Dave at the outstanding SB Nation Michigan Wolverines blog Maize n Brew kindly consented to do a Q&A with me so that the fans of both Kentucky and Michigan could get to know their opponent better.
As you know, I follow baseball a little, but like many UK fans, this whole idea of being competitive in SEC baseball is a novelty. We have suffered roughly 90 years of futility in the 104 or so years we have been playing baseball at UK, and having three outstanding teams back to back to back is a new experience for the Blue and White. But I am very excited about our opportunity to play in the Ann Arbor regional in the NCAA tournament, or second shot at an NCAA regional in 3 years.
More after the Q&A. Now, I give you Maize n Brew Dave:
[ASoB]: Michigan is known as one of the Great Powers of college football. How big is baseball in Ann Arbor?
[MnB]: I know it's hard to think back that far, but Michigan used to be a perennial baseball power. Jim Abbott. Barry Larkin. Scott Kamieniecki. Hal Morris. Chris Sabo. Steve Howe. A decade (well not a decade) of sanctions put Michigan in a hole it finally climbed out of a few years ago. The last three year's Michigan's rise to prominence, at least among northern baseball schools, has re-vitalized the baseball fan base in Ann Arbor. Ray Fisher Stadium got a complete overhaul and Michigan's facilities can compete with any school south of the Mason-Dixon, if not exceed them. The new Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex is awesome. Unfortunately, recent photos of the complex aren't readily available so you'll have to check out the construction photos from March. But they'll give you a great idea of how seriously Michigan is taking its baseball program.
The team's success hasn't gone unnoticed by the school or its fans. Attendance continues to improve, recruits that would normally flee to the south are staying put, and Michigan is pumping all kinds of money into the program. Baseball will never surpass Football or Hockey in terms of fan support, but the teams sustained success is turning Ann Arbor into a baseball town.
[ASoB]: Both Michigan and Kentucky have both played similar levels of competition, 34th and 39th in strength of schedule respectively, and are very close in the psuedo-RPI's that I have seen. How much advantage do you think hosting the regional gives to the Wolverines?
[MnB]: Major advantage. Anytime you get the last at-bat it's a big deal. The other thing is this is the first time since 1986 that Michigan gets to host a regional, but they're not even the No. 1 seed in their regional. So Michigan gets to sit in their own locker room and feel like they've been slighted. Michigan won its conference, won its tournament, and still didn't get a one seed. Now they get to be pissed off and sleep in their own beds. The other thing is, if the weather dips even a tad, it's a huge advantage to the northern team that used to it.
[ASoB]: Kentucky had a great out of conference record, but got beat up in the powerful SEC. Do you think playing in a significantly less difficult conference but playing a similarly tough overall schedule as Michigan did this year is an advantage, disadvantage, or neither?
[MnB]: I don't think the schedule helps either team. Kentucky dropped as many games to tournament teams as Michigan did. The only difference is Michigan played their tournament teams early in the season and Kentucky got them during their conference schedule.
(Rant on) I think the SEC's 9 team selections are a little ridiculous, southern speed be damned. At least one of those spots, not Kentucky's obviously, should've gone to Purdue. (rant off)
The schedules are pretty even. Their play is pretty even. So I don't think either schedule benefits either team.
[ASoB]: Who is Michigan's best player, and why?
[MnB]: You've got two obvious answers: senior 1B Nate Recknagel or and junior RHP Zach Putnam. Recknagel was the Big Ten's Player of the Year and Putnam was its pitcher of the year. Recknagel's simply a monster, 23 dingers, 68 RBI, and a .372 BA. He was the best hitter in the Big Ten, everyone knew it, and he still went bananas this season. He's protected by two All Big Ten hitters in Adam Abraham and Zach Putnam both of whom have power and drove in over 40 runs.
Option two: Putnam pitched 71 innings with a WHIP just around 1.10, and a K per inning average. Putnam is a fly-ball pitcher who isn't afraid to challenge hitters. He went 7-0 for a reason. He's also pitching white hot, winning his last 6 starts. Throw in the added bonus that he hit over .300, drove in a pile of runs, and can hit for power and he's easily the team's best athlete if not player.
Honestly though, Michigan's best player may well be Chris Fetter. The right hander has compiled a 10-1 record and tossed 4 complete games. His one loss? A complete game, 1 earned run loss. Not too bad. He induced far more ground balls than Putnam, has a comparable K/BB ratio (75/25) and a better opposing batting average than Putnam. Pitching wins in the post season, so I'd say pick between Putnam and Fetter.
[ASoB]: Kentucky only averages about 2000 fans/home game. In fact, UK games were better attended on the road than at home this year. What is Michigan's attendance like?
[MnB]: Being located in Chicago it's tough for me to comment on the regular attendance at the games, but everyone I've talked has told me there's been a noticeable uptick in attendance over the last two years. However, Kentucky and Michigan's home attendance numbers sound comparable. Michigan's attendance is generally pretty low at the start of the season because it's so damn cold, and honestly there's nothing worse than freezing your ass off at a baseball game in April. However, as the sun starts to peek out from behind the May clouds, Michigan's been in the 2000-2500 a game range in terms of attendance. When the weather dips, well, you're lucky to see 800 people. As the season's gone on and word's gotten out that this is a good team to watch, people are making their way to the Fish.
People will come, Ray
[ASoB]: Who the Michigan/UK game, by what score, and what facet of the game is the difference-maker?
[MnB]: I'm looking at this match-up and seeing a 6-4 or 6-5 game. Because it looks like Kentucky's got some power (4 guys in the top 12 in conference BA), I wouldn't be surprised to see Fetter on the mound to start the round robin. I am a little concerned that Michigan's bats were quieter than usual in the clincher against Purdue. My guess is Kentucky races to a 2-0 lead in the second. Michigan tacks on a run in the fourth. Kentucky scores two in the fifth and Michigan plates 4 in the bottom half of the sixth with an insurance homer in the eighth. That's kind of the way it's been going for us lately, so I'll stick to the script.
Michigan takes game one 6-4.
Thanks to Dave for taking the time to swap questions and answers with us. This should really be a great game and I know 'Cat fans are excited.
You can find my answers to Dave's questions over at Maize n Brew. I hope true 'Cat baseball fans will forgive any ... er, ignorance ... that I may have demonstrated there. My status as a baseball fan is definitely a work in progress. But I did correctly call the starting pitcher for tomorrow's game, so that has to be worth something.
UPDATE Friday 30 May 2008: Game time set for 7:00 Eastern.