Runners on the corners, one out in the bottom of the ninth. No. 1 UCLA was down one run and looking to extend the game. For Michigan, sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell had just come in to save the inning.
In the first game of the super regional between the Bruins and the Wolverines Friday, it would come down to who flinched first. Who would make the mental mistake, who would throw the bad pitch.
It wasn’t Criswell, who got the next two outs and crucially captured game one for Michigan in a nervy 3-2 win.
It took UCLA’s Ryan Garcia just 15 pitches to go through the first two innings of the game, his first inning was a first pitch pop-up and then two three-pitch strikeouts. Yet, in the third inning the Wolverine lineup found a way to challenge him.
A hit from sophomore shortstop Jack Blomgren was the first of the day for Michigan, but Blomgren was soon sent back to the dugout on a poorly executed bunt from sophomore catcher Joe Donovan. Sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu would add onto the pressure, pulling a double over third base to put runners on the corners with two outs.
Then, sophomore center fielder Jesse Franklin pounced on a change up high in the zone, placing a single right in front of the Bruins’ right fielder, giving the Wolverines a 2-0 lead.
“(Garcia) got ahead of me, but I just tried to get my foot down and see the ball,” Franklin said. “I was lucky enough to put the bat on the ball and put it in the right spot.”
Again in the eighth inning, Michigan pieced together a run after senior second baseman Ako Thomas hit a double into the gap in left-center field, and shortly advanced to third with Nwogu up to bat again. Nwogu launched a long fly ball to right field, extending the lead to 3-0 late.
The Wolverines’ own ace, junior right-hander Karl Kauffmann, was up to the challenge of keeping Michigan in the game — keeping the Bruins off the board for 8.1 innings and keeping his own pitch count down. Kauffmann managed 8 strikeouts and induced key ground balls for his defense to clear the bases when UCLA threatened.
“(Kauffmann did an) outstanding job of generating ground ball contact, some swing and miss,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “That’s an outstanding [UCLA] offense over there. He just did a really, really good job.”
Added Kauffmann: “I commanded the fastball on both sides of the plate. I was throwing the four-seam and the two-seam and just started to get some swings and misses and kept guys off-balance. I was throwing the slider away pretty effectively, tonight. Just being able to trust the defense and throw the ball over the plate to minimize walks and let them work.”
Take the fifth inning, when the Bruins’ first hit of the game was a leadoff single and junior outfielder Jordan Brewer took his eye off a pop up to put two runners on base with one out. A ground ball to senior third baseman Blake Nelson allowed him to twist a double play that survived a challenge from Bruins coach John Savage.
The seventh inning further proved his capabilities. With Michael Toglia on first and one out, Kauffmann struck out Jake Pries and a quick-thinking Donovan and Thomas duked Toglia into thinking Pries was walked, throwing him out at second as he nonchalantly trotted in.
But with a three-run lead in bottom of the ninth, luck was on the side of the Bruins, and Kauffmann was showing his exhaustion. Kauffmann walked the first batter, and the second had an infield hit off of Kauffmann’s glove that sent Thomas the other way. A long fly out advanced the runners to second and third, and a second infield single was hit off of the toe of Chase Strumpf to load the bases.
A single from Toglia to right field scored two runs, putting the tying runner on third with one out and forcing Michigan coach Erik Bakich to pull Kauffmann and put in sophomore right-hander Jeff Criswell.
The rest was history, and when it came to crunch time, UCLA was hanging pitches over the plate, trotting into second, throwing passed balls –– giving the Wolverines their chances, and they took them.