Wolverines prepare to end regular season against Michigan State
“Pleased, but not satisfied.”
For Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich, that’s been the theme all season. And with the 16th-ranked Wolverines (40-12 overall, 14-7 Big Ten) having reached the 40-win plateau for the first time since 2008, those words may not be more applicable than they are right now.
“In college baseball, when a team achieves 40 wins in a regular season, I think you look back and probably say that they did pretty well,” Bakich said. “But it’s not a landing spot. It’s a place to catapult off from and keep moving, keep growing, keep getting better.”
And there aren’t too many teams more likely than Michigan to heed the call for continued improvement, even as the Wolverines prepare to finish off one of the most successful regular seasons in recent program history.
After all, they know better than anyone that nothing is ever set in stone, especially after their 2-9 finish last season knocked them out of postseason contention.
Michigan finished the 2016 regular season with a record of 36-21. Its worst possible finish this year is 40-17 — a record which would likely put it in the NCAA Tournament regardless. Most current projections have the Wolverines as a No. 2 seed in an NCAA regional. But to Bakich, those predictions mean little, especially considering what happened last season.
“I see the websites, but I don’t put any stock into (projections). It doesn’t have any impact,” Bakich said. “I think we’ve learned our lesson for looking ahead. We paid a pretty hard price looking ahead last year. That stuff will take care of itself, we’ll be in a fine position for all that stuff, but we’ll get there when we get there. Right now, it’s just Michigan State.”
Michigan’s regular season culminates with a three-game series against the Spartans, and there will be plenty at stake.
A conference title will be on the line, as the Wolverines sit a half-game behind Minnesota in the Big Ten standings.
Friday’s contest — sandwiched between two games in East Lansing — will, in all likelihood, be the last time the Wolverine seniors take the field at Ray Fisher Stadium.
And, of course, the in-state rivalry will generate extra intensity.
“They’re our rival,” Bakich said. “We’d play them in the parking lot if we could.”
Michigan and Michigan State (28-21, 9-12) have already met this season, a 12-4 Wolverine victory on April 18. But that game was a midweek, non-conference showdown — the atmosphere is undoubtedly different now.
Not only will Michigan State look to play spoiler for Michigan’s conference title aspirations, it will be fighting for its own postseason life. Northwestern and Purdue currently are tied for the last two spots in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Bloomington, Ind. The Spartans are one game behind them — if they don’t take at least one game from the Wolverines (and likely multiple), their season will come to an end Saturday.
Michigan State is certainly capable of doing so, however, with a potent lineup that possesses four players batting above .320. The offense is led by outfielder Bryce Kelley’s .352 clip, and has a conference-leading slugging percentage of .445. The Spartans’ pitching staff, led by left-hander Alex Troop (7-3, 2.62 earned-run average), ranks third in the Big Ten in ERA.
Michigan State’s statistical profile indicates a team that has not always played to its potential — despite possessing the Big Ten’s second-best scoring offense and third-best pitching staff in terms of ERA, the Spartans are just ninth in the standings. Part of the reason for this is because when the Spartans win, they often win by wide margins — 17 out of their 28 wins this season have come by at least five runs.
Without a doubt, Michigan State possesses explosive potential, and has the talent to go toe-to-toe with Michigan, especially considering the numerous external factors — the rivalry, the emotions the home finale will bring, the postseason implications.
But of course, the Wolverines are aware of that.
All season long, in pivotal moments, Michigan has thrived. It swept Oklahoma in its first matchup with a ranked team this season. It took off on a four-game winning streak after suffering a blowout loss to Rutgers and an outfield collision that injured outfielders Miles Lewis and Johnny Slater. And with its offense in a funk last week, having scored just 18 runs in six games, Michigan traveled to Purdue and completed a resounding sweep of the Boilermakers.
And this weekend, the Wolverines will have another chance to rise to the challenge and finish strong.
But no matter what happens, Bakich and his team probably won’t be satisfied.