Michigan sophomores ready to lead in 2019

Monday, February 11, 2019 - 9:15pm

Outfielder Jordan Nwogu was one of the best hitters for the Michigan baseball team last season, batting .349.

Outfielder Jordan Nwogu was one of the best hitters for the Michigan baseball team last season, batting .349. Buy this photo
File Photo/Daily

Last season was baptism by fire for the freshmen of the Michigan baseball team.

After the 2017 season concluded, seven of the Wolverines signed MLB contracts, a figure that led the nation, and thus created a void in the lineup. This year’s sophomore class was forced into action last season and is looking to build on that experience.

“The storyline of this team, I think, is guys who have been patient in our program that have waited their turn, so to speak,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “I don’t envision a whole lot of newcomers emerging on the scene like we had last year. Last year the situation presented itself. We led the nation in draft picks the year before, after the 2017 season. We had 11 guys drafted, seven of them were juniors, all seven juniors signed. So the opportunity was there for freshmen to earn starting jobs.”

Last season, sophomore outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwogu were two of the top batters in the lineup. Franklin batted .327 with a team-leading 47 RBIs, while Nwogu was third in batting average at .349. Franklin had the best fielding percentage on the team at .991 (minimum 50 attempts) last season. The Wolverines will need that production to return along with their stellar defense in order to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2008.

“I see just a little bit of an older team, so I see a group of kids who’ve had another birthday, who’ve gotten stronger, who’ve become more physical,” Bakich said. “So I would like to think we’re capable of hitting for more power this year.”

Bakich clearly expects more from all of his returning players. The amount of playing time for last season’s freshman was unusual, not only for the program, but nationally.

“Looking around the field, those spots just aren’t quite as available because we do have some returning starters back. But every position is rented in our program,” Bakich said. “Just because they started there last year doesn’t mean they’re entitled to the position this year. They have to go out there and earn it again, and a lot of them have.”

The pair of outfielders may have been solid, but Michigan struggled with consistency all season. They started out 2-10 before rattling off 20 consecutive wins. The Wolverines then dropped five of their last six regular-season games before bowing out in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

On paper, the expectations are high because of the invaluable experience gained in the prior season. But, a lot can go wrong in a season, and the pillars of this program are its defense and pitching. Sophomore pitchers Jeff Criswell and Angelo Smith are expected to contribute more as starters this year after pitching in relief last year. This is partially due to the fact that sophomore pitcher Ben Dragani is out for the year after having Tommy John surgery. Dragani was one of Michigan’s best on the mound last season.

“Angelo Smith had a great ERA last year and pitched just in some relief roles and some matchup roles,” Bakich said. “He was a matchup left-hander pitching in some short relief appearances, but he’s a guy that could be pitching at the end of games for us because he’s a year better.

“A guy like Jeff Criswell, who pitched for us in relief last year, he’s been working as a starter this fall and preseason, he looks very good. He’s got one of the best arms on the team. He throws in the mid to upper 90s, he’s got a lightning bolt for an arm and he’s looking very good.”

After an up and down 2018 season, the Wolverines seem poised for success in 2019 thanks to the return of a strong sophomore class.

“Everything feels right, in terms of what type of group this could be,” Bakich said. “It feels like a special group, so we’ll have to make sure we stay at the front end of any potential threats and keep these guys moving in the right direction.”