Michigan baseball coach Rich Maloney made it the team motto before the season began:
Those who stay will be champions.
But at the beginning of the season, the Wolverines had the dubious task of following their first 40-win season in 16 years with a roster marked with reminders of those who didn’t stay:
Chris Getz – team leader in batting average (.381), hits (88) and steals (29).
Clayton Richard – team leader in ERA (2.43) and second in saves (five).
Derek Feldkamp – team leader in wins (nine) and saves (six).
And even though a baseball team is more than three players, these weren’t just three ordinary players.
Without arguably its best position player and top two pitchers, Michigan looked young and vulnerable, and at the beginning of the season, it showed. In 2005, the Wolverines entered conference play with a 16-3 record. This season: 11-7.
For a time it looked bleak for those who did stay, notably for three fifth-year seniors: Paul Hammond, Jeff Kunkel and Drew Taylor.
Hammond had a 1-3 record with a 4.94 ERA.
Taylor was also 1-3, and his ERA was an astronomical 7.71 ERA.
Only Kunkel was having marginal success compared to where he was after the same number of games in 2005. He was second on the team in on-base percentage (.462) and just sixth on the team in batting average (.311). Last season, his batting average was 57 points higher after the same amount of games.
With a less than stellar start in the conference (1-3), I had already determined Michigan was out of the Big Ten race – picking the team to finish a paltry fifth in the conference.
Those who stay will underachieve.
But the tide turned quickly – very quickly. Soon, the Wolverines won three out of four against Minnesota and swept Ohio State on consecutive weekends – the two symbols of Big Ten supremacy through the ’90s and into the new century.
That stretch would catapult Michigan to a more than impressive 23-9 finish in the Big Ten and its first regular-season conference title since 1997.
Just one weekend later, the Wolverines would add a conference tournament title to its legacy – the program’s first since 1999.
Michigan’s 180 degree turn from a middle-of-the-pack team to the kings of the Big Ten hill can be attributed partly to young and inexperienced players maturing over time.
Still, without the leadership of players like Hammond, Kunkel and Taylor – those who stayed – that maturity would have taken longer to develop and a Big Ten championship may have already been out of reach.
These three co-captains have seen the drastic change this program has gone through since they were freshmen, and they weren’t about to let the story of their college career finish without a happy ending.
How did they finish the year?
Hammond finished the season 8-4 and second on the team in ERA (2.36) while also being voted by his teammates as the team’s top pitcher.
Taylor wrapped up his season with a 6-4 record and dropped his ERA to a more respectable 4.94 ERA.
Kunkel was second on the team in batting average (.335) and overall hits (77). He was voted the top position player by his fellow teammates.
And those who stayed became champions.
– Bosch can be reached at email@example.com