The Michigan baseball team won 42 games, finished second in the Big Ten and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the second time in five seasons under coach Erik Bakich. But while the ending was different from last year’s, as the Wolverines achieved their goal of making the postseason, it still left a sour taste in their mouths. Michigan dropped its last four games of the season, including two late-inning heartbreakers in the Big Ten Tournament and two straight in the Chapel Hill Regional. Regardless, the Wolverines were dominant much of the season, including a 14-1 stretch in April, possessed the Big Ten’s top scoring offense and top pitching staff and maintained a national ranking for most of the year, reaching as high as 13th.
The Daily looks back on Michigan’s winningest season since 2008, and offers season superlatives as well as a look ahead to 2018.
Most Valuable Player: Michael Brdar
Ako Thomas was hitting .371 with 20 stolen bases and had reached base in every game when he injured his hand on April 21 against Indiana, which caused him to miss almost an entire month. If this award had been given then, the sophomore second baseman probably would have won it. Instead, it goes to the other half of the Wolverines’ infield tandem. Brdar was Michigan’s most consistent hitter all season, ranking second on the team with a .310 average primarily out of the three-hole. The senior shortstop also contributed with three home runs, 37 runs batted-in, 19 stolen bases on 24 attempts, and walked just as often as he struck out (23 times), while improving upon his 2016 statistical output in every single offensive category. But Brdar’s defense shined the most — at the most demanding position on the diamond, he made just three errors and recorded a pristine .988 fielding percentage, while displaying a knack for highlight-reel plays with his quickness, instincts and powerful arm.
An All-Big Ten First Team selection, Brdar also made a lasting impact as a leader during his time as a Wolverine. After the season-ending loss to North Carolina, Bakich stated that Brdar will be “a hell of a coach” once his playing days are over.
Breakout Player: Johnny Slater
Everything written above about Brdar could just as easily be written about Slater. The senior centerfielder came to Michigan as a top prospect — a “five-tool” player who could run, throw, field, hit for average and hit for power. However, his first three seasons were inconsistent — he was a career .207 hitter with just four home runs and 32 RBIs entering his senior year.
But in 2017, Slater finally put his vast potential on display. He hit .299 with five home runs, ranked second on the team in RBIs (47) and slugging percentage (.493) and stole 15 bases without being caught once. And as the veteran leader of a youthful outfield possessing two sophomores at the corners, Slater committed only one error as well.
“The guy works extremely hard,” Bakich said after Slater went 4-for-4 with four doubles against Michigan State on April 18. “Part of this is just a byproduct of someone with tremendous work ethic… He’s going to continue to get better as he gets older, and it’s going to be exciting to watch.”
Newcomer of the Year: Miles Lewis
When Lewis’s original program, North Dakota, dropped baseball after last season, he became eligible to transfer anywhere and play immediately. And with Matt Ramsay and Cody Bruder graduating, the Wolverines desperately needed to reinforce their outfield. Lewis, a Freshman All-American who hit .360 last season, was a perfect fit.
The switch-hitting redshirt sophomore gave Michigan everything it anticipated. He made his mark as a Wolverine right away with a walk-off base hit against Seton Hall in the second game of the season, and finished with a .296 average, .381 on-base percentage, 19 stolen bases in 23 attempts and a team-leading 14 doubles. Lewis should remain a reliable middle-of-the-order bat and presence in the field for Michigan in 2018, and as he continues to tap into his athletic potential — Bakich has described him as having a “football body” — he should only improve in his second season against Big Ten competition.
Best individual performance: Oliver Jaskie’s shutout of Ohio State on May 5
The Wolverines lost all five of their games against Ohio State last season, including a season-ending loss in the Big Ten Tournament. Bakich called this year’s meeting “personal”, saying it was marked on his team’s calendar. A complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts while allowing just seven hits and only one walk is spectacular in any context, but considering how meaningful this game was to Michigan, Jaskie’s performance was perhaps legendary.
The junior left-hander retired the first 10 Buckeyes that stepped to the plate and recorded a strikeout in every inning. And when Ohio State loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth, Jaskie induced a groundout to third to finish the first complete-game shutout by a Wolverine hurler since 2012.
