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Charting Michigan’s improbable course to the College World Series finals

From 200- 1 underdogs to World Series finalists, Michigan is turning heads in the college baseball world

NCAA Baseball: College World Series Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

It has been 35 years since the University of Michigan had a team in the College World Series, and 57 years since the Wolverines were crowned National Champions of college baseball. In fact, only one Big Ten team, the Indiana Hoosiers in 2013, has made it to the eight team college classic since then. With their finals series against Vanderbilt headed to a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night, let’s take a look at how the Wolverines managed this epic run toward college baseball glory.

The Big Ten is not exactly known as a powerhouse conference when it comes to baseball. Michigan coach Erik Bakich, who was awarded coach of the year this season, hopes to change all that.

Michigan, like other Big Ten baseball teams, plays its first couple of weeks on the road in warmer climates like California or Florida to start the season every year. By the time they return home to Ann Arbor, they’re ready to begin conference play. They play the likes of USC, UCLA and Long Beach State, who have been perennial baseball power houses.

On Michigan’s swing through the west coast in February and March, 2019, the Wolverines defeated then No. 2 UCLA behind a brilliant pitching performance by Tommy Henry. That was the exception to the rule, as Michigan feasted on the lesser known schools but struggled, for instance, in getting swept by Texas Tech not long after the Red Raiders had eliminated the Wolverines from the NCAA basketball tournament in March.

Once the Big Ten schedule was under way, Michigan assumed its’ position at the top of the conference for the duration of the season, until the last weekend of the season. With a 20-7 overall record in non conference play, the Wolverines began dismantling conference rivals, posting a 15-3 conference record. Then, their engine stalled.

To finish the conference schedule, Indiana took two of three games in Ann Arbor, and then the Nebraska Cornhuskers took two of three in Lincoln. The regular season Big Ten title was gone to Indiana. Michigan would need to redeem themselves in the Big Ten tournament, as the No 2 seed, in order to make the field of 64 teams in the NCAA playoffs.

After dropping a 2-1 decision to Ohio State in the conference tournament, Michigan had their backs against the wall in the double elimination format, and trailed Illinois 3- 0 heading to the bottom of the seventh inning. They plated three runs in the bottom of the frame to tie up the game, and then, trailing 4- 3 with two outs in the ninth inning, Jordan Nwogu drilled a two run double into the gap to give Michigan a walk-off 5- 4 victory. That would become the turning point of their season.

The Wolverines ran off enough wins in the conference tournament to get them into the NCAA tournament, if just barely. Seventh seed Ohio State won the tournament. They were branded as one of “the last four in” to the playoff, and a 200-1 underdog to win the tournament.

Michigan was sent to Corvallis, Oregon, home of the defending national champion Oregon State Beavers, where they would play in a bracket with Oregon State, Creighton, and Cincinnati in a double elimination format.

Michigan disposed of Creighton 6-0, then Cincinnati by a 10-4 score. They needed to beat Creighton one more time in two chances to advance to the super regionals. They led 6-2 behind Henry’s 7 13 innings and were on the verge of advancing when the bullpen imploded, giving up two runs in the eighth and seven more in the ninth to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

They would have just one more chance to save their season.

In a winner take all rematch against Creighton, the Wolverines jumped all over the Blue Jays for a 17- 6 victory, and the Cinderella story continued.

The Wolverines were rewarded by being matched in a best-of-three series against No. 1 UCLA at Jackie Robinson stadium in Los Angeles. Michigan pitcher Karl Kauffmann worked into the ninth inning of the opener with a shutout, allowing just a lead off double in the first, before yielding two runs in the ninth. Jeff Criswell, normally a starter, came in to preserve a 3-2 victory.

Criswell got the start in game two, and he pitched 5 13 innings, allowing two runs, one earned, and exited with Michigan leading 3-1. The bullpen yielded two more runs to put UCLA up 4-3 headed to the bottom of the ninth inning, when the Wolverines rallied to send the game into extra innings. The bullpen performed well, but gave up the winning run in the 12th inning as UCLA tied the series at one game apiece.

In the winner-take-all game three, Michigan sent Tommy Henry to the mound to face the team that he had beaten back in March. He did not disappoint, working seven innings and holding the Bruins to just two runs as Michigan advanced with a 4-2 victory.

The victory in the super regionals over top-ranked UCLA shocked the nation, and sent Michigan to the College World Series as one of eight teams. There are two brackets of four teams each who play a double elimination format, then the two bracket winners play off in another best-of-three series for the National championship.

Michigan opened the tournament by beating Texas Tech, who had swept them in Lubbock, Texas earlier in the season, and had knocked out Michigan’s basketball team from the basketball tournament in March. Kauffmann worked seven innings and Criswell came in for the save as Michigan won 5- 3.

The Wolverines then faced Florida State, a team that was appearing in the World Series for a record 40th straight season. Tommy Henry twirled a three hit, complete game 2- 0 shutout to put Michigan within one win of their first appearance in the World Series finals since 1962. A home run by Jesse Franklin, and an RBI single by Tigers’ 33rd round pick Jimmy Kerr was all the scoring that Henry needed.

Michigan now needed one win in two tries against Texas Tech to advance to the finals. They needed only one game as they blew out the Red Raiders by a 15-3 score. Kauffmann worked six innings with Criswell coming in for the final three frames, and Kerr went 4-for-6 with four runs, three RBI and a pair of home runs to pace the Michigan attack. Michigan was on to the finals.

Michigan’s opponents in the finals are no strangers to the summer classic, and no strangers to coach Bakich, who was an assistant with the Vanderbilt before taking the head coaching position in Ann Arbor. Vanderbilt, ranked No 2 this season, has been coached by Tim Corbin since 2003, and won the National Championship in 2014.

The last time Michigan had been to the College World series in 1984, they had stars such as Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, and Chris Sabo. They made it to the CWS in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, and 1984. A dry spell of 35 years hardly seemed possible, but now the famine is over.

Tune in on Wednesday night at 7:00pm ET to see who comes out on top.