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Column: With how close Michigan baseball came, it’s hard not to think about what could’ve been

While new head coach Tracy Smith got the most out of a transitional situation, it didn’t have to be this way for the Wolverines.

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 19 Michigan at Ohio State Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Monday afternoon, the NCAA Baseball Selection Committee will release the bracket for the road to the 2023 College World Series. Unfortunately for Michigan baseball fans, the Wolverines have a virtually impossible chance at getting a bid, having finished with a .500 record of 28 wins and 28 losses.

It can’t be questioned that despite the ultimate result, new head coach Tracy Smith got the most out of what could be expected for this squad by getting them to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. There was also a handful of bright spots for the future of the program between two-way phenom Mitch Voit and heavy hitting freshman Jonathan Kim, both of whom were named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman Team.

But when looking over the whole of Michigan baseball’s year, it’s impossible to ignore what happened long before the season even began, almost exactly one year ago. That was when the athletic department ultimately decided to let former coaches Erik Bakich and Nick Schnabel walk and go to the Clemson Tigers.

While the resources given to baseball by Clemson and Michigan can’t be compared, Bakich’s turnaround of the middling program back into the national contender it once was is all too familiar to those who watched his tenure with the Wolverines. It’s because of Bakich, after all, that Michigan is even breaking its first multi-year NCAA appearance streak since 2008.

I’m not going to even question whether or not Clemson is a better job in college baseball than Michigan — the fact of the matter is a southern program inherently has a 100 percent advantage over a northern program. The season is more hospitable, the fanbase is more robust and the recruiting is more deep. Add in Bakich’s prior history with the Tigers, and you could make a strong argument it was a dream job.

But I’ll be blunt here — Erik Bakich didn’t want to leave. His asks in a new contract were far from unreasonable, and his ultimate goals for the Wolverines’ program far from unobtainable. When a request to upgrade the facilities simply to group of five conference standards is shot down, why wouldn’t he jump to go to a program with better facilities than some D1 football teams?

By letting Bakich walk, the Wolverines didn’t just lose him. They also lost his right hand man Nick Schnabel, one of the best assistants and recruiters in the country. They lost Riley Bertram, a captain of this program one year ago that has been the same kind of anchor player at Clemson. They lost others to the transfer portal and recruits to decommitment. They even lost their 20-year tenured athletic trainer.

When speaking to the media just before the season began, Tracy Smith didn’t mince words in regards to the upcoming season — it was going to be an “all hands on deck” situation no matter how they sliced it. Given the turmoil surrounding the roster headed into the year, Smith and his staff pulled off a near miracle in coming just three games from a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament title.

The unfortunate reality though is this rebuild is only gonna get tougher. A significant chunk of the team — most notably Ted Burton and Connor O’Halloran — are either out of eligibility or likely to get drafted. In all likelihood, this season was the closing of a window opened by 2019.

As the Wolverines limp into the sunset of the 2023 season, the question to Warde Manuel becomes; was it truly worth letting Erik Bakich leave without a fight?