John Beilein has a lot on his plate.
The 66-year-old is transitioning from almost four decades of coaching college basketball to the NBA in his new job with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the former Michigan coach found time to send the Wolverine baseball team a message a few weeks ago.
“He talked about belief, but most importantly he talked about the belief in outliers,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said.
Beilein said the key to winning the CWS would be a guy in a slump getting a hit during a clutch at-bat. Or a pitcher who had been off giving a strong showing. Michigan has seen the outliers manifest on its run to the CWS championship, Bakich said.
What Beilein didn’t point out, though, was the team itself could become an outlier. The Wolverines have a chance to change the landscape of college baseball — or at least the perception of it — with two wins over Vanderbilt in the final series, which begins Monday.
A Big Ten team hasn’t won the CWS since Ohio State in 1966. Northern baseball has been stiff-armed from the championship series for decades. The closest comparison to Michigan would be Southern Illinois in 1971 and Eastern Michigan in 1976. Both teams made the final.
Michigan hasn’t been to the CWS since 1984. Not made it to the final since 1962.
“We’re in uncharted waters with our program,” Bakich said.
Vanderbilt’s been here. It won in 2014 under Tim Corbin and made the final in 2015. So, Corbin said, there’s some muscle memory in Omaha.
Michigan’s run has been improvised the past month.
The Wolverines lost 2-1 to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament May 22 and were staring at the end of the season down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth against Illinois. But a two-run double with two outs by Jordan Nwogu kept Michigan’s season alive. And gave the Wolverines confidence, and taught them to play with house money.
“Once we got into the NCAA tournament, it was — there was no pressure,” Bakich said. “We weren’t playing not to lose the Big Ten title, we were just playing to play. And so we had to have that authentic moment on the field. It changed our mindset. It gave us belief. It gave us confidence.”
That confidence rolled into a 17-6 win over Creighton in a regional final, a super regional win over UCLA and three straight wins in Omaha, including a 15-3 shellacking of Texas Tech.
But up next is Vanderbilt, which cruised with three straight wins, two over Louisville and a 6-3 win over Mississippi State. The Commodores have two aces and a deep lineup. They’ll be the favorites.
But Michigan’s been riding a wave it can’t seem to get off. And in Big Ten country, it may have the rooting interest of the Midwest. Especially since the Wolverines are trying to prove this week that they aren’t just an outlier. That this isn’t a fluke. That a program from the Midwest can, and should, be able to keep up with the southern schools every year.
“Starting at the beginning of the fall, Coach Bakich imparts on us that you don’t have (to) go south to be an Omaha program,” infielder Jimmy Kerr said. “Just the mindset that he kind of gives to the team is that we’re not just playing for Big Ten championships, we’re playing on a national level. And we just trust in the program that he’s built, the guys he’s brought in. It’s kind of all allowed us to be here right now.”
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The team from the North was a strike away from its season ending, but has ridden a hot streak all the way to the CWS championship. ... Coach Erik Bakich is in his seventh year at Michigan. He previously served as an assistant under Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. ... The Wolverines led the Big Ten in batting and pitching and had three players finish in the top five in RBIs. ... Bakich’s team plays inspired, plays together and will be the underdog in this series.
Hitter to watch
Michigan has been the best hitting team in the CWS this June with a .276 batting average. The one to watch: Jimmy Kerr. Kerr has six hits, which is tied for most in the tournament. In three games, he’s batting .462 with six RBIs, a double, a triple and two home runs. Kerr is batting .278 this season, with a .510 slugging percentage, 15 doubles and 14 home runs.
Pitcher to watch
Tommy Henry appeared in one game — against Florida State — but pitched nine innings, giving up three hits and striking out 10. The nine innings is the most in the CWS, and the 10 strikeouts are tied for the most. Henry is a 6-foot-3 junior with a 3.27 ERA this season and is 11-5 on the year.
Key number: 0
That’s how many errors Michigan has in the CWS. We talk a lot about Michigan’s bats, but the defense has been as good as anyone. The Wolverines haven’t given up more than five runs since two regional games against Creighton. Before that, they had kept teams to below five dating to the May 25 matchup against Nebraska.
Michigan will win if ...
It can find some runs against Vanderbilt’s pitching. The Commodores have a collective 1.67 ERA in the CWS. That’s solid. The Vandy defense has kept some of the top scoring offenses in the country at bay. Michigan’s bats will need to be hot to upset Vandy twice for a national championship.