Michigan picked up the first win in the College World Series finals against Vanderbilt on Monday night, and the Wolverines will chase a title in Game 2 on Tuesday.
Here’s what Michigan coaches and players had to say immediate after their 7-4 victory in Ameritrade Park. For a .PDF of the full press conference click here.
ERIK BAKICH [Michigan head coach]: I thought another gutsy performance by Tommy Henry. Just the thing about his last three outings, for him to finish his Michigan career tonight, the way he pitched and to know that he’s emptied the tank for three straight years and poured his heart and soul into our program, and we wouldn’t be here without him, and to pitch with the flu and pneumonia in Los Angeles, to do what he did against Florida State, to pitch into the ninth inning tonight, just an incredible performance.
And that’s what we needed, we needed a guy to put the team on his back, so to speak. 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.
In terms of the game, I thought Vanderbilt did a really good job of minimizing our scoring opportunities even though we got a lot of hits and scored seven runs. There were a lot of other opportunities where they made big pitches with runners in scoring position, and just we didn’t cash in, which is why the score stayed so close.
So you got to see — credit to their pitching staff — elevating fastballs, burying breaking balls and just coming up with some big zeros when the game probably could have gotten a wider margin for sure, and maybe even by a lot. Just the difference in two games, a lot of two-out RBIs against Texas Tech, and that wasn’t necessarily the case tonight.
But we did have some big plays, a huge hit, a two-run home run by Jimmy Kerr when they started to get the momentum back and Fellows was settling in, and we needed that blast right there. And Jordan Brewer’s throw was a huge throw at the time, and then Joe Donovan’s home run for more insurance.
So we did have enough sparks and enough of big plays, but just proud of our guys. That’s a really good opponent, a historic team that they’ve got over there. To come out on top tonight and take Game 1 was the best way to start.
Q. Jordan, you guys scored first again, and it seems to really work wonders for you. You drove in that run with a double. The importance of that, getting on the board, knowing you’ve got Tommy going?
JORDAN BREWER: Yeah, I was excited. Once we got going, I knew Tommy Henry — once we got the lead, it was tough for him. Yeah, Coach Snider worked with me, told me to say on the ball. And I stayed on the ball, and good things happened. And then I had Jesse flying around the bag. So it was awesome.
Q. Jimmy, this has been quite a ride for this whole group. Your third home run here in Omaha. You must just be feeling really good right now. What did this one feel like, that home run in this setting, in the CWS Finals, and how big do you think that was to stem the tide of their comeback attempt?
JIMMY KERR: Yeah, other than that at-bat today, I had four pretty rough at-bats, so it wasn’t my best day at the plate. But when we got Tommy on the mound, you don’t really worry about only being up one run. Our team has so much trust in this pitching staff and how they’ve performed in the postseason that we don’t have a lot of pressure on ourselves because we know all we need is a few-run lead and they’re going to take care of the rest.
Yeah, it was a big hit, but we’re not worried about putting up too many runs because we trust our pitchers.
Q. Tommy, from your perspective, how big of a play do you think that throw was that Jordan made? He looked like he was fired up. How fired up did that make all you guys?
TOMMY HENRY: I don’t think I’ve yelled that loud on the baseball field in a long time. I mean, just how big of a spot it was, how tough of a throw it was, and how easy he made it look was awesome. Honestly, like when I saw the guy rounding second base, in my head I was saying eat it, eat it, eat it, but you’ve got to trust Brewer’s arm, and he let it show. So it was a huge moment, a huge momentum swing. Yeah, I owe him dinner or something.
Q. Tommy, obviously the Florida State performance is one thing, but Vanderbilt’s lineup is a little bit different. What was the key for you tonight navigating through when they were stringing together some good at-bats and putting traffic on the bases?
TOMMY HENRY: You know, Coach Fetter drew up a really good game plan tonight, and the two of us just tried to execute it as best we could. That’s a really talented lineup 1 through 9, as good as it gets, so there’s no breaks, no lapses throughout that entire lineup.
And we just tried to do our best to keep them as off-balance as we possibly could, kind of throw the kitchen sink at them and see what happens. And the defense made a lot of good plays tonight on hard-hit balls, so it worked out a little bit.
