Jacob Shames: Taking a punch
On the surface, it would appear that the memory of Michigan’s painful collapse down the stretch last season has faded away. The Wolverines (19-6 overall, 1-2 Big Ten) sit comfortably in the national rankings, have scored the second-most runs in the Big Ten and have the best earned-run average of any team in the conference.
Essentially, the 2017 Michigan baseball team looks a lot like the 2016 team did for most of its season.
Throughout his career, Michigan coach Erik Bakich has held a reputation for his dynamic and energetic nature. His vigor has been a key driving force in the program’s resurgence – from taking the Wolverines from 22-34 the year before his arrival, to a 39-25 record and Big Ten title in his third season, and to a 34-12 start in 2016.
For Bakich, last year’s finish – a 2-9 slump at the end of the season which left the Wolverines outside the NCAA Tournament – presented an opportunity to return to the foundation for what made Michigan’s turnaround over the last few seasons possible in the first place. While the 2016 Wolverines rode the momentum of a surprise run to the postseason the year before, this year’s team has perhaps a more powerful force fueling them.
“The way we did not finish the season strong last year was the impetus to get back to those roots of mental toughness training to prepare us for any adversity that strikes,” Bakich said.
It’s no surprise that Bakich loves describing his team in fighting terms, with an emphasis on taking and throwing punches. One of the Wolverines’ traditions after each game is to hand out an award – an object representative of the team’s mentality and spirit – to the player who made the biggest impact that game. Last season, the award was a hard hat. This year, it’s a pair of boxing gloves.
“We’ve been down, we’ve taken punches, we’ve given up big innings and had to fight back,” Bakich said. “That was something that was a large target that we wanted to hit head on to be a tougher team.”
Resiliency – whether shown in late-inning surges and comebacks, scoring immediately after giving up runs, or simply fighting to keep at-bats alive – is the central message. Already, Michigan has won four games in the ninth inning or later, after winning just two such games a season ago. The Wolverines have outscored their opponent in 67 innings, while being outscored in just 38. They’ve scored in 36 percent of their innings, but that number goes up to 41 percent when they’ve surrendered a run the inning before.
At the plate, Michigan has displayed patience and grit by drawing walks in 14 percent of its at-bats, as opposed to 11 percent last season, and has shown a newfound aggression on the basepaths, having stolen 57 bases already – or three less than it did all of last season.
Many of the key contributors of last year’s team – junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie, third baseman Drew Lugbauer, first baseman Jake Bivens and senior catcher Harrison Wenson – are back for another season, so this steely resolve isn’t one that just appeared out of nowhere. Instead, this mental toughness training was the focus of the Wolverines’ offseason; a conscious effort to gear them for the ups and downs of a long season.
“Whether it’s military or other sports teams or other competitive sports that do similar training to strengthen that competitive mindset, it’s absolutely a skill that can be developed,” Bakich said. “Toughness, confidence, leadership – everybody comes into this world with a certain level, but those are all skills that can be developed, and those are three things that we invest a lot of time on in this program.”
Added Bivens: “Some of it’s inherent, but I think this team has trained harder than anyone in the country. (Bakich has) built that toughness into us, and we are a group of fighters.”
With pitchers like Jaskie, who possesses a 3.44 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 34 innings, and a batting order that’s dangerous top to bottom, there’s never been any doubt about Michigan’s ability to throw a punch. But that was true last season.
Currently, the Wolverines are knocking on the doorstep of national prominence. But with quality opponents such as Michigan State, Indiana and Oklahoma awaiting this month, the question of whether they can take a punch needs a definitive answer in order for Michigan to break through.
And so far this season, the answer to that question has been a resounding ‘yes’.