As the calendar approaches June, the vast majority of college baseball teams have determined whether or not they will be heading to next month’s NCAA Tournament. But for the second consecutive year, the Michigan baseball team (15-5 Big Ten, 32-16 overall) finds itself in the tenuous position of entering its final regular season series unsure of its postseason fate.
The Wolverines have stormed into tournament contention with a 28-5 record since mid-March and a 15-5 conference mark in the Big Ten. Its work early in the season, though, dug a deep hole from which it has been hard to escape.
After a loss to an NAIA school in Lawrence Tech, Michigan’s record sat at a putrid 4-11.
In those early weeks, it dropped two out of three games to Lipscomb and lost single game matchups with San Diego and Cal Poly. Coupled with the Lawrence Tech loss, that gave the Wolverines five losses to sub-100 RPI teams before the season was a month old.
Even more troublesome in its start was Michigan’s failure to take advantage of marquee win opportunities.
They blew a late 5-4 lead against Arizona (RPI 43), lost a one-run game at San Diego State (RPI 60) and gave up a walk-off home run that prevented a résumé-defining series split against Stanford (RPI 2) in Palo Alto.
In their late season turnaround, the Wolverines have solved their woes against sub-100 RPI opposition, going 24-1 against that group. But in series losses to Iowa and Illinois, they once again squandered chances for big wins.
“Michigan is on the bubble because they didn’t win any of those series,” said Baseball America bracketologist Teddy Cahill. “It’s not a case where that’s gonna hold them out of the tournament necessarily but that is why they’re sitting on the bubble.”
Yet the Michigan’s late season surge has put it tantalizingly close to a third NCAA tournament appearance in four years. In this week’s tournament projections, both College Sports Madness and Baseball America have the Wolverines among their last four teams in the field, while D1Baseball.com has them in its first four teams out.
Fortunately, Michigan has another opportunity to notch marquee wins this weekend against Purdue in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers sit just behind the Wolverines in third place in the Big Ten at 14-6 and two spots ahead in RPI.
“We put (Michigan) in on the belief that they would win this weekend,” said Cahill.
“Whoever wins this weekend between Michigan and Purdue is — it’s not necessarily lose and you’re out but whoever wins that series this weekend is gonna be in the field and the other one may not be.”
Michian head coach Erik Bakich is not as confident, perhaps scarred from last season when the Wolverines seemed to be a tournament lock before sneaking in as the last team in the field.
“I think our postseason chances are gonna hinge on us winning a championship,” Bakich said, “whether it’s a regular season or a Big Ten Tournament. I think we’re gonna have to do one of the two. Or both.”
Added Cahill: “If I was Michigan, I don’t think I’d want to go 0-2 next week (in Omaha). (But) I don’t think they need a significant run or anything. If they win this weekend, their RPI is gonna be okay.”
Cahill points out that Big Ten teams can usually feel safe with an RPI in the top 50 as the selection committee acknowledges the challenges northern schools face in building a competitive schedule.
For Michigan, that adds to the pressure of this weekend at Purdue. Entering the weekend their RPI is exactly 50, placed precariously on that cutline.
“We understand where we are,” Bakich said. “These are smart kids, they know that we’re gonna have to take care of business against Purdue.”