Ako Thomas stepped to the plate with a clear mind.
Michigan trailed Vanderbilt by 6 runs in the ninth inning of the decisive game of the College World Series (CWS) on June 26 with the Wolverines needing a big rally.
However, a comeback wasn’t in the cards as Thomas flew out to deep center field to end the game and Michigan’s crazy, historic postseason run.
For Thomas, it was still a moment he cherished.
“That at-bat, that was special for me. I’m happy to be up in that moment,” Thomas said. “That’s a big senior moment to be up there. It’s 2 outs; the team is depending on me. It didn’t end how I wanted it to, but I’m trying to make something happen. I’m proud of the team.”
Thomas’ flyout ended a standout collegiate career.
He will continue at Michigan this year as a student coach for fall ball as he wraps up his degree in exercise science this semester before graduating in December.
Thomas is a Chatham resident and a 2015 Mt. Carmel grad.
The 5’7” second baseman considered the idea of continuing his playing career professionally but didn’t hear his name called in the June MLB Draft.
The disappointment was real, but Thomas still knows what his future holds.
“There is a 100 percent a future in baseball for me. I want to go into the coaching field, and it was a good time to start,” Thomas said. “I want to stay around baseball and help teach kids the things I’ve learned. This felt like the route I should take.”
Thomas wasn’t the only Wolverine with an area connection; junior outfielder Christan Bullock, a 2016 Morgan Park grad, played a key role for Michigan.
Angelo Smith (Richards) and Jordon Rogers (Simeon) are also South Siders.
Playing on baseball’s biggest collegiate stage, Bullock tried to take it all in.
TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., drew over 69,000 fans for the three-game final of the CWS.
“It was pretty amazing standing there in the outfield and looking around,” Bullock said. “All those people came out to see us play. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Finishing 50-22, Michigan posted its most wins since 1987.
It was the Wolverines’ first CWS appearance since 1984. The program previously won national titles in 1953 and 1962.
However, the 2019 Wolverines’ appearance in the NCAA tourney was no sure thing. Michigan was one of the last four teams to qualify for the tournament after an adrenaline-packed run in the Big 10 tournament.
Thomas and Bullock agreed a 5-4 walk-off win on May 23 over Illinois in the conference tournament was a momentum-swinging victory.
Sophomore Jordan Nwogu delivered in the clutch with a two-out, two-run double for the walk-off heroics.
“Jordan’s hit, that gave us a spark. When that happened, you could feel it,” Thomas said. “If we didn’t get that win, I don’t think we make the run we did. The whole team felt totally different after that. We had all the confidence in the world.”
Michigan went on to win the Corvallis regional and then took down the No.-1 team in the country, UCLA, with a 2-1 series win in the super-regional to clinch a berth in the CWS.
“This team was one of the loosest groups I’ve ever been around,” Bullock said. “In a tough situation, you stick with it. We didn’t feel pressure. We were having fun. When you’re having fun and playing for your teammates, that makes it easy.”
In the team’s NCAA tournament opener, Bullock had a double and homer in a 6-0 win over Creighton.
“That home run locked me in even more,” Bullock said. “That first win, it was like a fresh start. After that at-bat, I felt like I was the best player on the field.
Bullock hit .263 this season with 2 home runs, 14 RBI, 27 runs, 14 stolen bases and 7 doubles in 46 games.
Michigan won Game 1 of the championship series, 7-4, but fell 4-1 in Game 2 and 8-2 in Game 3.
After an injury-plagued junior year, Thomas savored a relatively healthy senior year, starting 64 games.
He hit .267 with 2 home runs, 32 RBI, 38 runs and 16 doubles.
Thomas was named to the CWS All-Tournament team.
“I’ll miss [playing] baseball. I’ll miss it a lot, but this is the way to go out,” Thomas said. “Going out like that, it’s still fresh. It’s been a special run.”
Playing in 209 career games, Thomas hit .286 (207 for 724) and piled up 147 runs, 91 RBI, 41 doubles and 41 stolen bases for the Wolverines.
Bullock will return with a young Wolverines core as Michigan chases the national championship.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re already thinking about next year,” Bullock said. “We want to be back in the national championship game. We’re excited as a group to get after it again.”