Q. Joe, you guys obviously weren’t too familiar with Vanderbilt before this series. How do they compare to other lineups you’ve faced? Just statistically, they’re as good as you guys have faced. Do you see it that way?
JOE DONOVAN: Yeah, Vanderbilt has got a great team. And one of the great things about college baseball today is that a lot of us have played on summer teams and everything, so I’m sure Tommy has faced a lot of these guys in the summer. I’ve played with a few guys. But, yeah, whenever you face them, whether it’s as a team at Vanderbilt or like in the summer, they’re great hitters all around.
You look usually and hope when you look at the other lineup that there’s a few batters that you can kind of settle in on, and just they do not have any of those. I mean, that says even more to Tommy because he’s able to go through such a talented lineup and execute the game plan so well.
PREDICTION: Will Michigan win it all on Tuesday night?
Q. Joe, you had that walk in the second. You guys have had a lot of those in Omaha. How important is the play discipline piece to this team’s offensive attack? Was that part of the game plan against Fellows today, trying to drive up that pitch count early?
JOE DONOVAN: I think as a team, we just try to hunt fastballs as much as we can, and if it’s in the zone and a good count, then just try to drive it. Coach said there’s only two counts, there’s non-two-strike counts and then there’s two-strike counts. If you’re in a non-two-strike count and then you just look for a pitch that you can smash, and if you are, you just try to fight off as many as possible.
Like Jack Blomgren today is an example of that, using two-strike counts, just fouled them off, fouled them off, fouled them off. It’s so great for our entire team for that because you’re able to get a guy’s pitch count so far up, and Drake, who’s such a great pitcher, we were able to get his pitch count pretty high and get into their bullpen.
Q. Jimmy, you guys got Kumar Rocker tomorrow. How do you prepare for him?
JIMMY KERR: Yeah, 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.
Q. Coach, your team seems to play so loose and they look like they’re having so much fun, even considering this is the biggest game of their career so far. Even when Jordan Brewer fell down running to third base, he had a huge smile. How do you keep the guys motivated to keep pushing forward and keep having fun?
ERIK BAKICH: Those are all compliments. Everybody has said that. Everybody has commented on that. You guys look so loose, you guys look like you’re having a lot of fun. And we are. We’ve been on the road for six weeks and having the time of our lives. So we are loose. I would say that it’s just the recognition of the difference of when we weren’t loose and how we played, and how we play when we are loose and what a stark contrast it is in not only the execution on the field but the enjoyment factor of playing the game.
I appreciate you saying that. I’m glad it’s noticeable. It certainly feels that way in the dugout and on the field.
Q. Your guys are one win away. I’m sure they can taste a national title. How do you handle the psychology of that, them being this close?
ERIK BAKICH: 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 and immersing these guys — these guys just need to immerse themselves into each other.
That’s really all it is. And if it can be just about baseball and just about immersing themselves into another one, then they’re not thinking about winning a national championship. They’re not thinking about what happens, we’re about to win a regional at Corvallis and then we start to get tight.
The way this has been working is to not get outside of ourselves and not make things too big, and our guys have done a great job of that. They know what they’re playing for. These are — they know what the stakes are. They know the stage. They know everything. But they’re not acting like the stage and the lights and the moment is too big because I think they’re doing a really good job of just staying in the moment with each other and having as much fun as they can and being as loose as they possibly can.
Q. Erik, 18 walks between a bracket final and a CWS final. Considering the level of pitching you’re facing in those two games, what’s been the key to kind of raising the level of the quality of your at-bats and just making tough outs 1 through 9?
ERIK BAKICH: Well, Joe alluded to it. We shrink the zone with less than two strikes. We look for pitches to smash. A lot of times that’s — could be a fastball, could be an elevated mistake off-speed pitch, whatever. It doesn’t always have to be a fastball. But shrinking the zone, every hitter knows where they hit the ball the hardest. For us it’s all about how hard you hit it. We don’t care about launch angle, we just care about how hard you hit it.
And understanding that having the discipline to try to shrink the zone and just go after those pitches you can hit the hardest with less than two strikes is going to put you in good hitter’s counts. And when you do have two strikes, we talk about it becoming a team at-bat. It’s no longer your at-bat, it’s a team at-bat, and your job is to get in there and be as gritty as you possibly can and fight to win the next pitch and see another pitch.
