Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich doesn’t like waiting until the postseason to see how his team measures up to premier non-conference competition.
Over the past few seasons, he’s entered the Wolverines into tough early-season tournaments like the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament and the Dodgertown Classic. Michigan’s 2022 season will begin with an even bigger challenge: a trip to the six-team State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tx., where it will play old nemesis Texas Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma from Feb. 18-20.
Although this will be just the second time the event has been held, it has already acquired a prestigious reputation. All six teams that participated in the inaugural Showdown went on to host NCAA Regionals, four advanced to the Super Regionals and two advanced to the College World Series, including champions Mississippi State. The 2022 field is nearly as stacked: three teams made the 2021 postseason, two advanced to the super regionals and one — Arizona — advanced to the College World Series.
“Great opportunity to learn about our team and to compete against the best in the country,” Bakich said at a press conference for the Showdown on Friday. “To be around the best of the best is going to be great not only for the players, but for how we stack up and create some training after we’re done with this.”
Added Arizona coach Chip Hale: “We’ll find out what we need to work on after these three days, quite frankly. Do you think you know what your team is all about yet? You’re probably fooling yourself. So we’re excited to see what they do.”
Michigan lost five players to the MLB draft last summer, and the core of its 2019 team is all gone, with the exception of senior right-hander Willie Weiss. But Bakich has managed to put together a veteran starting lineup anyway. Infielder Matt Frey and outfielder Joe Stewart, both graduate transfers, will likely play key roles in the offense.
Junior infielders Ted Burton and Jimmy Obertop and junior outfielders Clark Elliott and Tito Flores are expected to contribute as well. On the rubber, junior right-hander Cameron Weston headlines a deep pitching staff that includes plenty of lefties and situational relievers.
Weston and Burton had All-Big Ten seasons in 2021, but returned to Michigan despite being draft-eligible.
“Which is great,” Bakich said of their return. “I’d say besides their physical talent, just their experience and their leadership, their know-how, the way they’ve embraced some of the younger guys, all the intangibles are really what stick out.”
Bakich and Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock are eager to renew their teams’ rivalry. In March 2019, the Red Raiders swept the Wolverines in Lubbock.
“I think they beat us by an average of two touchdowns each game,” Bakich said with a smile. “It was awesome for our team even though it was awful at the time.”
Michigan grew from the experience and beat Texas Tech twice in the 2019 College World Series. The second win, a 15-3 drubbing, eliminated the Red Raiders.
Few players from 2019 remain, but the rivalry is clearly important to Bakich and Tadlock. At the press conference, when Bakich recalled “sharing a podium” with Tadlock in Omaha — perhaps a euphemism for dominating Texas Tech — Tadlock looked away in embarrassment. Tadlock acknowledged the Wolverines’ success and the Red Raiders’ failure at the 2019 College World Series before changing the subject to the rest of the field.
“But again, let’s not forget about everybody on here,” Tadlock said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for all these guys.”
Texas Tech is not only Michigan’s biggest rival at the Showdown, but should also be the Wolverines’ most challenging opponent. The Red Raiders boast a flamethrowing pitching staff and a lineup that hits for average and power. The Sooners made NCAA regionals as recently as 2018, but finished last season below .500. The Wildcats haven’t made the postseason since 2013, although they did finish with an impressive 34-23 record last year.
The Showdown presents a win-win situation for the Wolverines. Either Michigan will build its resume with wins against strong Big 12 teams or it will lose but give itself something to work towards.
“This is a heavyweight fight, all the games we’re playing down here,” Bakich said.