It was clear from day one that this season was going to be different.
As players gathered in a crowded Oosterbaan Field House on a snowy mid-February day, the Michigan baseball team went about its scrimmage, rotating between different drills like any other day.
But something was off. This time, the media plastered against the wall, trying to shield themselves from stray balls while also getting their first glimpse at the World Series runner-ups. It was a strange sight for the Wolverines.
The attention was all new for senior outfielder Dominic Clementi as he muttered under his breath on his walk past media to home plate, “When did all these people get here? Holy Shit.”
That simple phrase perfectly describes last season’s unexpected run and this season’s expectations.
Whether the team likes it or not, this season is the most important season in Michigan baseball history. It could define the program’s legacy for years to come. It could prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. It has the potential to solidify the Wolverines as a national powerhouse and reinvigorate northern baseball.
But in order to do so, Michigan has to find its identity sooner rather than later.
And to find that identity, the team is still looking in the rearview mirror to see how they found that identity last year. Through last year’s midseason adversity, the Wolverines found that their identity was their toughness and ability to have fun while clutch performers delivered in the biggest moments.
“I think our identity will be revealed by how we play,” Bakich said after the Pepperdine series on March 7. “Part of our identity and figuring it out will be gaining some consistency as we gain confidence and as we keep improving.”
So the question remains: Does struggling in the regular season just to catch lightning in a bottle at the end truly make Michigan the regional and national powerhouse they so desperately want to be?
It’s too early in the season to pinpoint exactly what the identity of this team is. Inconsistency, lapses in fundamental defense and an inability to record extra base hits has marred Michigan’s impressive starting pitching.
All of those have caused Bakich to scramble the lineup and the Wolverines have yet to field the same lineup twice.
“In the early part of the year, you just have to experiment to find your best nine,” Bakich said. “We still don’t know. We are still trying to figure that out.”
After 15 games, the Wolverines have an 8-7 record. Despite the poor record, Michigan has played a tough schedule with all the games on the road or in neutral sites. Of the seven teams the Wolverines have faced, three were ranked in D1 baseball’s top 25. After all, to be the best, you have to play the best.
And that’s exactly what a high-caliber program should be doing. These tough opponents have shown them what they need to work on, seeing as the Wolverines found their rhythm late last season.
“Last year we didn’t find our identity until the Big Ten Tournament,” Bakich said. “This is a process, it takes time. But the one thing that our teams seem to do as the season goes is always get better. The target will always be on growth and improvement.”
It is wishful thinking to follow the same recipe for success from last year in hopes of the same results. Catching lightning in a bottle again doesn’t make Michigan the program it wants to be. That can only come with consistent regular season play.
Last year, the Wolverines got the postseason results they wanted, but if they want to be a top program, they are going to have to start performing up to that bar.
By falling one win shy of a World Series title, Michigan presents itself with a unique opportunity to craft its legacy.
It doesn’t have to win the World Series to craft the legacy that it desires, but it needs to consistently win games.
“I think we have recognized that we’ve lost a couple of games that we coulda, shoulda, woulda won,” Bakich said after a 14-2 loss to Pepperdine.
At the end of the day, if the coulda, shoulda and wouldas remain, this opportunity could all be for nothing.