Jack Whitten: In its 15 games, Michigan showed what next year could hold
Last Wednesday night, I sat in front of a microphone and predicted that the Michigan baseball team would end its season at the College World Series.
Less than 24 hours later, the take was rendered freezing cold; the NCAA and Big Ten canceled all competition for the remainder of the spring sports season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, not even the best team would be Omaha bound, let alone the 8-7 Wolverines.
“(We haven’t) played a cupcake schedule like a lot of teams have done,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “... We’ve played all (NCAA) Regional-caliber teams.”
True. Pepperdine, the Wolverines’ final foe of the campaign and to whom they lost two of three, slashed a gaudy .301/.390/.441 as a team. Connecticut starting pitcher Nick Krauth tossed 10 2/3 innings against the Wolverines, earning two wins and allowing just one earned run.
But other high-performing teams and players didn’t stop the Wolverines from taking three of four in their opening weekend of play in Arizona, winning an away series against Cal Poly or avoiding sweeps against the Huskies and Waves. At the end of the day, the greatest roadblock to Michigan’s success was Michigan itself.
Offensively, the Wolverines were great at piggybacking off the success of teammates, but often unable to get the ball rolling.
“I think the problem is that we didn’t use (my leadoff homer) to gain momentum, and we struggled the rest of the game to string quality at bats together,” Nwogu said after losing the last of three games to the Huskies, 9-2. “I think sporadically we put together some good at-bats but not enough to plate runs and that was the problem.”
That was painfully evident in power outage defeats, and sometimes held true even in victory. In a 5-0 win at California, Michigan was stymied from posting crooked numbers despite working against the Golden Bears’ bullpen for eight innings.
But when the floodgates opened, they gaped, and that was a cause for optimism. Against Cal Poly in Arizona, the Wolverines used two three-run innings — sending the entire order to bat in the first — to put up an eight-spot that lasted despite a catastrophe in the bullpen.
A near-constant shuffle of the lineup and relievers didn’t help maintain this success.
“We haven’t had the same lineup twice which always leads to inconsistencies,” Bakich said after last weekend’s Pepperdine series. “But in the early part of the year you just have to experiment to find your best nine and we still don’t know. We are still trying to figure that out.”
Bakich had just begun to figure that out. A step in the right direction was moving junior shortstop Jack Blomgren from second to third in the order; Blomgren responded by reaching base 16 times in the ensuing eight-game span.
“I think it was just to split up the right handers,” Bakich said. “We want Jack up in the first inning, but I don’t think there was any strategy behind it other than sandwiching a left-hander between him and Nwogu.”
By playing 31 of his 36 guys in the season’s first and only month, rather than sticking with nearly exclusively veterans, Bakich had a lot of similar decisions to make. And at season’s end, a core group of starters was starting to emerge.
Freshman outfielder Clark Elliott was becoming a fixture in right field, freshman Ted Burton and sophomore Cam Hart formed a yin and yang at third base and freshman Jimmy Obertop began to take over the first-base job. Redshirt freshman left-hander Steven Hajjar and junior right-hander Blake Beers were the rotation’s rookies, but each pitched to lower ERAs than ace junior right-hander Jeff Criswell.
With junior outfielder Jesse Franklin and projected closer, sophomore right-hander Willie Weiss, winding down rehab on their injuries — along with a more solidified group of starters — the Wolverines could have reached a perfect storm against significantly weaker competition.
The bright spot is that everyone on the roster who would like to return will be able to do so for the 2021 season, thanks to eligibility relief for spring athletes. With all the pieces able to return, Bakich can continue to assemble the puzzle of the starters on which he was nearing completion this year.
“The number one goal every year is to add as much value as we possibly can to an already storied program,” Bakich said at the team media day. “So last year going into it we wanted page 153 in the Michigan history book to be bookmarked for all time, and it’s the same goal this year.”
That goal, of course, is no longer attainable.
The value from team 154, though, may not come with a trophy, but with a group that showed the capability to power Michigan to Omaha come summer 2021.