“I knew he would probably tackle me if I tried to take him out,” Bakich said. “That was his game and his game to finish.”
High point: 2-1 victory against Michigan State in regular season finale
Michigan came into the season priding itself on a “fighter mentality” defined by resiliency, mental toughness and performance in late-inning situations. As a result, Bakich described the extra-inning victory over the Wolverines’ in-state rivals as a “microcosm” of the entire year. Michigan had been shut out through eight innings, but tied the score in the top of the ninth — only to load the bases with nobody out in the bottom half of the frame. But redshirt junior right-hander Jackson Lamb induced two groundouts and a pop-out to escape a near-certain loss, and Brdar singled home the winning run the next inning.
One week later, the Wolverines found out they were the last team in the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, it’s possible this game could have been a deciding factor in Michigan’s postseason fate, making it even more significant.
Low point: Big Ten Tournament
The Wolverines entered the tournament with a real chance of claiming their second conference title in three seasons. Instead, upset losses to Northwestern and Indiana abruptly ended these hopes. Leading the Wildcats, 4-3, in the ninth inning, Lamb — who had not allowed a run all season — gave up three, and Michigan found itself in the loser’s bracket. The Wolverines blew another late-inning lead against the Hoosiers, as senior right-hander Mac Lozer — who also had a perfect ERA — gave up two runs in the eighth. Michigan kept the game alive by plating a run in the ninth, but eventually fell, 5-4, on Indiana’s walk-off hit in the 13th.
Not only did Michigan lose two games in heartbreaking fashion, but its culture of resiliency seemingly collapsed in Bloomington. Dominant all season, the Wolverines’ bullpen imploded, and Michigan never seemed to recover.
The Wolverines aren’t losing just any senior class. They will lose the first group recruited entirely by Bakich — a group he described as being “the best group of leaders by far” in his time at Michigan. This includes Brdar, Slater, Lozer and senior catcher Harrison Wenson — who despite a down offensive season was indispensable behind the plate. There’s a good chance they’ll lose more talent to the MLB Draft — junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer led the team with 12 home runs and possesses the necessary size, versatility and power to all fields to make him a prized slugging prospect, while Lamb and Jaskie could be drafted highly as well.
However, the Wolverines lost their top pitcher in Brett Adcock and top all-around hitter in Carmen Benedetti to the draft last year, and improved offensively and defensively this season. This is a testament to Bakich’s recruiting efforts — creating a program that can quickly fill holes and rebuild after the departure of key players. And there will be plenty of talent next year as it is — there’s a possibility Michigan’s top four starters in Jaskie, junior right-handers Alec Rennard and Ryan Nutof and junior left-hander Michael Hendrickson will all be back for their senior season. On the infield, Thomas and junior first baseman Jake Bivens will return, while Lewis, right-fielder Jonathan Engelmann, designated hitter/outfielder Nick Poirier and utility player Jimmy Kerr will look to take steps forward in their junior seasons.
Before the season, Bakich stated it would be hard for any freshman to consistently see playing time, but this was more a product of the experience of the team on the field and less anything to do with the class’s potential. Newcomers such as left-hander Tommy Henry and right-handers Karl Kauffman and Jack Weisenburger were productive when they got the chance — combining for a 2.88 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 50 innings — and should see more innings next season, while outfielders Christian Bullock and Dominic Clementi are likely to carve out roles as well. Wenson’s impact as catcher can’t be overstated, but rising sophomores Marcus Chavez and Harrison Salter have the potential to complement each other with their defensive and offensive skills, respectively.
Next season, Michigan yet again will bring in the No. 1 recruiting class in the Big Ten, and the No. 26 class in the country according to Perfect Game USA, highlighted by pitchers Cody Bolton and Blake Beers and outfielder Jesse Franklin. While it may be too early to speculate on how many of the Wolverines’ 14 freshman next season will receive substantial playing time, it’s clear that Bakich’s goal is to establish a perennial power, and this year’s recruiting class is further indication that he is doing so. With the incoming and returning talent and three straight years with at least 36 wins, the Wolverines are undoubtedly among the favorites to claim the Big Ten title in 2018.