OMAHA, Neb — In February, no one thought Michigan’s season would end on June 26th. No one thought it would get its first 50-win season since 1987 and beat the No. 1 team in the country twice on the road to go to its first College World Series since 1984.
And most of all, no one thought that the feeling of losing in game three of the College World Series final against the No. 2 team in the country would be disappointing.
But it is.
On Wednesday, the Wolverines watched Vanderbilt storm the field and celebrate its second national title in five years, coming back to win the last two games in a three-game series for the championship. They were as close as it gets.
A team that squeaked into the NCAA tournament as one of the “Last Four In”, and that was discounted in Corvallis, Los Angeles and Omaha, shocked college baseball.
Since the walkoff win against Illinois, Michigan went 12-5 against some of the best teams in the country. A hit that lit a flame inside the hearts of the Wolverines propelled them to simply be better than all but one team.
They showed how much they had improved by crushing Texas Tech, a team that dominated them in March. They showed they could bounce back from crushing losses against Creighton and UCLA with win-or-go-home victories.
Junior left-hander Tommy Henry dominated on the mound in his last two starts, throwing a complete game shutout and a game one win, respectively. Senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr turned red hot, launching seven of his 15 home runs in the NCAA tournament while capturing the attention of baseball with the story of his father and grandfather.
Coach Erik Bakich beat possibly the most storied coach of college baseball, Mike Martin, in his last year, when the world was on Martin’s side. In the meantime, Bakich made tough calls that paid off, such as moving Jeff Criswell to the bullpen and dropping closer Willie Weiss.
Over and over, interview after interview in Omaha, Bakich was asked what this meant for Big Ten baseball — for northern baseball.
“The more we can do this, I think the more the Big Ten in baseball can continue to grow and be perceived as a major sport on par with some of the other major conferences in baseball,” Bakich said.
In disbelief, reporters would ask how the team got here, how Michigan beat the teams that it did. The focus was on how excited they were, not how good they were.
Bakich never once said, “We’re just happy to be here.”
As improbable as it was, the Wolverines won their way to Omaha. They were playing better than every team they faced along the way.
Michigan made it. It was a long, uneven road but the eyes of college baseball might have finally turned north.