It has been a long time since a team from the Big Ten has appeared in or won the College World Series. Ohio State did both when it won in 1966 against Oklahoma State, so when Michigan reached the championship series last week it made a lot of headlines around the country.
Two of the players on this year’s Michigan team who finished as the runner-up after dropping game three in the three-game series to Vanderbilt, 8-2, on June 26 are local products. One saw limited action and the other one is being redshirted. Both just finished their second year on the team.
Blake Beers from Manhattan Beach pitched in the Big Ten Tournament that was held in Omaha and also pitched in the NCAA Regionals in Corvallis, Oregon where Michigan went 3-1 with two wins over Creighton and one over Cincinnati.
Beers, who played at Loyola High School, was used primarily in a relief role as a sophomore.
“The 2019 season was incredible,” Beers said. “It was a great season and a great run through the postseason. I think we proved we can play with and beat these bigger named baseball programs and I think we showed that Michigan is here and here to stay.”
He made 22 appearances during the season finishing with a 1-1 record and a 6.04 ERA. He had 22 strikeouts and 10 walks in 22.1 innings.
Their head coach Erik Bakich has taught them to avoid excuses for being a cold weather team that cannot compete. Even when the temperature dips down and other teams are staying indoors, Bakich has his players get out in the cold and do as much as they can to acclimate to the weather.
“I think we also showed that you don’t have to be a warm climate school to be competitive,” Beers said.
Michigan finished second in the Big Ten behind Indiana in the regular season. In the Big Ten Tournament, which was held on the same field where the College World Series is played, they had a come-from-behind win against Illinois. It kept their postseason hopes alive with a much needed 5-4 victory in the second game of that tournament.
Beers recorded his first save of the season in the tournament in a win against Nebraska, 18-8, on May 25 after pitching three innings.
Ohio State went on to win the Big Ten Tournament.
The Illinois game was a difference-maker as they were one of the four last teams to get into the College World Series Tournament. It was their first appearance since 1984.
After winning the NCAA Regional in Corvallis against Creighton, they faced No. 1 seeded UCLA on its home field in the NCAA Super Regional and escaped with a series win and a trip to Omaha.
“Omaha was an amazing experience and a huge step forward for baseball in the Midwest,” Danny Zimmerman said. “Beating UCLA was also special because they’re so close to home and they were the No. 1 seed.”
Zimmerman played at Redondo Union and played his freshman year at Michigan but was held out of action this year. He will return next season. He was able to see the championship series against Vanderbilt.
While the team will be losing their top two starters on the mound and other key position players, they both see Michigan with enough talent to make a return visit to the College World Series. Maybe the next time they can win it all.
“We hope to be back in Omaha next year,” Zimmerman said. “We've got a really good group of guys coming back to Michigan and Omaha is definitely a possibility."
The tournament lifted their spirits and with their head coach returning, it should only get better in Ann Arbor in the days and years ahead.
"Omaha is a state of mind,” Bakich said. “You can say, 'You've got to give Omaha effort.' Now, everyone in our program will know what that means.”
Michigan finished with a 50-22 record overall, their most wins since 1987. They were 9-4 in the NCAA Tournament, their first appearance since 1984.
They won the College World Series twice. Their first title came in 1953 against Texas and their second championship came in 1961 against Santa Clara. This was their third appearance in the championship and the first time they came in second.
“My teammates and I are excited to get back to Ann Arbor after this summer to continue to build our program and get to work with our new team,” Beers said. “Go Blue!”
This year’s team is called No. 153 and next season will be 154. Baseball has been played a long time in Ann Arbor and they are one of the top programs of all-time even with their absence from the College World Series up to this year.
Bakich, who is in his seventh year as head coach, helped build the Vanderbilt program they lost to under head coach Tim Corbin. He recruited talented Major League Baseball pitcher David Price when he was there. Price went on to win the World Series with Boston last year.
He is slowly changing the way baseball is played in the Midwest.
"I'm just so proud of our guys,” Bakich said. “Nobody feels good right now, but these guys are going to be celebrated every chance there is to celebrate a Michigan baseball team in the future. They're going to talk about Team 153 as the best team in the modern era and the third-best team in 153 years (behind the 1953 and 1962 national champs). That's pretty special.”
“I don't think our players seven years ago (when Bakich arrived) firmly believed that doing this was something that could be in store for them. It was something more that you watched on TV and fantasized about how cool it would be.
"Now, it's a reality for our program. Now that you taste this, you want to be back every year, and you find ways to get better and grow the program to find your way back here."
Bakich is this year’s 2019 National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Coach of the Year.