Big Ten baseball’s 19 things to look forward to in ’19

The next time the calendar reads the 15th, it will be opening day for the Division I college baseball season.

Although teams are still a little more than a week for holding spring practice, the upcoming season is getting closer and closer, it’s time to focus on the 2019 version of the Road to Omaha.

Kicking off preseason coverage, what is 10 Innings looking forward to most this season? Here’s 19 things to look forward to over the 2019 campaign.

1) Does Minnesota cement its dynasty?

The reigning Big Ten champions had a season for the ages in 2018, appearing in a super regional for the first time in program history. (Minnesota had reached the College World Series before the current NCAA Tournament format.) Going 44-15, the Gophers claimed a second Big Ten title in three years. Every five years or so, the Big Ten sees a program jump to the front of the pack and run off with multiple titles in a short window. Before Indiana went back-to-back in 2013-14, Michigan claimed three straight from 2006-08. At the turn of the millennium, Minnesota were Big Ten champs from 2002-04. And going on 25 years now, Ohio State finished atop the Big Ten standings for five straight seasons, starting in 1991. With a deeper returning lineup than many may believe, and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the conference, and a challenging pre-conference schedule to lead the Gophers into the Big Ten battle-tested, is another title in store, cementing Minnesota as the dominant program of the 2000’s second decade?

 

2) Will there be another 20-home run star?

Etching his name into the Big Ten record book, Jake Adams’ lone season at Iowa was historic, grabbing the nation’s attention with a 29-home run season in 2017. The record appeared to be in danger less than a year later as Illinois’ Bren Spillane opened the 2018 season on a historic tear. An ankle injury saw the Illini first basemen miss a few games in the middle of the season, slowing his momentum, forcing Spillane to finish with¬†only 23 home runs. Will the 2019 season have another slugger emerge and rewrite school records in the process? Michigan’s Jesse Franklin is the conference’s returning home run leader with 10, but’s worth nothing he was able to reach double digits as a freshman.

 

3) Mercer’s homecoming

On their third coach in five years, Indiana will see if the highs over the last decade can be carried over into next one. And if that’s the case, it’s likely first-year head coach Jeff Mercer will be the lone Hoosier head coach for a long, long time. Mercer, an Indiana native, is now in charge of steering the baseball program he’s always dreamed of leading. After two strong years at Wright State, leading the program current Penn State coach Rob Cooper built up, Mercer brings leads an All-Indiana staff to a program he’s determined to make Indiana’s signature college baseball team. Indiana returns a strong roster from last year’s Austin Regional runners-up team, and are now lead by a coach viewed as one of college baseball’s top young coaches. Putting it all together, does 2019 become a very special season in Mercer’s homecoming?

 

4) March 6-8 tournaments

If you’re looking to get a pretty big bang for your buck with a jam-packed Big Ten weekend, March 6-8 is a weekend to circle. On opposite coasts, a pair of tournaments have two Big Ten teams participating, and a third tournament features some bluebloods of college baseball. Circle this weekend and watch the fun unfold, especially in the Pacific Northwest where two of the Big Ten’s expected top teams can go a long way in show they’re also two of the country’s top teams.

Dodgertown College Baseball Classic

Michigan @ UCLA, @ USC, vs. Oklahoma State

Greenville Drive 1st Pitch Invitational

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, Ohio State, Furman, Appalachian State

Ohio State vs. Furman, Michigan State, Western Carolina

Seattle Baseball Showcase

Indiana vs. Washington, Oregon State, San Diego

Minnesota vs. Oregon State, San Diego, Washington

 

5) Who bounces back?

Five key players I want to see if there is a bounceback season in 2019, players team will ask a lot of, after struggling in 2018:

Nebraska senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla

Penn State junior left-handed pitcher Dante Biasi

Maryland senior shortstop AJ Lee

Michigan senior second baseman Ako Thomas

Illinois senior outfielder Jack Yalowitz

 

6) Seeing if Rutgers takes the next step

The 2019 season will be Rutgers fifth as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights are 0-for-4 in participating in a Big Ten Tournament. But after a staff shakeup, 2018 saw progress for Joe Literrio’s club. Rutgers went 25-25 on the season, a seven and one-half game improvement over the 2017 season, and finished at least .500 for the first time since 2014. Now the onus is for Rutgers to avoid unraveling in the Big Ten. On April 11, Rutgers was 18-11 overall and claimed Big Ten wins over Penn State and Michigan State before finishing 7-14. Literrio has worked to increase the talent level in Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights should have one of its better rosters going back to Todd Fraizer’s days. Now it’s time to see if potential meets production and Rutgers takes the next step and shows they are ready to meet the Big Ten’s upward trend.

