CWS notes: Michigan defeats Texas Tech to reach championship series, end Big Ten's 53-year drought
There’s a larger story Michigan continues to write. About ending a long drought for its baseball program, conference and region.
But on Friday, the Wolverines’ opponents left the TD Ameritrade Park field for the last time with one lasting question. Who are these guys?
Texas Tech swept Michigan in a three-game series in late March. And while the Red Raiders went on to become champions of the Big 12 and earn the No. 8 national seed, their Northern counterpart was among the last four at-large teams into the NCAA tournament.
But the Wolverines left no doubt as to the better team Friday. They scored in seven innings and Karl Kauffmann fired a quality start en route to a 15-3 victory that propels them into next week’s College World Series championship while giving the Big Ten its first finals appearance in 53 years.
Michigan will play Vanderbilt in the CWS best-of-three final series, which begins at 6 p.m. Monday.
“That’s not the same team we played,” Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock said. “Their starting pitching is phenomenal. To a man, in their lineup, every guy in their lineup has gotten better since we’ve seen them.”
The offense was like lava — slow, damaging and unstoppable. The Wolverines scored multiple runs in five innings and plated a season-high 10 RBIs with two outs. They drew 12 walks. They hit .385 (5 for 13) with two away. Jesse Franklin logged a three-hit day with four RBIs while Jimmy Kerr finished 4 for 6 with a pair of solo homers.
And it could have been worse: Michigan left 14 runners on base.
Kauffmann, the junior right-hander and 77th overall draft pick of the Colorado Rockies, threw 100 pitches in six innings to hold down a top-20 offense. After Texas Tech forced him to throw 34 pitches in a three-run second, he didn’t need more than 17 in any subsequent inning.
He had earned the win over the Red Raiders in Saturday’s CWS opener, going seven innings in a 5-3 triumph. He said his approach was the same this time.
“There’s plays all day being made,” he said. “So just giving us the best chance to win and keeping the game close, that was kind of my mindset.”
Michigan became the first team in nine years to score in each of the first four innings of a CWS game. Kerr and Blake Nelson connected on consecutive RBI hits in the first.
The Red Raiders (46-20) took a 3-2 lead in the top half of the second inning. RBIs from Dru Baker and Easton Murrell highlighted the inning as they made Kauffmann work.
But a run-scoring single from Michigan’s Ako Thomas in the bottom of the second knocked out Tech starter Micah Dallas.
After Michigan (49-20) went ahead 4-3 on a two-out, two-run Franklin double, Thomas saved a pair of runs in the top of the third. The senior second baseman ranged up the middle on a spinning grounder and threw to first to preserve the lead.
The Wolverines pulled away from there, including a two-run Franklin double in the third and a wild pitch that scored a run in the fourth. A five-run sixth, which broke open the game, began with a Kerr bunt single against the shift. He hadn’t bunted all year.
“I thought I’d try it out,” Kerr said with a grin. “I guess the team fed from that and kept scoring the rest of the game.”
Thomas drew a bases-loaded walk and Jordan Nwogu and Franklin added two-run hits as the Wolverines extended to 12-3.
Texas Tech put the leadoff man on six times and finished with two CWS wins for the first time in school history, but heads home empty-handed.
“Every out was tough; they made us play for all 27,” shortstop Josh Jung said. “I think back in Lubbock, they gave us some runs and it seemed like the tables were turned. This time we gave them a few runs.”
Michigan, which last reached the CWS in 1984, last made it this far when it won the national title in 1962. Michigan coach Erik Bakich said he hopes this run provides a boost for Big Ten teams, and Northern schools in general, as they work to grow the sport.
“It’s a great step,” Bakich said. “We don’t want 35 years to go by before we get back here. But we don’t recruit that way.
“We recruit more on par with all the conferences at the top of college baseball. Hopefully, this experience has moved the needle enough to where our program now is consistently competing to have these types of runs.”
Play of the game
Michigan was dominant offensively with its death-by-paper cut approach. But a web gem by second baseman Ako Thomas in the third inning claimed the momentum permanently. With the Wolverines leading 4-3 and Tech putting two runners in scoring position with two outs, Thomas made a sliding snag of a Dru Baker roller up the middle. He corralled a tricky hop and got the out at first. Michigan pulled away from there.
Star of the game
Senior first baseman Jimmy Kerr drove in Michigan’s first run with a double in the first and dropped down a bunt against the shift to begin his team’s five-run sixth. Then he added a pair of solo home runs to finish 4 for 6 with four runs scored.
Catch of the game
It probably didn’t feel like a highlight for Texas Tech after falling behind 12-3, but left fielder Kurt Wilson’s sliding catch in foul ground to end the sixth inning while avoiding a charging infielder was like something out of “The Matrix.”
