After a season filled with questions, some answers for Michigan baseball

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 7:16pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

OMAHA, Neb. – For much of the season, there were questions swirling around the Michigan baseball team. Now, on the far side of an improbable ride that brought Team 153 to the finals of the College World Series – and on the far side of a crushing 8-2 loss at the hands of No. 2 Vanderbilt – the answers to those questions are starting to become clear.

For a long time, there were serious doubts about whether any school from the Big Ten belongs in college baseball’s Top 25. They struggled with cold weather, struggled losing recruits to southern schools, struggled putting together consistently successful teams.

But this season has proven that that’s no longer the case. Michigan was in and out of the rankings all season. But this year has cemented the fact that the Big Ten is quickly becoming a relevant baseball conference again. Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois all put together teams that looked as if they could threaten to make postseason runs. In a few years’ time, with continued improvement from programs that are investing more and more into being national contenders, the Big Ten is beginning to challenge the notion that only warm-weather schools can build baseball powerhouses.

Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan have been ranked this season — Illinois and Indiana for weeks at a time. They’ve all proven that they’ve earned those rankings.

So, yes, Big Ten baseball teams belong in the top 25.

At the very beginning of the season, it looked like Michigan might be that Big Ten team. The Wolverines were ranked – albeit in the last five of the top 25 – and started the season on an eight-game winning streak with sweeps of Binghamton and the Citadel. But after a rough California swing and a devastating three-game sweep at the hands of No. 8 Texas Tech, Michigan fell out of the rankings, phasing in and out for the rest of the season.

But this postseason run has made one thing clear: this wasn’t just a top-25 team. It was a top-five team. This was a team that took down some of the best ballclubs in the country — the likes of UCLA and Texas Tech. This was a team that had the potential to be a national champion, a team that was one game away from that result, a team that was disappointed to finish second in the country.

So, yes, Michigan belongs in the top 25, at least.

At the beginning of the season, junior left-hander Tommy Henry looked untouchable, allowing no earned runs in four of his first five starts. But nagging bicep tendonitis rendered him inconsistent through much of the second half of the season, and it became unclear if he could show up for Michigan when it mattered.

But in the postseason, when his team needed him most, Henry became the backbone of the pitching staff. He threw a dominant, flu-ridden seven innings over UCLA to send his team to the College World Series, a masterpiece 100-pitch complete-game shutout of Florida State, and a victory in Game 1 of the College World Series Final. He finished the season with a 3.27 earned-run average and a legacy of massive games on the collegiate sport’s highest level.

So, yes, Tommy Henry can pitch when it matters.

He can. He did.

In his first three years with the program that both his father and grandfather played for, senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr was a non-starter who had his moments. He fought to live up to the legacy of his father and grandfather who both went to the College World Series with Michigan. But after an offseason spent hard at work lifting weights and putting on bulk, Kerr finally came into his own.

He hit a team-leading 15 home runs in his breakout senior season. Seven of those homers came in the NCAA Tournament. He started every game this past year and captained a team that made its first College World Series trip since his father’s playing days.

His father went to Omaha twice in the eighties. His grandfather was the backbone of the 1962 championship team.

It’s a tall legacy – but yes, Jimmy can live up to it.

He can. He did.

Above all, though, there was one question surrounding this ballclub: can Bakich build a powerhouse program at Michigan?

He’s certainly planted the seeds of one. This postseason run, this trip to Omaha, this appearance in the finals of the College World Series have proven that.

But can he get back here? Can he recruit well enough to replace the losses of seniors like Jimmy Kerr and Blake Nelson and draftees like Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry? Can he cultivate a winning culture and a consistently-winning program that bring future Michigan teams back to Omaha?

It’s time to find out.

But as of now, all signs point to yes.