On March 14, the Michigan baseball team lost to the NAIA’s Lawrence Tech. Or, as coach Eric Bakich describes it, they didn’t just lose, they were “totally outplayed.” The loss dropped the Wolverines to 4-11, two losses and 38 wins short of their 2017 totals.
Fourteen days later, the loss total remains mired at 11 — and zero in Big Ten play — as Michigan is riding a nine-game win streak.
“At 4-10, everything is an area for improvement,” Bakich said after the previous loss, to Lipscomb in Nashville.
At the time, this may have been interpreted as the Wolverines needing to improve offensively, defensively and on the mound. The biggest change, though, did not come from any of those areas.
Instead, after the loss to Lawrence Tech, Bakich pinpointed a different problem.
“We got to utilize these cameras and see everything,” Bakich said, motioning to the various cameras postioned around Ray Fisher Stadium. “We got to see the dugout, see the behind home plate view, see everything.”
It was that ability to see its dugout that reversed Michigan’s fortunes. Bakich realized the team’s demeanor was not one of a winning program. So he held a two-part film session: half to show his players their dejected body language in the dugout, the other half a compilation of the program’s storied legacy.
“That loss to Lawrence Tech kind of opened everyone’s eyes,” said freshman outfielder Jordan Nwogu. “In practice (the day after the game), we noticed that we were down as a team and were not getting behind each other. Friday (against Bowling Green), we turned that right around and everyone had each other’s backs.”
Added Bakich: “It wasn’t until we played Lawrence Tech … that the lightbulb really went off.”
The obvious blessing in disguise for the Wolverines came in that loss to the Blue Devils. A similar victory in defeat, though, came in their loss to San Diego State two weeks earlier. Bakich was ejected with Michigan holding a lead in a marquee win opportunity, one it would ultimately lose by one run.
“I had to watch the game from outside the stadium,” Bakich said. “And I could see (the dugout) from outside the bubble.”
It was then that he first realized his team had an energy problem.
“Something was missing early on,” Bakich said. “And it wasn’t just that we were playing good opponents. It just didn’t feel right, it didn’t sound right, there wasn’t a whole lot of energy.”
The key for the Wolverines turned out to be a simple one: having fun playing baseball.
“It’s okay to have childlike enthusiasm and energy out here,” Bakich said. “This is supposed to be a playground. We use that phrase a lot that this is a playground, but we weren’t playing like we were having a whole lot of fun. It looked more like a chore.”
Bakich’s claims are evident on the field. Against Lipscomb and Lawrence Tech, many Michigan players sat on the bench in the bottom of the dugout while their foes across the field filled the stadium with the unmistakable chirps of a baseball dugout.
Now, the roles are reversed. Every Wolverines run — and there are a lot of them — is met with the entire team spilling out of the dugout. Players climb over each other for perches on the top step to cheer on their pitchers on the rare occasions that they find themselves in a jam.
“It’s really easy to get down,” said freshman first baseman Jesse Franklin. “But when you look in the dugout and you see everyone’s smiling faces and everyone joking around, it gives you confidence.”
While most of Michigan’s wins in this streak have been blowouts, they have twice found themselves in 6-0 holes.
“6-0 down, (our attitude was), ‘who cares?’ ” Nwogu said. “We need to get these runs and help our pitchers out. It was just a light flicker that went off (after Lawrence Tech).”
Much of the credit for the turnaround will rightfully be attributed to Bakich, but it is his players — from freshmen to seniors — who have blossomed into vocal leaders after losing 11 players to the draft in the offseason.
“(The upperclassmen) have done a great job of showing leadership,” Bakich said, “and taking the younger guys under their wings.”
Added Nwogu: “In the dugout, right before (an) at-bat (against Bowling Green, freshman right-hander Jeff Criswell) told me, ‘Just swing as hard as you can and you’ll hit it out.’ ”
Two minutes later, a baseball was nestled in a grass lot beyond the left field fence, and Nwogu was being mobbed by teammates at home plate.
That leadership extends to the team’s role players. The first name both Bakich and Franklin named when asked about their clubhouse leaders was redshirt sophomore left-hander Ben Keizer — who has pitched all of four innings this season.
“It may not always be one guy who’s giving the speech,” Bakich said, “but a lot of guys who are just speaking up more consistently, and that’s helped everybody.
“They were sick of losing. At some point, enough is enough. And at 4-11, that was enough.”
Just two weeks later, the Wolverines find themselves in an enviable position. One quick glance at the dugout would tell you that.