 

7) Max Meyer at the plate

Armed with a weapon of a wipeout slider, Minnesota closer Max Meyer pitched his way to All-America honors and onto USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018. It doesn’t hurt Meyer’s fastball can comfortably sit in the mid-90s, too. But for everything he did and can do on the mound, Meyer arrived in Minnesota as a two-way player. The dominance Meyer exhibited on the mound as a freshman took the bat out of his hands after 30 at-bats,. But the Gophers are set to unleash the two-way Meyer this spring. Either in left field or at DH, Meyer was a high school shortstop but he will not see the infield to keep his arm fresh, Minnesota plans to insert Meyer in the heart of their lineup. With Meyer focusing just on hitting and baserunning this fall, reports out of Minneapolis were glowing. The Gopher staff believes Meyer has just as much potential at the plate as Matt Fieller showed in 2016, when that two-way Gopher batted .366 and slugged .525 en route to honor Big Ten Player of the Year honors. If that’s the case, the most dynamic player in the country may be Meyer.

 

8) Purdue as a hunted

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski has garnered national attention for the job he has done in West Lafayette. And it’s certainly just praise. It took only two years to take Purdue from the Big Ten’s basement and into a regional. The Boilermakers did not hide that they used preseason predictions of finishing outside of the Big Ten’s top six for motivation. But now, after finishing second in the conference and drawing slaps on the back and repeated praise, is the same hunger there? How Purdue fares this year, and if there is sustained success now and in the years to come, may be more indicative of Wasikowski’s coaching ability than last season. With high expectations, does Purdue keep moving along?

 

9) Is this the year Michigan finishes strong?

Michigan enters the season as Big Ten favorites by national outlets, and ranked in some polls. The Wolverines are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and many predict them to do so. But is this the year that Erik Bakich’s team finishes May with a head of momentum? A 2-9 finish to the 2016 cost U-M a potential NCAA Tournament berth, as did last year’s 2-7 swoon to conclude the season. And in the year Michigan did play in a regional, the Wolverines went 0-2, that on the heels of an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has won 111 games over the last three seasons, nothing at all to sneeze at, the how each season has finished has left more to be desired out of Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are set to have a number beside their name to open the season, will they have one with the final out is recorded?

 

10) Seth Lonsway’s debut

Before Patrick Fredrickson and Meyer helped guided Minnesota to a top 10 finish, the freshman pitcher expected to turn heads was Ohio State southpaw Seth Lonsway. Able to run it into the mid-90s, and turning down a six-figure offer from the Cincinnati Reds to head to Columbus, Lonsway was the Big Ten’s top recruit according to Baseball America. But how a high school course was registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse prevented Lonsway to being eligible as a freshman, unable to contribute to Ohio State’s regional-bound club. Now, with the Buckeyes needing to replace their entire rotation, the time couldn’t be better for Lonsway to debut and hopefully be the impact, blue-chip prospect Greg Beals needs as the Bucks seek a third regional in four years.

 

11) A dynamic freshman class

More and more, freshman are making a big impact in the Big Ten, and this year figures to be no different. Ohio State is set to rely on a quartet of freshman arms, in addition to Lonsway, as they seek to end a 10-year title drought. Illinois has a ballyhooed recruiting class, with high-ceiling rookies at catcher (Jacob Campbell), shortstop (Branden Comia), and on the mound (Aidan Maldonando). Nebraska shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach may by the most dynamic freshman Nebraska’s had as a Big Ten member, while teammates Bo Blessie and Colby Gomes headed to Lincoln after esteemed prep careers. Maryland sees a bright future in Maxwell Costes, the younger brother of former standout Marty. Minnesota likes their freshman haul, Michigan has another banner coast-to-coast class, as do in-state peer Michigan State. Gone are the days of seeing teams rely on upperclassmen to lead them to titles and into the postseason. Freshman are continually being expected to contributor in key roles and this year’s crop should have plenty that step up and do just that.

 

12) Will ninth innings being a collective roller coaster?

Last year, five Big Ten closers recorded at least 13 saves:

Minnesota’s Max Meyer- 16

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker- 15

Purdue’s Ross Learnard- 15

Illinois’ Joey Gerber- 14

Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee- 13.

