OMAHA, Neb. – Pitching had been an issue for this Michigan team all season. Its No. 1 and No. 2 starters, juniors Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry, have always been clear – and clearly good.
The rest of the pitching staff had been something of a question mark.
At the beginning of the season, the biggest question was who would fill the role of the No. 3 starter with sophomore left-hander Ben Dragani out for the season with an injury. Sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell stepped nicely into that role, converting from a bullpen pitcher to a starter with marked success.
“You can see his growth; you can see his improvement,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said of Criswell in March. “It’s been very impressive, and we’ve certainly needed it. Having a guy like Jeff on Sunday gives us a great chance to win or sweep every series that we play.”
From then on, the biggest question about this Michigan pitching staff had been its bullpen. As the season progressed, it became clearer and clearer that it lacked consistency and, to some extent, effectiveness.
For a while, it looked as if Bakich had found a solution to that, scraping out wins on offense and taking advantage of the College World Series’ structure to alternate between starting Kauffmann and Henry. Criswell, in the meantime, came out of the bullpen for extended relief.
“We felt like he would better serve our team finishing the game off,” Bakich said. “It just kind of got to a point where we said: This really is a no-brainer. We need Jeff at the back end of the game.”
But in the College World Series final, a best-of-three affair, that strategy finally caught up to Bakich.
Game one went according to plan, with Henry tossing 8.1 strong innings. But Tuesday brought game two, and with it, trouble. Kauffmann, having pitched against Texas Tech on Friday, could not pitch again on such short rest. This left Bakich in a dilemma: should he pitch Criswell and have him unavailable for a potential game three, or should he use the pitch-by-committee strategy and have both Kauffmann and Criswell for the final game?
Bakich chose the latter, starting freshman right-hander Isaiah Paige and using five other pitchers in relief in what became a 4-1 game two loss.
It was a bold strategy as it meant that everything would ride on game three. And when Kauffmann threw a solid first two innings Wednesday, it looked like it might pay off. But when he, on short rest, allowed three runs in the bottom of the third, and a walk to lead off the bottom of the fourth, Bakich sat him for Criswell, who went on to allow three more runs of his own.
But Bakich had no choice other than to leave Criswell in. His bullpen was depleted from game two. Criswell settled down to an extent after the fourth, throwing two scoreless innings in the fifth and sixth before allowing one run in the bottom of the seventh as well as the eighth.
“Unfortunately, we issued a few too many free passes, especially with two outs, and then they capitalized and got the big two-out hit,” Bakich said. “Unfortunately, you give a team like that and an offense like that free passes, they’ll make you pay. And they made us pay.”
The damage was done. The Commodores had taken a lead and expanded it into a chasm. They would never surrender it.
Here, in game three of the College World Series finals, the Wolverines had to face the truth — their pitching staff lacked the depth it needed.
The seeds of a stronger and deeper pitching staff have been planted in players like Dragani, Paige, and sophomore southpaw Angelo Smith. And there’s plenty of evidence that Bakich and pitching coach Chris Fetter will be able to shape them into a unit that can bring the Wolverines back to Omaha.
But for now, Michigan’s pitchers were outmatched by a dangerous Vanderbilt lineup and an opposing pitching staff much deeper than its own. And if Bakich wants to cultivate a program that can get back to the biggest stage, it’s an issue he needs to fix.