OMAHA, Neb. — Michigan vs. Vanderbilt. So much alike. And yet, so different.
In one unmistakably dominant and crucial way, they have been mirrors of one another as they stormed through the first week of this College World Series. The Wolverines have given up only six runs in three games. So have the Commodores. Together, the staffs have struck out 46 batters in 54 innings, and walked but 12. Here come the best-of-three finals, so let the zeroes begin.
Then there are the coaches, friends for life, who look at one another and see so much of themselves. Tim Corbin is the Vanderbilt coach, who began building this powerhouse program in 2003. The assistant and recruiting coordinator with him on the ground floor the first six years – Michigan coach Erik Bakich.
They met in a parking garage at Clemson, when Corbin was on the staff and Bakich was trying to land a volunteer assistant’s job, and a bond was formed that now takes center stage in Omaha. Corbin credits Bakich for building the recruiting system that made Vandy a giant. Bakich credits Corbin for showing him the blueprint to build a program into a national force.
Corbin on Bakich: “What I found in just five days of first meeting someone, is you could just tell that he had an engine that was just completely different than most people that you meet . . . I felt like he’s someone that was like me, he just needed the opportunity, and he was not going to take no for answer in anything that he ever did.
“I’ll say it briefly, but it’s real. Vanderbilt is not Vanderbilt without Erik Bakich.”
Bakich on getting to know Corbin’s background: “Hearing the story of a Division III player, a guy that drove all night to go wait on the doorstep of an athletic director because he heard there was an opening in the ticket office, a guy who started a small-school Presbyterian program by himself with a shovel and built a field and had to be dorm director . . .
“Just to see the work ethic and the drive and the energy and the passion – he’d sleep in his car because he didn’t have a recruiting budget . . . I was a junior college player. I was always an underdog, just had to prove I could play instead of some of the players that have to prove they can’t. I just felt this is the guy I need to gravitate to.
“I know I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Vanderbilt is renowned for its loose and fun-loving approach, right down to the imaginary snow angels in the outfield grass by its reserves between innings. It is some of the best choreography in town. Michigan is here, the Wolverines all say, because they learned how to relax and have more joy in their game, after facing extinction a month ago. They have done it so well, even the Commodores have noticed.
“You could see that in the way they’re playing, they’re having fun with each other,” Vandy’s Julian Infante said. “They’re trying to make their season last as long as possible, like ours, and that’s just something as a player you see and you want to model.”
Yep, so similar in many ways. But also programs from different worlds.
Vanderbilt is part of college baseball’s aristocracy, from a climate that supports such a thing. The Commodores played 23 of their first 29 games this season in the mid-south comforts of home. Michigan wants to get to the top level, a hard-charging wannabe from the snow belt. To escape winter, the Wolverines played their first 13 games in Florida, South Carolina and California. That's the way it has to be.
Vanderbilt’s SEC is the epicenter of the sport, now having won or at least played for the title 11 of the past 12 years. Michigan is the first Big Ten team this far since 1966.
Vanderbilt is the nation’s No. 2 seed, widely expected to be here. Michigan came out of the pack, unheralded and lowly seeded, one pitch away from having its season end in the Big Ten tournament.
Of the eight teams who came to Omaha this June, they were the only two with past championships. But Vanderbilt’s title was only five years ago. It’s been 57 years since Michigan’s second, and 66 since its first.
So there are plenty of reasons that a championship would be a compelling, memorable story for either side. Here are five for each.
MICHIGAN . . .
1. You could fit all the pitchers who have worked so far in this College World Series for the Wolverines on a loveseat. Can a team win it all in Omaha using only three arms?
It might with these three arms. Tommy Henry was simply spectacular, throwing a three-hit complete game against Florida State. Karl Kauffmann has been solid in two starts. Jeff Criswell, who has gone from the rotation to the prince of darkness out of the bullpen, has given up two hits in five scoreless innings and struck out 10 of the 18 batters he has faced. They’ll all be ready to go again, starting with Henry Monday night.
Directing this merry band is pitching coach Chris Fetter, who is all-time leader in innings pitched for the Wolverines, and is so Maize and Blue, he has a part of a Bo Schembechler quote Those Who Stay tattooed on his arm. “He loves Michigan, he bleeds Michigan,” Bakich said. “And our players feed off it.”
2. It’s a team built like few others.
Bakich’s philosophy has been to follow the recruiting road less traveled, looking in places such as inner cities for players, taking a chance on some prospects that others won’t. Hence, one of the most diverse rosters in the land. “We want our team to look like the United States of America,” he has said more than once.
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It takes some communication to meld all those parts into a unified effort. Catcher Joe Donovan was describing that the other day. “At the beginning of the year, we talked about who we are, where we’ve come from and the perspective of the things we’ve gone through in our life. So each and everybody here knows how we’ve gotten here, what we’ve gone through, and why we see the world the way we do. It’s a big, symbiotic relationship that we all have, so that we’re able to lean on each other. But also everybody knows it, so we don’t have to say it.”
