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Consistency has been the Michigan baseball team’s enemy all season.

From the beginning of the season, the talent, culture and drive that the Wolverines carry has been apparent. But the problem they’ve struggled with is how to put the pieces together.

This is a team that opened the season going toe-to-toe with Maryland and East Carolina — two schools whose impressive seasons earned them spots as regional hosts. But Michigan also displayed its shortcomings through uninspiring losses to the likes of Oakland and Purdue Fort Wayne midway through the season.

The Wolverine pitchers and hitters struggled to get in sync with each other. One day the offense would explode, but the bullpen would implode. The next the pitching would dominate, but then the bats would struggle. Michigan has been engaged in a wildly flailing balancing act for months, and in the weeks leading up to the Big Ten Tournament, it seemed about to finally fall off the tightrope.

“We were lifeless on the mat after (the series against) Maryland,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said on Monday. “We were staring, legitimately staring, in the face of the option mathematically of not even making the Big Ten Tournament.”

I was convinced that the Wolverines were too downtrodden to turn things around,  even if they did find their way into the conference tournament. I had no doubt they could ride their talent and power-heavy bats to a win or two, but it seemed unlikely that it would last long before the offense had an off day or the bullpen’s issues resurfaced and failed to contain the opposing bats.

But something special happened that last weekend of the regular season against Rutgers — they just started playing baseball.

Michigan has stuck to its guns in terms of its approach and mantra: focusing on one day at a time and not worrying about the past or the future. But against the Scarlet Knights — with a trip to the Big Ten Tournament on the line —   it became a win-at-all-costs mindset, and that has made all the difference.

While the two strategies are functionally similar, the ferocity and extra focus brought by the latter has enabled the Wolverines to become an entirely different baseball team.

“We were saying that we are going to treat every week from here on out like it’s tournament baseball,” Bakich said after the first game of the Rutgers series. “Treat every individual game like it’s the only game of the week.”

Michigan went into the series with doubts of winning any of the games, but it came out taking two of three which pushed it into the tournament. The team that walked away from that series against the Scarlet Knights looked completely different from the one that left College Park a week prior.

“The team that you saw last week at Maryland is long gone,” Bakich said after the second game of the series. “It just feels different. … It’s fun to watch. I think they’re having fun doing it.” 

All year, the Wolverines have been weighed down by expectations, living up to their potential and turning Michigan into an “Omaha program” by showing they can make it to the College World Series with consistency. But that’s not what baseball is about. 

Baseball is supposed to be fun. And that’s what the Wolverines rediscovered in their tournament run.

“We just need to go back, … have some fun playing a kids game,” Bakich said on Monday. “They had great focus while they competed but yet they were loose and having fun at the same time.”

I have been baffled all year by the performance of this team and struggled to pinpoint their identity. I’ve watched and seen the talent, I’ve seen what these guys are capable of, I’ve seen that they understand what they can do and I’ve seen how much they want to prove it.

And it seems the only thing that stood between Michigan and reaching its potential was the immense pressure to get there.

If the Big Ten Tournament displayed one thing it was that when the Wolverines have fun, they play better. 

They had fun making the final push to get into the conference tournament, they had fun playing their way through the bracket and they had fun winning the Big Ten Tournament. Now, they have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and take the next step towards cementing Michigan as an “Omaha program”. But that should not be the take away from the conference tournament title. 

Baseball, at its roots, is a kids game that revolves around hitting a ball with a stick. That’s the essence of the sport and the reason it’s beloved by so many. The point is to have fun and do your best. 

When the Wolverines pushed everything else aside and just played, they finally put the pieces together. When all they could do was to go out and try their best, they finally found it.