At long last, college baseball season is back.
After a pandemic-shortened season in 2020 and a conference-only schedule in 2021, the Michigan baseball team finds itself playing an opening weekend tournament — and a regular season non-conference opponent — for the first time in two years.
Their return to non-conference play has the Wolverines traveling to Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll take on Big 12 opponents No. 14 Texas Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma in the College Baseball Showdown.
While all three opponents pose challenges for Michigan, their individual makeups encompass the spectrum of college baseball’s prototypical strengths and weaknesses.
“This is one of the best early-season tournaments in the country,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “Everyone is good, everyone’s loaded in different ways.
“We’re jumping right into the fire with this one.”
There is little doubt that the Red Raiders will be one of the toughest opponent Michigan will face in the early season. Not only is Texas Tech the 14th-ranked team in the country — they’re also the team most familiar to the Wolverines.
While calling it a true rivalry would be an overstatement, there’s no love lost between Michigan and the Red Raiders. In their five matchups in the 2019 season, Texas Tech scored almost 30 runs on the Wolverines in their regular season series, while Michigan responded with 20 runs in their two College World Series matchups.
“We had an Omaha team two years ago, they have an Omaha program always,” Bakich said. “We’re expecting to get punched in the face, and we’re gonna have to punch back.”
The Red Raiders will challenge the Wolverines both on the mound and at the plate. Their projected first-day starter, right-hander Brandon Birdsell, was an 11th round pick in the 2021 MLB Draft and posted 36 strikeouts in an injury-shortened season. Meanwhile, infielder Jace Jung enters the season with a laundry list of All-America honors and is a favorite to win the Golden Spikes Award, the highest honor for an amateur player in the United States.
While Texas Tech boasts experience and MLB Draft hopefuls up and down the roster, Kansas State is the exact opposite — 25 of its 47 roster members are new to the team, 13 of whom are true freshman.
This poses a unique problem for Michigan, as the Cougars represent an unknown in the scouting reports, while also having a history of playing spoiler to teams that underestimate them. In 2021, Kansas State came just one game short of a Big 12 Tournament title, in spite of their entrance as the 7th of nine seeds.
Despite the abundance of youth, Kansas State isn’t completely without experience. Two of the more known commodities are infielder Terrence Spurlin and two-way player Dylan Phillips, who were both awarded second-team Big 12 honors last year. Kansas State has also announced right-hander Connor McCollough, a Freshman All-American selection, will be the starter in Saturday’s contest.
If Texas Tech is the upperclassmen-laden powerhouse and Kansas State is the young wild card, then Oklahoma is the in-between. An infusion of junior-college transfer talent — including Sunday starter Chazz Martinez — look to boost a Sooner squad that limped to a mediocre 26-25 record last season.
“From our advanced scouting, Oklahoma’s got some new faces, but they’ve got some really good experience too,” Bakich said. “They’ve got some real star power where it counts.”
Two of the few high spots in that 2021 roster, catcher Jimmy Crooks and shortstop Peyton Graham, return to the Sooner lineup this year. Crooks was named a third-team Preseason All-American member, while Graham enters the year in contention for the Golden Spikes Award.
One of Oklahoma’s biggest weaknesses comes from its bullpen. Their projected closer, right-hander Jaret Godman, posted a 6.49 earned run average in 2021.
No matter how experienced or how skilled, the thing that every team in Arlington will face is the simple reality of college baseball — nothing, not even the best-laid and most prepared plans are set in stone.
“You do the best you can with who they’re returning, with the information you have,” Bakich said. “Ultimately in an opening weekend, you can take your scouting reports and throw them out the window.”