3. It’d be a new day, geographically speaking.
This would be the first championship for a Big Ten team – or a true northern belt team – since Ohio State in 1966, and the first for Michigan since 1962. It would defy not only the odds, but winter itself. “Bigger than the weather is a belief system,” Bakich said. “Not taking no for an answer, not allowing cold weather to be an excuse.” Back in Ann Arbor, he said, if the temperature is above zero, the Wolverines are outside practicing.
Preparations. pic.twitter.com/ATnTMVgDYr— Michigan Baseball (@umichbaseball) June 23, 2019
4. The Kerr family.
The family tree has become a well-known trilogy. Grandfather John pitched for the 1962 champions. Father Derek was on Michigan’s last Omaha teams in the 1980s. Now son Jimmy -- with six RBI, two home runs and a triple -- is making a run at the most outstanding player award. And they are all present at TD Ameritrade Park to share this.
“They’re into the game as much as anybody else on or off the field,” Jimmy said Sunday. “The best part of my day is seeing them after a win.”
5. A championship would be the happy ending to a remarkable journey.
It was exactly one month ago Sunday that Michigan trailed Illinois 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning in the Big Ten tournament. One runner on, two out, full count to Ako Thomas. One more strike, and the Wolverines were out of the Big Ten tournament and very likely out of an NCAA bid. Season over.
But Thomas worked a walk, Jordan Nwogu doubled in the gap for two runs and a victory, and the Wolverines have never looked back. Kerr still remembers the emotion shared with fellow senior Blake Nelson that day.
“We were staring at the end of our careers right there, and when it just flips around . . . him and I were both tearing up, hugging each other after that game because we get another day together.”
Said Bakich, “It was that authentic moment that made us believe, that gave us the mindset and the confidence we could do this.
“We needed to catch lightning in a bottle.”
VANDERBILT. . .
1. This is what atonement would look like, a year later.
Vandy’s 2018 season ended in anguish, with a 10-6 loss in 11 innings to Mississippi State in the deciding game of the super regional. The Commodores still remember the 17 runners they stranded that night, three times leaving the bases loaded. And there was something else.
“We all know what happened,” Tyler Brown said. Yeah, he gave up four runs in that 11th inning. He came to Omaha burning to bury 2018, and boy, has he, with a hat trick of saves. “He contains his emotions unlike anyone I've ever seen before, in terms of what I've coached, at least at Vanderbilt,” Corbin said. Add another save or two, and he, too, could be considered for the most outstanding player award."
2. The coming out party for Kumar Rocker. And his fellow starters ain’t bad, either.
Not that Rocker hadn’t had a big freshman regular season, but the no-hitter in the super regional set him up to be one of the faces of this College World Series. He was plenty good in his first start here, and everyone wants to see if he’ll be even better in the finals, now that he has his cleats wet in Omaha. His NCAA Tournament numbers: 3-0 with an 0.83 earned run average and strikeout-walk ratio of 33-3. Zowie.
By the way, the other Vandy starters -- Drake Fellows Mason Hickman – have given up one run in 13 innings in the CWS. The term you might be searching for is consistency. “That’s the word I would use with all of them,” Corbin said.
3. Further validation of just how mighty Corbin's Vanderbilt program has become.
It’s not just that all four Commodore trips to Omaha have come under his watch. There was the championship in 2014, and the runner-up in 2015. They have become the first team in the TD Ameritrade Park era to land in three finals. “One of the gold-standard programs in the country,” Michigan's Donovan called Vandy. The Commodores have never wavered from their appointed task, marching onward with total and udder confidence.
Infante: “I just think that comes from doing the same things every single day. The way we take ground balls, the way we come to the field, the way we take our swings in the cage. We try to be deliberate in everything we do.”
Right fielder JJ Bleday: “You have that believability in everyone, because one through nine, you have so much depth and so much trust, because you’ve been around each other since day 1. It’s very rare to see that.”
4. The Crushin’ Commodores.
This would be the last bow of an extraordinarily relentless offense that led the mighty SEC in batting average, runs, on-base percentage and slugging. They have hit double digits in runs in 26 games. Only one team this century won the College World Series and led the nation in home runs – Coastal Carolina in 2016. Vanderbilt would be the second, with 97 this season. The Commodores are 11-1 against teams who got to Omaha this June, largely because of a .304 average against them.
And while all that’s peachy, there's be something a little muted about the Vandy bats in Omaha. The Commodores are hitting only .217 as a team and have scored a modest 12 runs in three games. Bleday (.444) and Austin Martin (.333) own eight of the team’s 20 total hits. But 20 hits in three games have been enough, given what their teammates have been doing on the mound.
5. It’d be the latest reminder that, when it comes to athletic success, the baseball Commodores should be the BMOC back in Nashville.
Vanderbilt has one national championship in a male sport in all its history, baseball in 2014. By Tuesday or Wednesday night, it might have two.
Basketball has never been to the Final Four. The Commodores did get to the Elite Eight once, back in 1965. Know who they lost to? Michigan.
Football always has a struggle to stay upright in the brutal SEC. But Vandy was the first school in all the south to build a football-only stadium, back in 1922. Know who the Commodores picked for their opponent to open their historic new place? Michigan.
The final score was 0-0. Sounds like a pitcher’s duel, just like the College World Series finals might be. That and a winner-take-all showdown between two coaches, who understand full well how the other got here.