Inside Vanderbilt and Michigan’s biggest Game 3 foe — the mind

OMAHA, Neb. — Late Tuesday night, OK, actually early Wednesday morning, the baseball coaching staffs of Vanderbilt and Michigan were having the exact same meeting in two different meeting rooms held in a pair of downtown hotels that are separated by only a thousand feet or so. There, the eyes were bleary, exhausted from the flickering of opponents’ game film filling those meeting rooms during the dark of night.

When the sun rose, those coaches began close inspection of the eyes of their players, looking for any indication — good or bad — that their roster of kids were ready for the task at hand later that night: winning the decisive Game 3 of the 2019 College World Series (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“I think that’s the most underrated part of the whole Omaha experience, really the whole job as a head coach, is the psychology part of it,” explained Mike Martin, the Florida State head coach who walked off the field for the final time last week. He coached 17 teams to the College World Series and experienced two others as a player and assistant coach. Twice his teams made it to the CWS finals but lost.

“You’ve been playing in the postseason for a month. You’ve been in Omaha for two weeks. And now, this is the moment your guys have always dreamed of. This is the moment that you have always dreamed of. Everyone thinks they know how they are going to handle that. But I’m telling you, until you wake up, get on that bus, and step into that dugout, you have no idea.”

Moments after Tuesday night’s Game 2, Vanderbilt and Michigan head coaches Tim Corbin and Erik Bakich firmly believed they knew exactly how their teams would feel when they saw them again Wednesday. They believed they knew precisely what the expressions would be on their players’ faces. And they weren’t worried.

“I just read their faces in the dugout and they were smiling,” Bakich said of his Wolverines, who have been almost notoriously loose throughout the CWS but were noticeably and understandably stoic in the tunnels beneath TD Ameritrade Park after being shut down by Vandy pitcher Kumar Rocker on Tuesday. “This is a bounce-back team. We’ve have so many bouts of adversity where we’ve been knocked down, that tonight doesn’t … I didn’t sense that they were totally bummed out and are going to come into tomorrow still dragging their feet.”

Corbin, Bakich’s former co-worker, boss, and forever close friend, said the same. “I don’t worry about this group. I haven’t worried about this group all year. They’re that middle child that you don’t discipline, that you don’t give a curfew to, that you don’t do anything to because they give you no reason to worry. In competition, yeah, it’s about being able to settle in and relax and play.”

It’s that relaxing part that has a tendency to sneak up on a team, and thusly their coach, when it’s Game 3 in Omaha.

“In the end, you are still dealing with teenagers,” explained former Stanford head coach Mark Marquess, who led 14 teams to Omaha and played for another. “I think about when I woke up and made that ride to Rosenblatt as a player [in 1965]. My reaction to the moment wasn’t what I expected when I woke up that day. It scared me a little because it was so different. I think that helped me handle my guys. You’ve been with them so much, some for years, that you know immediately if a guy is just a little off. And if you’re a good coach, you know what to do to get him back on track.”

Back in 2008, another legendary coach, Augie Garrido, was in the stands of Rosenblatt Stadium to watch his alma mater, uber-underdog Fresno State, take on Georgia, the heavy favorite in the championship series that had won Game 1 but blown a lead in Game 2 and was now warming up on the same field with Fresno in the hour prior to the third and deciding game.

Garrido was bothered by the fact that Georgia had chosen to take its batting practice not on the field, but in the indoor batting cages down the third-base line, something Georgia hadn’t done the entire series. Meanwhile, Fresno State’s pregame routine looked as if the players were goofing around during a fall practice, not moments before playing in the biggest baseball game of their lives.

“Look at these damn guys. It’s a beautiful thing not to be worried,” Garrido, then the Texas head coach said, laughing. He talked about his 1979 underdog Cal State Fullerton team that was beaten badly in its CWS opener but then won five straight to win the title.

He then offered up the contrast of his overwhelmingly favored Longhorns team of 2004. “We blew into the championship series and people were trying to paint us as the ’29 Yankees. And the guys, they handled it all year. Then, suddenly, they didn’t. In the first game of the championship our first baseman dropped a ball thrown right at him, and there you go. The fear of failure swept through the team and we never recovered. We lost two games and lost the championship.”

Garrido sighed. “No way in hell I saw that coming. Not until it was too late to fix it.” Then he pointed back to the field. “These Georgia guys, they don’t see it coming, either. But I can. They are screwed.”

A few hours later, Fresno State was celebrating its national title. Months later, Georgia head coach David Perno admitted that he had sensed something completely different among his players as they boarded the bus to the stadium but didn’t do enough to try and normalize the moment, and by reaction, his Bulldogs.

“To me, that’s the key, to stick to your routine and keep the moments as small as possible,” Bakich said after his team won Game 1 in decisive fashion. “We all know what is on the line in this next game, but if we spend too much time thinking about that, then we get off course of our routine, our mindset, and then we’re not us. Keep the moments small, focus on baseball, and let the big stuff happen when it does.”

Bakich has said that he took his hands off the wheel of “Team 153” a month ago, when they blew a chance to clinch the Corvallis Regional and instead had to play a second game, this time an elimination game, against Creighton. He says that since then, he has watched the team lead itself from the field, his goal being to put them in the best position to keep self-driving to a title.

Corbin’s plan to stick to the routine means addressing the players in the team meeting and watching them as they board the bus for TD Ameritrade on Wednesday afternoon, but then not saying another word that isn’t related to the X’s and O’s of coaching. “Once they get on that bus, that’s theirs. Theirs to enjoy. I never want to get in their way.

“They will do the best job they can to stay consistent with what they’ve done during the course of the year. I understand the situation. They understand the situation. Erik and his team does, too. But they will put themselves in a position to compete well tomorrow. I have no doubt about that.”

Said Bakich of the Game 2 loss: “They know that once their head hits the pillow tonight, this one is over. Are you kidding me? You’ve got a chance to play again tomorrow.”

Now, as College World Series history has taught us, we as observers should have our eyes and sports psychology sensors wide open to see exactly who shows up to play and in what frame of mind.

And whether they’ll admit it or not, so will the two head coaches.

“Everyone thinks they know how it’s going to be until they really know how it is,” Martin said. “And you never know that until you are standing right there in it.”

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