Michigan-Texas Tech Baseball Rematch Rekindles College World Series Memories
The Wolverines beat the Red Raiders twice in Omaha. Coaches Bakich, Tadlock recall that 2019 season while looking ahead to their 2022 season-opener in Arlington, Texas
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan opens its baseball season in five weeks at a Major League ballpark in Arlington, Texas, against a very familiar foe. Friday afternoon, Wolverines coach Erik Bakich was on a Zoom call along with Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock and the other four coaches in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown.
Talking baseball on a January day when temperatures could hit single-digits is sure to warm the hearts of Michigan fans. Ditto for recalling the College World Series games in 2019 between the Wolverines and Red Raiders.
Michigan had been trounced, 29-10, by power-hitting Texas Tech in three losses that March in Lubbock.
However, the Wolverines claimed two of the most significant wins in program history against the Red Raiders that June in Omaha.
Michigan, fresh off claiming a Super Regional series at No. 1-seeded UCLA, had found its stride, and beat the Red Raiders, 5-3, in the CWS opener. Sparkplug first baseman Jimmy Kerr pulled a two-out, 1-2 pitch to score a pair on a triple for the game’s big hit, and starter Karl Kauffmann pitched seven quality innings before Jeff Criswell threw two scoreless innings for the save.
Tommy Henry blanked Florida State, 2-0, before the Wolverines faced Texas Tech once again in the double-elimination tournament. This time, Michigan won in a blow-out, 15-3, with Kerr hitting a homer and knocking in three runs while scoring four times with four hits. Center fielder Jesse Franklin had four RBI and three hits. And once again, the combo of Kauffmann and Criswell held down the Red Raiders.
That victory advanced the Wolverines to the championship series against Vanderbilt, which took two of three games for the national title.
With Michigan and Texas Tech set to meet at 8 p.m., Feb. 18 at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, I asked both coaches to recall their past history. It was interesting that Bakich mentioned only the three losses in Lubbock, while Tadlock felt the need to give the Wolverines credit for what they accomplished.
“We’ve got all the respect in the world for Michigan and their program,” said Tadlock, who also won the Big 12 title in 2019. “When you look at the Big Ten and the Pac 12 and the SEC, all of these are really good baseball leagues. And what you asked about Michigan and ’19, they kind of got us at the end of the year.
“That hadn’t been said yet. They got us twice in Omaha, and those guys played at a real high level, played for the national championship that year. What their team did that year is what we aspire all of our teams to do, getting better as the year goes. Their team was a totally different team in June than it was when we played them earlier in the year. Same bodies, same guys, but playing at a way-high level.”
That Michigan team finished 50-22, and is now scattered across the minor leagues. The Wolverines are one of seven college programs to have at least one player taken in the first two rounds of the last three MLB drafts.
Senior infielder Riley Bertram, who was hit by a pitch in one CWS plate appearance against Texas Tech, is the only current Wolverine who played against the Red Raiders in Omaha.
“It’s a totally different team and there are a few guys who were on the team in 2019,” said Bakich, whose Zoom background was titled “Onward to Omaha” with photos of that team. “Pretty much all the seniors who were freshmen that year are seniors this year. There are a few more on the pitching side (such as closer Willie Weiss).
“Yeah, the guys that tasted it, they want to do whatever it takes to go every year. But every year’s a new team, and even if you have everybody back, they’ve had another birthday, they evolve and they’re different. So, we’re looking forward to what this team is all about.”
All-Big Ten first team second baseman Ted Burton and second team all-conference pitcher Cameron Weston are accomplished juniors.
Burton led the Wolverines (27-19 in 2020) in batting average (.342), slugging percentage (.667) and on-base percentage (.434) with seven homers and 28 RBI.
Weston was 7-4, leading the staff in wins and with a 2.81 ERA and 83.1 innings, finishing with 69 strikeouts and 29 walks.
“With the draft pushed back,” said Bakich, “they were draft-eligible sophomores last year. Both had great years as sophomores and could’ve been picked, but elected to come back for their junior year, which is great.
“Beside their physical talent, just their experience and their leadership, their know-how, just the way they embrace some of the younger guys, all the intangibles are really what stick out. They’ve really done a good job of bringing some other guys along as well.
“If we opened up tomorrow, the youngest guy on the field would probably be a junior. So, it’ll be a lot of the same faces from last year with a couple of grad transfers sprinkled in. It is going to be a little bit more of an older team, and hopefully that bodes well.”
Now they all get to grow from facing top teams just as Michigan did in Arizona in 2020, where it beat Vanderbilt in a re-match, and in Lubbock three years ago.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Bakich. “We know we’re going to get punched in the face, and we embrace that. One of the best things we did in 2019 was go get absolutely taken behind the woodshed by the Red Raiders in Lubbock in three games, when they beat us by an average of two touchdowns. It was awesome for our team even though it was awful at the time. We learned so much about how you need to improve.
Asked what his team learned in those defeats, Bakich said, “Yeah, how to hit a 100 mph fastball with a 90 mph slider (smiling). That’s pretty much the biggest lessons we had to take away from playing Texas Tech. They’ve got a stable of arms that all throw 100, it seems like.”
Michigan is the only team from the North in a field that includes Arizona, Auburn, Kansas State and Oklahoma. The Wolverines get KSU Feb. 19 and the Sooners Feb. 20 before playing a scheduled game Feb. 21 with University of Texas-Arlington.
“So, I think all these coaches know all these games are going to be hard fought,” said Bakich. “There’s nothing that’s going to come easy, but it’s just such a good growth opportunity because everyone’s playing in the fall. And now you’re trying to figure out roles early in the season, and you get to stack up against the very best in the country.
“I know our players are looking forward to playing in the stadium (which hosted the 2020 World Series won by the Los Angeles Dodgers), but the coaches are really looking forward to what it means after this weekend and after some of these great teams are playing over the season.”
Texas Tech made it to the College World Series in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
“Tim has sustained a very high level of success,” said Bakich. “It’s one thing to have an Omaha team and get there once, and another thing to have an Omaha program and go most years. All the coaches look at Texas Tech, and see the sustained, consistent, high-level success year after year.
“So, as a young coach looking around the country, that’s one of the programs you look at and try to figure out how they’re doing it.”