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Mike Lopresti | | June 18, 2019

In this wacky 2019 College World Series, Tommy Henry's 3-hit gem has Michigan one win away from finals

Michigan dominates Florida State 2-0 in Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. — Strange forces are at work in this College World Series, and only one of them is named Tommy Henry and pitches for Michigan. As for the epic he put in the memory banks books Monday night . . .

"That was beautiful. That was a masterpiece." And that was from Florida State's Mike Martin, the coach he beat. But we'll get to Henry's 100-pitch, three-hit, 10-strikeout, no-sweat 2-0 shutout in a moment.

Big picture, just look at what is going on in Omaha.

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Six games have been played so far in the 2019 College World Series, none of them decided by more than two runs. That's never happened before. Ever. But even with all those tight finishes, there have been only two lead changes.

The four home runs hit in Texas Tech's 5-4 win over Arkansas Monday tied a park record. So did the 429-foot blast by Auburn's Edouard Julien. Vanderbilt's Austin Martin homered on Mississippi State's first pitch of the game. Michigan's Jesse Franklin homered on Florida State's second pitch of the game. But amid all that thunder, the combined scoring average in the first six contests is 5.5. The record low for an entire CWS from 2013 is 6.14.

Texas Tech eliminates Arkansas, 5-4

Auburn went from winning 4-1 to losing 5-4, only the fourth in the past 134 CWS teams not to be able to hold a lead in the ninth. Arkansas came to town as the 23rd best hitting team in the nation, then batted .200 as a team in Omaha and was gone in two games, both of them one-run defeats.

But most startling so far, there's Michigan. No Big Ten team had stood 2-0 in the College World Series since 1966. But the Wolverines are.

No Michigan team has done it since four months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. But these Wolverines have.

No lineup whose hitters strike out 17 times would expect to win a game. But this one just did Monday night.

What's going on with Michigan?

"If I could take a little child and put him in a candy shop and tell him he doesn't have a limit, times that by five and that's how much fun we're having," right fielder Jordan Brewer was saying Monday night.

"We're just playing ball. You can tell there's no pressure on us."

No northern team, with one of the last spots in this NCAA tournament and seeded third in its own regional, would be expected on the doorstep of the championship series. But here the Wolverines are.

"We've owned that from the start," Henry said of the upstart role. "We kind of use that as fuel."

Ah, Tommy Henry. Where to begin?

How about last week? That's when he was in the hospital in California trying to recover from the flu and a touch of pneumonia, with an IV stuck in his arm. The next thing anyone knew, he was allowing No. 1 UCLA two runs in seven innings to clinch the super regional.  The ultimate act of taking one for the team.

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"He needed all 15 seconds in between pitches to gather up energy to throw the next pitch," pitching coach Chris Fetter said.

"It shows it's about the front of the jersey not the back," said first baseman Jimmy Kerr. "That was the most fun thing to watch, and tonight was probably the second most."

About Monday night, he squeezed the Florida State offense like a boa constrictor. The Seminoles managed three hits, and 71 of his 100 pitches were strikes. He went to ball three only twice — both in the first inning.

No wonder the postgame testimonials rolled in.

From his coach Erik Bakich: "He was the entire story line tonight. We needed a strong performance, and he gave us something magical. I think we're all just in awe.

"I don't even know if there's an adjective to describe how good he was, but he was better than that."

From his teammate, Brewer:  "He pitched an amazing game when he was sick, and now he just proved what he can do when he's not sick."

From his catcher, Joe Donovan: "That's him in a nutshell, keeping the ball low in the zone, pounding it, discipline, taking breaths, the whole nine yards on it, and that's been what we've seen from him this entire time.

"I think he shook me off after a hung breaking ball, and the next one was one of the dirtiest ones I've ever caught from him."

From his pitching coach, Fetter, on what it was like to watch:  "It's about as rewarding as it can be for a coach. Tommy is a kid who does everything the right way. You just never worry about a kid like Tommy, and to know he has everything off the field locked in, it's a lot of fun when that carries over to the field. This is just such a special ride."

Fetter pointed to the fourth inning, when Henry "found his changeup. That kind of tipped the scales." From then on, the Seminoles had no chance.

Henry's reaction to all this:

"Pure joy. I mean, it didn't matter what role you played in the game, I'm sure everyone was feeling the exact same way. We just show up to the field one day at a time, just trying to win games for each other, for the block M, for the eight letters on our chest."

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His strategy was as straightforward as it was deadly: "A great hitter is going to get out seven out of ten times, so if you attack the strike zone, you force the issue, and let the defense work, and you saw that tonight."

Now Michigan doesn't have to play until Friday, when its pitching clinic can resume. Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell were outstanding in the Wolverines' first game. Henry was all-universe Monday. What next?

Maybe in the interim, designated hitter Jordan Nwogu can work on his sliding. He plopped too early trying to come into third, planted his face on the dirt, and needed a bandage for his head, not to mention his pride. If it was a dive, the judges would have given him about a 2.2. Surely, he understood how much TV time that earned him.

"Yeah I do. I was waiting for that question — especially when I got back to the dugout, all the cameras were following me. It's all funny now, but I'll never hear the end of it."

Bakich might call for some extra hitting, too, after 17 strikeouts. "Tommy covered up a lot of  mistakes offensively tonight," he said.

Then Friday they can get back at it, this most unconventional 2-0 contender, in this most unconventional College World Series.

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