For the first time in forever (1984, to be exact), the Michigan Wolverines are headed to the College World Series in Omaha. After a late season swoon cost them the Big Ten regular season title, and they literally ran out of pitchers in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, Erik Bakich’s men have finally broken through, and now the real fun begins. Michigan opens play on Saturday against a familiar (and intimidating) foe, as they take on the Texas Tech Red Raiders. 8-seed Texas Tech swept the Wolverines in Lubbock back in March, and they will be favoured against the unseeded Michigan, but with the way things have gone in the last two weeks, expect this Michigan team to at least put up a fight in Omaha. For those of you about to watch this team for the first time, or are simply looking for a primer on this team, here’s who you’re about to see take the field in Omaha.
42 Jordan Nwogu, Sophomore, DH
The self-proclaimed Scariest Leadoff Hitter in College Baseball has looked an awful lot like a pro prospect in his Ann Arbor career. After coming out of nowhere in his freshman season to hit .349 and steal 11 bases, Nwogu has been outstanding in his first season in the leadoff spot, hitting .327 against an on-base percentage of .442, while managing 12 home runs and driving in 43 runs, and swiping 16 bases along the way, enough to earn him first-team All-Big Ten honors. Nwogu has flourished in the leadoff spot with Erik Bakich’s hyper-aggressive offensive tendencies, and it has showed in the postseason, delivering a walk-off double against Illinois that has sparked his team’s hot streak, and is expected to be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate next season.
7 Jesse Franklin, Sophomore, CF
After a torrid freshman season in which he was a Freshman All-American, Jesse Franklin fell back to Earth a bit as a sophomore, hitting .254 (.327 as a freshman) to go with 12 home runs and 49 RBI. Franklin’s power, mixed with his high walk rate (.384 OBP) and good defense in center field, saw him named a third team All-Big Ten player. This was Franklin’s first season playing center field at the college level as well, as he started at first base in 2018.
22 Jordan Brewer, Junior, RF
The Lincoln Trail Community College transfer had a season to remember. The junior set the Big Ten on fire, hitting .338 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI, while stealing 24 bases and playing outstanding defense in right field with a staggering 11 outfield assists, an absolutely phenomenal season in which Brewer earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and the title of 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year. It was a season in which Brewer also potentially earned himself quite a bit of money, as he was drafted 106th overall by the Houston Astros in the 2019 MLB draft, and he is expected to sign at the conclusion of the postseason.
15 Jimmy Kerr, Senior, 1B
Four months ago, Jimmy Kerr was a largely irrelevant utility infielder who was pressed into a starting role due to attrition more than anything (or so we thought). Last weekend, the top-ranked team in the country was too scared to pitch to him. The third-generation Michigan baseball player has been a revelation, hitting .269 on the season with 12 home runs, including 4 in the first regional of the NCAA tournament alone, and 56 RBI. In his final season in Ann Arbor, Kerr did not miss a single game and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors, and was drafted in the 33rd round of the MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers.
2 Jack Blomgren, Sophomore, SS
“If only he could figure it out with the bat…”
WCBN callers said that many times throughout 2018 in reference to Jack Blomgren. Well, he figured it out with the bat. In his sophomore campaign, Blomgren hit .309 (93 points higher than 2018), to pair with usual outstanding defense at shortstop, and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. The Milton, Wisconsin native is a bit battered right about now, having broken his finger sliding into second base against UCLA on Sunday (don’t worry, it was his glove hand), though it is worth noting that he never left the game.
10 Blake Nelson, Senior, 3B
Blake Nelson had perhaps the most nondescript season of anybody on the team. The senior hit .299 with 35 RBI, though unfortunately he will probably be remembered most for his defensive play this season, which has been a bit glitchy from time to time. He has been great charging ground balls at the corner, but his throwing has been wayward at times and he’s had some noteworthy gaffes with the glove deeper in the infield. Nonetheless, Nelson is still a plus player, and a key contributor near the bottom of the order.
5 Christian Bullock, Junior, LF
Christian Bullock is in an interesting position. The outfielder had a strong 2018 (.262 average, .328 OBP, 18 stolen bases), but was relegated to the bench in 2019 with the emergence of Jordan Brewer. However, Bullock was inserted into the lineup in the Big Ten Tournament in place of the injured Jordan Brewer, and he did well enough that when Brewer returned in the NCAA regional, Bullock stayed in the lineup, moving over to left field and displacing the struggling Miles Lewis. Bullock made a fairly noteworthy mistake in left field in the super regional, but his fielding range is impeccable and his speed on the basepaths will always be a danger. For these reasons, I expect him to stay in the lineup, but don’t be surprised if Lewis gets mixed in at least a little bit.
0 Joe Donovan, Sophomore, C
Joe Donovan is a tossup. At his best, he has been a great clutch hitter and has an absolute cannon for an arm behind the plate (advice to Texas Tech: don’t try to steal on Joe Donovan...ever). On the other hand, he leads the Big Ten in passed balls by a wide margin (20 on the season). Donovan is a better hitter than his .245 average would suggest, as he has come through in big moments this season (most notably hitting a walk off three-run home run against Rutgers in April), but Donovan is perhaps the weakest hitter in this lineup, which says more about the Michigan lineup than it does about Donovan (yes, the guy with eight home runs and 36 RBI is the weakest hitter in the lineup).