If it means you’ve got to stick your butt out and foul a pitch off, we’re not interested in twitter swings with two strikes, we just want to be gritty. Gritty, not pretty.
Our guys have bought into that so well, and you see it when it’s on display there, and having some of the two-strike battles that we had tonight that led to runs or led to guys getting on base, I’m just so impressed with our guys and how they fight pitch to pitch, especially with two strikes. You shrink the zone with less than two strikes, you expand the zone with two strikes, and you just find a way to put the barrel on the ball. That’s it.
Our guys are doing a good job of that. We’ll have our work cut out for us tomorrow because the deal with Rocker is just the breaking ball is tough to pick up and it’s late and it’s got depth. So we know he’s very good. We know Fellows is very good, too, and the whole pitching staff is good. The whole team is good. These types of games, it’s who can play the best.
WAYNE WELTON: Meet the man with the busiest cell phone in Omaha
Q. Coach, you scored in the first inning on every game of the College World Series and gone on to win all four of those. How does an early lead contribute to your team’s mindset and how they play?
ERIK BAKICH: It’s the name of the game in sport, score first and get a lead and expand a lead or get a lead and keep a lead. It just opens up the offense a little bit when guys are playing in a lead in any sport. There’s some confidence there. There’s some mental freedom there. You know, we’ve played with deficits, as well. We had plenty of deficits along the way to get here.
But, you know, scoring first is an offensive goal of ours that we have every game. So we’ve been fortunate that our guys have put some good at-bats together early in the game and been able to take a lead. We’ll certainly continue to be aggressive to look to get on the board as quick as we can, but that definitely is an advantage and allows us to open up the offense a little more, be more aggressive in certain spots.
Q. There’s just a spirit and an emotion that your team has on the field that’s been pretty noticeable here. Is that just a result of them kind of playing free, or what have you noticed about that and how much has it contributed to your success in Omaha, just their energy?
ERIK BAKICH: Yeah, it started a month ago. That realization of when we play not to lose, we lose. When we play loose and we compete as best we can and be aggressive and shift the target from being tight and squeezing it and thinking ahead instead of just shrinking the moment and just immersing themselves with one another, I think it all gets down to the perspective that they gained when they were staring at their season being over right in the face, one strike away from not having any postseason, and the perspective they got is they got another day together.
So it’s been one more game at a time, one more day with each other. 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 1 of the double-header, the season might be over. Every win that we got was critical. We were one of the last four teams in.
So that told you that we needed all, whatever, 41 of those wins, whatever it was, to make a run through the losers’ brackets of the Big Ten tournament. Once we were in, the guys already had that feeling. It was already like — what started as relief in the walk-off win against Illinois turned into that light bulb of what are we doing? Why are we playing this way?
Coaches, too. We were tight, too. You could feel it. Everybody. It was hand in hand. And now it’s the total opposite, and now — we needed that. We needed that moment to happen organically because we haven’t navigated our way through the postseason before, so it’s not like we could rely on experience. But now that we’ve done this, it sure feels right, and it feels exactly what you want in order to make this type of run, this is the feeling that I would think these teams have. We just want to hang on to it as long as we can.
Q. Is Criswell going tomorrow? How much does he have left?
ERIK BAKICH: He could, yeah. I’ve got to talk to the coaches. He threw nine pitches, so that’s what he did against UCLA. He pitched an inning and started the next day, so he’s certainly capable. We could go Criswell or we could do a committee type of thing.
It’ll either be a righty or a lefty. We’ll let you know. (Laughter).
Q. Despite one of your best all-around games, both hitting and pitching, there was still a little bit left to be desired. There was 12 runners left on base, the base running didn’t always pay off. How difficult can it be to corral the guys in and remember there are lessons to be learned from every game after such a great win like this?
ERIK BAKICH: Yeah, no, we debrief the game after every game. They know we didn’t cash in on all of our scoring opportunities. We could have been better. We left a lot of runners on base and had runners in scoring position with less than two outs and didn’t get the job done and didn’t move runners when we could have.
We didn’t play as well as we could have, but we played well enough. And so games like this, you want to — there’s good and bad in every game, and, yeah, we could have been better in certain spots tonight, but we still did enough and made enough plays to where we were able to come out on top, and so we’ll take it.