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May 30, 2008

Michigan's road to Omaha starts tonight

692 miles. That's the distance from Ann Arbor to Omaha. It has been the Michigan baseball team's primary goal this season. The trip to a possible World Series' berth begins today when U-M, NCAA Regional hosts, welcome Kentucky at 7:00 p.m. …

"We haven't really been shy about our desire to go to Omaha this year or our belief that we're good enough to make it," said junior pitcher Zach Putnam, a Louisville Slugger second-team All-American. "The NCAA Tournament is what we've been waiting for.

"It is do or die, but I don't think anyone is putting too much pressure on themselves. We have a lot of confidence as a team. Obviously, some great teams are here this weekend but we have the confidence that we can come out on top."

Putnam, 9-0 with a 2.64 ERA this season, will get the start tonight and will be tasked with besting the effort of Kentucky junior Chris Rusin, a Canton, Mich., native that is 6-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts.

"We know a little bit about Kentucky, but a lot of our approach is just going out and playing ball," said junior centerfielder Kevin Cislo, from Novi, Mich. "A few of us faced Chris in high school and we know he's a good pitcher and has good stuff.

"Kentucky is a good team and this isn't going to be an easy weekend for us just because we're at home. We expect a couple real close games and hopefully we come out on top."

In going 45-12 overall, including 26-5 in Big Ten play, Michigan put together as impressive a resume as possible in its bid to host a regional. Head coach Rich Maloney though it imperative his team play at home, noting that the host institution wins its regional nearly 70 percent of the time.

"It's just nice to have the opportunity to play in your home ballpark, in a venue that you know the ins and outs of," junior third baseman Adam Abraham said. "The past two years we've had to go on the road and it's not easy to go into another team's facility and try to win a tournament, win a regional. I'm sure Arizona isn't happy that they're a No. 1 seed playing on the road, but we deserved to host."

The top-seeded Wildcats - the only No. 1 seed in this year's tournament not hosting a regional - play Eastern Michigan at 2:00 p.m. today at Ray Fisher Stadium. The Wildcats have, arguably, the most talented pitching staff in the regional while Kentucky might have the best lineup. Michigan's isn't far behind, though.

"All year, we've had success at the plate," said Abraham, fourth on U-M with a .342 batting average. "We've beat up on a lot of bad pitchers, but we've put up a lot of runs on good pitchers too. At any time, our lineup can go off because one through nine there aren't any easy outs. We have a lot of power through the lineup and even our 3-4-5 hitters know how to get on base."

As a team, Michigan is hitting .315 with 72 home runs and 448 runs scored in 57 games (7.9 runs per game). The Wolverines didn't score very often during its three-game sweep of the Big Ten Tournament field May 22-24, outscoring its opposition a mere 14-5, but those type of close games could serve the Maize and Blue well this weekend.

"We had three close games and that was really good for us," said Putnam. "When you blow out a team, it doesn't prepare you for much. It's fun to have the bats going but the close games, the ones won in the bottom of the ninth, give the team a morale lift going into the postseason because you know what it takes to win in a pressure-packed situation."

A year ago, the Wolverines went into Nashville and knocked off No. 1 Vanderbilt twice to win a regional and advance to the Super Regional. This weekend the task is just as tall and the ambitions are just as high.

"There is always pressure at this time of the year to win," Abraham said. "No one wants to go home and we're going to be in front of our home crowd so there will be a little added pressure. This is the first step to realizing the goal we've been chasing after for three, four, five years, but we're all excited about it. I think this weekend will just be a lot of fun for us."

TV: Though ESPN and Big Ten Network will not broadcast the games live, MgoBlue.com will. Michigan's official Web site will stream live beginning 20 minutes before U-M's games. Fans can also follow the action through Game Tracker available on MgoBlue.com.

Notes: Putnam was one of three Wolverines named to the Louisville Slugger All-American second team on Thursday, joining senior first baseman Nate Recknagel and redshirt junior pitcher Chris Fetter … Michigan is hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time since 1986, and the eighth time overall … In its seven previous stints as hosts, U-M has claimed five regional titles … The Maize and Blue's 45 wins are the most for the program since 1989 (49-16) while its 26 conference wins are a Big Ten single-season record.

Projected Lineup
SS • Jason Christian (.321, 7 HR, 45 RBI, 34 BB)
2B • Leif Mahler (.300, 2 HR, 22 RBI)
1B • Nate Recknagel (.372, 23 HR, 68 RBI, 32 BB)
DH • Zach Putnam (.309, 9 HR, 47 RBI)
3B • Adam Abraham (.342, 7 HR, 52 RBI)
CF • Kevin Cislo (.363, 1 HR, 27 RBI, 17-25 SB)
LF • Derek VanBuskirk (.303, 10 HR, 43 RBI)
C • Chris Berset (.245, 1 HR, 17 RBI)
RF • Ryan LaMarre .290, 2 HR, 22 RBI)

Pitcher
SP • Zach Putnam (8-0, 2.64 ERA, 74 K, 21 BB, 71.2 IP)



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