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Mike Lopresti | | June 25, 2019

Michigan is a win away from the College World Series title. Freshman phenom Kumar Rocker stands in its way

Michigan storms past Vanderbilt in Game 1 of CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. — Kumar Rocker, this is your cue.

It was another night to hear The Victors bouncing around TD Ameritrade Park. The population of M caps exploded around here over the weekend, and when Michigan was done beating Vanderbilt 7-4 Monday night, there was a strong whiff of an historic championship in the Omaha air. It’s becoming a Wolverine town. In their free time during the day, the growing hordes can even visit the birthplace of Gerald Ford — born in Omaha, but a Michigan man — just seven minutes from the ballpark.

“We’ve seen tweets from Hawaii,” Jordan Nwogu was saying in the clubhouse. “It’s way beyond my imagination.”

One win to go for the Wolverines, with much of the crowd and all the momentum on their side. New basketball coach Juwan Howard and a platoon of other Michigan coaches jetted in for the title watch. Meanwhile, the Wolverines keep taking this tournament by the throat. They had the lead for good 11 pitches into the game Monday night, and the two quick runs they scored gave them six in the first inning in the College World Series. The other seven teams combined have two.

They have played 36 innings so far here, and not one of them ended with Michigan behind. Jimmy Kerr hit another home run Monday, and Tommy Henry came within two outs of a second consecutive complete game. They are 4-0 and still have used only three pitchers. The Wolverines have more runs in this tournament (29), then their opponents have hits (26).

All in all, they're doing so many things well, they have struck out 47 times in four games — that’s 45 percent of their outs — and won them all. Hardly anyone has noticed they’ve stranded 26 runners the past two games, or they’re hitting .214 in the CWS with runners in scoring position.

They’re hot, they’re confident, and if you go around the team, they vow they will keep their eyes on the prize and not get ahead of themselves. Not after coming so far to get so close.

CWS 2019: Full tournament bracket | Printable CWS bracket | Shop latest CWS gear | Listen live

From Jeff Criswell, who will likely start Tuesday’s game: “There’s definitely times when it’s possible to start looking forward to the future. There’s a lot of talk on the outside of our program. But this is a solid group, this is a mentally tough team and I think right now our minds are in the right spot.”

From Kerr:  “I don’t think the team feels any different right than we have the past couple of weeks. We’re just riding this wave right now.”

From Jordan Brewer, who gave Michigan its biggest jolt Monday when he gunned down a Vanderbilt baserunner at third, with a laser shot from right: “We’re going to try to do our best at what we’ve been doing. Going pitch by pitch. It’s going to be hard, but I think we’re more than capable of doing it.”

From Criswell, on how he will prepare for the biggest start of his life:  “Get in the shower and go to bed and wake up in the morning for breakfast and kind of start doing it all over again.”

Finally, from coach Erik Bakich, on the verge of making a Michigan legacy for himself, should the Wolverines win their first national championship since 1962: “Same thing we keep saying: Don't make this moment too big. We have to shrink the moment, and this is what we've kept talking about, shrinking the moment and making it just about baseball — these guys just need to immerse themselves into each other.”

So really, what’s to stop them now?

Well . . . Vanderbilt’s implacable star freshman is still in the way.

GAME 1 REVIEW: 3 takeaways from Michigan's 7-4 win over Vanderbilt Monday night

Rocker threw a no-hitter in the super regional. He put away Mississippi State here. He is 3-0 in the NCAA tournament and has struck out 33, while walking only three and allowing two runs. He landed in Omaha as the most fascinating player in the field, and now it’s up to him. Can he deliver something special yet again, before this College World Series turns entirely maize and blue?

In a quiet Vanderbilt locker room, Kumar was a young man of few words, when discussing what the next 24 hours will be like for him.

“It won’t be anything different than the other starts. Try to win.”

Kumar Rocker looks back on historic no-hitter

No danger in letting the magnitude of the moment be an issue? “It shouldn’t be that hard, if you have the right mental mindset.”

Still, it seems quite the tight spot for a freshman.

“He was a freshman in September,” his coach Tim Corbin noted. “He's pitched a lot of baseball games. I think age is really not going to be the factor right now. I think the biggest part of him is he's been on the mound before and he's got confidence in himself. But he's going to have to pitch well against this team."

What about that team? What are the Wolverines thinking about this young phenom who is out to stop them?

Nwogu, the leadoff hitter who will face him first: “I am curious. He was supposed to be one of the top draft picks last year so I know he’s going to be good. But if we get nervous about what he’s going to do, it’ll be game over for us. We’re not thinking about it like that. He’s just another kid. He might be a little better, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen, I feel like.”

Jesse Franklin, who will face him second: “I haven’t watched him, but I’ve heard his name a lot before, but I’m not really going to think about it until tomorrow and the scouting meeting.”

Brewer, who will face him third: “I’m beyond excited to see what kind of stuff he has.”

Kerr, who will face him fourth: “Definitely interested to see what he’s got.

“Obviously everybody knows about his performance in the super regional. Super talented guy, all the tools in the world. But we're going to break him down tomorrow before the game and see where our game plan goes from there. But we're just ready to keep taking it one pitch at a time because that's how we've gotten here so far."

One pitch at a time, or one play at a time. Take Brewer's throw from right. It electrified the Wolverines, and put a stake through Vandy's hearts, "I don't think I've yelled that loud on the baseball field in a long time," Henry said. "I'd rather throw somebody out than hit a home run," Brewer said.

WHAT TO WATCH: 10 storylines to watch in the 2019 College World Series finals

They’re close now. So close, to what would be an astonishing, barrier-breaking championship. And they can sense the fervor of their school and their communities building around them. After Henry pitched another gem Monday, he mentioned how the Wolverines will keep playing for the right reason – “the eight letters on our chest.” Criswell said he will be driven Tuesday night by what always drives him – “to go out for the Block M.”

How compelling, that it has come to this. Veteran Vanderbilt, now turning its eyes to a freshman, who has been one of college baseball’s stories of the season. And him trying to stop the fairy tale that is Michigan.

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Division I
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June 16 - 26, 2023
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