OMAHA, Neb. — From the moment Karl Kauffmann saw Tommy Henry onto the bus Monday afternoon, he knew what was coming.
“He was just very locked in,” Kauffmann said. “Pretty quiet. He’s just Tommy. He’s quiet and just goes about his business and you know, basically, exactly, what you’re going to get from him.”
Kauffmann knows Henry better than anyone on the Michigan baseball team. They have played together since middle school, and now – selected within three picks of each other in this year’s MLB draft – they make up the two-headed monster atop the Wolverines’ starting rotation.
But Kauffman did not know what was going on inside Henry’s head.
“I think I was pretty grumpy on the way here, to be honest,” Henry said after he pitched a three-hit shutout to lift U-M past Florida State, 2-0, in the College World Series. “And that probably helped lock me in. Sometimes, I think I’m too nice and Karl tells me to go be a jerk out there.”
Henry couldn’t pinpoint why he was grumpy, but the junior left-hander and could admit that nerves were a part of it.
“When I was out there for that first batter, I’m not going to lie, my knees were shaky,” he said. “It was the most people I played in front of before. So it just took a little bit to get used to, and once you take that deep breath and get back to the basics, it’s the same game we’ve played since we were three years old.”
And once Henry took that deep breath – practicing some of the mental exercises that pitching coach Chris Fetter began implementing with the pitching staff this year – he became close to unhittable.
U-M’s underdog run through the College World Series picked up more momentum as Henry blanked Florida State. He struck out 10 batters, walked none and pitched the Wolverines within one win of the College World Series finals.
“In the biggest game in Michigan baseball history in a long, long time, we got the best pitching performance of Tommy Henry’s career,” head coach Erik Bakich said. “He was the entire story line tonight. We needed a strong performance, and he gave us something magical tonight.
“Tommy was just – I don’t even know if there’s an adjective to describe how good he was – but he was better than that.”
Henry, from Portage Northern and selected by the Diamondbacks with the No. 74 overall pick in this year’s draft, was outstanding. With premium command of both sides of the plate and a change-up that allowed his lower-90 mph fastball to play up in a big way, Henry nearly single-handedly beat the Seminoles.
With the win, U-M awaits the winner of FSU-Texas Tech on Friday afternoon (1 p.m., ESPN). In their first College World Series appearance in 35 years, they are one win away from the best-of-three finals, and have breathing room: They could lose on Friday and still advance, given the double-elimination nature of the series.
Henry was shaky in the bottom of the first inning, allowing a lead-off double and misfiring throughout the frame, but stranded that double and began a stretch of retiring 12 straight batters until he hit the leadoff batter in the fifth. He did the same in the sixth, but each time pitched around damage with ease.
“It just took a little bit to get used to, and once you take that deep breath and get back to the basics, it’s the same game we’ve played since we were three years old,” he said.
Henry was backed by a first-inning home run from Jesse Franklin, his 13th of the season, a bomb into the right field seats accentuated by a bat flip. Then, in the fifth, Franklin singled to right field on a hit-and-run, advancing Jordan Nwogu to third base.
The hit will forever be remembered as the time Nwogu went viral, face-planting on a head-first slide with a nice shiner above his right eye to show for it, but Jimmy Kerr’s RBI single two batters later was equally as important.
Kerr ripped an opposite-field single off the Seminoles shortstop and into shallow left-center field. It was his third RBI of the College World Series – all have come with two outs.
“We’re just bringing our best to the field every single day,” Kerr said. “At this time, we’re just playing in such a groove that it doesn’t really matter who’s playing out there, we’re going to bring our best stuff every day. We have so much trust in each other and know we’re going to bring a quality team to the field.”
Kerr is a third-generation U-M player. Both his father, Derek, and grandfather, John, played on previous U-M teams that advanced to Omaha.
And he has been well-versed on that history: Entering Monday night’s game, U-M was 1-7 all-time against FSU. Did Kerr know when that win came?
“I heard it was in 1962 in the College World Series,” he said. “The last time we beat Florida State.”
That year, the Wolverines won their second and last national championship.
With Henry’s pitching – and Kauffmann to likely follow on Friday afternoon – and Kerr’s clutch hitting, they are closer to their third than ever before.
“Pure joy,” Henry said. “I mean, it didn’t matter what role you played in the game. I’m sure everyone was feeling the exact same way. You know, we just show up to the field one day at a time, just trying to win games for each other, for the block ‘M,’ for the eight letters on our chest.
“So whether you were in the bunker all game or you hit a home run the second at-bat of the game, everyone is feeling that pure joy just because it’s a special team, we’re playing for each other and we’re playing for the block ‘M’ on our hat. So, we’re all just pumped up that we get to be here for a few more days to play another baseball game.”