Last season, only one left-handed pitcher beat No. 1 UCLA.
His name is Tommy Henry, and he did it twice.
Henry pitched 13 innings against the Bruins in two starts, one in March and one to send Michigan to the College World Series in June, allowing only four runs while striking out 16 batters with his sharp fastball and elusive slider. These starts were a microcosm of his final campaign, during which the lanky left-hander pitched like a true ace and earned a 12-5 record with a 3.27 ERA.
Henry was paramount to the Wolverines’ success in 2019. He and fellow starter Karl Kauffman combined to chew through over 250 innings in a season that entranced the college baseball world.
2019 was one of the most successful seasons in Michigan baseball history. But the dust has finally settled from that season, and the two workhorse pitchers the Wolverines rode to their duel with Vanderbilt in the College World Series no longer play in Ann Arbor.
Kauffman and Henry’s absence begs the question: What comes next?
Michigan coach Erik Bakich made it clear that many starting rotation positions are in question, but the approach to filling them is not.
“The way we approach the roles is that you look at who your Friday night guy is, and you’re looking for consistency and a guy that can go out there and make a quality start,” Bakich said. “A guy who’s got the best chance to put up as many zeros as possible. A guy who’s got three pitches for strikes. After that it’s the next best version of that and the next best version of that.”
To some, the solution is that the next wave of pitchers who sat behind Kauffman and Henry need to rise to the occasion to fill the open roles — to step up in lieu of the duo’s departure.
“That (rise to the occasion) is exactly what we try not to say,” Bakich said. “This is something we stole from the Navy SEALS: ‘We don’t rise to the occasion, we sink to the level of our training, and we just hope that the level of our training is higher than the occasion.’ ”
Junior starting pitcher Jeff Criswell is perhaps the best example of why the Wolverines prefer the latter mentality. The 6-foot-4 right-hander from Portage, Mich. has trained at one of the highest levels available to college baseball players; with Team USA. Having done so, he is the heir apparent to Henry.
“To have a Michigan baseball player go play for Team USA is pretty awesome,” Bakich said. “The confidence that he got from that, in addition to the confidence from pitching both as a starter and a reliever, is important. He was very valuable for us last year, and he has gone from being maybe more of a thrower as a freshman, to a true pitcher with three-plus pitches, to a guy who’s regarded as one of the best amongst his peers.
“We’re glad to have him, and we’re sure glad he’s pitching for us on Fridays.”
With Criswell expected to be the pitching staff’s ace this year, the question remains as to who will fall in behind him, and the answer is currently unknown.
“We feel like we’ve got some pretty good options in those two, three and four spots,” Bakich said. “That’s a competition that’s going on right now.”
Among those options is freshman Cam Weston, whom Criswell himself sees as impressive, and there are talented arms in redshirt sophomore Ben Dragani and redshirt freshman Steven Hajjar — both of whom seek to return strongly from injuries sustained last season. This is not to mention redshirt sophomore right-hander Isaiah Paige, who filled in many pitching roles last season, and junior right-hander Blake Beers whom Bakich cited as a player who could potentially play a prominent role this season.
The Wolverines may have only decided on one rotation spot heading into the week of their first game, but it is clear that they do not see their situation as dire.
“I feel exactly the same heading into opening weekend now as I did last year,” Bakich said.
And for anyone who watched Tommy Henry pitch seven innings of two-run baseball against No.1 UCLA to send Michigan to the College World Series, that sounds much more like a signal of confidence than one of worry.