Michigan Breaks the Big Ten’s Glass Slipper

June 15, 2013

For the first time in 30 seasons, a Big Ten program was taking the field in the College World Series. Capturing the attention of the college baseball universe, the upstart Indiana Hoosiers crashed a tournament of bluebloods. Joining Indiana’s first round opponent, Louisville, filling out the tournament bracket were LSU, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Oregon State and UCLA. Reaching its first College World Series after knocking off perennial power Florida State, while the front of the Indiana’s gray uniforms read in crimson script HOOSIERS, Cinderella was also a fitting moniker.

It wasn’t just that the boys from Bloomington weren’t supposed to be there, what business did the Big Ten have being in Omaha? This was a year before the conference moved its postseason tournament to TD Ameritrade Park, where Omaha was synonymous for the tournament at the end of June, not the one at the end of May. And unfortunately the place that too often felt it was on Pulto, not in Nebraska.

Before Indiana hosted and won Bloomington Regional and commenced the program’s storybook postseason, a Big Ten program last hosted a regional in 2008, with the Ann Arbor Regional. And that, too, was five years after the last out of NCAA Tournament contest came on a conference field, when Ohio State hosted the 2003 Columbus Super Regional. And while Indiana wasn’t that far removed from NCAA play, the Hoosiers won the 2009 Big Ten Tournament to join Minnesota and Ohio State in regional action, the Big Ten only produced four total NCAA teams between 2010-2012. Before the Power 5 label was in the conscience of sports fans, the Big Ten was a distant cousin of its to-be autonomous conference brethren.

Indiana knocked off Louisville, 2-0, before falling to Mississippi State 5-4 and Oregon State, 1-0, to bow out of the tournament. Kyle Schwarber would go on to be a household name and help the Chicago Cubs win a historic World Series in 2016. Sam Travis would be a second-round pick in 2014, and eventually be joined by teammate Aaron Slegers, the 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, in the big leagues. With the success of individuals going forward and the team’s tight contests with the best of the best, Indiana removed all doubt and proved it belong there. But there was one question that would go unanswered as Indiana bowed out and the clock struck midnight: What would happen to Cinderella?

Realizing a the possibility of a new reality for Big Ten programs, was Indiana’s run just a great story where generational talents spearheaded a once-a-generation feat? Was this truly the dawn of a new day in Big Ten baseball? Would the glass slipper return and another long-shot from the Midwest return? Or would it be left behind for another 30 years?

 

June 15, 2019

Six years to the day of Indiana’s victory over Louisville, the Big Ten claimed another two-run victory of an Omaha staple. After cutting the Big Ten’s College World Series drought by 80% over its last period of absence, Michigan knocked off Texas Tech, a team appearing in its fourth College World Series in six years, 5-3. The outfit of Wolverines that have led the program to the College World Series for the first time since 1984 are similar to those Hoosiers in many ways.

Where Indiana had a potent 1-2 punch that served as the catalyst to the team’s success, Schwarber and Travis, Michigan has a pair of top two round picks of their own, with Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann leading a rotation that can go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Michigan’s run saw them advance through a regional with a household name, Oregon State, just like Indiana turned away a Bloomington Regional field that saw Florida in it. And where IU went on the road and knocked off heavy favorite Florida State in super regional play to reach the pinnacle, Michigan grabbed two games against the tournament’s top overall seed, UCLA. In fact, in addition to knocking off #1 UCLA, one wouldn’t be wrong to say Michigan was more of an underdog to reach Omaha than Indiana.

An underdog they may be, but here’s where Michigan and the state of the Big Ten diverges from 2013: this isn’t a Cinderella story. The Wolverines aren’t coming from a home that’s looked down on and an outcast.

In the five previous years before the Big Ten’s last College World Series appearance, there was just the one, 2008 Ann Arbor, NCAA Regional on a conference campus. What’s happened in the five years before Erik Bakich, the NCBWA National Coach of the Year, has guided Michigan to college baseball’s final destination? Indiana hosted the 2014 Bloomington Regional as number fourth national seed. Illinois hosted the 2015 Champion Regional and Super Regional as the tournament’s sixth overall seed. Minnesota hosted and won the 2018 Minneapolis Regional. Only once, in 2014, did the Big Ten fail to produce three Regional teams, while twice placing five teams in the NCAA Tournament, 2015 and 2017.

