SportsMonday Column: Baseball, and optimism, at Ray Fisher this weekend
It doesn’t take more than a couple of seconds for Ako Thomas to address it. The question wasn’t even about it. But to start an interview in the lobby of Ray Fisher Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, asked what has gone well as Thomas and the Michigan baseball team have raced out to a 12-3 start this year, the sophomore second baseman knows just the answer.
“We felt like we had something to prove this year,” Thomas says, “ending the way we did last year.”
Of course, everyone in the program remembers that. Last season, as the Wolverines were on their way to their best season in eight years, they instead sputtered, losing nine of their last 11 games and missing the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in eight tries.
Twelve months later, last season’s optimism is back, and Michigan has the promise to back it up. The Wolverines’ quest now is to make sure they don’t repeat 2016.
“I just felt like towards the end, I feel like we just, I don’t know, got tired and started to fall apart towards the end,” Thomas said. “But with this year’s group, I just feel like we all have the same goals. We’ve all got one thing on our mind, and that’s winning each game.”
Michigan returns home to Ray Fisher Stadium as a ranked team this weekend for a four-game series against Northern Illinois. A month into this season, a 15-game road swing has gone about as well as the Wolverines could have hoped. They have started 12-3 — improving on their 15-game start last season — including a 7-1 spring break trip to California in which they knocked off Southern California and San Diego, which doesn’t happen often to teams from the cold Midwest.
Michigan came back and drew a No. 24 ranking in the national poll. The only other ranked team from north of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the West Coast was No. 19 St. John’s. And the Wolverines will likely move up in this week’s poll after going down to Nashville and sweeping Lipscomb this past weekend.
The catch is that all of that was true at this time last year — the hot start, the national ranking and a 5-0 win against then-No. 10 California.
Last year’s squad started 5-0, then went to 11-3, then 20-5 after sweeping Northwestern. Those Wolverines showed a few signs of letting up, but they were still 34-12 after they pounded Rutgers in May. Most 34-12 teams end up in the NCAA Tournament.
But Michigan finished 2-9 and lost to Ohio State five times in the last three weeks — twice in the Big Ten Tournament. Had the Wolverines won any one of those games, they might have returned to the postseason. Instead, the momentum they gained from a dramatic run to the 2015 conference tournament title disappeared. Michigan still finished with its best record since it won the last of three straight Big Ten titles in 2008, but it had nothing to show for it.
So yes, Thomas and coach Erik Bakich admit, the Wolverines have the proverbial “chip on their shoulder” — “if we said there wasn’t, we’d be lying to you,” Bakich said Wednesday. They do not deny the influence last year’s collapse had on this season’s start. They embrace it.
“I think last year and this year, there was definitely optimism,” said senior infielder Michael Brdar. “I think the difference this year is we’re a lot more motivated and tough towards our goals. Not that we expected to be great last year, but we kind of just had, ‘we’re going to show up and we’re going to play well.’ This year, it’s more like we get to the ballpark and we’re on a mission every single game.”
The result is a team that again looks like it’s ready to take the next step as a program. Michigan now ranks tied for third in the country with 30 stolen bases and has the pitching, led by ace left-hander Oliver Jaskie, to compete with anyone.
The evolution came in the offseason when Michigan reevaluated how it approached games as a program. First, according to Brdar, that meant what the team calls “mental toughness” — or in practice, a lot of running. The Wolverines also adopted a more aggressive mindset (which shows in the stolen base category) and discussed as a group what values were most important to them.
The beliefs they thought of as implicit, they made more specific. The classic ideals of baseball — every pitch matters — they have now seen in action.
“You always talk about that, but we never really saw it until last year, so now we know that it’s important to have intent with everything we do,” Brdar said. “…I think the end of last year helped, because there’s no taking the foot off the gas pedal.”
In response to a slump in which the Wolverines could never manage the win they needed, they have come back this year believing they’re never out of any game.
The intensity has paid off. Against Creighton last month, Michigan blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning and then rallied to win in the 10th. At Lipscomb on Friday night, the Wolverines rallied from down 4-2 in the ninth and won 5-4. They believe last year’s sour finish helped build that resiliency.
“Maybe now more than ever, we’re going to be able to embrace, you know, when the garbage hits the fan,” Bakich said.
Wednesday, the fifth-year coach jogged into the Ray Fisher lobby for a media session with reporters and took a seat facing a wall plastered with a photo of the team celebrating the 2015 Big Ten Tournament title.
Looking at that picture, he reaffirmed that no, this season’s early success will not influence his team as it heads into a promising spring. By now, Michigan knows the danger of that already.