Coming off the back of a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years and their first 40-win season since 2008, head coach Erik Bakich and the Michigan baseball team were looking to build on their successful 2017 season with an even better campaign in 2018. The Wolverines lost 11 players from that 2017 team to the majors — 15 in all — but welcomed a recruiting class — ranked tenth nationally — of 13.
However, the optimism that accompanied Team #152 into the season quickly turned sour. A combination of returning starters not performing well enough and freshmen struggling to make an impact saw Michigan lose 11 of its first 15 games. This run was capped off by a humiliating 3-8 loss to NAIA program Lawrence Tech.
A switch was flipped following the loss, though. The Wolverines rattled off 20 consecutive wins and became one of the hottest teams in college baseball. There was a newfound positivity in the dugout, and both upperclassmen and freshmen were benefiting from it on the field.
A loss to Iowa ended their streak and seemed to phase the youthful Michigan team. Like earlier in the season, it was knocked off its pedestal and ended the regular season with a dissapointing 8-7 record in which all seven losses came to Big Ten opponents.
The Wolverines entered the Big Ten tournament in a bit of a rut and weren’t able to shake it. Although they won their first game 2-1 against Iowa in extra innings, they came up just short in the next two games to Purdue and Ohio State, respectively. Their inability to move on in Omaha ultimately cost them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The 2018 season was a rollercoaster for the Michigan baseball team. The Wolverines finished 33-21, 6.5 games behind last year’s mark. They flashed boundless potential at times and exhibited inconsistency at other times. The Daily reflects on the 2018 season and looks ahead to the 2019 team.
Most Valuable Player: Jonathan Engelmann
On a team full of freshmen and sophomores, junior centerfielder Jonathan Engelmann was a much-needed leader. The All-Big Ten First Team Selection isn’t necessarily the most boisterous guy on the field, but the uber-mature Engelmann led by example and was a major reason why this Michigan team was as successful as it was.
Offensively, he did it all this season. He was second on the team with a .351 batting average, led the team in hits, total bases and doubles and was second only to freshmen slugger Jesse Franklin in home runs and RBIs. Additionally, he was a defensive pillar out in centerfield, registering a .974 fielding percentage and only two errors.
His likely return to Ann Arbor for his senior season is one of the many reasons to be optimistic about the 2019 Wolverines.
Breakout Player: Jesse Franklin
Like most freshmen on the team, Franklin struggled to adapt to the college game early on. After playing in his first nine games, five of which he started, Franklin had a .095 batting average and two hits. Having been named Washington’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in high school, Franklin wasn’t necessarily used to a slump.
Eventually, though, his talent shone through. He blasted his first of a team-high 10 homers on March 20th and went on a hitting tear over the next few weeks. Franklin finished the season with the most RBI on the team and a respectable batting average of .327.
A prolific first season at Michigan made Franklin an All-Big Ten Freshman Team Selection.
Freshman of the Year: Ben Dragani
If it wasn’t for freshman left-hander Ben Dragani’s consistency this year, him and Franklin might have swapped categories. Another extremely talented freshman, Dragani was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin and a Rawlings-Perfect Game Honorable Mention All-American in 2017.
Dragani saw time in the first game of the season coming in to relieve senior starter Alec Rennard. His solid relief performances quickly endeared him to the coaching staff and in the last game of the Bowling Green series in mid-March, Dragani made his first career start. He went seven innings without giving up an earned run, allowing only five hits and striking out six Falcons.
From there Dragani took over the Saturday starter position for the Wolverines. His team-leading 2.76 ERA and consistency on the mound made him an All-Big Ten Freshman Team Selection joining Franklin in the glory.
Best Individual Performance: Jordan Nwogu against Bowling Green on March 16th
Freshman outfielder Jordan Nwogu’s performance against Bowling Green not only proved he was ready for more playing time, but also catalyzed the first victory of the Wolverines’ 20 game win streak. Yet another freshman who made waves this season, Nwogu first announced himself to the Michigan faithful with a multi-hit, two-RBI effort. His most impressive feat of the day, though, was scoring from second on a double suicide squeeze laid down by freshman shortstop Jack Blomgren. The Wolverines made a habit of using such a maneuver throughout the season, but its first installment saw the hulking freshman outfielder beat the throw home and put Michigan up by two.
