If the past is any indication, it won’t be long before we start hearing the names of Michigan baseball’s incoming freshman class in the news.
Over the last three seasons — under fourth-year coach Erik Bakich — the 15th-ranked Wolverines have led the country in freshman All-Americans.
Last year, Michigan’s first Big Ten Tournament-winning team since 2008 featured upperclassman leaders like pitcher Jacob Cronenworth and outfielder Jackson Glines, both now with professional organizations. But freshmen were also an integral part of the team’s success down the stretch.
Bakich didn’t hesitate to use sophomore third baseman Jake Bivens right away last season, and Bivens exceeded everyone’s expectations. En route to being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Bivens started 62 out of the Wolverines’ 63 games in his first year.
With the exception of Grant Reuss, a lefty who redshirted last year, every freshman played a large role on the team in 2015.
Right-handed pitchers Ryan Nutof and Bryan Pall joined Bivens on the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team, and the other freshman pitchers — right-handers Jayce Vancena and left-handers Oliver Jaskie and Michael Hendrickson — all appeared in 19 or more games and combined for a 4.57 ERA.
Infielder/catcher Drew Lugbauer also stepped up as a freshman, seeing action in 42 games. His batting average was just .211, but that was in part due to many hard-hit outs and balls that didn’t quite carry in deep parks.
Bakich spoke positively of how Lugbauer handled the adversity, and said despite what the stat line showed, Lugbauer put in many quality at-bats for the Wolverines.
“There was a time when he was trying to do too much, and was overly aggressive at some pitches he should’ve laid off,” Bakich said. “But that was because he wanted it so bad.”
The freshmen last year are now sophomores looking to make even bigger contributions. Having contributed so heavily to Michigan’s run into the NCAA regional, the class is now ready to move into bigger roles to help this year’s squad achieve even more.
“Being able to experience that as a freshman adds some fuel to the fire,” said Lugbauer. “We got that under our belt, and now there is so much more to accomplish.”
Bakich says Lugbauer will be a regular part of the middle of the lineup this year and will rotate positions between catcher, first base and third base. Bivens, meanwhile, will move into the leadoff spot in the batting order, and Reuss has worked on his command and will take on a sizable role in the pitching staff.
Not only has the class of 2018 improved its game on the field this offseason, but they have also established chemistry off the field that will help them as they kick off the season in Florida this weekend.
“We have a really close, close class,” Bivens said. “I’m grateful that (the other sophomores) are my best friends.”
Added Bakich: “The chemistry on this team is the best I’ve seen. The talent that we have in the locker room is better than what we have on the field. And we’ve got some pretty talented guys on the field.”
A tight-knit Michigan will hope to bring this year’s freshman class into the mix on a team with 19 returning letterwinners, hoping they can have the same kind of impact first-year players have had in previous years.
Freshman Ako Thomas will be starting at second base Friday against Canisius. Freshman infielder Jimmy Kerr and freshman outfielder Jonathon Engelmann are expected to make early-season contributions as well. For this class, there are high expectations, and they will be hoping to replicate the success of their predecessors.