In the end, they came up just short, falling in a winner-take-all, championship game to perennial power Vanderbilt. However, for four weeks, the Michigan baseball team went on a wild and unexpected ride - and brought its fan base with it.
Michigan, one of the last four teams to make the NCAA tournament field, won its eight-team region and then outlasted top-ranked UCLA in a three-game series to advance to the College Baseball World Series for the first time since Barry Larkin patrolled the middle of the infield. Once in Omaha, rather than show their inexperience, the underdog Wolverines rolled - advancing to the championship series without suffering a loss.
Michigan continued its strong play in the opener, jumping to a 1-0 series lead much the same way it had succeeded throughout the tournament: On the strength of strong pitching, aggressive base-running and timely hitting. For almost a month, led by starters Tommy Henry and Karl Kaufman, Michigan played as well as any team in the country, and was on the verge of claiming its first national championship in more than a half-century.
That’s as far as Michigan would get, however, as Vandy’s starting pitchers Kumar Rocker and Mason Hickman effectively shut down the Wolverines in games two and three. It was more than just great pitching from Kumar and Hickman, though, that did in the Wolverines. After having almost everything go right for so long, nothing seemed to go right for Michigan over the final two games. Michigan’s fielding, so stellar for so long, faltered. The two-out hits stopped coming, and in the final game, even Michigan’s greatest strength, its front line pitching, struggled. When all was said and done, the Wolverines dropped the rubber game and the championship.
After Michigan’s basketball team was knocked out of the NCAA tournament in a lopsided loss to eventual finalist Texas Tech, then-coach John Beilein told his players that one loss didn’t define them. The same could be said of this Michigan baseball team, a team that gained much more in its tournament run than it ever could lose in its final game.
Michigan received a lot of attention over the course of the tournament for the way it constructed its team. Outlets from ESPN to the Washington Post described how Michigan eschewed the current trend in college baseball of recruiting primarily through the travel team scene. Doing so (building a team primarily through the travel team scene) results in a rather homogeneous product. Change the uniforms on most college teams and you could scarcely tell them apart. Doing so also ignores a large population of talented players. As Michigan coach Erik Bakich put it, “The cost of travel ball … negates opportunities for a lot of kids.” With that in mind, Michigan focused on non-traditional outlets, including targeting inner-city high school leagues. Bakich continued, “For us, we want to have a diverse roster, the want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over the country that we can.”
But Michigan did more than create a diverse roster, it also developed an extremely talented one. As Bakich put it, “We try to be as exhaustive in our search as possibly we can.” The result was a team that may have been an underdog in Omaha, but one that was brimming with MLB talent. The Wolverines saw five players selected in June’s amateur draft, including three in the first three rounds (starting pitchers Henry and Kaufman and outfielder and Big Ten MVP Jordan Brewer). That roster also propelled Michigan into the NCAA championship series - the first northern team advance that far in nearly five decades.
During Michigan’s run, the Wolverines made fans of those who hadn’t followed college baseball in … well, in some cases ever. In a phenomenon not unlike NCAA basketball tournament runs, Michigan fans turned up and tuned in. But it was more than just Michigan fans, the nation also tuned into two-week tournament. The decisive third game of the national championship series was the most-watched baseball game on ESPN this year, eclipsing the viewership for any of the network’s MLB match-ups, with over two million viewers. Those fans that tuned in watched a Michigan team play about as well as a team can play for the majority of the tournament.
With increased success, however, comes increased expectations. And with increased expectations comes greater disappointment. So it was a rough ending for the Wolverines. Whether Michigan’s run signals a rebirth in Michigan baseball or not, it resulted in a run as enjoyable as any Wolverine run in any sport over the past few years and one that will be remembered for years to come.