OMAHA, Neb. – The game plan is obvious. Karl Kauffmann starts, Jeff Criswell finishes. The two lockdown pitchers give Michigan room to breathe and be loose.
“The way we've been approaching all these tournaments is we’re just going to worry about Game 1 and do whatever we have to do in Game 1 and worry about Game 2 in Game 2,” said Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich.
The Wolverines are done playing with their backs against the wall.
“When we lost that first game in the Big Ten Tournament, our guys were pressing, they were squeezing it, they were puckered up,” Bakich said. “We weren't playing free. We weren't loose.”
For Michigan, playing free and loose has always been how they achieve success. Without being scared of losing, missing a pitch or hitting a ground ball, the Wolverines scored 10 runs against Maryland, 18 against Nebraska and 17 against Creighton. With that freedom, they win and win big.
They’re aggressive and ruthless –– 35-6 when scoring first –– and they have the pitching to hold any lead.
“He's a great ground ball pitcher,” Bakich said. “And so for him to just fill up the strike zone with three pitches in any count, in any location, he's just tough to hit, especially with the ball moving that much. He's just been dialed in, and he and (pitching) coach (Chris) Fetter have put together a really nice pitch plan. It's a mature guy who's able to execute it, and it's been a huge spark for us these last few weeks.”
Michigan’s lockdown pitching frees its offense to take risks and swing with two strikes or two outs.
“And so our guys are doing a great job of battling and fighting with two strikes just to put the barrel on the ball because this is college baseball,” Bakich said. “Good things happen when you can force mistakes, and you saw that happen with the extra run that we got that proved to be a huge insurance run there in the (seventh).”
Added senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr: “Guys did a great job setting the tone, getting on base, and our two-strike approach as a team, choke up on the barrel, put it in play and make something happen and just got a pitch that I was able to put something in play on.”
But in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan’s ability to win the first game and gain a second chance has proved invaluable to protect against its mistakes.
In the regional, it blew a three run lead against Creighton in the top of the ninth, but thanks to their hot start, they got a second chance.
In the Super Regional, it had a catastrophic five errors in Game 2 –– all in the ninth inning or later –– but thanks to a Game 1 victory they were given a second chance.
Saturday, after a 5-3 Game 1 victory in the College World Series over Texas Tech, the Wolverines have another opportunity to make a mistake, and another reason not to fear a dropped pop up or swinging at an imperfect pitch.