The Michigan baseball team is now two years, nine draft picks and a middling — albeit shortened — 2020 season removed from its runner-up finish at the College World Series in 2019. But this year’s Wolverines are aiming for the national championship again.
Michigan was hamstrung by injuries and slow starts in 2020, and Michigan coach Erik Bakich admitted his roster contained “a lot of unknowns.” Now, he’s facing a problem that would have seemed unfathomable this time last year: how to divide playing time amongst many well-qualified candidates. Thirty-two players are non-freshmen and 13 are seniors. All 42 on the roster are performing well in practice so far.
“These first couple of weeks, we’re going to have to play with a bunch of lineups, going to have to pitch a bunch of guys, just to start to try to figure it out,” Bakich said.
Bakich typically tinkers with personnel during a slate of season-opening non-conference games, but because this year’s schedule contains only conference play, there’s added pressure to find the right roles for his players as soon as possible.
“Speaking as a program that’s lost the Big Ten regular season championship by half a game in two of the last three years, we certainly don’t want to look back and say, ‘Man, I wish we would have known to play that guy or pitch that guy earlier,’ ” Bakich said.
But putting the right players in the right places isn’t the only thing that needs to happen for the Wolverines to make a deep run. They’ll need to come together from both a team chemistry and on-field performance standpoint when it means most like they did in 2019, when Jimmy Kerr hit eight home runs in the postseason and Tommy Henry threw gem after gem throughout the biggest games of the postseason.
The 18 new faces in the Michigan clubhouse, made up of six transfers and 12 freshmen, along with the social distancing protocols, would appear to hamper the development of the Wolverines’ team chemistry. In fact, the opposite has happened, players say.
“I’ve definitely focused on my bonding with teammates this year,” sophomore catcher Jimmy Obertop said.
Added fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems, who transferred from Kansas: “I know everyone has each other’s back.”
The final ingredient necessary to achieving a deep postseason run is facing and overcoming adversity, which Bakich said has a “callusing” effect and improves a team’s physical and mental toughness. There was plenty of it in 2019, when Michigan dropped series to Indiana, Ohio State and Nebraska. This offseason, which included the cancellation of the 2020 season, provided adversity of its own.
“I think that was a wakeup call for all of us,” redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar said. “One day we’re in the middle of our season and then the next day, we’re in a team meeting and he’s talking to the players about how this is going to be the last time some guys were putting on the Michigan jersey. That’s not something that we took lightly, seeing the look on those guys’ faces when they just played their last game and it got taken away from them in the blink of an eye.
“That’s something that the team carried with us this fall, knowing that no day is guaranteed for us and you have to play every day like it’s your last.”
With its combination of talent and setbacks, Michigan is trying to follow the blueprint of Team 153. Whether these Wolverines match the success of their 2019 counterparts remains to be seen.
“Our goal at the end is Omaha,” Obertop said. “But it starts with game one. So that’s where we set our focus right now.”
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