Michigan literally ran into a tough-luck out in the bottom of the third. After Christan Bullock walked, he attempted to steal second when a liner off the bat of Jack Blomgren hit him in the right calf. Blomgren was credited with a single, while Bullock was out by rule. Whether Tech second baseman Brian Klein would have reached the ball unimpeded is debatable — it could have resulted in Michigan runners at the corners or a double play.
Ten two-out RBIs is a season high for the Wolverines. Four of those came in the first four innings, including run-scoring hits by Kerr, Blake Nelson and Jesse Franklin along with a wild pitch.
The Wolverines have trailed for approximately 15 total minutes while moving to 3-0 at the CWS. Becoming the first Big Ten school to reach the final in 53 years is a great story at the macro level, but this team is playing loose and has used three pitchers so far in Omaha. After surviving the Corvallis Regional and beating UCLA, Michigan keeps refusing to cave in the big moments. Why not the north?
They said it
Michigan coach Erik Bakich: “I feel like I handed the keys off and (am) letting someone else drive right now, and I’m just a passenger. And they’re taking a lot of us for a ride right now.”
Vanderbilt turns tables on Louisville to sweep bracket, make another finals appearance
Vanderbilt gave Louisville a dose of its own comeback magic Friday night at the College World Series.
As a result, the Commodores will be moving on to the championship final while the Cardinals will head home.
Vanderbilt rallied for two runs in the top of the ninth to defeat Louisville 3-2 in front of 24,673 at TD Ameritrade Park. The Commodores advanced to play Michigan in the best-of-three final series starting Monday night.
“That was a well-played game by both teams," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “At the end, we got some very clutch hits."
Both finalists finished bracket play 3-0, meaning there will be no games Saturday. There also won’t be games Sunday, a predesignated day off before the final.
The Cardinals had kept their season alive Thursday night by scoring twice in the bottom of the ninth to eliminate Mississippi State 4-3. But Friday night, it was Vanderbilt that came storming back.
Louisville trailed 1-0 most of the game but pushed across a pair of runs in the seventh to take the lead. One scored on a throwing error by catcher Ty Duvall and the other on an RBI single by Lucas Dunn.
After retiring Vanderbilt in order in the eighth, Louisville starter Luke Smith went back to the mound for the ninth. He had thrown 105 pitches but had yielded three hits and one run.
“I absolutely wanted it," Smith said. “I had confidence in myself going back out there."
After Austin Martin grounded out to start the inning, JJ Bleday drew a walk. Ethan Paul then lined an RBI double into the right field corner, bringing Bleday home with the tying run.
That was it for Smith, who threw 121 pitches.
“You don’t want to take your pitcher out too early or too late," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “I’d feel worse now if I’d taken him out in the ninth and we blew the lead."
Philip Clarke greeted reliever Michael McAvene with a single and Pat DeMarco followed with a run-scoring double to left, giving Vanderbilt a 3-2 lead. The Commodores then loaded the bases but McAvene avoided further damage, striking out Harrison Ray and retiring Duvall on a grounder to second.
Enter Vanderbilt closer Tyler Brown, who struck out pinch-hitter Zach Britton to start the bottom of the ninth. Drew Campbell then hit a grounder that struck the first base bag and went into right field for a double.
Brown then fanned Justin Lavey and got Henry Davis to pop out to second baseman Ray for the final out to secure his 17th save.
Brown “controls his emotions better than anybody I know," Corbin said. “He’s elite, and extremely good."
The loss ended the season for 51-18 Louisville, which suffered both of its CWS losses to Vanderbilt.
“Obviously, this one hurts," Lavey said. “We fight until the last out and leave it all on the field."
McDonnell congratulated Vanderbilt while also giving credit to his own team for its deep CWS run.
“I’m super proud," he said. “I told the guys to keep their heads held high."
It’s on to the final series for the Commodores, who will be seeking their second championship. They’ll be taking on the Wolverines, though that’s something Corbin didn’t want to address after Friday night’s emotional win.
“I don’t have thoughts right now about that," he said. “I just want to enjoy this win tonight and focus on the kids."
Play of the game
The winning hit could not have been more perfectly placed. Vanderbilt’s Pat DeMarco smacked a bouncer over the head of the third baseman and just inside the third-base foul line. It put the Commodores ahead 3-2 in the top of the ninth.
Player of the game, Part I
Senior shortstop Ethan Paul. Standing on the cut of the infield grass in the seventh inning, Paul backhanded a grounder and threw a dart to home plate — gunning down a Louisville runner. Then in the ninth, it was Paul’s double into the right-field corner that tied the game at 2-2, setting up DeMarco’s go-ahead base hit.
