The Wolverine

March 2020 Issue

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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MARCH 2020 THE WOLVERINE 89 BY CLAYTON SAYFIE I n 2019, U-M baseball made its first trip to the College World Series since 1984, and was one win shy of winning the program's third-ever national title and its first since 1962. With that magi- cal run last season, the Wolverines are back on the college baseball map. "I think fans are appreciative of the excitement that centered around just Michigan in general last summer, when that's typically a time where there's not a whole lot going on," said head coach Erik Bakich, who is in his eighth season in charge of the program. "It kept Michigan athletics in the spotlight a little bit longer, and it was fun for them to get behind a team that hadn't done it and been there in 35 years. Michigan baseball is on more people's radar now." Last year's success, though, doesn't guarantee any in 2020, and Bakich is the first to admit that even though the Wolverines are picked to win the Big Ten and are the only conference team that is nationally ranked in every poll. "The easiest thing that any young player could do is make the con- nection that since we won last year, we're going to win this year, or that we got to Omaha last year, we'll get to Omaha this year," Bakich told The Wolverine. "While last year was great, we weren't the last team standing. We were one win away from being on top, and so let's reduce that down to, 'We need to be one more better.' "In that case, it was one more win, but let's take that one more thought and make it one training session, one repetition, one meeting, one breath, one drill. We just need to be one per- cent more, one percent better." That "one percent more" attitude has been the driving force behind the team's offseason focus heading into a year where the goal is now to get back to the level that it fought so hard to attain last year. "For us to sustain a high level of suc- cess, we must never forget all the little things that go into driving that success, and all the little things that we did last year and the hyper focus on the details of just continued growth and improve- ment on a daily basis," Bakich said. The Wolverines lost a lot of signifi- cant pieces from a year ago, includ- ing pitchers Tommy Henry (3.27 ERA in 2019) and Karl Kauffmann (3.03 ERA in 2019), and outfielder Jordan Brewer, second baseman Ako Thomas and first baseman Jimmy Kerr. Brewer is the most significant loss in terms of hitters because he was the Big Ten Player of the Year, and batted .329 with 12 home runs and 59 RBI. "I think the question marks are go- ing to be the emergence of the rest of our rotation," Bakich said. "I'm excited to see who can attempt to shoulder some of the load that's left behind from the great performances we had all season long from Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry." Despite losing a load of talent, Ba- kich feels confident in the top play- ers he has returning, such as junior right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore, who finished last season with a 7-1 record, a 2.72 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 106 innings. Criswell is a third-team Preseason All-American by Perfect Game/Rawlings, and a first- team Preseason All-American selection by Collegiate Baseball, and will serve as the team's ace in the weekend rotation. "The return of a guy like Jeff Criswell is awesome, because he's a tone-setter," Bakich said. "He's pitched in the most meaningful of games and he's just got a lot of confidence. He not only led our team to the College World Series last year, but pitched for Team USA this summer, the first Michigan player to do so since Jim Abbott. "A guy like that [pitching] on Fri- days, you just feel good about that, be- cause you know you're going to be in a good position to set a tone with the outcome of the game every Friday." Also headlining what should be a solid group of pitchers is redshirt soph- omore left-hander Ben Dragani, who did not play in 2019 due to injury. He was a second-team All-Big Ten selec- tion as a freshman in 2018, after posting a 6-2 record and a team-low 2.76 ERA. Another who missed last season is Steven Hajjar, a redshirt freshman left-handed pitcher who suffered a season-ending injury just before the 2019 campaign. The team's closer is slated to be sophomore right-hander Willie Weiss, who was a Big Ten All-Fresh- man performer and a Freshman All- American pick by Perfect Game and Collegiate Baseball a year ago. He had nine saves —third most during a single season in program history — with a 2.97 ERA and 50 strikeouts. Collegiate Baseball tabbed him as a third-team Preseason All-American. In the infield, U-M returns junior catcher Joe Donovan, who batted .234 with 12 home runs and 37 RBI a year ago. Junior shortstop Jack Blomgren — who hit .314 with three home runs, 47 RBI and seven stolen bases in 2019 — also returns. Junior Jesse Franklin, who posted a .262 average with 13 home runs and 55 RBI last season, will man center field. Perfect Game/Rawlings and Collegiate Baseball third-team Pre- season All-American Jordan Nwogu will likely occupy left field. Last year, he hit .321 with 12 homers, 46 RBI and 16 steals. A candidate to start in   OLYMPIC SPORTS UPDATE Michigan Baseball Looking To Follow Up Omaha Trip With More Success in 2020 Jordan Nwogu, a preseason third-team All- American, will likely line up in left field as the Wolverines enter 2020 with high expec- tations following last season's thrilling run in the College World Series. Last year, Nwogu hit .321 with 12 home runs, 46 RBI and 16 steals. PHOTO COURTESY MICHIGAN PHOTOGRAPHY

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