And now, in 2019, the Big Ten is another five-bid conference, matching the number of teams placed in a regional by the Big XII and Pac 12. With Michigan knocking off Texas Tech, they stepped into the same batter’s boxes and on the same pitching mound as a team from a conference the Big Ten is now a peer of. Over the last five NCAA Tournaments, the Big Ten has produced 22 regional-bound clubs, just one off 23 the Big XII and Pac 12 have produced.

Michigan’s second round contest is against the same team Indiana knocked off to turn the college baseball world upside down, Florida State. A win for the Wolverines would do the same, and put Michigan in the driver’s seat of their bracket, within them three victories from claiming the program’s first national title since 1962 and the Big Ten’s first since Ohio State won it all in 1966. As one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament, a Michigan victory certainly would elicit more stories of the little team that could, of the mighty underdog and perhaps a few mentions of Cinderella story in a story here or there.

If that is the case, the glass slipper is indeed placed upon the Wolverines, it’s time for them to destroy it once and for all. Michigan has proved the conference is now in the same neighborhood as the home of those blueblood elites, ending the season in the place where the preseason favorite should. Regardless of whether Michigan wins it all or finishes with the same 1-2 showing as Indiana, the ending of this story doesn’t change. There’s no concern of what happens when the clock strikes midnight, the Big Ten has proven it is and will be back.

Michigan Opens College World Series with Win

Over three games in mid-March, Texas Tech swept Michigan in Lubbock, Texas, outscoring Michigan 29-10. A series that was circled in the offseason as a premier non-conference tilt, the Red Raiders knocked the Wolverines out of the writers’ poll and showed the Big Ten favorite had a ways to go before being able to go toe-to-toe with a program that appeared in three of the previous five College World Series.

That wouldn’t be the case in the fourth contest between the two.

Meeting again on college baseball’s biggest stage, Michigan reversed its fortunes against the Big XII champion. Behind seven strong innings from starter Karl Kauffmann, a two-inning save from Jeff Criswell, and a two-run triple from Jimmy Kerr, highlighting a three-run third, Michigan opened the 2019 College World Series with a 5-3 win over Texas Tech. Moving to 47-20 on the season, Michigan collected its first College World Series win since 1983, only the Big Ten’s second.

As Michigan continues a storybook run through the postseason, here’s a roundup of news, stories, and tweets on the victory in Omaha.

Box Score

Michigan Athletics recap

Karl Kauffman Battles, Leads Michigan To CWS-Opening Victory

Joe Healy, Baseball America

In the end, Kauffman, who two weeks ago was drafted 77th overall, threw seven innings, allowing eight hits and three runs with no walks and three strikeouts. He didn’t dominate, but as Bakich alluded to, he induced a ton of weak contact.

Michigan Showcases Impressive Opening Act

Kendall Rogers, D1Baseball.com

There were two unknowns for Michigan entering the contest against the Red Raiders. First, the Wolverines hadn’t been on this stage in a long time. So, would they come out a little nervous and show the rustiness that new teams in the CWS often do? Also, could the Wolverines find a way to corral a Texas Tech team that not only swept them down in Lubbock earlier this season, but also outscored them 29-10?

Erik Bakich, Bo Schembechler, and a Michigan baseball awakening

Anthony Fenech, Detroit Free Press

Bakich, 41, has been chasing the College World Series as a head coach for more than a decade. He’s considered one of the up-and-coming coaches in the country, has been wooed elsewhere, but stayed in Ann Arbor. He has the smallest salary among the head coaches competing in Omaha this week.

Wolverines get revenge on Red Raiders in opening game of CWS

Abby Snyder, Michigan Daily

The phrase Revenge Tour usually brings Michigan football to mind. But lately, the term has been just as true of Michigan’s baseball team (47-20), which defeated No. 8 Texas Tech, 5-3, in the opening game of the College World Series on Saturday. In March, the Red Raiders swept the Wolverines in disheartening fashion. But when it counted, and with a chip on their shoulders, Michigan emerged triumphant.

The key to Michigan’s postseason run: game one

Kent Schwartz, Michigan Daily

“The way we’ve been approaching all these tournaments is we’re just going to worry about Game 1 and do whatever we have to do in Game 1 and worry about Game 2 in Game 2,” said Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich.

The Wolverines are done playing with their backs against the wall.

Michigan beats Texas Tech 5-3 in its 1st CWS game since 1984

Eric Olson, Associated Press

Coming off a three-game super regional where they knocked off No. 1 national seed UCLA, the Wolverines built a 4-0 lead in the third and Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell worked out of trouble when the Red Raiders (44-19) threatened.

