From the third-base coaching box, Rich Maloney yelled four program-changing words:
“Get Alan Oaks up.”
The Michigan baseball coach had decided to pinch hit with Oaks, then a freshman boasting a lowly .188 batting average, in the top of 10th inning in the final game of the 2007 Nashville Regional of the NCAA tournament. Michigan and No. 1 Vanderbilt were tied 3-3. Maloney needed someone to break the stalemate.
On paper, Oaks was an odd choice. The reserve had been inconsistent at bat all season and had little experience in big time situations. And Oaks would be facing David Price, the David Howser Award winner – given to the year’s best college baseball player – and eventual No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft.
But it was an easy decision for Maloney.
“(Price) gives up very few hits,” Maloney said. “We had to try to play for one play.”
And Oaks was his one-play guy.
Maloney had noted Oaks’s bombs in batting practice.
So he told Oaks to swing at every fastball Price gave him.
After watching the first fastball whiz by – frustrating his coach – Oaks worked the count to 3-1.
“After his first two pitches, I thought, I can hit this guy,” Oaks said. “I got ahead in the count, he gave me a good pitch and I tried to hit it.”
Oaks, batting for the first time in nine games, swung, put the barrel on the ball and sent a shot over the wall in left center.
The rest is a blur.
Oaks doesn’t even remember running the bases – the only recollection he has comes from that night’s SportsCenter highlights. Oaks stayed up all night celebrating with his teammates, and when the newspapers were dropped off that morning, he was amazed to find a picture of himself jogging to home plate on the front page of USA Today.
“I even surprise myself sometimes,” Oaks said about the front page coverage.
The Wolverines went on to lose in the Super Regionals to Oregon State, the eventual national champions, but Oaks’s swing showed that the Wolverines were for real.
“Last year, we knew when we were at our best we could play with anybody,” junior Zach Putman said. “But when we were able to prove it to the rest of the world and the rest of college baseball, who never gave us a chance, it was a huge lift for our program.”
Despite his postseason heroics, Oaks’s first year at Michigan was unsuccessful. He struggled to keep his confidence in the transition to college ball and was inconsistent at the plate.
Now a sophomore, Oaks has grown into his role on the team.
“He’s not over-analyzing himself like he did last year,” Maloney said. “He’s grown up a little bit from a mature standpoint in how he should approach each at bat.”
This season, the Wolverines hope to make another postseason run, but Maloney won’t be calling for Oaks off the bench. Oaks’s maturity has paid off and he earned a spot as a starting outfielder.
After recovering from an early season arm injury, Oaks had his coming out party March 16 against Coastal Carolina. He hit a pair of long balls and drove in five runs in a 11-9 loss.
But whatever Oaks does on the field in his career, it is unlikely he will ever top his single at bat against Vanderbilt.
“Unless I hit three home runs in the College World Series, I think that will be my top college highlight,” Oaks said. “There is a lot as a team we could do, but personally it will be hard to top that.”