Can Michigan baseball also defy the odds?
Earlier this week, the St. Louis Blues defied the odds.
On January 3, they had the worst record in the NHL, and by logic, should’ve been wiped out from the Stanley Cup playoff picture.
However, as we all know now, the Blues turned their fortunes around and made the postseason. St. Louis then of course made its first Stanley Cup Final in 49 years, and on Wednesday the Blues crushed Boston in Game 7 to hoist their first Cup ever and send their long-suffering fans into a state of elation that I’m sure is still there today.
Now another squad will try to defy the odds seven hours up the road from The Gateway to the West. That would be the Michigan Wolverines baseball team that is playing in its first College World Series in 35 years.
In case you need a reminder of how long ago that was, that was the last time the Tigers won the World Series and Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin was on the Wolverines roster. It also makes me feel ancient as I was born that same year a few months before the CWS. Ugh. That really hurts.
Back then, Michigan was the king of the Big Ten, making back to back trips to Omaha in 1983 and ’84 with another future Red, Chris Sabo, leading the charge in ’83. The Wolverines fought their way to Nebraska in ’84 by winning the Mideast Regional that was hosted by Central Michigan.
Once it got to Omaha, though, U of M was taken down by eventual national champion Cal State-Fullerton in its first game and then eliminated by New Orleans in the loser’s bracket.
Back then, it was tough enough for northern schools to make it to the CWS, even quality teams like the Wolverines, but nowadays it’s even harder as Indiana is the most recent Big Ten team to make it to Omaha in 2013.
U of M definitely found that out this year. The Wolverines barely got into the NCAA tournament and was sent to Corvallis, Oregon, where defending national champ Oregon State was hosting a regional. That shouldn’t have been an easy task, but Michigan powered its way through to the Los Angeles Super Regional where it faced an even more difficult obstacle in No. 1 overall seed UCLA.
The heavily favored Bruins met their match in the Wolverines, who at that point had 50-to-1 odds of winning a national title. U of M won the opener and after dropping the second game in 12 innings with the help of five errors, the Wolverines bounced back to outlast the Bruins 4-2 and clinch its bid to Omaha to become the feel-good story of the CWS.
They might be considered a fan favorite, but Las Vegas oddsmakers certainly aren’t impressed with Michigan. U of M is considered the longshot at 15-1 to win the championship, with Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State having the best odds.
Even with what Michigan has accomplished so far, the large number of doubters shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, unlike the majority of teams in the CWS, who are usually regulars in Omaha, the Wolverines making it this far is a head scratcher.
But that might work in their favor. The pressure isn’t on them. All the other schools are baseball powerhouses, whereas U of M gets to play the “We’re just happy to be here” role.
The Wolverines probably went into Saturday’s game with Texas Tech loose and comfortable. No matter what the outcome, they’ll probably stay that way.
For the next few days, U of M will become a baseball school. Football is without a doubt the king in the area with men’s basketball and men’s hockey fighting for second, but baseball is a distant fifth or maybe sixth in Ann Arbor. Now these Wolverines have a chance to do what none of those previous sports teams did this year — bring home a national title.
The odds may not be in the Wolverines’ favor, but perhaps that’s appropriate. Nobody expected the Blues to be celebrating a Stanley Cup win a few months ago and St. Louis is in a frenzy that probably will last even after the celebration parade.
Maybe even fewer thought that freaking Toronto could win the NBA championship at the start of the season. A team from Canada, of all places, and a team named after a dinosaur, of all creatures, ended one of the best dynasties in league history.
Just imagine if you could go back in time to 1995 and tell Toronto sports fans that the Raptors would win a championship before the Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup again. You’d probably get a bunch of blank stares and disbelief, but hey, it happened and on Thursday night, Raptors fans were running amok in Jurassic Park.
Now U of M is in a similar situation. Granted, it’s not the same as winning the Cup for the first time, or giving an entire country its first major sports championship in 26 years, but it’s still something big.
The Wolverines have an opportunity to win their first national championship and also give the Big Ten its first championship since 1966. That would be something impressive.
For two months, St. Louis switched from a baseball town to a hockey town, and for two months, Toronto became a basketball city and Canada, very briefly, was a basketball nation.
Ann Arbor is now a baseball town and U of M is a baseball campus for the next few days.
That might’ve been the toughest thing for the Wolverines to achieve so far.
Now let’s see if they can beat the odds one more time.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.