'Guys are believing': Central Michigan enters final stretch of regular season ready to finish strong
Jordan Bischel was preparing to wrap up the regular season with Division II Northwood at this time last year.
The finale was May 6, but the Bischel-led Timberwolves managed to continue into the postseason until the May 18 NCAA Midwest Regional game.
Now, as the coach of Central Michigan, things are much different. The regular season doesn't end until May 18, and the Mid-American Conference Tournament could have the Chippewas playing until May 26.
If the Chippewas make it to the College World Series, Bischel's first year could be extended to June 26 – much different than leading a group until mid-May last campaign for a Division II program.
Sitting at 28-11 overall and 10-5 in the MAC, Bischel considers this time of year the home stretch. Over halfway through conference action, just 16 games remain.
"The clock in my head says we've got just a little bit to go, but we still have about 20 games left to play," Bischel said. "There's a lot of things that can happen. There's a lot of baseball, but it'll fly.
"My big message is we should feel pretty good with where we are at, but what are we going to do from here?"
When Bischel arrived at Northwood prior to the 2015 season, the Timberwolves had never won a Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic championship. He won back-to-back GLIAC titles and GLIAC Coach of the Year awards in 2017 and 2018.
Like Northwood's struggles prior to Bischel's arrival, the Chippewas have come up dry in MAC Tournament championships for 24 years. The last tournament victory came in 1995, which is also when CMU last made the NCAA Tournament.
Bischel plans to change that narrative by delivering the same type of consistent winning he did at Northwood for four seasons. As a matter of fact, he said the switch from Division II to Division I hasn't been much different.
The mentality of winning is also the same from one division to the next – do the little things correctly, believe and stick to the process.
"There's overlap because the top Division II teams would be very successful in Division I," Bischel said. "When you get to those big Division II games in national tournaments, there isn't much difference."
Bischel was 84-29 during his final two seasons at Northwood. He believes his new players at CMU quickly realized the first-year coach's ability to win immediately. But more than that, he said the preparation of his coaching staff has rubbed off on the Chippewas.
"It's easy to trust your coaches when they are grinding," Bischel said. "It's no different than with the players. I think we do a pretty good job."
'They are all important'
When Bischel arrived in Mount Pleasant prior to the 2018 season, he made it clear that all 56 games were important. His hope for stressing the need for thorough winning was that the pressure would be lifted down the stretch.
Right now, the Chippewas are in second place of the MAC at 10-5, just behind Miami (Ohio) at 12-3. It just so happens that CMU will take on the RedHawks for the first time all season from May 16-18 in a three-game series to finish out the regular season.
Ball State (8-5), Kent State (7-6), Ohio (8-7) and Northern Illinois (8-7) all follow closely behind.
As the wins racked up early in the season, which included a 12-3 start, Bischel said his group realized the team was heading in a positive direction. Earning hard-fought victories early was key, as the Chippewas were a meager 29-30-1 under former coach Steve Jaksa in 2018.
CMU is 3-3 in its last six MAC games, and Bischel has been able to get tougher on his group due to the early season dominance. He said it's nice to do so because the team understands a MAC championship is in sight and the coaching staff truly cares about them.
"We've got wins and success to fall back on, so it's easier to point out what we need to do to be successful," Bischel said.
Bischel said the nine seniors on the team – catcher Blake Cleveland, infielder Jason Sullivan, outfielder Ty Rollin, outfielder Jacob Crum, right-hander Pat Leatherman, left-hander Jack Collins, right-hander Bryan Jakiemiec, catcher Evan Kratt and outfielder David Cole – all responded well to him commanding the Chippewas this season.
With the support of the senior cast, Bischel believes CMU's roster is all on the same page.
"Those guys have embraced it. Some of the things they did to be successful, we've tweaked a little bit," Bischel said. "Guys are believing."
Continuously finding roles
Even though 39 games are complete, there are a number of pitching roles still to be determined due to injuries and mid-season struggles.
The Chippewas still don't have a set closer, something Bischel normally shies away from. However, he hopes there can be an automatic arm out of the bullpen. It currently seems to be 6-foot-10 right-hander Cameron Miller's job to lose, as the sophomore has five saves and a dominant 1.48 ERA.
Others in the back end of the bullpen include sophomore right-hander Jordan Patty, who is finally back from a hand injury, and righty junior Zach Kohn after he transitioned from a starter to a reliever. Bischel said he wants to "iron out" the specific roles "down the stretch" in preparation for the postseason.
"Ability-wise, he's top of the heap. He's pretty good," Bischel said of Kohn. "He started the year well as a starter and hit a little rut, but now he's starting to stack some success. He could be a real key down the stretch."
Another option is Grant Frazer, as he's pitched all 16 of his appearances out of the bullpen. He is 1-0 with a 3.04 ERA in 23 2/3 innings.
"Frazer has been a huge pickup because he was an infielder for a few years," Bischel said. "He's been a great relief guy for us. We will have to rely on him as we get later into games instead of the middle of games."
Another position in question is the fifth starting spot. Junior left-hander Tyler Hankins has a 4-2 record with a 6.00 ERA, and Bischel said he's struggled with consistency. While Hankins is working to find his top-notch stuff, Bischel mentioned it's nice to be able to throw Kohn or Patty in that role for a few starts.
Bischel said the fifth rotational spot has "a lot of moving parts" to the process of finding the best pitcher for the job.
"We've got a lot of guys that can do different things well, but there are some imperfections," Bischel added. "The nice thing is we have a lot of depth. We've got 12, 13 guys that can pitch to help us.
"If you can put them in the right spot, we can be successful."