Only Meyer returns. Iowa and Michigan will also be without their saves leader in 2018, forcing at least half of the Big Ten’s ninth-inning duties up for grabs around the conference. As Meyer, Kinker and Learnard were on teams playing the in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly helps Omaha-aspiring teams to have a stopped at the end of the bullpen. Who will step up in those roles this year, or will everyone but John Anderson be on edge as the last few outs are attempted to be recorded?

 

13) High how does Matt Gorski’s draft stock rise?

One of the best all-around Big Ten prospects of the last five years, Indiana’s Matt Gorski has shown an ability to play multiple positions, run, get on base and hit with pop. Entering the season as the top positional Big Ten prospect in a quick, by way of a quick informal poll of scouts, just how high can Gorski’s stock rise? In 2016, Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt and Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson were the respective 53rd and 62nd overall picks of the draft, can Gorski go higher? Before those two, other high outfield draft picks include Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre, 62nd in 2010 and Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka, 33rd in 2009.

 

14) More Big Ten/Pac-12 showdowns

The Big Ten and Pac-12 split 28 games last season; a 12-12 draw in the regular season, before Minnesota twice beat UCLA in the Minneapolis Regional, then twice falling to eventual national champion Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Although there is not a Big Ten/Pac-12 / DQ Classic this year, the 2019 schedule is still loaded with contests between the two Rose Bowl-linked conferences that should make for fun viewing. In additional to the March 6-8 tournaments keep an eye on:

Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Feb. 21-24

Michigan State @ Arizona State, March 1-3

Arizona State @ Nebraska, May 10-12

Arizona @ Penn State, May 16-18

 

15) And marquee Big Ten-Big XII series

And it’s not just the Pac-12 that the Big Ten has quite the buffet of contests against. These five series versus Big XII schools have the potential to be resume bullets come NCAA Tournament selection time.

Purdue @ Texas, Feb. 22-24

Iowa @ Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Baylor @ Nebraska, March 8-10

Michigan @ Texas Tech, March 21-23

Oklahoma @ Minnesota, April 19-21

 

16) Illinois’ ability to repeat history

Taking a short trip down memory lane, Illinois should have been in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Going 32-21 overall, and 17-7 in the Big Ten, the Illini put together an NCAA-worthy resume, including a sweep of SEC champion Florida, scoring 11 runs against one in two contests against the Gators. But Dan Hartleb’s team was only good enough to be one of the first teams outside the field of 64 in the eyes of the selection committee. That snub helped fuel the fire of Illinois in 2015, as the Illini blitzed the Big Ten, winning 21 of 22 games, put together a 27-game winning streak, earned the No. 6 national seed and hosted the program’s first super regional. Now, after Illinois was one of the first teams outside of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, returns their entire rotation and six starters, is history set to repeat itself and a pissed off Orange and Blue club leaves no doubt of its regional worthiness?

 

17) Patrick Fredrickson’s encore

In the 25 seasons of the Big Ten naming a Pitcher of the Year, only once has a pitcher earned the honor in two consecutive seasons: Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers, 2009-2010. There has also been another one-time feat, that is of a freshman claiming the title, which happened last year as Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was name the top freshman and pitcher in the conference. With a Big Ten-best 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson turned in a perfect 9-0 season and seemingly turned heads every weekend, brilliant from start to finish. Now that Big Ten batters will have their second go at the lanky righty, can he keep opposing batters to a .209 batting average? Is another All-America season in store? Few will have had the expectations that are being placed on Fredrickson heading into year two, it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to them and resets an already high bar.

 

18) Can the Big Ten host multiple regionals?

For all of the postseason progress the Big Ten has made over the last half-dozen years-a team in Omaha, multiple national seeds, three different regional hosts, multiple years with at least five regional participants and four different super regional participants-one accomplishment has remained outside of the conference’s grasp: multiple regional hosts. Under the NCAA Tournament’s current format, never have two Big Ten programs hosted a regional in the same tournament. With the conference sending at least three teams to the tournament in every year since 2015, it seems it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Will the 20th anniversary of the current format of the 64-team tournament be the year it happens?

 

19) The end of winter

Just kidding, this is the Big Ten, prepare for a mid-April cancellation to due cold temperatures and snow. And just as the Midwest and East Coast is blanketed in a fresh cover of snow, it’s time to welcome to the college baseball season.

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