It’s been barely two weeks since Michigan baseball came so close, so painfully close, to winning the national championship, only to be stuck in a dreary dugout in Omaha, Neb., watching those kids from Vanderbilt hoot and holler and celebrate.
But there hasn’t been a whole lot of downtime for head coach Erik Bakich, who’s had player meetings, coaches meetings, camps on campus, and, of course, recruiting trips.
That’s why on a late afternoon earlier this month, he relished getting in one long, sweat-drenched workout that didn’t include hotel exercise equipment.
“I just kicked my own ass,” he said, with a laugh.
That last part, that laugh, is key, given no matter the long odds Michigan carried into the NCAA Tournament — 200-1 to win it all entering regionals; still, 50-1 entering Super Regionals; and still the longest shot, entering the World Series — it still stings to have come up short of the program’s first national championship in more than five decades.
Michigan had it in its grasp, too, after winning Game 1 against Vanderbilt. One more win in the next two games, and they would’ve popped the champagne — or, whatever non-boozy beverage they shower college champions with these days.
But it never happened. Vanderbilt won Game 2, then Game 3, and that was that.
“You know, there are certain losses you just really don’t get over,” Bakich said during an hour-long conversation with The Detroit News earlier this month, reflecting on the recent past while looking forward the future. “I would say, that’s one of them, being that close and not completely finishing it off. That’s tough to be that close, and not do it.
“But at the same time, it’s understanding the magnitude of how far we went and appreciating how far we went.
“We’ll look back on this season with a lot of appreciation and a lot of pride.
“And, of course, feel like we were so close.”
In his extensive interview with The News, Bakich addressed a number of topics, from the special run through this year’s postseason to what the future holds, and just about everything in between, including his explanation for a questionable coaching decision, plus his contract status.
Slow to sink in
The plane ride back from Omaha to Michigan “wasn’t somber,” Bakich said, but it wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, either.
Mostly, he said, it was a time of reflection, because in the moment, it’s tough to grasp just how special this run was.
Michigan spent the vast majority of six weeks on the road, from the final four games of the regular season at Kentucky and Nebraska, to the Big Ten tournament in Omaha, to the regional at Oregon State, to the Super Regional at UCLA, to the College World Series, also in Omaha.
It was such an unplanned lengthy road trip, that players actually ran out of essentials, like clothes and contact solution.
“It was good,” Bakich said of that last flight home. “It wasn’t necessarily a party with a lot of laughter. The guys had just gotten back to the center, gotten back to the middle. There were some laughs, there were some serious looks, good looks. It wasn’t high, it wasn’t low, just in the middle somewhere.
“I think everything had finally recognized what we had accomplished. I don’t think necessarily they could grasp what it was and what it meant to so many people.”
‘We’ve never complained’
Michigan finished the season 50-22, 16-7 in the Big Ten. If not for a walk-off hit early in the Big Ten tournament, it might not have even made the NCAA Tournament.
It was officially one of the last four at-large teams to get into the field.
And, before long, the Wolverines were the darling of the baseball world, those long odds be damned.
“Honestly, I didn’t know the odds until you just said it,” Bakich said. “I couldn’t care less what other people think the odds are. We recruit at a very high level and we’ve been saying for a long time that we could compete.
“We’re not going to be limited by the fact that we’re in a northern conference. We’ve been building and progressing and making steady improvements along the way, advancing to the postseason or producing MLB Draft picks, and this was a tipping point.
“We got hot at the right time.”
Michigan was just the second Big Ten team to make the College World Series since 1984, joining Indiana in 2013. Southern teams have a stranglehold on the sport, given they can play year-round, and, more importantly, practice outdoors almost every day.
Who cares, Bakich said.
“We’ve never once complained about geography and we’ve never thought that it was a limiting factor, whatsoever,” he said. “It’s cold outside, so what.”
Michigan began the postseason as a cute story, and by the time it was almost over, the perception had changed. The Wolverines belonged, to be certain, especially true after that 7-4 Game 1 victory over Vanderbilt, led by Tommy Henry’s mastery.
In Game 2, with Michigan set to face Vanderbilt phenom freshman Kumar Rocker, Bakich decided he would go with little-used Isaiah Page.
Some speculated this was Bakich’s way of conceding Michigan would have trouble scoring against Rocker, so why “waste” sophomore stud Jeff Criswell.
Bakich disputes that, vehemently.
“Everyone thought we made that decision because of Kumar. Wrong,” Bakich said. “It was more of a decision we wanted Jeff to finish than start. He had been so good for us in the World Series to that point. If there was a way we could get a lead in the middle part of the game and go right to Criswell, even in the third or fourth inning …
“We also have a lot of trust in Isaiah Page, a lot of trust in him. He’s a strike thrower in a big ballpark, and we felt good about him going in there.
“I thought our decision was the right one. It was strategic, it was tactical, it gave us the best chance, with our best guy (Criswell) available to finish the game, instead of burn him to start the game then not having him the next game if needed.”
It didn’t work out, as Rocker was awesome in a 4-1 victory. Karl Kauffman then started Game 3 and lasted only three innings before Criswell went the final five. UM lost, 8-2.
So, what’s next? is this success, sustainable, even though Michigan is losing two of its aces, Henry and Kauffmann, drafted in the second round by the Diamondbacks and Rockies, respectively, and Big Ten player of the year Jordan Brewer, who was selected in the third round by the Astros. First baseman Jimmy Kerr is a Tiger now.
That’s a lot to lose, but it’s nothing new for Bakich.
He’s had gobs of players drafted during his seven years at Michigan, including 11 in 2017 alone, as well as many incoming recruits.
