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College | Story | 6/24/2019

Michigan takes CWS Finals lead

Nick Herfordt        
Photo: Tommy Henry (Michigan Athletics)

OMAHA, Neb. – It’s hard not to think back on Michigan’s memorable run to, and now through, the 2019 College World Series considering how close they were to having their season come to an end, multiple times, well before their 7-4 victory over Vanderbilt in game one of the CWS Finals.

The Michigan Wolverines ended their regular season in a tailspin. They squandered their final two series to Indiana and Nebraska as well as a midweek matchup against Kentucky to put their once promising postseason prospects in severe jeopardy. With a 38-16 record their résumé was likely good enough to receive an at-large bid, but in a crowded, competitive national field they’d need a little more oomph to impress the selection committee and ensure they’d continue playing.

With the upcoming Big Ten Conference Tournament in Omaha, they’d be looking to seal their selection. Alas, their losing ways continued. They dropped their opener in the tournament and their season was suddenly on life support. Another defeat would certainly send them home for the summer.

In what could be their final game of 2019 the Wolverines found themselves in the precarious position of being down by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Yet with two outs and runners on first and third, Jordan Nwogu hit a walk-off double against the national saves leader (Garrett Acton of Illinois) to keep Michigan’s season alive.  Two more wins would follow which pushed their season total to a more robust 41. Although they would fall short in capturing the conference title, the three elimination wins proved to be enough to earn them inclusion to the NCAA Tournament. Based on the seedings the Wolverines were one of the final four to make the field, but nevertheless they were in.

“It's been one more game at a time, one more day with each other,” Michigan head coach Erik Bakich remarked. “They've truly – they've celebrated each day of the postseason like it's been a gift because it was a very – it was a reality. We were done. If we don't come back and beat Illinois and go 0-2 in the Big Ten tournament, the season is over.

“In fact, if we don't beat Maryland the next day, the season is still probably over. If we don't beat Nebraska in game one of the doubleheader, the season might be over. Every win that we got was critical. We were one of the last four teams in.”

Michigan advanced out of the Corvallis Regional, advancing past defending national champion Oregon State, upstart Creighton and Cincinnati to earn a trip to face top-ranked UCLA in Super Regional play.

The Wolverines and Bruins traded blows in a tightly contested series. The heavily favored Bruins had the tying runs on base and the go-ahead run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth of the winner-take-all game, yet Michigan ultimately prevailed to advance to the College World Series for the eighth time in school history and first since 1984.

Michigan’s resurgence continued in Omaha as they earned three wins to advance to the championship series. Despite their resurrection and winning ways they’d be underdogs to Vanderbilt. The Commodores, who earned the 2014 national title and were the runner-ups in 2015, were a combined 11-1 against CWS competition following their most recent win and had won 33 of their last 36 games. However, just like the Wolverine’s skin-of-their-teeth entry into the extended postseason, that was all in the past. The only thing that mattered now was who was the better team the next few nights.

Nwogu led off game one of the CWS championship series with a walk but was thrown out at third after over-aggressively trying get an extra base following a Jesse Franklin single up the middle. The play at third allowed Franklin to advance to second and put early pressure on Vanderbilt starter Drake Fellows. Jordan Brewer sliced an offering down the right field line which gave the Wolverines the early lead. After early extended meeting on the mound Fellows regained his composure to strike out Jimmy Kerr, but a Blake Nelson single increased UM’s lead to two.

Michigan’s starting pitcher Tommy Henry, who had thrown a complete game three-hitter against Florida State earlier in Omaha, overpowered the Vanderbilt bats in the bottom of the first. He needed just seven pitches to retire the .406 hitting Austin Martin, the nation’s home run leader JJ Bleday and Ethan Paul, who was drafted in the ninth round of the 2019 MLB Amateur Draft. The early dominance would be indicative of what was to come.

Meanwhile the second inning continued to be cumbersome for VU’s starter Fellows. Jack Blomgren walked and advanced to second on a passed ball. A haunting walk to Joe Donovan doubled the Wolverine’s scoring potential. Ako Thomas, the club’s No. 9 hitter, made the most of his opportunity and doubled down the left field line. Blomgren crossed the plate to increase the lead to three and Donovan safely advanced to third. He would score two batters later on a sacrifice to tally a fourth run.

Vanderbilt showed some spark to start the second with a Philip Clarke single. A pair of swinging strikeouts looked like the threat would be extinguished, but back-to-back singles moved Clarke around to score. An untimely passed ball by Michigan catcher Joe Donovan, his 21st of the spring, cut the lead to two as it allowed a second run to score. Nevertheless, Henry struck out Julian Infante to end the inning and the Commodores’ scoring threat.

After barely surviving the first two innings, Fellows looked like a completely different pitcher in the third inning. He struck out the Michigan side on 11 pitches and it appeared that momentum could be shifting to Vanderbilt. A ruckus Commodore fan contingent roared with every pitch, yet Michigan’s Henry continued to dominate. Every time Vanderbilt threatened he’d come up with a timely strikeout or induce batter to feebly ground out. Rarely did ball leave the infield and never did he lose composure.

Zeroes filed the box score the next three innings and the score remained 4-2 headed into the bottom of the sixth.

JJ Bleday, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, crushed Henry’s first offering over the right field bullpen cut the lead to one. It was Bleday’s nation-leading 27th home run of the season. Vanderbilt was back within one with Michigan holding a slim 4-3 lead. The inning should have been over soon after, but a throwing error allowed the potential tying run to get on base. To make matters worse, Henry uncharacteristically uncorked a pair of wild pitches to advance the runner 90 feet from the plate. However, as quickly as the Vanderbilt scoring threat was lit, it was abruptly extinguished by Henry as he recorded a strikeout to end the inning.

Michigan increased their lead to begin the next frame. Following a Jordan Brewer single, Jimmy Kerr pulverized a ball into the right field, his third home run of the CWS, to build the lead back up to 6-3. It was a no-doubt blast from the moment the head of the bat made contact wit the ball.

Henry was back in control in the bottom of the seventh. An efficient seven pitch, 1-2-3 inning sent the game into the eighth.

Wolverine catcher Joe Donovan started the octal inning by depositing a ball deep into the TD Ameritrade Park bleachers. It was his ninth home run of the season and increased the lead to 7-3. It appeared the game could get completely lopsided as Michigan was able to fill the bases with only one out, but a pair of foul outs kept Vanderbilt within striking distance.

The score remained 7-3 in the ninth inning and Henry took to the mound in an effort to throw his second complete game of the season, but was lifted after a runner advanced to third. Vanderbilt would trim the lead to 7-4 following a sacrifice fly, but Jeff Criswell would instigate the final two outs to close the game for Michigan.

Despite Henry falling two outs short from the complete game, he was the unquestioned hero for Michigan.

“That's what we needed, we needed a guy to put the team on his back, so to speak,” Bakch stated after the game. “He's been a great captain, great leader, an inspiration to a lot of younger pitchers about what hard work looks like, and showing up here tonight.”

Now, playing in the very same stadium where they were on precipice of having their year come to a close. The Michigan Wolverines are now a game away from being the national champions.

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