Going into last year’s Spring Break, the Michigan baseball team was 2-5 with losses to Long Beach State, Davidson and Tennessee Tech, who finished the season with a combined 82-77 record.
The Wolverines hadn’t won a Big Ten title or appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and were coming off a four-year stretch in which they went 98-127-1.
Fast-forward to 2016, and No. 14 Michigan is entering Spring Break fresh off a four-game sweep of Canisius, is the defending Big Ten Tournament champion and is ranked in the top 25 of three different polls.
“I’m just proud of the guys, proud of the team and proud of the way they competed (against Canisius),” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “It has nothing to do with my anything. It’s all about them, and they’re the ones out there performing and I get the good fortune to sit back and watch them in action. I love being around them, and I love watching them compete and I love watching them besting each other and stay connected with each other.”
The Wolverines have no time to bask in their glory, though. They play eight games in the next nine days, all in California. The stretch includes Saint Joseph’s on Friday, Cal Poly on Saturday, Santa Clara on Sunday, San Jose State on Wednesday and a three-game series at UC Davis beginning Thursday.
But the big-ticket item for Michigan is a game at No. 11 California on Monday. Even though the Golden Bears lost two out of three games to Duke in their opening series last weekend, California returns seven of nine batting starters and several key pitchers from its 2015 squad that reached the NCAA Regionals. Closer Erik Martinez, who was announced to the 2016 National Stopper of the Year watch list, will be particularly challenging for the Wolverines.
Still, Michigan can’t look too far ahead in its schedule and will have to first focus on St. Joseph’s. Though the Hawks’ 2015 record was 21-28, they return many starters, most notably catcher Deon Stafford Jr., who recorded a .343 batting average last season.
“We got to keep our focus no further than just the day you’ve got,” Bakich said. “And that’s today.”
As for Cal Poly, it started off its season with a four-game sweep of Pacific in stark contrast to the Mustangs’ 1-6 start last year. They hit .320 as a team, have compiled a 2.92 ERA and have struck out 37 batters last weekend while also winning 117 of their last 152 home games. Santa Clara, meanwhile, enters this weekend following two victories in a three-game set against Notre Dame.
Michigan certainly has no shortage of tools to meet these challenges. Against Canisius, none of the Wolverines’ starting pitchers — junior left-hander Brett Adcock, senior left-hander Evan Hill, sophomore right-hander Ryan Nutof or sophomore left-hander Oliver Jaskie — surrendered a single earned run. Jaskie was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week after pitching six innings, giving up three hits and striking out nine in Michigan’s 9-3 win Sunday.
At the plate, senior outfielder Cody Bruder led the Wolverines with eight hits and seven RBI during last weekend’s series. Junior first baseman Carmen Benedetti posted a .647 on-base percentage in those four games.
“It’s no different than football. They want to do well on offense, defense and special teams.” Bakich said. “We want to do well with pitching, offense and defense. To see the team in all three of those phases perform very well was certainly encouraging. But again, it’s a testament to these guys and the type of kids that they are, the training that they’ve been doing, the investment that they’ve made into making sure the little things are big things and are very important.”
The Wolverines will log a total of 5,268 miles on their California adventure. While that may seem daunting to many travelers, Bakich believes these trips are a useful team-bonding exercise.
“We enjoy being around each other.” Bakich said. “So the more we get to be around each other, the better it is. I think if you were to ask or observe (the team), there’s a lot of smiling, and there’s a lot of laughing and there’s a lot of positive touches where you see them connect with one another and engage one another and be invested with each other. You’re just solidifying the lifelong friendships that these guys are building, and it’s just another opportunity to strengthen those relationships even further.”