OMAHA — When Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich and his players sat down at Sunday’s news conference — ahead of Monday’s College World Series championship series opener and the program’s first championship appearance since 1962 — a collective grin spread across their faces.
They were smiles that easily could’ve denoted a sense of "I can’t believe we’re here” to the untrained eye, but even more so, it was an appreciation of how far the Wolverines have come this season with their backs against the wall.
"A month ago, we were a strike away from our season being over," Bakich said.
“When you’re staring down the possibility of going 0-2 in your own conference tournament and not having any more games to play, the perspective that these guys have gotten from that about being able to keep their friendships together for another day, to keep their relationships going, just to continue the season, that’s something that’s fueled all of them."
Down to their final strike against Illinois, the Wolverines found a way, and with the first hurdle cleared, they just kept going. Whether it was notching one of the last four spots in the NCAA Tournament field to earning the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 35 years — by going through defending champion Oregon State’s regional and top-seeded UCLA’s super regional no less — the 153rd Michigan baseball team in the school's history decided it would be the next to make a mark on the college baseball landscape.
“Starting at the beginning of the fall, Coach Bakich imparted on us that you don’t have to go south to be an Omaha program. We’re going to build one right here in Michigan,” said Wolverines’ senior Jimmy Kerr. “Just the mindset that he gives to the team is that we’re not just playing for Big Ten championships, we’re playing on a national level. We just trust in the program that he’s built, the guys he’s brought in. It’s allowed us to be here right now.”
The nation wondered how Michigan would fare at the College World Series, a tournament normally dominated by southern teams, and the Wolverines more than proved they belonged by storming to a 3-0 record and grabbing a berth in the tournament’s championship series. When they hit the field Monday night, they’ll be the first Big Ten team to compete for the college baseball national title in 53 seasons. But for the team whose players have just tried to fight another day for the teammate next to them for over a month, Monday is about more than history.
“It truly is like being with your siblings because every waking hour of the day we’re together and, after you’ve been on the road for so long, you know everything about everybody. It’s just an absolute blast,” Michigan’s Joe Donovan said. “We’ve just been lucky to have this because this past month has just been Team 153 through and through.”
It will be a true team title if the Wolverines can beat Vanderbilt, a team that’s made three of the last six College World Series finals, in the best-of-three series, but Donovan admits how big it would be for Midwest baseball in general.
“It’s been so much fun being able to wear a Midwest team across my chest and to play for such a great program,” he said. “I know so many of the guys just want to see it get back to that point and bring the Big Ten back to where it’s just a great baseball conference. It’s just been so much fun.”
For Bakich, the Wolverines' appearance in the final is about much more than carrying the flag for northern baseball. It’s a testament to buying into a system and never letting excuses get in the way.
“I think bigger than lack of facilities, bigger than the weather is a belief system,” he said. “Not taking no for an answer, not allowing cold weather to be an excuse. We have these facilities, but we don’t like to use them very often. We go outside. If it’s above zero degrees, we are outside. It’s just a mindset thing and our players know it, our recruits know it and we don’t shy away from it. Yeah, it’s cold here but it’s not going to keep us from getting better.”
Now, with the frigid morning practices behind them and a laundry list of blue blood programs they’ve defeated on their way to Monday night, the Wolverines hope to just keep enjoying themselves on the field and have the results all work out, just like it did when they were down to their final strike more than a month ago.
All three games this week — if necessary on Wednesday — will begin at 6 p.m.