Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich reacts after his team lost the national championship game to Vanderbilt, 8-2, June 26, 2019 in Omaha, Neb. Anthony Fenech, Detroit Free Press
Rick Heller has been entrenched in the Big Ten Conference’s baseball fight for six seasons, constantly clamoring for legitimacy among the sport’s perceived giants.
The league’s other coaches are right there with Iowa’s head man. From resource discrepancies to overall respect, it’s a consistent uphill battle.
In a rare script flip, the conference grabbed college baseball’s spotlight last week as Michigan made its magical run from the NCAA Tournament bubble to the runner-up spot in the College World Series. As just the conference’s second representative to reach Omaha, Nebraska, in the last 35 years, the Wolverines came up one win short of the Big Ten’s first title since 1966.
No doubt, everyone across the league beamed with admiration. Heller, like many who either coach, cover or follow Big Ten baseball, hopes the trickle-down effect helps mitigate some of the disrespect and negativity associated with the conference’s product.
“The information that we’ve been giving to recruits about the fact that you don’t have to go to those other places (like the SEC, ACC or other more revered baseball conferences) to get there and have a chance to win a national championship, you can do it right here," Heller said last week. "Obviously, Michigan has proven that."
"There’s hopefully some residual (effects), because sometimes it takes kids being able to see that on TV themselves and not just hear it. There have been other great stories in the last four or five years, with teams and the runs they’ve made (out of the Big Ten). But this one on the biggest stage of all — and those kids being able to see Michigan competing for a national championship and be one game from winning it — you hope that there’s some carryover for everyone in our league. The better players in the Midwest and up north don’t have to leave to have a chance to go play in Omaha. That’s the truth. And that’s what all of us are selling to the kids that we’re recruiting.”
What makes this run the most relatable is Michigan’s circuitous route to Omaha. Yes, the Wolverines carried lofty expectations, evident by their No. 17 ranking in D1Baseball’s preseason poll. But like many of its Big Ten peers, Michigan had countless moments of mediocrity before catching fire in June.
The Wolverines sat atop the league at 14-3 entering their final two conference series. But questions lingered, because Michigan benefited from a favorable draw in the league's unbalanced schedule. Those concerns only grew after the Wolverines dropped series to at-large teams Indiana and Nebraska to end the regular season. More than once throughout May, NCAA Tournament projections had Heller’s squad and Michigan in similar spots.
The Ann Arbor unit trudged to Omaha for the Big Ten Tournament with its regional hopes on life support, especially after a first-round loss to Ohio State dropped Michigan to the loser’s bracket.
Predicting this group would return to the same field three weeks later for the College World Series would’ve seemed ridiculous. Such absurdity grew a day later, with Michigan down to its last strike in an elimination game versus Illinois.
But the Wolverines rallied with a walk-off win off heralded Illini closer Garrett Acton. Two more Big Ten Tournament wins were enough to secure an at-large bid — barely. Michigan finished as the second-to-last team in the field before ripping off an incredible June.
“I don’t think there’s any team in the conference that looks at Michigan and says this team was head and shoulders above everyone else,” said Ten Innings’ Chris Webb, who’s been the authority on Big Ten baseball for several years. “What it does is it makes people think that you don’t have to have the perfect season to be where Michigan is. You’ve got weather some blows and put yourself in consideration for (a magical postseason run) and then have at least two frontline guys to get you through the first weekends in June.
“But whether you’re Iowa, Purdue, Illinois — and seeing where Michigan is — you’re not that far from where they are.”
On the micro level, that’s the message Heller wants his Hawkeyes to understand. Extraordinary things can happen when teams play their best baseball at the end of the year. It’s not just coachspeak or frivolous motivation.
Michigan’s run provides a tangible, and relatable, example
“We’ll use that as a motivator for our club to be better and finish things off like we weren’t able to do this year,” Heller said. “I think that verifies that with our team and lots of teams in our league. There are probably four or five teams in our league thinking the same thing.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.