 

Michigan’s Bakich Named NCBWA National Coach of the Year

Omaha, Neb. — University of Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich has been named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Coach of the Year it was announced Saturday morning (June 15) at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.

Bakich, who guided the Wolverines to the College World Series for the eighth time in program history, accepted the award and spoke briefly before he returned to pregame preparations ahead of Saturday’s series-opening game against No. 8-ranked Texas Tech.

Part of the story for Michigan is undoubtedly the road to Omaha, which includes a Super Regional victory at then-No. 1-ranked UCLA in Los Angeles, California. The Wolverines were the only team to win a series against the Bruins all year with three wins in all — all of them on the road.

“Erik Bakich has done a magnificent job of returning the Michigan baseball program to its traditional status,” said NCBWA executive director Bo Carter. “To go on the road and upset the No. 1 NCAA Championship seed UCLA is one of the great feats in college baseball this season. He has been an inspiration and a great motivating force for the Wolverines throughout the season and now into the College World Series. Congratulations to coach Bakich for this national honor.”

Bakich led the Wolverines to a 46-20 record, the most wins by a Michigan team since 2008, and a 16-7 Big Ten record. After starting 5-3 in conference play through three series, the Wolverines won 11 straight games, a streak that included nine consecutive conference wins and moved U-M to 14-3 in the Big Ten. They Wolverines advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament after dropping their opening game.

Michigan won its first two games of the NCAA Corvallis (Oregon) Regional, 6-0 over Creighton (May 31) in the opener and 10-4 over Cincinnati (June 1) the following day, to move into the driver’s seat of the regional. After losing once to Creighton on June 2, the Wolverines pulled away late, 17-6, over Creighton in a winner-take-all game on June 3 to move on to the Super Regionals for the first time since 2007.

Under Bakich, eight Wolverines earned All-Big Ten Conference honors, highlighted by junior outfielder Jordan Brewer, who also was named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. Sophomore designated hitter Jordan Nwogu and sophomore pitcher Jeff Criswell joined Brewer on the first team, while closer Willie Weiss was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. Brewer, Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry have all earned All-America honors by various publications.

Additionally, Bakich had five players selected in the 2019 MLB Draft. Pitchers Henry and Kauffman were chosen in Competitive Balance Round B, with Henry drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks at 74th overall and Kauffman selected by the Colorado Rockies 77th overall. Brewer went in the third round (106th overall) to the Houston Astros while the Oakland A’s took pitcher Jack Weisenburger in the 20th round and infielder Jimmy Kerr was selected in the 33rd round by the Detroit Tigers.

In 2017, Michigan led the nation with 11 MLB Draft selections.

NCBWA membership includes writers, broadcasters and publicists. Designed to promote and publicize college baseball, it is the sport’s only college media-related organization, founded in 1962.

Nebraska Names Will Bolt Head Baseball Coach

Lincoln, Neb. — One of the catalysts in Nebraska baseball’s rise to national prominence in his playing days, Will Bolt returns to his alma mater as head coach. Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos named Bolt the 24th head coach of the Husker baseball program on Friday.

Bolt brings 16 years of coaching experience to the Nebraska program, including five seasons on the Husker baseball staff and four years as a head coach at Texarkana College.

Bolt served as Nebraska’s Associate Head Coach under Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014 and also was a volunteer assistant on the 2005 Husker team that reached the College World Series. As a player or coach, Bolt has been a part of all three of Nebraska’s College World Series teams and all four Super Regional squads.

Bolt returns to Lincoln after spending the past five seasons on the Texas A&M staff where he helped the Aggies to five straight NCAA regional appearances and a trip to the 2017 College World Series.

“The opportunity to come back home to Nebraska and lead the Husker baseball program is such a blessing and honor for my family and me,” Bolt said. “It is such an exciting time in Husker athletics with the foundation laid by Bill Moos within the athletic department, and the success Coach Erstad and staff have had on the field.

“My family and I have the fondest affection for the Huskers and the city of Lincoln, and truly cannot wait to become part of the Husker family again!”

The native of Conroe, Texas, had his first association with the Nebraska program as a player for the Huskers from 1999 to 2002. A member of Dave Van Horn’s first recruiting class at Nebraska, Bolt played on four NCAA regional teams and captained the Huskers’ first two College World Series teams in 2001 and 2002. Bolt finished his Husker playing career with school records in games played (251), games started (242), at-bats (922), hits (281), doubles (56) and assists (639).

