Rainer Sabin, Detroit Free Press Published 8:04 p.m. ET June 12, 2020 | Updated 9:45 p.m. ET June 12, 2020
Detroit Tigers selected 5 more players Thursday, Day 2 of 2020 MLB draft, after taking Spencer Torkelson No. 1 overall Wednesday. A look at the class. Wochit
No player better embodies Michigan’s sudden, unexpected rise in college baseball than Jordan Nwogu, the man stationed in its outfield the past three seasons.
The Ann Arbor native transformed from walk-on to All-Big Ten leadoff hitter to third-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in the MLB draft on Thursday in a metamorphosis that still stuns those who witnessed it up close.
“Just to see him grow and improve and get better, I just couldn’t be more proud,” Wolverines coach Erik Bakich said.
Nwogu’s journey from obscurity to prominence traced the same path as the team’s. After Michigan defied expectations and made a surprising run to the College World Series championship in 2019, Bakich’s program captured the attention at the top level of the sport.
Michigan’s Jordan Nwogu scores against Florida State on a single by Jimmy Kerr in the fifth inning of an NCAA College World Series baseball game in Omaha, Neb., Monday, June 17, 2019. (Photo: Nati Harnik, AP)
Last fall, word leaked that Wolverines pitching coach Chris Fetter interviewed with the Yankees. Day 2 of the MLB draft offered more evidence of Michigan’s clout.
Three other Wolverines were picked Thursday during an abbreviated iteration of the draft: pitcher Jeff Criswell (Athletics, second round), outfielder Jesse Franklin (Braves, third) and shortstop Jack Blomgren (Rockies, fifth). It was the first time since 1968 that Michigan had so many players chosen that high.
“Their skill set was magnified as we went through the postseason where there were less and less teams on display … and more people watching,” Bakich said. “It just goes to show you when you’re on teams that have success, more people are interested in getting players from those teams. There are more opportunities to watch them, see them and evaluate them.”
The residual effect of Michigan’s College World Series run goes beyond that. With the season canceled after just 15 games because of the coronavirus pandemic, the memories of that runner-up finish lingered far longer than they would have under normal circumstances.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich greets Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin prior to Game 3 of the championship series of the 2019 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (Photo: Bruce Thorson, USA TODAY Sports)
Consequently, the legacy of the 2019 team has the potential to reshape Bakich’s Wolverines for years to come.
“Kind of putting Michigan baseball back on the map,” Nwogu said. “That’s the coolest part.”
Since he took charge of the program eight years ago, Bakich has worked toward that end, swimming against the tides of a sport dominated by strongholds in the warmer regions of the country, particularly the Southeast. In Ann Arbor, Bakich offered a home for hungry players with roots above the Mason-Dixon line, including each of the four selected Thursday.
Michigan designated hitter Jordan Nwogu gets ready for the start of the game against Texas Tech against Texas Tech in the College World Series game on Saturday, June 15, 2019, in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo: Steven Branscombe USA TODAY Sports)
“I think people are starting to realize you don’t have to go down South to get drafted or go to the College World Series or accomplish whatever goal that you have,” said Criswell, who is from Portage.
As Bakich explained, perceptions have changed and nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility.
“Seeing is believing,” he said. “For us, believing is seeing. There is nothing that we can’t accomplish. There is nothing we can’t do … There is nothing holding us back. There is nothing that is going to stop us.”
Instead, during a year when baseball on the field was taken away, the Wolverines have managed to stay relevant and position themselves for an even brighter future.
Look no further than the draft, which offered more affirmation Bakich’s program has achieved rarefied status.
“I don’t think there is a more rewarding thing than seeing or hearing your name called,” Nwogu said.
For Nwogu, it was a fitting postscript to a college career no one could have foreseen — much like the rapid ascent of the Michigan team that soared right along with him.
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