As senior third baseman Brock Keener sat down for his press conference for the last time as a Wolverine, his eyes were red with the tears that only come after a season-ending defeat.
The Michigan baseball team (15-8 Big Ten, 33-21 overall) fell to Ohio State (14-10 Big Ten, 36-21 overall) 5-3, and Keener was faced with the hard realization that he had just played his last game in a maize and blue uniform. Likely falling short of a bid to the NCAA Touranment, the team exited the Big Ten Tournament earlier than needed.
In many ways, Keener’s toughness and resilience serves as a perfect embodiment of the team itself.
Early in the season, Keener broke the thumb on his glove hand—a troubling injury for any baseball player, but Keener is a catcher. Any physical ailments to a catcher’s appendages, and their ability to do their job greatly diminishes.
But Keener stuck it out and fought for his role on the Michigan lineup. After all, this was his senior season.
Keener’s injury showed in his play behind home plate. Many passed balls snuck past him, and the Wolverines saw their fair share of wild pitches. But none of that deterred Michigan coach Erik Bakich. Keener caught for as long as he was physically able and Bakich indulged his senior, seeing as he consistently gave the Wolverines their best chance to win.
“Tough, competitive kid,” Bakich said on Keener. “Good lesson for a lot of those younger guys on our team for them to see what that grit and competitiveness looks like.”
Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Keener’s thumb reached the point of no return, and he simply was not able to catch anymore. Wanting his bat and grit in the lineup, Bakich shocked Michigan followers and played Keener at third base.
Keener played as valiantly as anyone could ask of the senior, making web gem plays on defense and cranking clutch hit after clutch hit.
On Friday’s match, with the Wolverines trailing 5-1, Keener stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and two outs. With the clutch gene seemingly coded into his physiological makeup, the catcher turned third baseman smacked a two-RBI single right up the middle. In one swing of the bat, Keener gave his team exactly what it needed and kept the game competitive.
“I guess (I) try not to view it as a big AB because the guys in front of me worked hard to get on, and all these games were nail biters,” Keener said. “It’s tough, and I try to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Now all Keener can do is sit and reflect on his time at Michigan and his legacy. There’s no doubt that toughness is the first word people will associate with the catcher with a broken thumb.
“For me, this season, has taught me, really through my whole college career up until this season is resilience and to truly love something, you keep giving it your all,” Keener said. “For me personally, this was my journey to Michigan and my time at Michigan. This season was the same thing, it doesn’t always start out how you want it. I’m blessed to be a part of this team and blessed to be a Michigan Wolverine, that’s for sure.”
Added junior center fielder Jonathan Engelmann: “Brock here is a guy who’s overcome everything that I can possibly imagine. You play games for guys like that. Just for example in this tournament when he played third base, it was like, ‘Who is this guy who’s making web gem plays left and right.’ He’s always overcoming, and he puts the team first. In college, you’re playing with guys just like that, and it’s inspiring to say the least.”
Barring some sort of divine intervention, the Wolverines will fall short of making an NCAA Regional. To put it simply, Michigan did not beat enough good teams.
However, the Wolverines boast one of the youngest cores in the Big Ten and won’t be down for long. This time next year may be a different story, and it will have all started with the foundation laid by the juniors and seniors who will leave Ann Arbor next year for the workforce or the MLB Draft.
So come Monday during the NCAA Selection Show, the Michigan baseball team will gather together one last time. If or when its name doesn’t get called, Bakich wants the freshmen to remember the feeling.
“We may not see our name on the screen on Monday,” Bakich said, “but I want them to feel that as well and especially for those younger guys because that will be the last time they ever feel that.”