OMAHA, Neb. – It was like déjà vu all over again.
The Michigan baseball team (49-20) defeated Texas Tech, 15-3, on Friday in the Bracket 1 final to advance to the final of the College World Series.
“We've seen both ends of the spectrum,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “A month ago in the Big Ten Tournament, we were playing not to lose the regular season conference title, and we were squeezing it. And you could tell we were just puckered up, and we weren't playing well.
“And now they're loose, and they're laughing and smiling, and having a great time. And they're not thinking ahead. They're not making the moment too big. They're just playing pitch to pitch and competing as hard as they can. And when they make mistakes, they're aggressive mistakes.
“That's a sign of a group that isn't scared, and the moment isn't too big for them.”
As they have been in every game of the College World Series, the Wolverines were fast out of the gate. Sophomore center fielder Jesse Franklin lined a soft single down the third base line and scored on an RBI double from senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr, who then scored on a two-out RBI single from senior third baseman Blake Nelson.
Unlike the last matchup, the Red Raiders were quick to retaliate, as a series of grounders found gaps in the top of the second. After Kauffmann issued first baseman Cameron Warren a leadoff walk, Texas Tech took the lead, 3-2, on three singles and a fielder’s choice before Kauffmann got a groundout and a swinging strikeout to end the inning.
But in the bottom of the inning, the Wolverines made it clear that they would fight. Sophomore shortstop Jack Blomgren crushed a leadoff triple into the gap in right-center field and sophomore catcher Joe Donovan took a four-pitch walk. Blomgren scored on an RBI single from senior second baseman Ako Thomas to tie the game at three with still no outs on the inning and runners at first and second.
That was all Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock needed to see to sit his starter. His reliever, John McMillon, got sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu to strike out swinging, but then walked Franklin to load the bases with one out and hit junior right fielder Jordan Brewer to score Donovan and put Michigan back on top, 4-3, before McMillon finally came through, striking out Kerr and Nelson, to end the inning at 4-3.
“I've been up a lot in those situations this postseason,” Thomas said. “Those are definitely big senior moments and big leadership moments, and I’m always happy to be up in those situations. And just thanks to my team for even allowing me to be up in those situations to start with. So I’m just taking it one at-bat at a time.”
Texas Tech looked like trouble in the top of the third, as Kauffmann allowed two singles to start off the inning followed by a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over. But he induced two groundouts split by a popup to end the inning with the Wolverines still on top.
And they never looked back. They tacked on two runs in the bottom of the third on a two-out, two-RBI double from Franklin, and one more in the fourth as Nelson scored on a wild pitch, to put Michigan atop, 7-3, through four innings.
Both teams went scoreless in the fifth, and Kauffmann again blanked Texas Tech in the top of the sixth. Kerr led off with a bunt single down the third-base line and took second on a fielders’ choice from Nelson. Bullock walked, and both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Blomgren then popped up before Donovan worked a six-pitch at-bat into a walk to load the bases with two outs and bring up Thomas, who drew Michigan’s third walk of the inning to score Kerr and put Michigan up, 8-3, with the bases still loaded.
That brought up Nwogu, who launched a two-RBI double to left center to score Donovan and Bullock and extended the Wolverines’ lead to 10-3, and a two-RBI single from Franklin pushed it to 12-3 for Michigan before Brewer fouled out to end the inning.
The Wolverines just continued to extend their lead. Kerr crushed the first pitch he saw in the seventh for a towering solo home run. After a series of walks and singles, Texas Tech walked in Nelson to bring the score to 14-10. In the eighth, Kerr crushed another home run blast out of the park to bring it to 15-3 at the end of the eighth.
Both teams were scoreless after that. But Michigan’s ticket was punched to the final of the College World Series.
“What we talked about is not making this bigger than it is,” Bakich said. “The field is the same. TD Ameritrade, between the white lines, is exactly the same. The difference between the Big Ten Tournament and the College World Series is the external.
“It’s the same thing now we're going to be playing for a national championship. And today was the game to get to the national championship. So if we can just stay centered, and make it about baseball, and just get back to focusing on how we play, then we're going to have a lot of success as long as we stay loose. And the guys are doing a really, really good job of that.”