- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Max Cohen , Daily Sports Writer
Published June 10, 2013
In a season that was expected to be fraught with losses during a process of rebuilding, the Michigan baseball team exceeded expectations by taking its first steps back into college baseball relevancy.
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From the time his players arrived on campus in the fall to the end of the season, first-year Michigan coach Erik Bakich instilled a winning culture in a program that had many more losses than wins in recent memory. Once the season began, the newfound expectation of winning became evident while the Wolverines (14-10 Big Ten, 29-27 overall) consistently battled back from adversity on their way to earning the program’s first berth to the six-team Big Ten Tournament since 2010.
“This team was on a mission to really bring the winning culture back to Michigan,” Bakich said. “You prepare and you play with the expectation that you’re going to be competing for championships.”
The leadership council, comprised of senior center fielder Pat Biondi, junior outfielder Michael O’Neill, senior right-hander Kyle Clark, senior right-hander Ben Ballantine and senior right-hander Chad Jasman, worked throughout the season to help their coach instill the winning culture among their younger teammates.
You could see it had paid off on the final regular-season game, when the Wolverines not only earned a Big Ten Tournament bid, but also trounced Nebraska in the process. Though Michigan was eliminated from the double-elimination tournament after two games, its appearance demonstrated the beginning of success in the program.
“As a coach, your goal is to get the maximum potential out of your team,” Bakich said. “I felt like with this particular group, we squeezed every drop, every ounce of energy out of it.”
There were times during the season when using every ounce of energy wasn’t enough for the Wolverines. Michigan took its lumps, particularly during a 12-game stretch in which the Wolverines went 5-7 when Biondi was out because of a sprained thumb.
All season long, Biondi encapsulated the spirit of the team in ways not visible in the box scores. When he returned from his thumb injury, he couldn’t swing a bat. Yet he was in the Michigan lineup during the team’s sweep of Michigan State, attempting to bunt for a base hit each time at the plate while playing his usual rangy defense.
“It just captured everybody’s enthusiasm and just really was a huge sparkplug and a catalyst for us,” Bakich said.
Biondi continued to demonstrate the new winning mentality of the program by playing through an injury later in the season. He even switched to second base during the final series of the regular season — the last of his Michigan career — so that Bakich could put the best lineup on the field.
As the Wolverine baseball program looks forward, it will have to do so without Biondi and the other leaders who helped precipitate the team’s change in mentality. With Bakich at the helm, Michigan will look to new leaders to carry the program into the next phase of its development as Biondi and O’Neill pursue professional baseball careers.
Bakich sees freshman shortstop Travis Maezes, freshman second baseman Jacob Cronenworth and freshman left-hander Evan Hill as future leaders because they already established themselves as workhorses on and off the field this season. Bakich looks forward to the arrival of next year’s highly-touted recruiting class, his first at Michigan as he looks to guide the team to the next level.
The incoming class drummed up more excitement when four of the players were selected on the third day of the MLB Draft. Bakich expects them all not only to come to Michigan, but to help the program do much more than earn a bid to the Big Ten Tournament.
“While everybody was happy to get to the Big Ten Tournament, everybody also realizes that this past year was the worst year Michigan baseball is going to have moving forward,” Bakich said.
And he could be right. Especially since he doesn’t have to spend time implementing a winning attitude.