OMAHA, Neb — Before the start of Tuesday’s game, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich made a surprising decision: freshman right hander Isaiah Paige would start. Unlike in the Super Regional, Bakich decided to put all his eggs in sophomore right hander Jeff Criswell coming out of the bullpen.
“The impetus for the decision to start Paige was more the desire to have Jeff Criswell out of the pen in an extended role,” Bakich said. “We knew that if we got any kind of a lead in the middle innings, we were going to go right to Criswell, and instead of extending him in the start like we did at UCLA a couple of weeks ago coming off of pitching an inning the night before, we felt like he would better serve our team finishing the game off.”
Criswell didn’t end up coming out of the bullpen, despite Paige’s impressive start — the Wolverines never took the lead.
But Criswell’s absence on Tuesday set up an exciting pitching duo on Wednesday for Michigan: junior right hander Karl Kauffmann will start on four days of rest and Criswell will close the game — there is no next game to save him for.
“That’s been the plan all along,” Bakich said. “He’s starting on Friday against Texas Tech, and if it went to Wednesday, he was going to be ready to go. The one thing about Karl, he’s older, he's mature, he knows how to take care of his body, so he has done the things he needs to do from a workout standpoint and a recovery standpoint to get his body and himself ready to go on four days’ rest and pitch on the fifth day.”
With Kauffmann starting on short rest, pitching in his third College World Series game in 11 days, don’t expect him to go long — five, six innings if he can keep his pitch count low.
And Criswell is no regular reliever. As a starting pitcher he was given First Team All-Big Ten honors and a sub-two earned-run average in conference play. His four-seam rising fastball will consistently reach 92 miles per hour over a six inning start. Over the season he’s developed a changeup and a slider to keep batters off their toes.
Criswell makes for the perfect contrast against Kauffmann’s precise, 88 mph fastball and sinker that will induce ground ball after ground ball.
For Vanderbilt, right-hander Mason Hickman has a team-leading 2.08 ERA, 4.76 strikeouts for every walk and has been dominant. But like Kauffmann, he is coming off just four days of rest.
The Commodores also used their closer on Tuesday, throwing 40 pitches in two innings. But looking beyond right-hander Tyler Brown, the bullpen does not get easier: Jake Eder and Ethan Smith have ERAs hovering around 3.00.
Still, the one-two punch of Kauffmann and Criswell is the best option Michigan could have in a game 3, winner take all matchup. Both pitchers are able to go for long periods of time and are capable of shutting down any offense. If the Wolverines’ offense shows up and rakes up the pitch counts of Hickman, Eder and Smith, their pitching staff can carry the team to a national championship.