By Arnie Leshin
“Take me out to the ball game,” a national pastime favorite, will set the tone for the 74th annual NCAA Division I Baseball World Series that grabs the spotlight on the big stage at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
For everyone of the field of 64 schools that took the first pitch at the national regional in late May, the dream was to be where unranked Michigan and 2nd ranked Vanderbilt are today, where they will play a best-of-3 championship finals before a packed house.
From regional play, the field dwindled down to 32 teams for the super regionals, then from 16 survivors to the Elite Eight, and down to the final two.
The Wolverines are certainly excited and even surprised to get this far. One of the last to make the field, they left their Ann Arbor campus as the 3rdseed in the regional hosted by defending champion Oregon State in Corvallis, they saw the Beavers eliminated and saw themselves crashing the party by turning back 2nd seeded Creighton twice and again keeping the Omaha school from playing on the big stage of its hometown.
From there, Michigan hit the road to Los Angeles and took on top-seeded UCLA in the super regionals it hosted at Jackie Robinson Field. Three tight games, with the Wolverines winning game one, 3-2, losing game two 5-4 in 14th innings, and then stunning the capacity crowd by leaving the deciding game with a 4-2 victory.
The last time they have seen their campus doesn’t matter. For a team with only two senior starters and mixing all the key ingredients, they are having a ball, a baseball ball, an abundance of fun. When they routed 7th ranked Texas Tech, 15-3, Friday to go 3-0 and into the biggest steps of the big dance, they didn’t celebrate much, preferring said senior shortstop Jimmy Kerr to save it until the final out that could come as late as Wednesday.
Sounds good, but they can except to have a challenge from the more experienced Commodores. The school from the ‘Musical City’ in Nashville had to come-from-behind to get past 6th ranked Louisville, 3-2, and it did celebrate. It had one tough test on its way here, and that came in the super regionals it hosted.
It had no problem shutting down the field in its ballpark at home, but up sprung unranked Duke, which went into its region as the 3rd seed and left by winning three of four and on the road to Tennessee. There, the Blue Devils clobbered the Commodores, 15-5, in game one of the best-of-three, and led in game two before Vanderbilt’s 7-run fourth inning set up the deciding game, this time the home crowd got to celebrate a 12-8 triumph and a berth in the Elite Eight.
It had been to the championship finals in Omaha in 2005, losing 4-2 in the deciding game to Virginia, which it defeated 3-2 in the 2004 final. So at least the Commodores didn’t waste time getting to the finals. No so for Michigan.
The Wolverines were last here in 1982, but never made it to Omaha. But they did in defeating Santa Clara, 5-4, in 15 innings in 1962 after hoisting the trophy in 1953 by turning back Texas, 7-5.
Both teams have strong pitching, Michigan has been going with only three hurlers and Vanderbilt can call on 10. Both have rather young rosters, the Wolverines with two senior starters, one less than the Commodores, who are the last of the record-tying four SEC schools that made it to Omaha. Michigan is the lone survivor from the Big 10.
Both have balanced lineups. Vanderbilt is tough in the lead-off spot with senior first baseman Ethan Paul. Same with the next batter, junior outfielder J.J. Bleday, and in the fourth spot is sophomore second baseman Austin Martin. Bleday and Martin lead the team in three categories, and Paul in two.
Michigan’s leader is senior shortstop Jimmy Kerr, whose dad played for the Wolverines and who now cheers from the stand. He’s the team captain, one of its long-ball hitters, has excellent range and a strong arm, and is enjoying this like only a senior can.
While Kerr is the team leader in home runs and RBI, he has also struck out the most. Sophomore outfielder Jordan Nwogu leads the team in four categories, and sophomore outfielder Jessie Franklin in two.
Both teams have quality pitching, but now let’s see if Michigan can get by with the three mainstays it has, all right-handers in juniors Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry and sophomore Jeff Criswell. It’s not like it lacks depth on the mound, but these three have hurled in all the nine World Series game and all feature a variety of pitches. The three are 30-12 combined, with Henry having the high of 127 strikeouts and least walks (25). But all three can start and finish.
Vanderbilt has been using more hurlers, with usually about 10 in the bullpen, and have a very impressive freshman in right-hander in Kumar Rocker, owner of a moving fastball and sneaky slider. They there’s senior righty Patrick Raby with the control and 10-1 record, sophomore righty Mason Hickman with the low earned run average of 2.08 and unbeaten in eight starts, and junior righty Drake Fellows, who leads the team with 126 strikeouts.
Once again, TD Ameritrade Park will be filled. Game one here packed the place, there are sometimes scalpers outside the ballpark, but when the fire law applies and they close the gates, scalpers get the heave ho.