Following a 2019 season that saw the Wolverines come one game shy of a College World Series title, many viewed the 2020 season as an opportunity for Michigan to show what its future was going to hold.
The Wolverines started off their season with a difficult schedule, playing five ranked opponents, and finished 8-7 before the season was canceled. Michigan had ambitions to return to the championship and win the NCAA World Series for the first time since 1962. However, just like everything in society a year ago, they never got their opportunity.
Historically, the Michigan baseball program has not been a powerhouse in the NCAA and in the Big Ten. The Wolverines last won the regular season Big Ten in 2008 under Rich Maloney when they won it three straight seasons. The end of the Maloney era was not very pretty as Michigan finished tenth in the Big Ten in 2011 and 2012.
When current coach Erik Bakich took over in 2013, they started to be consistently between the fifth and second best team in the conference. Other than 2015, Bakich still has not won a Big Ten championship, but they have all the momentum coming off the 2019 season.
Last season was supposed to be the year to determine the program’s true potential, but now, those expectations have shifted to this season. This season could begin a prosperous Bakich era for years to come. The Wolverines have all of the personnel, coaching and experience to run through the Big Ten and take their shot at the NCAA championship.
“The thing we went by (last year) was one more. We missed … the National Championship by one game,” redshirt sophomore left-hander Steven Hajjar said. “I think that’s in front of everybody to realize going into this season. … One game can change a whole lot.”
The Wolverines have an abundance of riches on their roster. Many younger players from last year’s team are maturing into bigger roles while several transfers have made an immediate impact on the team.
“If we just took our top 16 hitters and our top 16 pitchers and just made it like that we would be great,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said before the season. “We’re absolutely, these first couple of weeks, 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 because everybody’s doing well.”
Players like graduate-transfer catcher and captain Griffin Mazur and sophomore outfielder Jake Marti are enormous reasons for Michigan’s early success. Marti is hitting a team-high .320 with Mazur a close second at .318, and leads the team with 12 RBI.
With a solid 7-1 record, the Wolverines are already looking formidable to any opponent. In their first series of the year, they took three out of four games from Iowa. Last weekend, they swept Purdue in a four-game series. This upcoming weekend, for its first home games, Michigan plays Illinois and Michigan State twice. But none of those teams are over .500, so the Wolverines’ first real challenge might not be until they play 5-3 Northwestern on April 3.
But before deeming this team as a championship contender, Michigan still needs to be pushed and challenged. The one game all year they truly faced adversity was in the fourth game against Purdue, a game in which they showed they can come from behind. The Wolverines were down 6-2, but went on to score nine unanswered runs to win 11-6.
That is when the Wolverines showed that they have a true chance to win the Big Ten Championship.
“It’s no big deal, we like (being down),” fifth-year senior outfielder Christian Bullock said. “We love facing adversity head on and we wanted a challenge. We know we have a great team and we’re going to battle.”
So far, Michigan’s battles have been slim, but the one it did face demonstrated its resiliency. Now, the Wolverines have ways to go and recognize that they need to improve in various areas. As the schedule gets harder in the coming weeks, they will have that opportunity.
Is this the Michigan baseball program that will be here for seasons to come, or is it just a flash in the pan? A successful season could lead to Michigan turning the tide and becoming a more sought out school for top recruits. A disappointing season could lead to another half a decade of mediocrity.
With last season being practically a wash, this is the true test of the program’s legitimacy. This season can determine the years to come for the Wolverines, and it is up to their play to see which path they will take.