After its winningest regular season since 2008, the Michigan baseball team qualified for its second NCAA Tournament under coach Erik Bakich, and first since 2015.
This time, though, the Wolverines had to sweat things out. Two years ago, Michigan qualified for the tournament automatically by virtue of a surprise run to the Big Ten Tournament championship. This season, the Wolverines dropped both of their games at the conference tournament, and despite a 42-15 record, they made the NCAA Tournament as the last team in.
“They say that we’re the last team in, but we’re going to be the last team standing,” senior right-hander Mac Lozer told the Detroit News after the selection show aired Monday on ESPN2. “That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
But being the last team standing won’t be an easy task, as Michigan was placed in the Chapel Hill regional, hosted by No. 2 national seed North Carolina. The regional also consists of No. 2-seed Florida Gulf Coast of the Atlantic Sun and No. 4-seed Davidson of the Atlantic 10.
The Wolverines will meet the Eagles in their opener at 1 p.m. Friday, while the Tar Heels and Wildcats will square off at 6 p.m. later that day. The double-elimination bracket is set to continue through Sunday and possibly Monday, and the winner will advance to the Super Regional round next week, where they will take on the winner of the Houston Regional hosted by Houston.
After Michigan dropped an extra-inning heartbreaker to Indiana Thursday, Bakich stated that the Wolverines will need to use their Big Ten Tournament performance to feed the chip on their shoulder in order to have a successful showing in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve been playing with a chip all along. Every step of the way there seems to be something that just makes that chip a little bit bigger and sharpens our edge a little bit more,” Bakich said. “Not that we need any motivation for the NCAA tournament, but it certainly provides a little bit more because we want to play well in tournament baseball.”
The Daily looks at the three teams Michigan may face in the Chapel Hill Regional:
No. 2 seed North Carolina (47-12, 23-7 Atlantic Coast)
The Tar Heels are a traditional powerhouse, having appeared in six College World Series from 2006 to 2013 under coach Mike Fox. But this year marks their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2014. North Carolina’s dominant pitching staff — which ranks fifth in the country with a 2.96 earned-run average — is led by right-hander J.B. Bukauskas (9-0, 2.02 ERA, 111 strikeouts), the ACC Pitcher of the Year who is also projected by Baseball America as the sixth overall pick in this summer’s MLB Draft. Right-handers Luca Dalatri (6-3, 3.50) and Tyler Baum (6-0, 2.65) round out the rotation, while right-hander Josh Hiatt anchors the bullpen with 13 saves and a .167 opponent’s batting average.
The Tar Heels also possess a deep, well-rounded lineup. Six players have hit at least seven home runs, while three players — shortstop Logan Warmoth, outfielder Brian Miller and second baseman Ashton McGee — bat above .340. Defensively, the Tar Heels are just as solid, ranking 21st in the country with a .979 fielding percentage.
North Carolina is a team with almost no weaknesses on the mound, at the plate or in the field. As a result, the Tar Heels are unquestionably one of the favorites to advance to Omaha — and possibly win the first national title in program history.
Florida Gulf Coast (42-18, 13-8 ASUN)
Only a Division I program since 2010, the Eagles are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in history. However, despite its youth as a program, Florida Gulf Coast proved it could hang with anyone this season — it went 2-0 against No. 3 national seed Florida and defeated then-No. 1 Florida State in March.
When they meet the Wolverines Friday, the Eagles will likely send Kutter Crawford to the mound. The right-hander is 7-1 with a 1.58 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 79.2 innings. Right-hander Kenton Hering (7-3, 2.04 ERA, 75 strikeouts) has been FGCU’s ace reliever this season.
The Eagles’ lineup is anchored by ASUN Player of the Year Nick Rivera. After his senior season last year was cut short due to injury, the first baseman received a medical hardship waiver. Rivera has made the most of it, leading the Eagles with 17 home runs and .585 slugging percentage. He has plenty of support from the rest of the lineup, which has eight players hitting at least .280, including shortstop Julio Gonzalez's .337 clip.
Davidson (32-24, 13-11 Atlantic-10)
Florida Gulf Coast isn’t the only team that will be making its NCAA Tournament debut in Chapel Hill. The Wildcats have played baseball since 1902, but won the most games in program history this season on their way to a long-awaited postseason appearance. Davidson finished just sixth in the A-10 regular season standings, but defeated regular season champions Virginia Commonwealth twice Sunday to claim the conference’s automatic bid.
For their Cinderella story to continue, the Wildcats will rest their hopes on two sluggers. Outfielder Will Robertson has hit 18 home runs on a .335 average while slugging .657, while first baseman Brian Fortier is just behind him with 15 home runs and a .318 average.
Davidson’s pitchers, however, have combined for a mediocre 4.54 ERA this season, and just four players have an ERA below 4. The Wildcats will look for a strong performance from right-hander Durin O’Linger (8-3, 2.85 ERA) to boost their pitching staff.