Focusing on fundamentals, Wolverines open season at California

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 14, 2013

There’s a new kid on the block. In fact, there are plenty of new faces on the Michigan baseball team — 11 freshmen to be exact.

Already, the Wolverines will rely on three of those freshmen in their season-opening series at California this weekend. Jack Sexton at first base, Jacob Cronenworth at second and Travis Maezes at third make up the trio of freshmen infielders in the starting lineup for opening day.

But Michigan coach Erik Bakich is the new kid, though you’d hardly recognize this as his first season at the helm in Ann Arbor. If you walked into Oosterbaan Fieldhouse on a weekday afternoon, the site of Michigan’s practices during the winter months, you could immediately grasp a sense of accountability and organization permeating from Bakich and his staff.

Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, junior outfielder Michael O’Neill, has repeatedly expressed that Bakich’s organizational skills have been the key to getting this program back on track.

“Coach Bakich has brought new life to the team (and) everyone has bought in,” O’Neill said. “Everything is just organized. The practice schedule is posted everyday so everyone knows exactly what they’re doing during practice.”

In order to claw back to the top of the Big Ten standings, a place the Wolverines haven’t been since 2008, they’ll need to start with being organized and playing fundamentally sound baseball during the opening weekend.

“The biggest determinant for success will be if we can force contact on the mound, have quality at-bats at the plate and make the plays we need to make defensively,” Bakich said. “For us, it’s gonna be about executing the fundamentals.”

Bakich and O’Neill both emphasized pitching, defense and timely hitting as the recipe for success in California, the bare essentials. But that’s where this team is at right now — mastering the fundamentals.

Contact at the plate and clean fielding would be a welcomed contrast from last season’s offensive and defensive woes.

Last year, offensively, Michigan was dead last in the Big Ten with 422 strikeouts in 56 games. On defense, things weren’t much prettier for the Wolverines, who accumulated 77 errors over the course of the season — good for fourth most in the Big Ten.

California sure had the basics under its belt two years ago, and it reached the College World Series — a realm not attained by Michigan since 1984, several years before its entire roster was born. As the Golden Bears return their entire pitching rotation from last season, the Wolverines’ young lineup needs to stick to basics now, more than ever.

“We’re gonna play Michigan baseball, which is a relentless, blue-collar, confident approach to the game,” Bakich said.

He seems to have the philosophy down, but the next couple of weeks should be very telling for the direction this program is headed. Early success this weekend would certainly be a step forward and a way to stir up some noise for a team that’s remained dormant in past years.

“Just being a young team this year with a new staff, I think it would be a huge confidence boost to come away with a couple of wins, even a sweep,” O’Neill said.