Many people have debated whether Michigan deserves a hosting nod. Critics point to their 1-4 record against the RPI top 64. The weak schedule has been a thorn in the Wolverines' side for years now. Their location in the North means they have to play the first month of the season on the road. While most of the good teams are located in the South and West, Michigan can't afford to overload its schedule on these teams to improve its schedule. Playing on the road for a month at a time is difficult enough. That's why the Wolverines have consistently played lower-class Southern teams in advance of the Big Ten campaign.
Again, Michigan can't be faulted for its Big Ten schedule. The league is very much a mid-major in baseball, routinely sending only one or two teams to the NCAA Tournament (Michigan is the lone representative in 2008). But, while basketball teams like Memphis and Gonzaga can compensate for weak conferences by scheduling tough opponents early in the year, the poor Northern weather forbids Michigan from doing the same. Playing multiple tough opponents on the road would do nothing to help our reputation. Their needs to be a good balance of home and road competition for that tactic to work. Or else, our team would be deflated from traveling thousands of miles down to Arizona or Florida to play a top-ranked squad.
Also, while many of these top warm-weather programs can schedule mid-week games against good competition, Michigan is forced to pick among the nearby MAC schools for its games. Obviously, it's tough to find a team to travel far for a Wednesday afternoon game with classes going on. Whereas it's too difficult to find tough nearby competition for warm-weather schools.
That was a bit of a rant, but I'm trying to put into perspective the odds that the Michigan baseball squad goes up against. Now, while some critics have questioned the hosting nod, there are others that have been confident for awhile that the Wolverines would get the regional.
Even before the season began, the NCAA was leaning towards helping the Northern and Midwestern schools. It established a uniform start date for games as February 22. Before 2008, many warm-weather schools got a head-start because of the balmy January and February climate. Schools like Michigan would then come down to start its season during its Spring Break and already be behind 20 games.
With that rule change in place, there were also rumors that the NCAA wanted to find a northern school to host. When Michigan began romping through the Big Ten, I believe the NCAA selection committee was quite happy. With a Big Ten record 26 wins and 45 overall, it was easy to pick Michigan as a host.
I'm also leaving out perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle: The Fred Wilpon Complex and Ray Fisher Stadium. Michigan's newest athletic achievement comes courtesy of New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. The Wolverines' recent success no doubt provided the motivation to rebuild the venerable stadium. With the new complex and added amenities, the NCAA was given even more reason to award a regional to Michigan. I went to almost every home game this year, and I can say, the stadium looks great. There are new concession stands, bathrooms, luxury boxes, press boxes, chairback seats, indoor hitting facilities, and a so-called Brick Monster in leftfield. The wall in leftfield is meant to give the stadium a bit of character, though I feel it looks out of place so far. Power-hitting righty Zach Putnam might agree with me as well.
As the #2 seed, the Wolverines will play Kentucky on Friday. The Wolverines are loaded on offense. Just take a quick glance at this lineup
SS Jason Christian .321/.428/.554
2B Leif Mahler .300/.378/.414
1B Nate Recknagel .372/.466/.758
P/DH Zach Putnam .309/.398/.543
3B Adam Abraham .342/.411/.525
CF Kevin Cislo .363/.471/.435
LF Derek VanBuskirk .303/.391/.505
C Chris Berset .245/.339/.300
RF Ryan LaMarre .290/.354/.374
Coach Rich Maloney will also slide Recknagel to catcher and play Mike Dufek (.317/.355/.465) at 1B. He may also play Alan Oaks (.444 SLG) over LaMarre to add more power.
The top 7 spots in the order are all difficult outs, especially Recknagel. Take another look at that slugging %. With 23 HR, Recknagel set the school's single-season record. He needs 3 more to tie Casey Close for the Michigan career record of 46. However, if you add his five HR at Oakland in his freshman year, Recknagel would have 48.
There is little doubt the offense can put runs on the board, especially in their home park. My fears lie in the pitching. Michigan has 3 tremendous arms, two starting and one in the pen.
Chris Fetter leads the team in ERA (2.39), innings (86.2), strikeouts (75), batting average against (.205), and complete games (4). At 6'8" 230, the big righty used his intimidating presence and solid command to amass a 10-1 mark. In fact, he tends to be a softer thrower than teammate and Big 10 Pitcher of the Year Zach Putnam.
Putnam, 6'2" 215, has long been one of the state's top players. Drafted by the Tigers out of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Putnam chose to attend Michigan. He has been the school's top two-way player ever since. He hit a career-high 9 HR this year, but also tallied a 2.64 ERA with an 8-0 record.
Those two will start the first two games of the regional. Coming out of the pen will be Michael Powers. He was named Big Ten Tournament MVP after saving all 3 games last weekend. His 26 appearances were 8 more than any other pitcher on the team. Surprisingly, he was third on the team in innings pitched because Maloney couldn't settle on a solid rotation.
And, that question mark behind Putnam and Fetter will be the biggest test of the weekend. The Wolverines need a 3rd and 4th starter to step up for Sunday and possibly Monday. Right now, I imagine those two starts would go to Eric Katzmann or Kolby Wood. However, both have K/BB ratios hovering around 1/1. Last year's #3, Mike Wilson, has fallen to a 8.73 ERA in 9 starts and can no longer be trusted in close games. Playing teams like Kentucky and Arizona, who both totaled more than 38 victories playing in the SEC and Pac-10, it will be imperative to stay in the game early. If we get down 3 or 4 runs quickly, that may take our home crowd out of the game and force the back of our bullpen to pitch.
I'm not going to pretend to analyze Arizona and Kentucky. I don't know nearly enough about college baseball outside the Big 10 to make that up. All I know is those teams have plenty of experience and talent. For a little perspective, Arizona split its season series with Arizona St. while Michigan lost twice to the Sun Devils. But, that was back in February and neither Putnam or Fetter pitched. Michigan has been on a roll lately, tearing through the conference. I predict a couple low-scoring pitching duels Friday and Saturday before Michigan's bats have to come alive for the (please, please) championship on Sunday.