“Will Bolt has been a winner at every stop he has made as a coach and player, and I am proud to welcome him back to Lincoln as our next head baseball coach,” Moos said. “Will was a part of the most successful teams in the history of our baseball program, and he knows what it takes to win here.

“Will has proven to be an outstanding recruiter wherever he has coached. He understands the appeal of Nebraska and everything our baseball program and University has to offer to student-athletes.”

Bolt and his wife, Lauren, have two sons, Jaxon and Austin, and one daughter, Bella. Bolt has signed a five-year contract that will pay him $300,000 annually.

Greg Goff Named Head Coach of Purdue Baseball

West Lafayette, Ind. – Greg Goff is remaining part of the Purdue baseball staff and taking over as the Boilermakers’ head coach, bringing over 450 victories and 14 years of experience to the top position at Alexander Field.

Previously a head coach at four universities, Goff originally joined Purdue as an assistant coach in July 2017. He succeeds his friend and longtime colleague Mark Wasikowski, who returned to the University of Oregon as the Ducks’ new head coach this week.

Goff has previously served as the head coach at Campbell University (2008-14), Louisiana Tech University (2015-16) and the University of Alabama (2017) as well as Division II University of Montevallo (2004-07). He also helped lead the Boilermakers to a memorable 38-win season in 2018, punctuated by the program’s third NCAA Regional bid in program history. Purdue finished second in the Big Ten standings and was also the runner-up at the Big Ten Tournament in Goff’s first year with the program.

“Greg is highly respected by our student-athletes and was an important part of Mark Wasikowski’s staff as we have worked to position Purdue baseball for sustained success,” Purdue vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics Mike Bobinski said. “He is a lifelong baseball person and an experienced and successful head coach who led multiple programs to their highest level of success. Greg understands Purdue and our expectations for academic and athletic success.”

As a head coach, Goff’s teams won over 40 games six times. Campbell was one of only eight Division I programs to win 40-plus games for three straight years from 2012 to 2014, posting 131 total victories during that span. He also won 42 games in his final season at Louisiana Tech, helping lead the Bulldogs to an NCAA Regional bid. Montevallo was a DII College World Series qualifier under his guidance.

“It is an absolute privilege to lead the Baseball program at Purdue,” Goff said. “I take the responsibility of representing Purdue, our alumni and our players very seriously and gratefully. I am humbled to be a part of what Purdue is and what it means to be a Boilermaker. We are committed to build on the winning tradition that coaches such as Alexander, Schreiber and Waz have built.

“My family and I look forward to great things and to contribute to our Purdue baseball mission with great citizens, successful student-athletes, commitment to the community and of course, competing for championships at the national level. I want to thank Mike Bobinski and Dr. Ed Howat for their trust and confidence. My family and I appreciate and embrace this opportunity. Boiler Up!”

Along with bringing an upbeat personality to the dugout and contagious energy to his role as the first-base coach, Goff has helped numerous Boilermakers develop offensively the last two years. He has played a leading role in coaching the base running and outfield defense. He also filled in as the program’s pitching coach for a few games during a 2018 home sweep of Michigan while Steve Holm was with his wife for the birth of their second child. Purdue has compiled a 28-15 record at Alexander since Goff joined the coaching staff, headlined by a program-record 13-game home win streak to close the 2018 campaign. That represents Purdue’s best two-year mark at home since 2011 to 2012.

Goff has coached nine future big leaguers and over 50 MLB Draft picks, highlighted by Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb while he was the pitching coach at Kentucky (2000-03). Longtime big leaguer and World Series champion Joe Blanton also pitched for Goff at Kentucky.

In Goff’s final season at Campbell (2014), the Camels qualified for their first NCAA Regional in 24 years. Two years later, he led Louisiana Tech to its first Regional bid in 29 years. The 2014 Camels and 2016 Bulldogs both won at least one game in their Regionals, with La Tech coming through the loser’s bracket to reach a Regional final at Mississippi State.

Goff’s teams have had a losing record only five times in his 14 years as a head coach. Four of those five seasons were his first at a respective university. He has led his teams to some impressive turnarounds. In just two seasons, Louisiana Tech went from 15-35 the year before Goff’s arrival to 42-20 in 2016, ending a 29-year NCAA Regional drought in the process. At Campbell, he inherited a team that was 11-45 in 2007. But under Goff, the Camels posted a winning record (27-24) in his second season and won 40 games by his fifth year (2012). Purdue’s win total also jumped from 29-27 in 2017 to 38-21 in Goff’s first year on the staff in 2018.

