OMAHA, Neb. – Look where the long, long, long road has led for Michigan.
The Wolverines have been in Michigan for only five nights in the five weeks. They have been in Nebraska so often – at least part of 23 of the past 38 days -- they could vote for governor. They have traveled 8,500 miles in a quest for a chance that few thought they would ever find. Friday, they crushed Texas Tech 15-3 in a game that took four hours to play, beneath the summer sun of the Midwest. There has been nothing short or quick about their journey.
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And still they travel on, with yet more work to do before they can go home.
“This is uncharted territory for our program,” coach Erik Bakich said when the Wolverines arrived last week. And now they are charging off the edge of the map, proving how their world has changed. In March, they were swept in a three-game series at Texas Tech by a combined score of 29-10. In the past week in Omaha, they have beaten the Red Raiders twice by a combined score of 20-6. Here’s a number you don’t see every day -- they left 14 men on base Friday, and still scored 15 runs.
“I guess we feel like we’re on top of the world,” said designated hitter Jordan Nwogu, after a three-RBI day.
“That's not the same team we played,” Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said when the bashing was over. “To a man, every guy in their lineup has gotten better since we've seen them.”
Now the Wolverines are in a place Michigan has not seen since the Kennedy administration -- the finals of a College World Series, two wins from a championship that would be an epic feat. One of the last teams to get invited into the tournament, now suddenly one of the last two teams left standing.
Bakich said he felt like he had handed off the keys and "am letting someone else drive right now, and I'm just a passenger. And they're taking a lot of us for a ride right now.”
They have been out for so long, that they can see the humor in it, and the value.
Right fielder Jordan Brewer: “We might as well move out here.”
First baseman Jimmy Kerr, who became the first Michigan player to ever homer twice in a CWS game Friday: “We’ve almost started becoming regulars at restaurants.”
Catcher Joe Donovan: “You hear it every day when we’re walking around -- we’re at 30 of 34 days on the road. It feels like we live in hotels. But living out of our suitcases has been fun because it makes life simple. You’ve been wearing the same clothes you’ve worn for the last week and a half.
“I’ve told everybody I’ve gone to every single restaurant in this city. It honestly does feel like a home because I’m probably going to end up being here more this year than I spend at my actual house. It feels like we’ve been here forever. In a good way.”
It began a month ago, at the end of the regular season, as the Wolverines searched for wins that would get them off the NCAA Tournament bubble. First was the 5 ½-hour bus ride to play – and lose – at Kentucky the same night. Then, a flight to Lincoln for a series against Nebraska. A bus ride to Omaha for a week at the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, where they barely survived long enough to clinch their NCAA bid, down to their last strike in a game that would have ended their season. Without Nwogu’s walk-off double to beat Illinois, this story doesn’t happen. Two-and-done in the Big Ten would likely have cost them an at-large spot.
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After a short respite in Ann Arbor, it was off to Corvallis for the regional – having to stop on the way to pick up another team on their charter. Creighton. That meant another landing in Nebraska. After the regional – when they survived an ugly loss to Creighton – it was down to Los Angeles to UCLA in the super regional. They had a horrendous Game 2 of five errors and 10 walks issued – and still lost only 5-4 in 12 innings.
After that, home for two nights, and back here for the College World Series. An endless parade of hotel rooms and team meals and hours to kill, and teams to beat. By Monday, they will have been in Omaha 12 days for the College World Series and played only three times. But each one has taken them closer to their dream.
“We saw the end of our season right in front of us against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament,” Kerr said. “And I think that kind of made the whole team appreciate every single game that we've had together since then. And that's kind of the bigger picture. It's not that we're playing in a regional, super regional, College World Series championship; it's just that we get another game with each other.”
Said Brewer, “To see where we were a month ago to see where we are now is an unreal feeling.”
All that travel, all those days away. Time enough to face more than one crisis and survive them. Time enough to grow into a force nobody saw coming. Bakich has learned to appreciate what the trek has done for his suddenly relentless upstarts from the north.
“We've seen both ends of the spectrum. What Jimmy referenced, too, a month ago in the Big Ten Tournament, we were playing not to lose the regular season conference title. And we were squeezing it. And you could tell we were just puckered up, and we weren't playing well. And now they're loose and they're laughing and smiling and having a great time. And they're not thinking ahead. They're not making the moment too big like they mentioned.
“We're not here if we're not staring down not even making the postseason a month ago . .. and we're not here if we don't get knocked to the ground and have those moments of adversity along the way with the Corvallis regional meltdown and then the super regional game 2. It's just all of those experiences have calloused our mind and have made us a very resilient group.”
Now they can see the end at last. Two more wins. Just two, and they’ll all be partying like it’s 1962.
Nwogu, the engineering major in school on an academic scholarship.
Kerr, whose only Division I offer out of high school was West Point, and whose family connection with Michigan – father on the CWS teams in ’83 and ’84, grandfather pitched for the national champions in ‘62 – becomes more of a fairy tale as the days go by.
Brewer, the Big Ten player of the year, with his schooling largely paid by his Potowatomi tribe.
Karl Kauffmann, the pitcher who labored without his A game Friday, somehow he found a way out again and again, and delivered six innings, with Jeff Criswell crisply finishing off Texas Tech. Michigan has allowed only six runs in three games in this College World Series, and used only three pitchers to do it. Nobody has made it to the finals using three arms since Georgia 29 years ago. Criswell has hardly been noticed, yet has been sensational -- facing only 16 batters in five innings, striking out 10 on two hits.
What a traveling band they are.
“Right now. I think we can all sense it, but we also want to enjoy this the next couple of days,” Nwogu said. “We can’t treat it like it’s a bigger game than any other one, which is why we’ve been playing so well, not worried about what the game’s worth, how this is going to play out if we lose. We’re just worried about playing good baseball and doing the job for Michigan.”
What’s next on the travel itinerary? One last weekend in town, one last series in the ballpark that has come to feel almost like a home field. Could there be anything they don’t know yet about Omaha this month?
Kerr thought about that a moment. “I don’t know what the end looks like.”