The 2020s figure to have plenty in store for Big Ten baseball. Here’s the top 10 things to watch for and the storylines that figure to make the decade’s first season a memorable one. Click here for 11-20.
#10 Bolt is back
A captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, the program’s all-time leader in doubles, and the associate head coach to Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014, Will Bolt is back in Lincoln, now as the program’s 24th head coach. Following Erstad’s retirement, Bolt quickly emerged as the odds-on favorite to take over the Cornhusker program, and on June 14 he was selected to guide the program. In the first few years after Bolt left Erstad’s staff to join Rob Childress at Texas A&M, coaches around the conference spoke with relief as they felt Bolt was a significant factor in Nebraska being a pest to play. It’s hard to say Nebraska floundered in his absence, they did appear in regionals in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and won the Big Ten in 2017. But it did seem there was an element of Big Red’s attack that was missing. As Bolt returns, he inherits a team with more than enough talent to be in the top-half of the Big Ten. It will be worth watching how Nebraska takes the field this year and if the methodical, machine-like nature of the Husker lineup returns.
#9 Returning to the mound
There are several key arms returning to the mound that missed most or all of the 2019 season. Arms that have that the potential to be frontline starters, leading a conference-winning team or ready to take the ball in the first game of a regional. Headlining a return to the mound will be:
Illinois right-handed pitcher Ryan Kutt, missed all of last season
Maryland left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, limited to 15.2 innings
Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, missed all of last season.
Iowa left-handed pitcher Jack Dryer, appeared in just two games.
Michigan left-handed pitcher Steven Hajjar, missed all of last season.
Nebraska right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach, played in the field but did not pitch due to injury.
Purdue right-handed pitcher Trevor Cheaney, missed all of last season
#8 Ohio State’s weekend rotation
What a difference a year makes. Heading into the 2019 season, Ohio State needed to replace all three weekend starters. Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner and Adam Neimeyer each started at least 15 games for the Buckeyes in 2018. The consistent weekend rotation played a big role in Ohio State finishing the season in a regional. Relying on three underclassmen, Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith formed a new big three, as they too led Ohio State to a regional. Led by Smith, the lone true junior of the trio, each pitcher logged at least 90 innings, with Lonsway’s 92.1 innings and Burhenn’s 91, just behind Smith’s 96.2. As a redshirt-sophomore, Lonsway’s mid-90s fastball and sharp curveball has him garnering draft attention, attention that like will be garnered by Burhenn next year, when he is draft eligible as a junior. For now, a proven 1-2-3 weekend rotation is a big reason why the Buckeyes enter the season with a ranking, and gives head coach Greg Beals a foundation in seeking a fourth regional in five years.
#7 Rutgers’ postseason pursuit
Rutgers joined Penn State (see #19) last year as a team capable of going head-to-head against anyone on the mound only to fall short at the plate. The Scarlet Knights pitched to a 4.02 ERA in conference play, but batted only .226, and had league-worst marks in on-base percentage, .300, and slugging, .302. The offensive shortcomings halted Rutgers’ promising first-half of conference play, where they stood 7-5 at the mid-way mark. A 2-9 showing over the back-half of the conference slate ended hopes of reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, finishing in 10th. Unable to end the postseason drought, a change in leadership inserted Bryant’s Steve Owens as the program’s head coach. Owens takes over a program that returns the core of the strong pitching unit, with senior left-hander Tevin Murray, senior right-hander Tommy Genuario and junior right-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski all returning as weekend starters. There was some promise at the plate for Rutgers, led by Chris Brito, a sophomore first baseman with middle-of-the-order potential and and junior Mike Nyisztor. The question is now if Owens is the missing piece that gets the program over the hump and into postseason play.
#6 Underdog Hoosiers
It’s been a quite some time since the reigning Big Ten champion was not picked to be among the conference’s top three teams by pundits. But that’s the reality for Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers face, as the champions see Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State garner preseason rankings by various outlets. If one were to look at 2019 stats and the roster holdovers and it’s not that surprising there is relatively little noise regarding the Hoosiers. IU did have 10 players drafted, where there won’t be the likes of Matt Lloyd and Matt Gorski anchoring the lineup, nor Pauly Milto providing seven strong innings every weekend. In fact Indiana needs to replace their entire weekend rotation (see above for an example on that not being a death penalty however), in addition to needing new two and three-hole hitters to emerge. But what can’t be captured on paper is the blue-collar mentality that embodies Mercer and his programs, dating back to his time as a coach at Wright State. In fact, Mercer may prefer that there are little expectations to allow IU to keep their head down and work hard. After all, few saw Mercer stepping in and doing something prior head coach Chris Lemonis didn’t do and win a conference championship.