Player of the game, Part II
Louisville’s Luke Smith ended up suffering the loss. But he was so brilliant for much of the night. The junior right-hander struck out 10 batters and surrendered four hits. He held Vanderbilt to one run through eight innings before running out of gas in the ninth.
After Paul tied the game at 2-2, Vanderbilt’s players flooded out of the dugout to celebrate. It was such a raw display of elation. The Commodores leaped, and screamed, and pumped fists. The game had such an intensity to it, and Vanderbilt didn’t hold back when it sensed the momentum flipping in the ninth.
Leaving Smith in. As strong as his performance was through eight innings, he had thrown 105 pitches heading into the ninth. He needed seven pitches to retire the first batter. Then he walked the second man. Then came the tying double.
Louisville showed some mettle Friday night. But Vanderbilt had an answer late. As expected. The Commodores (and their 13 MLB draft picks) came into this event as the most talented team, and now they are headed to the CWS championship series.
He said it
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell: “They do everything well. I think what’s probably most impressive about this (Vanderbilt) team — nothing against past teams, Tim (Corbin) has had a ton of great teams — but the lineup, it’s such a really good lineup. I mean, you have the middle of the lineup beat us there.”
Vanderbilt and Louisville players downplay emotional moment
ESPN’s slow-motion video clip of Louisville pitcher Luke Smith shouting presumed obscenities toward a Vanderbilt hitter circulated social media Friday night.
But both players involved downplayed the moment afterward.
Smith initially stared down senior Julian Infante, who struck out to end the eighth inning. Then Smith started shouting toward Infante, who was barking back as he walked toward his own dugout.
Smith said he was just celebrating an adrenaline-fueled moment. “I love that part of baseball,” he said.
And Infante? He’s not sure why he was the target of the passionate outburst, but he indicated that he had no issue with the confrontation.
“Honestly, it’s just irrelevant,” Infante said. “Emotions get high when games are going like that. He’s a great pitcher. Really, it’s fine. Nothing happened. It’s just baseball.”
But the incident probably did inspire the Commodores.
The next time they came to the plate was the top of the ninth inning, when they flipped a 2-1 deficit and scored the go-ahead run in a 3-2 win over Louisville. During the rally, umpires twice issued reprimands to Vanderbilt players, who spilled out of the dugout to celebrate each time a run scored.
“I definitely think it helped,” Infante said. “We’re always fired up, but if you see something like that, we’ve got each other’s backs. It worked out.”
Ray’s catch secures victory
The looping blooper looked like it might land just over the head of Vanderbilt’s pitcher with two outs in the ninth. And for an instant, second baseman Harrison Ray was reminded of a similar play he had earlier in the year.
He didn’t make the catch the first time.
But on the big stage Friday, Ray delivered. The junior charged through the infield dirt and made a diving catch on the grass for the final out of the game.
“The crazy thing is I had another one of those earlier in the year — same exact thing — and I laid out, but I didn’t catch it,” Ray said. “So when I saw it off the bat, I was like, all right, I’ve got to get this one.”
If Ray hadn’t been able to secure the catch, Louisville likely would have had runners on first and third with two out for leadoff man Lucas Dunn.
Instead, the Commodores got the win.
“It almost feels like a walk-off,” Ray said. “Our emotions are very high right now.”
If Vanderbilt would have lost Friday night, coach Tim Corbin would have pointed to a couple of unusual plays — one in the seventh inning and another in the ninth.
The first came shortly after Louisville had tied the game 1-1. The Cardinals then took the lead on an RBI single by Dunn, a ball that deflected off the pitcher’s glove into left field.
The second came when Vanderbilt was holding a 3-2 lead. Louisville’s Drew Campbell hit a one-out grounder toward first base that would have been fielded, but it struck the bag and caromed into right field for a double.
“There were some bizarre happenings tonight,’’ Corbin said. “It’s just one of those games.’’
Relay not good enough
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said his team failed to execute on a crucial play in the ninth, one that produced the tying run for Vandy.
With a runner on first and one out, Ethan Paul doubled into the right-field corner. Drew Campbell chased it down and threw to the relay man, but that throw was up the line enough that catcher Henry Davis was unable to tag the sliding runner at home.
A good throw probably would have gotten the runner at the plate.
“He’s out if we make a clean relay,’’ McDonnell said. “It just reminds you next year that you’d better work on those tandem relays.’’
Bleep it out
The microphones designed to pick up game sounds for ESPN caught a little too much sound from Louisville catcher Henry Davis.
Twice when Smith got a strikeout to end the inning, Davis unleashed a “(bleep) yeah!’’ before heading to the dugout.