On baseball: Michigan on the way back

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 25, 2014

Only one team gets to end each season on top, so for all but one team, the saying “Wait ’til next year” is little more than a cushion to the blow of defeat.

But after a second season under coach Erik Bakich, Michigan baseball has something brewing for 2015.

The team lost in every way possible, failing to get above .500 until May. But by the time the Wolverines finished behind only No. 9 Indiana and No. 23 Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament and ended the season with 30 wins for the first time since 2010, the youth that had lost so many early games became the team’s greatest strength.

Now, with up to 27 of 32 players returning next season and another top recruiting class coming in, Bakich has the pieces necessary for his vision of success to become reality.

* * *

The 2014 season began with nothing but agony for the Wolverines. On Feb. 14, Michigan opened its season by blowing late-game leads of three and four runs in consecutive extra-inning losses to Texas State and Washington. The next week was no better: The Wolverines dropped three one-run games to Houston.

Freshman right-hander Keith Lehmann and freshman left-hander Brett Adcock were 0-2 with a 12.70 earned-run average in bullpen work in the team’s opening eight games.

But over the course of the season, the pair rose up the ranks to become late-season starters and combined to go 11-5 with a 2.82 ERA with 93 strikeouts in their first seasons.

The rest of the team followed suit, finishing 12-5 with an underclassmen core leading the charge.

The improvements weren’t enough for a title. Not yet. But through the up and down season, the evidence of Bakich’s vision was clear.

It was clear following Saturday’s season-ending loss to Nebraska, when a reflection of the season quickly turned into an analysis of things to come.

It was clear after a 7-1 win at Central Michigan on May 6, which for many teams would have been little more than a meaningless non-conference win.

“There will come a time where these games will be just as big as the conference games,” Bakich said. “Our team will be playing for at-large bids and the opportunity to host regionals, and people across the country will be looking at how we do in every one of our games.”

It was clear after a 5-1 win against Ohio State on May 10, as many of the 2,064 fans who attended the game — the largest crowd since 2010 — lined up for autographs following the game.

“We want this to be the expectation,” he said. “There will come a time, very soon, that this atmosphere won’t just be for rivalry games, but every game. That each series we play will be a packed house, and teams will hate coming to play here not just because of our team, but because of our fans.”

The vision was always aimed at the future. But as the season concluded Saturday, it seemed like the future is closer than before.

Next year’s team will return at least three of four pitchers who started in last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. Its top nine pitchers in earned-run average will be back. And junior right-hander Matt Ogden, who missed the entire season due to injury and led last year’s team with an 8-1 record and a 2.28 earned-run average, will be reintroduced.

Additionally, the Wolverines return roughly 80 percent of their offense, including sophomore shortstop Travis Maezes, a .308 career hitter who was named to the Big Ten All-Tournament team with a conference-best .706 on-base percentage.

Fulfilling the potential of young players is one of college sports’ greatest mysteries. Getting contributions from underclassmen was relatively easy for Michigan, but getting those contributions to form team leaders and stars is completely different.

That’s why last weekend’s tournament — in which 23 of the Wolverines’ 28 hits and every single extra-base hit came from players who will return next year —proved to be a promising sign.

But Bakich’s vision asks for a little more than promise.

In his introductory press conference in 2012, Bakich used the word “championship” 18 times, making his goal clear from day one.

Going 173-70 from 2005-08, the Wolverines won three conference titles and made four NCAA tournament appearances in a row.

But things unraveled at a startling pace, leading to the worst two-year stretch in the program’s history in 2011-12, which ultimately brought Bakich to Michigan.

With his second straight highly ranked recruiting class and the majority of his team’s core coming back next year, Bakich is looking to rebuild the pillar of success that had crumbled upon his arrival.

* * *

After the home finale against Ohio State, as the line for autographs stretched from left field to behind home plate, it became clear that fans are buying into the future too. Knowing this, Bakich smiled and looked at the infield shimmering in the sun, envisioning the even brighter future ahead.

“We’re looking to have a big crowd on every occasion,” Bakich said. “We want our team to be successful enough to which we can get 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 in here watching us play. It’s like what I tell the guys, ‘they won’t be able to build these seats fast enough.’ ”

Think it sounds ambitious now? Just wait ’til next year.