OMAHA, Neb. – Last year, Jeff Criswell pitched 32.1 innings, holding opposing teams to a microscopic .168 batting average. The right-handed sophomore was Michigan’s closer, tried and true, but this year his role has grown.
“He’s been working as a starter this fall and preseason,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich at the beginning of the year. “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.”
Criswell has excelled in his role, growing into it as the season went on and winning first-team Big Ten honors. But as the postseason progressed, he was given another role: his old one.
With close games against No. 1 UCLA and No. 8 Texas Tech heading into the later innings, Bakich chose to stay away from a bullpen that has no true closer, and instead went with an arm he knew could shut down batters.
“All three of (junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann, junior left-hander Tommy Henry and Criswell) know with how this is set up with the first two games,” said Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter. “How we came set up for the tournament, we’re going to do everything we can to win the first two games. (Henry) and (Criswell) are ready to go at any moment.”
While Kauffmann is a pitcher who prides himself on command –– throwing sinkers and fastballs down in the zone with a velocity in the low 90s –– Criswell powers past batters with a high-90s four-seam fastball. It’s a contrast that stifles opposing offenses.
“Even though they’re both righties, it was a good change of pace to get a little more velocity in there,” Fetter said. “He wasn’t as spot-on as he is when starting, but with that extra couple ticks of velocity, you can get away with some mistakes there.”
Criswell has made mistakes. On Saturday, he allowed a single and walked a batter in the ninth inning with two outs. But he’s used to the pressure. He had been there before, and he got the final two outs in a game one victory over the Red Raiders.
“I just wanted to take deep breaths, attack the zone and let them put something in play so my defense can do the work,” Criswell said. “They’d been solid all day, so I knew if I put something in play, it was probably going to find someone’s glove. That was my mindset, to try and attack the zone and good things happen.”
The defense didn’t get a chance to work, though. Criswell struck out the next batter as he chased a fastball outside the zone. Criswell was in his element –– closing a game in front of 25 thousand people and a season on his back.
Don’t think Criswell has limited himself to just that role, though.
In the Super Regionals, Criswell pitched the next day after closing out UCLA. With a day in between games, even if Michigan loses to Florida State, Criswell will have plenty of time to recover from a short outing.
“Being a starter, usually throwing 5-7 innings a game and only having to throw two, I don’t feel too sore,” Criswell said on Sunday.
For the Wolverines, though, the mindset is that the next game is the most important. So on Monday, don’t be surprised if Michigan sends Criswell out of the bullpen. With Henry starting the game, Criswell could once again find himself fighting to hold onto a lead in a high-pressure game.