ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For the first time in 57 years, Michigan baseball will take the field Tuesday with a chance to win a national championship.
The Wolverines have won their first four games at the College World Series and now must beat No. 2 Vanderbilt once more to clinch the title.
If they want to avoid a decisive Game 3, they'll need to get past dominant starting pitcher Kumar Rocker.
Rocker has been one of the best pitchers in college baseball this month, highlighted by a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke in which he allowed just two walks and a hit batter.
In three June starts, Rocker has allowed two runs on 12 hits and three walks while striking out 33 batters in 21.2 innings.
Michigan's starting pitching situation is less clear, though coach Erik Bakich certainly has plenty of options.
Since getting to Omaha 10 days ago, the Wolverines have only used three pitchers to get through four games: starters Tommy Henry, Karl Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell.
Kauffmann started the first and third games, both against Texas Tech, while Henry shut down Florida State and Vanderbilt in between. Criswell closed out both Texas Tech games and got the final two outs Monday night.
Thanks to Henry getting the first 25 outs of the game, Bakich's bullpen is completely rested, and Criswell could also be an option to start Game 2. He needed only nine pitches to polish off Monday's win.
Kauffmann turned in a gutsy performance Friday against Texas Tech, but it was clear he didn't have his best stuff on only five days of rest. He could be an option in a pinch Tuesday, but Bakich would probably rather not go that route.
Whether it's Criswell, Kauffmann, the bullpen or some combination of the three, it will be a challenge to contain Vanderbilt's offense for a second straight game.
The Commodores managed just seven hits and one walk in Game 1, including a home run from No. 4 overall MLB draft pick J.J. Bleday and a double from Pat DeMarco.
It was a quiet night for recent MLB draftees Philip Clarke, Ethan Paul and Stephen Scott. They finished a combined 2-for-12 with two singles and four strikeouts.
Michigan's pitching staff will look to avoid letting that trio get back on track behind one of the best leadoff combinations in the country: Austin Martin and Bleday.
Every player in Michigan's lineup had at least one hit in the first game of the series, led by Jack Blomgren's three knocks and a pair each from Jordan Brewer, Blake Nelson and Joe Donovan.
One of Donovan's hits was a solo blast that gave Michigan its seventh and final run.
Jimmy Kerr finished 1-for-5 on the night, but that one was the eventual game-winner. With Vanderbilt charging back to turn a four-run deficit into a 4-3 game, Kerr gave the Wolverines more breathing room with a two-run blast to right field on an 0-2 pitch.
It was his seventh home run of the NCAA Tournament and third of the College World Series.
Ako Thomas, an All-Big Ten First Team selection at second base, is known for his glove, but he's been phenomenal at the plate this CWS. Thomas has one hit in all four games and has drawn a total of six walks.
That means the top of Michigan's order has come up with Thomas on base 10 times in the first four games, a valuable commodity at the bottom of the lineup.
If Michigan can find a way to win Tuesday, it will finish a perfect 5-0 in the CWS and 10-2 since being one of the last four teams to make the NCAA Tournament.
This run began with Michigan beating No. 22 Creighton twice and Cincinnati once to win the Corvallis Regional hosted by defending national champion Oregon State.
Michigan then played a three-game series at No. 1 UCLA, winning Game 3 after a gut-wrenching 12-inning loss in Game 2.
Even though every opponent but Cincinnati -- and perhaps Florida State -- was seeded higher than Michigan in the tournament, the Wolverines have looked like the best team on the field.
It's Michigan's first trip to the College World Series since 1984. One more win would give the program its first championship since 1962.
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