Michigan Baseball is coming off of one of its best seasons in program history in 2019, as they finished the season as the national runner-up to perennial power Vanderbilt after losing in the deciding game three of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
One game. One day. That’s all that separated them from their first national title in baseball since the 1962 season. The Wolverines, who made their first College World Series trip since 1984 last year, are out to make sure that a gap that large between appearances does not happen again.
Head coach Erik Bakich and his team have been hard at work since the fall — yes, even outside in the snow and the cold — to be back in a position to stand alone at the peak of college baseball’s mountaintop.
“The number one goal every year is to add as much value as we possibly can to an already storied program,” Bakich said on Sunday following a team scrimmage and media day event. “Last year going into it, we wanted page 153 in the Michigan Baseball history book to be a bookmark for all-time and (we have the) same goal this year. The thing that we’ve got is the experience and the confidence of making the run that we did. And as magical and wonderful as that was, at the end of the day, we still finished in second place. Not to minimize it. It was a great achievement. But I think the motivation is just as high, and if anything else, we recognize how close we were. So we’ve talked being one more better.
“We were one win away from a national championship and being alone on the top of the mountain. And so we’ve reduced that ‘one more’ to one more day of training, one more inning better, one more pitch better. And then obviously the things we do here is just one more repetition. One more weightlifting session, one more meeting, one more breath. We just needed to be just one percent better to be the final team. So that’s been a nice perspective for our players and a very motivating perspective for our players to see how close they got and to use that and say, ‘Hey, let’s not forget everything.’ We did all the little things, the laser focus on all the little things to even get to that position. And now let’s be just one percent better at all of it.”
Junior right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell (7-1, 2.58 ERA in 2019), who is set to start the team’s season opener against Vanderbilt this weekend and is projected to be the Friday pitcher this season (or “ace”), says that the team has taken to the “one more” philosophy and knows that has to be a big part of this if they want to win it all.
“‘One more’ was a big thing this fall and this offseason,” Criswell said. “Thinking about in terms of last year, one more pitch, one more game to win ourselves a national championship. So that’s always been the goal. I don’t think there are many programs out there that come in and say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t want to focus on winning a national championship. We just want to win a couple games here and there.’ So that’s always been the goal from day one for us, especially the high-caliber program that we’re in.”
Competing at as high a level as Michigan did last year not only bolsters the expectations moving forward, but also is a boost to the level of competition on the roster. The Wolverines have some key pieces to replace from last year’s team and it seems that everyone is on board with maintaining that level of success.
“I think as a team, we’ve done a good job of focusing on the compete level of everyone in the dugout (and) in the lineup,” junior infielder Jack Blomgren (.315 avg, 3 HR, 47 RBI in 2019) said. “That’s all that really matters is winning baseball games and competing is gonna make that happen. So I think we’ve definitely done a good job of tuning in on competing for Michigan and doing what matters most, which is winning.”
Bakich said that one of the best things that could have happened to his team last year was some of the struggles and adversity they went through in order to refocus and move forward. He would not mind seeing more of that if it produces positive results.
Criswell said that the pressures of some of the things that took place last season was the spark that lit Michigan’s run to the College World Series.
“Yeah, there are ups and downs to every season,” he said. “Last year, I think we definitely felt that pressure a little bit at the end of the Big Ten season. So we kind of got that out of the way, got into tournament time and let things loose. That’s where we really...where the magic happened I guess. So just kind of learning from that like he mentioned and being able to kind of take that mindset into the whole year. Obviously you’ve got to play with intent and focus and everything like that, but just remember it’s kids game, right? Go out and play and have fun and be loose and just try to win games for Michigan.”
The Wolverines kick off the 2020 campaign this weekend with a trip to Arizona to play four games in three days beginning with Friday night’s national title rematch with Vanderbilt from Scottsdale, which is set to be nationally televised on MLB Network at 7 p.m. ET. Saturday will see them taking on Cal Poly from Scottsdale at 3 p.m. ET and then traveling to Tempe to play Arizona State at 8 p.m. ET. They will close out the weekend on Sunday against Connecticut in Scottsdale at 12 p.m. ET.