“We feel pretty good about the key pieces coming back next year,” Bakich said. “This year we had a tremendous amount of success, and nobody was talking about Jimmy Kerr or Blake Nelson or Jordan Brewer. We had some guys that had some breakout campaigns and career years.
“That’s a byproduct of guys developing in our program and putting a target on improvement, so we feel good about what’s coming back.”
It all starts with Criswell, the right-hander who could be a first-round pick in 2020.
“Team 154 is laser-focused on the understanding that Team 153 was always focused on growth and improvement,” Bakich said. “And Team 154 is certainly not going to rest on what Team 153 accomplished. It’s going to create its own identity.”
Sustaining success is easier said that done, though. The previous two times Michigan made the NCAA Tournament under Bakich (2015 and 2017), it was followed by a season of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Improving facilities is a key focus, Bakich said. They recently did a needs assessment.
“Indoor training spaces, that’s an area that makes it easier for the student athletes to be student athletes regarding their time for academics, time for strength and conditioning, and nutrition and all the components that go into academic and athletic performance,” Bakich said. “Everything is accentuated when you have resources and facilities that are contained within your space. For us, (it’d be ideal to) be able to expand our current facilities within our footprint to maximize our players’ time and be as efficient as possible, from a training standpoint and not have to bounce around to different areas of campus.”
The program has three cages, with two mounds, so either hitters or pitchers can be in there, but not both. Oosterbaan Field House used to be a shared space between softball and baseball, but much of that’s gone with the new Football Performance Center. So during the winter, softball gets to use it first, then baseball — meaning players often don’t get home until after 9 p.m. during the week.
“It’s not conducive to a good sleep schedule,” Bakich said.
It’s a work in progress, and there are ongoing talks between Bakich and athletic director Warde Manuel.
Also being talked about, albeit quietly, is a new contract for Bakich, 41, who signed a new, five-year contract in 2017 that pays him $400,000 a year — exceptional for a Michigan baseball coach, but still lowest among this year’s eight CWS coaches.
Bakich has shown loyalty to Michigan, spurning an offer from Stanford in 2017, as well as some periphery interest from South Carolina.
“I don’t like talking about contracts. Every time I read something about my contract, I cringe. I hate it,” Bakich said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
That’s not to say he’s against more money.
“That’s my responsibility, as a husband and a father,” he said. “We love Michigan, we want to build here, we want to build a great program here.”
Bakich is as well-paid as he’s been in his life, and he’s grateful for that. When he was a volunteer assistant at Clemson starting out, he got paid in T-shirts and Gatorade bars. When he got his first paying job, at Vanderbilt, he earned a salary of $35,000, and “I thought that was all the money in the world.”
His new deal at Michigan doubled his salary, and it included bonuses (he made $70,000 in those this year), but interestingly, not any bonuses for personal accolades. He could’ve cashed in, having won two national coach-of-the-year awards this year.
Maybe he needs a better agent? Nah.
“It doesn’t seem right to have incentives … that are all about you personally,” he said.
Either way, Bakich is staying put, and he’ll likely have a new deal soon.
He also hopes to have some new fans, soon, much like the support the wildly successful softball program has had for years and years. Plenty jumped on the Michigan bandwagon during this run, and Bakich is just fine with that.
“I truly felt like, and this goes for our administration and our fans, people in general, that once we did something magical like this, it would really ignite an interest in Michigan baseball and spark some enthusiasm to support our program,” said Bakich, whose team drew a reported 945 fans for its final home game of the season, compared to 2,490 for softball’s final home game of 2019.
“A lot of people pushed the pause button on life and went to Omaha. We want that excitement to be part of everyone’s June summer plans from here on out.”
Bakich even dipped his toes into the marketing world, albeit accidentally, before the team went to Omaha. He was wearing a unique Michigan hat that featured the Block M as well as the outline of the state of Michigan, and a picture of it went viral on social media, fans asking where they could get it.
Turns out, it’s a team-only hat, but Bakich made a pledge: Anyone who buys season tickets for the 2020 season can get one.
“I probably should let someone in the administration know about that,” he said.
Media interest should grow, too, after many Michigan news outlets and TV stations took some heat for taking so long to get to Omaha.
“That’s on us, as a program,” said Bakich, “to create an interest.”
Bakich has received 400 to 500 messages of congratulations over the last several weeks, including some from his Big Ten peers. (Asked by The News if he was rooting for Michigan, Michigan State coach Jake Boss said, “It’s good for the conference.”)
Bakich said he’s chipping away at responses, and he vows to return every message. That’s an immediate priority, he said. Just like continuing Michigan’s momentum.
“Coaches, by nature, are very unsatisfied people,” Bakich said. “We’re happy at times, but we’re never satisfied. That’s in the Coaching 101 Handbook. I think we set out to build an Omaha team, and you’ve gotta have an Omaha team before you have an Omaha program.
“We’ve been talking about Omaha since Day 1. Maybe getting there in seven years is quick, I don’t know. I know people who have gone in Year 1. It happens. I just think there’s a little bit of a luck factor.
“But I’m really looking forward to seeing how good Michigan baseball can get.
“That’s what I care about the most, is using our success to truly move the needle in a lot of ways for program growth, for recruiting, for player development, for consistent success in the future.”
Michigan’s avid support of Bakich has helped fuel his optimism.
“Yeah, for sure. Warde’s been great, the administration’s been great,” Bakich said. “My wife and I, our family, our staff, we dug our heels in here. I look at the best programs around the country that weren’t necessarily juggernauts 15, 20 years ago (ahem, Vanderbilt). The coaches stayed, and the administration got behind them.
“That helped, and that’s where we are.”
Published at Fri, 12 Jul 2019 16:54:41 +0000