The wins that shaped Michigan’s run

Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 7:15pm

The Wolverines made an improbable run to the national championship as one of the Last Four In.

The Wolverines made an improbable run to the national championship as one of the Last Four In. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Behind every deep tournament run are the wins that shaped the team. It was no different for the Michigan baseball team’s historic – and, at times, improbable – run. They don’t tell this team’s whole story. Nothing could. But they’re a good place to start. The Daily takes a look back of some of this season’s defining wins.

March 8 – Michigan 7, No. 2 UCLA 5 

There’s a lot of talk in sports about “statement wins.” That’s what this was.

In a tough road environment against then-No. 2 UCLA, which spent most of the season as the best team in the country, junior left-hander Tommy Henry struck out ten over six innings of two-run baseball. Michigan scored four runs in the first inning, tacking on two in the third and one more in the eighth for insurance. 

This was the win that showed a flash of what this team could become, what they would become: a national contender. In the face and on the home turf of arguably the toughest competition the Wolverines faced all season, Michigan dominated the game. They never trailed.

It wasn’t the last time the two teams met this season either. 

May 23 – Michigan 5, Illinois 4 

One strike away.

Team 153 was one strike away from an early end to its season, one strike away from not making a postseason appearance at all, one strike away from this magical run. 

Luckily, sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu had other ideas.

Michigan was down, 4-3, to Illinois in the bottom of the ninth inning. A loss to Ohio State the day before meant that falling to the Fighting Illini would send the Wolverines home for good.

Nwogu stepped up to the plate with two on and two out. With Michigan’s season on the line, he launched a two-run double to left center, and the Wolverines walked off with a 5-4 victory.

It was exactly the catalyst they needed. Since that win, the Wolverines have been hot. But it’s more than that. That was the win that introduced them to what Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin called their “playing personality”: free and loose, having fun, and playing to win – not just playing not to lose.

“We saw the end of our season right in front of us,” said senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr during the College World Series. “That kind of made the whole team appreciate every single game that we've had together since then. And that's kind of the bigger picture. It's not that we're playing in a Regional, Super Regional, College World Series championship; it's just that we get another game with each other.”

June 9 – Michigan 4, No. 1 UCLA 2 

UCLA’s lineup was the best in the country. No one had been able to stop them all season. Michigan had as good as lost the game already.

Instead, the Wolverines pulled out a 4-2 victory to head to the College World Series. 

Henry, sick with the flu and pneumonia, and still recovering from the biceps tendonitis that rendered him inconsistent throughout much of the second half of the season, pitched seven innings of two run-baseball — containing a Bruins batting order that seemed practically unstoppable.

Sound familiar?

The first time Michigan played UCLA, it was just a flash of the team they could be. Three months later, they had gone even further.

June 15 – Michigan 5, Texas Tech 3 

The first time Michigan and Texas Tech met, it was proof of how far the Wolverines still had to go to be an Omaha contender. They were swept and outscored 29-10 over three games.

Three months later, the Wolverines were an entirely different team — their bats hot, their pitchers cool and their defense firing on all cylinders. The Red Raiders provided the perfect litmus test: had Michigan really learned from its mistakes, and could it really compete at the highest stage in collegiate baseball?

The answer to both questions was an emphatic yes. The Wolverines got off to a quick start as a sacrifice fly from junior right fielder Jordan Brewer scored Nwogu in the top of the first. They tacked on three more in the third as Kerr launched a two-RBI triple down the right field line and scored on a single from senior third baseman Blake Nelson. 

Texas Tech made it close, scoring two runs in the bottom of the third and adding another in the bottom of the sixth, but Michigan was unshaken. They added a run in the top of the seventh when sophomore center fielder Jesse Franklin scored on an error for insurance, then cruised to a 5-3 victory on the backs of solid pitching from junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann (7 innings, 8 hits, 3 runs) and sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell (two solid innings of one-hit relief).

The Wolverines had made a statement: they were more than just a Cinderella team, and their run amounted to more than just luck.

Michigan, at long last, was a national contender again.