OMAHA, Neb. — One more night in Omaha . . .
It had to come to this, right? The choice is so hard for the baseball fates to make — the charm of Michigan’s underdog story or the relentless and confident purpose of Vanderbilt — that no quick decision was possible. Not the way Kumar Rocker pitched Tuesday night. And so the College World Series has gone the limit. Tied 1-1, winner takes everything in Game 3 Wednesday night.
From the Michigan side, coach Erik Bakich: “That's just kind of been our M.O. here in all these rounds. Just seems like we're very comfortable in that spot. After the game, just sensed a calmness of our team.”
From the Vanderbilt side, coach Tim Corbin: “Tomorrow is a different deal. You get to tomorrow and understand it's the last game of your season. There's no turning back.
“We're excited that we can be part of this. This is a great event, and I think a lot of times when I'm in the outfield just walking around, you have to squeeze yourself to say, we've been in this place for 13, 14 days, what a special feeling this is.”
One more night in Omaha . . .
The questions have deepened, and Wednesday night must answer them all. Start with Michigan. With a chance to clinch Tuesday night, the Wolverines’ enchanted ride stalled, replaced by errors, wild pitches, swings and misses, and the misfortune of one ghastly injury. Was this a one-night blip — like the five errors in Game 2 at UCLA, or the seven-run meltdown in the ninth inning against Creighton in the regional? They quickly bounced back from each of those, and you heard that in every corner of the clubhouse Wednesday night.
From catcher Joe Donovan: “We know that we can do it, because we’ve done it before. I know we’re all chomping at the bit, a little bit of sleep and we’d want to be right back out there as soon as we wake up.”
From first baseman Jimmy Kerr, after three strikeouts, his hot bat cooled by Rocker: “We’ve been through this before. After a game like that, you want to play right now.”
GAME 3 HISTORY: One memorable moment from every CWS finals Game 3 since 2003
From Isaiah Paige, one of the previously unused bullpen arms who had not pitched in more than two weeks, but started Tuesday and gave the Wolverines four solid innings: “UCLA was No. 1, these guys are No. 2. If we can do it to the No. 1 team, we can do it to the No. 2 team.”
And from Bakich, who has been watching Michigan wiggle out of tough spots for a month: “We've had a lot of repetitions with these types of games. All the adversity that we've faced in the last month, month and a half, it's just callused our mind, and guys are very comfortable in these environments and in these spots.”
Now some of the numbers at the plate that had been in small print become more conspicuous. The Wolverines struck out 13 more times Tuesday, making it 60 in five CWS games. They were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, putting their average here at .200. That had been a minor inconvenience through four wins, but not on a night Michigan helped reprieve Vanderbilt with two errors and three wild pitches. The only Commodore run that scored on a hit Tuesday was Philip Clarke’s home run.
And the Wolverines may well have to make something happen in Game 3 without leadoff hitter Jordan Nwogu, who strained his quad trying to beat out a throw to first.
Any reason to worry?
“I just read their faces in the dugout and they were smiling, and this is a bounce-back team,” Bakich said. “We've had so many bouts of adversity where we've been knocked down that tonight doesn't — I didn't sense that they were totally bummed out and would kind of come into tomorrow still dragging their feet. They walked out of here with their head held high. They know once we hit the pillow tonight, this one is over. We've got a chance to play again tomorrow, and we'll just have to play better.”
One more night in Omaha . . .
Endangered Vanderbilt found a 6-4, 255-pound life raft. No matter what happens Wednesday night, Rocker is one of the faces of this College World Series. He was the wall that Michigan’s momentum went splat against, giving up a run and three hits in 6.1 innings, and striking out 11. But what will the Commodores do when he is not out there to lead them? He can’t hurt Michigan from the dugout.
“I don’t think it’s just me, it’s the whole team,” Rocker said of Tuesday’s quest for a second chance. “When our backs are against the wall, the real us comes out.”
Yeah, it was more than just him, but both sides were impressed by No. 80. Michigan had not been held to a single run in a month.
Bakich: “He's as advertised. I'm glad that the college game has players like that in it.”
Corbin: “We had the right guy on the mound. I was asked a lot of questions about him prior to today, and the thing that I knew that he would give us is compete. There's no doubt in my mind. I haven't been around him that long, but I know the fibers of the kid. I know how he's directed. I know how he thinks. I know how he attacks, and I felt like we had a chance today with him on the mound.”
Even Rocker understood his June brilliance has confirmed his emergence as a star, from early season freshman struggles: “I remember when I couldn't get that first inning against TCU (five runs allowed in 1.1 innings). I remember Tennessee (seven runs in 3.2). I remember those days like they were yesterday, and to finish here with this team is awesome.”
POSTGAME QUOTES: Hear everything from Vanderbilt after the Game 2 win | Comments from Michigan
Vanderbilt has won 58 games and gone 10-2 after losses this season, and have not suffered back-to-back defeats since early April by unshakable confidence and an iron mentality. But the magnitude of this moment, might that put it all to the test?
“I don't worry about this group. I haven't worried about this group all year,” Corbin said. “They're that middle child that you don't discipline, you don't give a curfew to, you don't do anything to, and they give you no reason to worry.”
One more night in Omaha . . .
Here is what the first two nights of the finals showed: All best intentions, fondest hopes and fervent dreams can be bent this way or that by the starting pitcher. Monday, it was Michigan’s Tommy Henry. Hail to the victors, a championship was near. Tuesday, it was Rocker, resetting the situation. Or as he said, “Stopping them like that in their tracks.”
Wednesday, Michigan will have Karl Kauffmann to start, and he has won two games in this tournament. And after that, Jeff Criswell, who has given up two hits in 5.2 innings. Vanderbilt will have Mason Hickman, who threw six shutout innings against Louisville. And later, if needed, Tyler Brown, who has finished all four Commodore wins, and isn’t about to rest now.
“Like I told coach and everybody, it’s baseball and I’ll throw every day if I have to,” he said.
Hickman did not sound unsettled, having to follow Rocker’s act. “Acknowledging that it is Game 3 of the World Series, you can’t let that affect your routine or how you prepare or your mentality coming into it. It’s sticking to your strengths and what’s made you a successful pitcher throughout the season, and not getting away from who you are and your personality.”
So here they are at the end of a long, long road.
The Michigan Wolverines, with full confidence that their magic will not fail them now.
“I told the team, it seems very fitting that this is going to come down to Game 3,” Bakich said. “That seems like how it should be with the story line of this particular team.”
The Vanderbilt Commodores, certain they can finally get their hands on the trophy they made their intended end result all along.
“It comes down to confidence, but we just want to be here another day with each other and spend as much time as we can, because we know it’s coming to an end and none of us want it to come to an end,” Brown said. “We know the standards that we set every day . . . (a College World Series title) was expected.
“But we’re not there yet.”
One more night in Omaha.