s latest leader is looking to use natural ability and a lifetime of athletic intensity to deliver the program’s 36th Big Ten Championship. And possibly beyond.
“He’s going to play this game for a long time,” Bakich said. “But for him, the best thing he can do now is be in our leadoff spot and be our sparkplug and our catalyst and get on base. When he can get on base, he can get things in motion and make things happen.”
Kids who grow up in Ann Arbor often dream of one day competing for Michigan.
Whether it’s high-stepping into the end zone at Michigan Stadium or stopping a slap shot beneath the cathedral lighting of Yost Ice Arena, the allure of donning maize and blue can be as strong as any.
Living less than two miles from Michigan Stadium, Maezes was one of those children. But as a member of the Michigan baseball team, his fate strayed from the initial goal.
“I can honestly say that baseball was definitely second growing up,” Maezes said. “I was into hockey. I played baseball over the summer, but I felt like hockey was my sport and always came first.”
As the years went on, it looked like Maezes’ commitment to hockey would pay off. Playing for elite Triple-A youth hockey team Compuware and for Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, Maezes began drawing attention from colleges for his play on the ice. After a promising freshman season, Maezes’ name began popping online as a potential candidate for the U.S. National Team Development Program.
But in the fall of his sophomore year, an ankle injury wiped out his season. Unable to sit still, Maezes turned to a different sport to keep busy.
“I started hearing from schools for hockey and baseball,” Maezes said. “I had to pick which route I wanted to take. Sophomore year, I needed surgery on my ankle that took me out of the entire hockey season. I couldn’t go skate, but I was able to go hit, so I did that and baseball kind of took over from there.”
Once focused solely on baseball, Maezes began to shine brighter on the diamond. The Pioneers won the state championship in Maezes’ first year as captain. The following two seasons, Maezes was named first-team all-state while his potential made him the consensus No. 1 prospect in Michigan, drawing attention as far east as Maryland, where Bakich was then coaching.
“Everyone recruited Travis,” Bakich said. “He was a national recruit and a great player. He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever coached, and he’s an extremely aggressive kid — a hockey player with a hockey player’s mindset. He is full-speed, full-tilt, 100 percent all of the time, every day. Practice, games — doesn’t matter.”
During his first year at Michigan, Maezes refused to slow down. Starting at shortstop for all 56 games, Maezes hit .313 with 44 RBI and stole 16 bases in 2013, good enough to be named to the Big Ten and Louisville Slugger All-American freshman teams.
But the number that sticks out most to Maezes is 0-2, Michigan’s record in the Big Ten Tournament last year. A summer in Ann Arbor spent rehabbing and training has put Maezes in position to change that.
On paper, the young 2014 season doesn’t look much different from 2013. Maezes’ average has climbed to .322, but the rest of his numbers are consistent with this point last year. Yet, since moving to the leadoff spot, Maezes has only further established himself as the leader of the team.
“He’s always been a confident kid,” Bakich said. “He has always been an aggressive kid, he has always had the right work habits, but where he has turned the corner is not just his ability to lead by example and play hard, but to inspire other people to play better than they are. His work ethic is contagious.
“The younger guys feed off that, and even the older guys see it. Anytime you see a guy work extremely hard and have positive results, it’s hard to dispute that hand in hand. Now he’s become more of a voice, whereas he didn’t have to be the voice last year. Now he’s one of the guys who’s speaking up and talking on the field and directing traffic and showing others how to do it.”
As the team enters Big Ten play seeking its 36th title, Maezes will have to be at his best each day. Already lauded by scouts for his abilities to throw, run, hit and field at a professional level, Maezes will one day eye the big leagues. But for now, Maezes — ineligible for the draft until the end of his junior year — is focusing instead on leading his teammates and being a sparkplug for success to come.
“He’s staying in the moment, focusing on the process of, how is he going to get better today?” Bakich said. “What is he going to do to get better today? Because he’s never going to get today back. And by doing that and getting better everyday, championships, getting All-American, getting drafted and getting into the big leagues, that stuff will happen.”
As Indiana pitcher Christian Morris stepped up to the mound again, and once more gazed at his opponent strolling to the plate. Again, Maezes swung his bat around him like a toy, his face with the same precision, same focus and care as the last.
Michigan was down 2-1 to the Hoosiers with two outs in the fourth this time. A bloop single, Indiana throwing error and hit-by-pitch had loaded the bases, and Maezes was looking to come through for his team with a 2-0 pitch on the way.
With the same smooth, confident swing, he did just that. This time, he pulled a careful pitch on the inside corner down the right-field line, sailing past the right fielder for a bases-clearing double.
With two celebratory claps and a hand signal to the Michigan dugout, Maezes made one thing clear: This is his team now, and after a lifetime of athletics, Travis Maezes is more than ready to take control.