4 Ako Thomas, Senior, 2B
It’s beginning to feel like Ako Thomas has been around for about eight years. The diminutive second baseman was once one of the best leadoff hitters in the country, hitting .354 and stealing 23 bases in 2017. Unfortunately, the years of wear caught up to Thomas in the first half of the season, as he had a poor first few months of his senior season. However, he has rallied, finishing with a .262 average and despite a few recent glitches, his defense is still serviceable at second base, and Erik Bakich has spoken highly of his leadership in the locker room. Ako Thomas has had a strong postseason so far, and he’s played in a few games now that could have been his last as a Wolverine had they gone the other way. The most recent one being the rubber match with UCLA on Sunday, when he batted in the tying and go-ahead runs that ultimately proved to be the difference, yet another of the numerous times Thomas has come through in big moments throughout his career. Now he gets a well-deserved encore in Omaha, a fitting end to a great career.
3 Miles Lewis, Senior, LF
11 Harrison Salter, Sophomore (RS), LF
12 Riley Bertram, Freshman, 2B
13 Dominic Clementi, Junior, OF
37 Karl Kauffmann, Junior, RHP
The first head in the three-headed dragon that is Michigan’s starting rotation; Karl Kauffmann took a big step in his junior year, accruing a 10-6 record with a 2.59 ERA and 101 strikeouts, while averaging more than six innings per start. This was enough to earn himself third-team All-Big Ten Honors, and that was before the postseason, in which he has been unbelievable. In three postseason starts, Kaufmann has given up four runs total, while pitching at least eight innings in all three starts. This will likely be Kauffmann’s last round in the Maize and Blue, as he was drafted 77th overall in the MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies.
17 Jeff Criswell, Sophomore, RHP
A long reliever as a freshman in 2018, injuries in the starting rotation forced Criswell into a starting role in 2019, and all he did was earn first-team All-Big Ten Honors. Criswell compiled a 7-1 record with a 2.74 ERA and 99 strikeouts, and it bears reminding that this guy wasn’t even supposed to be a starter. Criswell started on Sundays during the regular season, but has earned himself a promotion to the second starter in the postseason, and while he hasn’t been indecipherable the way Kauffmann has, Criswell went 7 innings and struck out 10 batters in the must-win game against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament.
47 Tommy Henry, Junior, LHP
Through the first week of April, Tommy Henry was a top 5 starter in the country. For the last month of the season, he was not. Henry’s decline at the end of the season was as bizarre as it was unexpected, but he has turned it on again in the postseason, putting the finishing touches on his reverse bell curve of a season with a 10-5 record and a 3.54 ERA with 117 strikeouts going into Omaha. However, Henry came alive when it counted on Sunday, pitching 7 innings and giving up two runs despite a trip to the hospital the day prior with a bout of flu (feel free to make references to Michael Jordan, we here at WCBN sure have), sending Michigan to Omaha. Like Kauffmann, this will almost certainly be the last we see of Tommy Henry in a Michigan uniform, as he was drafted 74th overall in the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
14 Ben Keizer, Junior, LHP
The happiest man in College Baseball pitched two big innings on Sunday to finish off UCLA and book Michigan’s return to Omaha. One of the few contact pitchers on the staff, Keizer carries a 4.01 ERA in 33 appearances in 2019. The big lefty setup man has been decidedly up and down throughout the season, but he had two strong performances against UCLA at the weekend, in which he has looked to be an excellent half of what is a talented eighth inning pairing.
25 Isaiah Paige, Freshman (RS), RHP
Sometimes surprises are a good thing. Isaiah Paige had to redshirt in 2018 due to a torn ACL, so at the dawn of this season, not many had heard of him. Paige delivered, repeatedly, as he was Michigan’s most consistently reliable reliever all season, finishing with an ERA of 2.98 in 25 appearances, and really serving as an anchor for the Michigan bullpen. He’s held up well more often than not, but he’s pitched a lot of baseball in the last two weeks, and he’s had some shaky moments, probably a product of fatigue more than anything.
*-If you haven’t already, check out Isaiah Paige’s offseason interview with Lucas Vargas and Adam Rich of WCBN Sports.
20 Willie Weiss, Freshman, RHP
Willie Weiss is one of the few relievers out there who can reliably strike fear into the hearts of both coaches in a game simultaneously. One one hand, the freshman All-Big Ten closer has an ERA of 3.08 and has struck out 50 batters in 26 appearances, and his full repertoire of pitches is really something. On the other hand, it’s really a coin flip whether he has command of his pitches, as he also has 32 walks in 26 appearances, and when he doesn’t have it, he really doesn’t. He had a good freshman regular season, but his postseason performances have generally been memorable for the wrong reasons. Michigan has been able to cover for him thus far, but in Omaha, your whole team needs to be in top form, and Weiss is going to be vital. If he’s on, he can close out a game without much worry. If he isn’t, grab the defibrillator.
40 Angelo Smith, Sophomore, LHP
29 Blake Beers, Sophomore, RHP
35 Walker Cleveland, Freshman, LHP
48 Jack Weisenburger, Junior, RHP
Be sure to tune in to WCBN Sports’ coverage of Michigan Baseball at the College World Series. Austin Falco, Daniel Thompson, Jeremy Parks and Andy Laidlaw will be there for as long as Michigan is. You can follow their adventures in Omaha on Youtube, Twitter and Soundcloud.