Along with his years as the pitching coach at Kentucky, Goff served as an assistant at Southeast Missouri State (1998-99) and his alma mater Delta State (1994-97) before becoming a head coach for the first time in the summer of 2003 at Montevallo. It was at SEMO in the late 1990s where he first worked with Wasikowski. They helped lead the RedHawks to an NCAA Regional in 1998.

“I would like to thank Coach Wasikowski for providing the opportunity for my family to come to West Lafayette and be a part of the Boilermaker baseball program. I know the entire program from players to staff to the administration wish Mark and his family well. In my time at Purdue, I have grown extremely attached to an institution that is recognized academically as one of the finest in the world. I regard the leadership and administrators of the University and Athletics Department as the finest I’ve had the honor of working with in my career.”

In his two years at Purdue, Goff helped develop and organize new community events for the program like the preseason fan fest and first pitch dinner. Both events proved very popular and helped generate preseason interest going into the last two campaigns. He has also served as the director of Purdue baseball camps.

Goff was named the South Central Region Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association at both Louisiana Tech (2016) and Montevallo (2006). He was the 2013 Big South Coach of the Year at Campbell after leading his team to a school-record 49 wins and a conference title. Montevallo won a combined 100 games over his final two seasons, posting a new single-season record both years.

Montevallo finished third at the 2006 Division II College World Series as the Southeast Region champions. It was the program’s first appearance at the DII World Series. In his four years at Montevallo, he compiled a 152-84 record.

During the 2016-17 school year, Alabama’s 3.259 team grade-point average established a program record.

A Jackson, Tennessee, native, Goff played collegiately at both Delta State and Jackson State Community College. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from DSU. He and his wife, Tina, are the parents of four daughters: Kara, Kiley, Kolby and Kenzie. Kara plays softball at LSU.

Ohio State’s Beals Receives Contract Extension

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio State University Board of Trustees has approved a three-year contract extension for head baseball coach Greg Beals that will keep him in the dugout as head coach of the Buckeyes four more seasons and at least through the 2023 baseball season.

Beals just concluded his ninth season at the helm of the Buckeyes by leading the team to a Big Ten tournament championship and NCAA Regional appearance. This was the team’s second Big Ten title in four years and the third berth in the NCAA Regionals, after making the field in 2016 and 2018 previously.

“We appreciate Coach Beals and the leadership he brings to the Ohio State baseball program with our student-athletes, alumni and the entire state of Ohio,” Shaun Richard, senior associate athletics director for sport administration at Ohio State, said. “He led a young, talented ball club to a championship season and another NCAA Regional appearance this spring. We look forward to him continuing to push this program as we strive to achieve the next step in advancing to a Super Regional and beyond.”

The 2019 Buckeyes went on a remarkable run to the Big Ten tournament title in Omaha, Neb., this past May, becoming the lowest seed ever to win the league tournament (No. 7 seed). This was the eighth Big Ten tournament appearance in Beals’ nine seasons and the 36 wins in 2019 were the second-most victories in the Beals’ era.

This latest run of success started in 2016, when Beals guided a talented and dynamic Buckeye squad to one of the top seasons in Ohio State baseball history. The team finished with a 44-20-1 overall record, tied for fifth most victories in the history of the program. That team became the first team in school history to go 5-0 vs. Michigan in a single season. His teams are 15-5, overall, vs. the Wolverines.

In 2018, Beals directed the Buckeyes back to the NCAA Tournament as the group finished with a 36-24 overall record. He holds a 297-230-1 overall record at Ohio State.

“I want to thank Gene Smith and Shaun Richard for their continued trust in me to lead this storied program,” Beals said. “I am excited about the future and preparing for the next championship.”

Beals hit the 500-win mark in his coaching career after a 4-2 win over Purdue Friday, May 11, 2018, at Bill Davis Stadium. Beals ranks third among active Big Ten coaches in Division I career wins with a 540-432-1.