#5 Minnesota’s ability to maximize Meyer
After bursting onto the scene with a 16-save season and All-America campaign as a freshman in 2018, John Anderson intended to return Max Meyer to his two-way roots last year. With considerable turnover at the plate, Anderson wanted Meyer’s bat at the plate and speed on the bases. Meyer did arrive at Minnesota as a standout shortstop in addition to a dominant pitcher. But with Minnesota needing Meyer’s arm fresh to close games, he would be utilized as a DH, maybe in left field if needed. Anderson’s plan changed when Meyer was needed to lead the Gopher rotation. Meyer pitched brilliantly, tossing 76.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA with 87 strikeouts. But Minnesota didn’t get his bat in the lineup as much as desired, with Meyer batting .256 over 121 at-bats. The Minnesota staff has been impressed with the development in Meyer’s bat and still see him as a capable threat at the plate. But knowing how Meyer excelled as an ace, showing he does have the stamina to be a #1, how far he is under or above last years 121 at-bats may be a sign of what’s happening around him, both on the mound and in the lineup, and ultimately the kind of team success Minnesota has. Meyer can do a lot, how he does it to fit the team’s needs remains to be seen.
#4 Day one drafts
A handful of Big Ten players have the ability to have their name called among the draft’s first 100 picks. Per Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, as of Jan. 8, the following Big Ten players were listed:
Minnesota right-handed pitcher Max Meyer, No. 29
Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, No. 53
Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, No. 93.
MLB.com respectively ranks Meyer, Criswell and Dingler as the draft’s No. 25, 52 and 55 prospects.
In addition to those three, Michigan outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwugo, and Ohio State left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway have a shot to go inside the first five rounds.
#3 Is this the year for multiple regional
In the current format of the NCAA Tournament, since 1999, there has yet to be a year when two Big Ten programs hosted a regional on its campus. The Big Ten produced two super regional clubs in 2015, but Maryland played at Virginia, in the Charlottesville Regional, after winning the Los Angeles Regional, while Illinois hosted Vanderbilt in the Champaign Super Regional. Coaches around the conference feel the next step in the Big Ten’s ascend is to host more regionals and more than one regional in a year. That will be a better path forward to more teams in a super regional and ultimately more teams reaching Omaha on a regular basis. As the Big Ten leaves the 2010s on a high, the first year of the 2020s may be the year to break another ceiling. Both Michigan and Minnesota have the schedules and pitching staffs to compile a season that has them as a regional host. Ohio State may not have as many marquee series as those two, but a preseason ranking of #24 has them in the mind of others as being on the cusp of hosting worthy. Hosting a regional takes the right blend of performance, luck and the dominoes falling accordingly around the country. But as we enter the season, this year more than any in recent memory is one where it might be just the year.
#2 Michigan’s great expectations
There seems to be an endless number of college baseball polls, in fact there are six. While there may be a half-dozen different compilations on who the top teams are, there is consensus that Michigan is one of the 20 best teams entering the season. Justly so. The Wolverines did finish one win shy of being national champions and return key players in the heart of the diamond, a top prospect atop the rotation, a proven closer, and two key arms return from injury. It would be odd if Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason. But entering the season ranked #8 by Baseball America means Michigan is expected to be back in Omaha. That puts Michigan in a much different position than just a team expected to be good. While every team has a goal to finish the year in Omaha, the lone team to have similar expectations, Indiana in 2014 with a preseason #3 ranking, did not make it out of a regional they hosted. Erik Bakich preaches mental toughness, to treat to each game the same, take every game one-by-one. Can Michigan adhere to that? The schedule is a tough one, with an opening game against #1 Vanderbilt and a contest at #3 Arizona State the following day. Early and often, Michigan will be tested and needing to bring its A-game. That will help the Wolverines lock in, but it will still be worth following how a team that fell so painfully short of the ultimate goal plays without pressure under a magnified scope.
#1 Ohio State and Michigan battling for supremacy
The April 12 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State is the top showdown to circle in the 2020. But how Michigan and Ohio State fare will be worth watching beyond that weekend. With a combined 50 Big Ten championships between them, the 2010s were the first decade that ended without the Buckeyes or Wolverines claiming the conference championship. How rare is that? It’s the first time that has ever been the case since Chicago won the first Big Ten baseball championship in 1896. (Chicago was the first power in the Big Ten, winning championships in 1896-99, of course the Big Ten only had four schools, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin at the time.) Of course both Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed success in the last five years of the 2010s. Michigan appeared in regionals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, while the Bucks reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, Ohio State did so in 2016 and 2019. The rest of the Big Ten is hardly feeling bad for the two rivals, and all but one school would have traded Michigan’s position last year. But there is something odd in Michigan going on a 12-year Big Ten championship drought and Ohio State an 11-year void. For the first time since the clubs were respectively led by Rich Maloney and Bob Todd, this feels like the year when Michigan and Ohio State are in lockstep in the standings and will jockey for the top position. For every top prospect Michigan has, Jeff Criswell, Jesse Franklin, it feels Ohio State can counter, see Seth Lonsway and Dillon Dingler. Michigan is coming off of a year where they finished on a torrid run. The Buckeyes weren’t impressed, they did take three of four games, including a one-hitter that put Michigan’s season on the brink. And there is the whole rivalry thing. On the gridiron, the Ohio State-Michigan game draws the nations attention. With a #8 next to Michigan’s name and a #24 next to Ohio State’s, the battle on the baseball field may do just the same. And it may propel the victor forward to a long-awaited title and the first claim to Big Ten supremacy in the new decade.