Friday, the Michigan baseball team plays its first non-conference opponent in a regular-season game in almost two years. Last season, the Wolverines met a non-Big Ten opponent twice and lost both games in the NCAA tournament. This season, they’re looking for redemption.
“We want to build,” junior infielder Ted Burton said. “That’s the goal. We’re excited. I think that’s the best way to put it. We’re excited to branch out. We’re excited to play a full schedule for the first time in three years.”
There are a lot of unknowns for this Michigan team as it enters the 2022 season: new Graduate transfers outfielder Joe Stewart and infielder Matt Frey haven’t played in the maize and blue, there are questions about the third rotation pitcher, and even the depth in the bullpen is a concern. Some of these questions won’t be answered until the Wolverines hit the field. Nonetheless, Michigan coach Erik Bakich isn’t worried.
“It’s opening weekend, and we know how we want to play,” Bakich said. “Whether we have a really good weekend or a really bad weekend, it’s not going to define anything. It’s just something to build upon.”
Of course, the Wolverines have a high standard for themselves. The last time NCAA baseball had a full season, they were in the championship game. The first month of the 2020 season before the world shut down, Michigan held the #1 ranking in the country. In order to get to the promised land, the Wolverines will need to prove once again to the baseball world that they can compete against tournament teams.
Their first game of the weekend against Texas Tech is the perfect matchup.
“(Texas Tech) has the program that we’re trying to get to,” Bakich said. “They have the model of consistency. They are the Omaha program, they go to Omaha more often than they don’t. They are one of the bluebloods that are the high bar of college baseball that you can expect is just going to reload every single year, so we will no undoubtedly have our hands full. This will be a huge challenge for us right out of the chute. But that’s what we enjoy.”
The Red Raiders are planning on pitching right-handed Brandon Birdsell who posted a 3.06 ERA last season. Birdsell elected to go to Texas Tech instead of the professional route after being drafted in the 39th round out of high school. After a 4-1 start to last season, though, he went down with a rotator cuff injury that set him back. Despite the injury, he got drafted in the 11th round of the 2021 MLB Draft but returned to school. He throws in the upper 90’s and is very accurate, so it will be a solid test for the Wolverines to start the season.
On the other side of the mound will be Michigan junior, Cameron Weston. Last season, Weston had a 7-4 record and posted a 2.81 ERA, and is currently ranked the fourth draft prospect in the Big Ten. Weston throws a mid to low 90’s fastball with a good cutter. Despite the strong opposition he is up against, he is ready for the challenge.
“(Over the off-season), I found what works by using my teammates and having confidence with them behind me,” Weston said. “I’ve just been working on getting a weak contact and having the guys behind me.”
Aside from Texas Tech, both Kansas State and Oklahoma pose challenges. Both teams reloaded over the off-season, revamping their lineups. The Wildcats went out and got 13 freshmen and 12 transfers, while the Sooners brought in 13 junior-college transfers to go with 13 freshmen. Because of this, scouting has proven to be difficult.”
“You’re facing some really good teams and it’s going to be a dogfight,” Bakich said. “We’re on neutral turf, but we’re a whole lot closer to their turf than our turf. But if we want to be the team that we want to be at the end, we’ve got to play these types of games up front, and it’ll callus our mind and it’ll get us battle-tested.
“If we want to be the best we’ve got to play the best.”