OMAHA, Neb — It wasn’t luck that carried Michigan to the championship series, nor was it pure talent that’s made them one of the last two left.
It was three moments of despair, bringing the Wolverines down to their lowest, that pushed them to learn three vital lessons.
A benchmark, and how to get there. Grit, and how to survive. Fun, and that this is all a game.
“Texas Tech is just better than we are, and they outplayed us all weekend long,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich in March after being swept by the Red Raiders. “They were better than us in all phases, offensively defensively and on the mound and in the bullpen… We got exposed.”
It was an eye opening experience in the young season for a Michigan team that was high on itself. There were no close games — just blowouts that weekend — and for Bakich, it served as a reminder to his team of the value of preparation.
The Wolverines would not play a team that good until the NCAA tournament, and in order to reach their goals they would need to work harder in practice.
“We lost a series at Ohio State and we had a bunch of backwards K’s,” Bakich said. “That was an opportunity, a teaching moment with our team to really dial in our two-strike approach, and our guys just got a whole lot grittier, a whole lot tougher with two strikes.”
The Wolverines thought they were the next big thing — the offense was rolling and looking for pitches it could hit out of the park and there was nothing that could stop them.
But the embarrassing loss to a rival gave birth to one of Bakich’s favorite sayings.
“Gritty, not pretty.”
Extend at-bats, foul off pitches and force the defense to beat you.
Since that series, Michigan has found a way to grind out at-bats, dial up pitch counts, and get clutch two-out RBIs — the latter of which has been the driving force behind the Wolverines’ runs this postseason.
“We were playing not to lose the regular season conference title,” Bakich said. “And we were squeezing it. And you could tell we were just puckered up, and we weren’t playing well.”
Michigan had lost five of seven heading into the Big Ten tournament, looking back at what would have happened if they won.
The Wolverines were written off as spiraling, much as they had the year before.
And then came a clutch hit. Two strikes, two outs, bottom of the ninth. With the season on the line, Jordan Nwogu hit a walk off double and everything started to click. They went on to secure a bid into the NCAA tournament as one of the last four in , and finally realized that they played best when loose.
During the tournament, they needed to be reminded of that third and final lesson multiple times. A meltdown against Creighton in the ninth inning forced Michigan to recover the next day and focus on what’s ahead. Defensive meltdowns against No. 1 UCLA in the eighth inning of game two postponed the Wolverines’ trip to the College World Series.
Now, they are somewhere no Big Ten team has been in 53 years — playing for a national championship.
They’ve surpassed their benchmark, blowing out the Red Raiders to get to the championship.
They’ve proven to be gritty as 15 of their 22 World Series runs came with two outs.
And most of all, they’re having fun.