There may have been better statistical performances in the 2018 season, but none seemed as important. In his first career start, Nwogu was the main reason the Wolverines secured the victory over Bowling Green in the game following the Lawrence Tech loss.
High Point: 20 game win streak
From March 16th to April 27th, Michigan didn’t lose a game. The streak lasted 20 games, and was the program’s longest since 1987. The win streak featured some thrilling and memorable individual moments: the ninth inning execution of another double suicide squeeze to give the Wolveirnes the 3-1 win over Michigan State in East Lansing and Blomgren’s walkoff sacrifice bunt in extra innings against Penn State. A number of solid pitching performances also factored into Michigan’s success during this period.
Overall, though, the streak itself and the positivity surrounding the team during this time was the high point. The Wolverines transitioned from a team who had lost to a NAIA team to one that was climbing the national rankings and capturing the attention of collegiate baseball fans everywhere.
Low Point: Losing to Lawrence Tech
Sure, Michigan had a disappointing end to the regular season and were hoping to go farther in the Big Ten Tournament than it did— but that all paled in comparison to losing to Lawrence Tech. The midweek game encapsulated all of the team’s struggles up to that point and left both the players and fans wondering what the hell had happened. The Wolverines were dominated on their home field by a program which was only started in 2012. Bakich called it “the most embarrassing loss in program history.” The baseball program at Michigan started in 1866—what more needs to be said?
The optimism surrounding this team prior to the 2018 season was not unwarranted, it was maybe just a little premature. The 2017 Wolverines had just won 42 games and reached the NCAA Tournament, and the incoming recruiting class was the highest-ranked in program history. Yet the veteran losses from that 2017 squad and the time it took for the freshmen to acclimate hindered the 2018 Michigan team.
This program is still trending upwards, though. Bakich and the coaching staff want to make the Wolverines perennial Big Ten champions and NCAA Tournament participants. They didn’t accomplish either of those this year, but with the returning players and another talented freshman class coming in, there is definitely room for optimism.
Michigan loses only five seniors this year: pitchers Alec Rennard, Jayce Vancena and Austin Batka, and catchers Hector Gutierrez and Brock Keener. Of this group, only Rennard and Keener saw substantial time this season. Vancena was set to be a starting pitcher this season, but his struggles early on saw him pitch sparingly in relief. At both catcher and pitcher, the Wolverines have the talent to absorb these losses.
Assuming all eligible players return next year, the three weekend starters should stay the same: sophomore Tommy Henry, Dragani, and sophomore Karl Kauffmann. Barring injury or regression, that threesome is as formidable of a rotation as any in the Big Ten. The bullpen should also be strong as junior Troy Miller will return to Ann Arbor as a senior, and the youthful contingent of freshmen Jeff Criswell, Angelo Smith and sophomore Jack Weisenberger will also play prominent roles.
Highly-touted freshman catcher Joe Donovan saw some time in his first collegiate season, but he will enter next season as the leading candidate to replace Keener behind the plate. Jesse Franklin will surely be the starter at first base next season and will hit in the four-spot of the lineup. At second base, junior Ako Thomas, one of the team’s best all-around players, will hope to bounce back from a disappointing individual season. Blomgren and either junior Blake Nelson or Jimmy Kerr will round out the infield.
Nwogu and Lewis will share time out in left field most likely, with the other claiming the designated hitter role. Engelmann and sophomore Christian Bullock should both be offensive and defensive leaders next year for the Wolverines as well.
A 22nd-ranked recruiting doesn’t match the previous year’s esteem, but should nevertheless add depth. If Michigan can learn from this year’s shortcomings, they have all the ingredients to win the Big Ten and secure an NCAA tournament spot next season.