Beals’ program culture at Ohio State stresses elite preparation, competitive toughness and brotherhood, prepares young men for life after baseball and develops talents for the next level. Beals has produced three All-Americans and 36 All-Big Ten honorees. His program has developed 22 MLB draft picks in the last nine years, including five Top 10 round picks. Two players off his 2019 squad were drafted this week: Dominic Canzone went in the 8th round by the Detroit Tigers and Andrew Magno was selected in the 15th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And his student-athletes are succeeding in the classroom. The team collected a combined 3.1 grade point average during fall semester with 22 Buckeye baseball players earning OSU Scholar-Athlete status this year with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Twelve Buckeyes were named Academic All-Big Ten selections this past spring.

Webb’s Words: At Home, Mercer Brings Home the Title

And then I thought to myself “Where at this complex can I buy some bourbon and be alone? I need to contemplate my existence.”

Ok, first, some background.

It was August 6, 2016. I was staring down a 30th birthday in exactly 45 days, but that wasn’t the root of a momentary life crisis.

I was at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., for Prep Baseball Report’s Future Games. Every August, the Future Games brings together the top uncommitted rising juniors in Prep Baseball Report’s coverage area. As the contingent of players from Ohio were battling Prep Baseball Report’s Michigan squad, I found enough space among the more than three dozen college coaches camped out on this game and squatted along a brick pillar to take in the action. Making small talk with the surrounding coaches, a coach to my left departed and afford me enough space to stand up and take an unobstructed view of the game.

Whoever did what, whether the green-clad Michigan team beat the scarlet-dressed Ohio State outfit or vice-versa, what player could be a middle-of-the-order bat for whomever in five years, I couldn’t tell you. My lasting impression from the evening was what I projected for a coach.

With more space to stand up and take in the game, I ended up standing next to Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer. Mercer had recently been named head coach of his alma mater, taking over for Greg Lovelady, whom Central Florida named head coach. After congratulating Mercer on his first head coach position, and reliving a bit of the 2016 Louisville Regional, where Wright State knocked out Ohio State en route to finishing runners-up to the Cardinals, Mercer and I started talking recruiting.

What made Wright State successful under Loverlady, and before that Penn State’s Rob Cooper, was Wright State’s uncanny ability to find gems in the recruiting trail. Whether they trusted the bat to provide enough value to overcome defensive deficiencies other recruiters saw, took a chance on the undersized kid, or just had a better scouting eye, for going on a decade, Wright State did more than any other Midwest program given resources, brand name, facilities, location. To be candid, it shouldn’t be possible that a commuter school outside of Dayton, Ohio could on multiple occasions beat the top team in the nation (Georgia in 2009 and Virginia in 2010) be a consistent regional presence, rack up 40-win seasons and knockout the state’s flagship school with at least five times as much resources. But Wright State did all of the above.

At an event where coaches are ask to project players just coming off of their sophomore, if not freshman, high school seasons, I asked Mercer how the recruiting landscape had changed since he played, and if the Wright State model was sustainable with the recruiting cycles continued acceleration. For the next 30 minutes, Mercer not only explained what made Wright State successful on the recruiting trail, but identified trends and inefficiencies in recruiting, how to recruit a football player versus a one-sport baseball specialist, what type of nutrition plan is demanded of different body types and he will provide a player once on campus to maximize their physical being.

As the class of 2018 and 2019 graduates from Ohio and Michigan shook hands at the end of their game, Mercer and I vowed to keep in touch, exchanged pleasantries and asked for the inning and who’s on the mound of the other games.

It’s not uncommon to lost track of time when talking to coaches as events on the recruiting trails. Especially by August, most of the players have been seen too many times to count. Conversations drift and can span the range of ranking fast food burgers to desired careers as amateur storm chasers to debating the merits of Marriott versus Hilton hotels. What made the conversation with Mercer stand out was the articulation, thoroughness and precision of plans. There was no wavering from one thought to the next. Mercer wasn’t just a new head coach learning as he went, he was prepared for this day from the time he entered the coaching ranks.

And then there’s me, the to-be-30-year-old, who had trouble on a daily basis figuring out what to eat for lunch and how to cook it. This level of detail, articulation of a vision, and purposeful intention behind every action was beyond me and my 29 3/4 years. I needed that bourbon.

I first knew of Mercer when he a first baseman at Wright State. During the 2009 season, I ran a blog called Buckeye State Baseball that covered all of Ohio college baseball. Under the direction of Cooper, Mercer was on a 2009 Wright State team I followedthat participated in the Forth Worth Regional. It was also a year that saw Mercer named Horizon League Player of the Year.

Following Mercer’s decorated career between Dayton and Wright State, he spent a year as a Graduate Assistant at Ohio Northern, and then coached on Rich Maloney’s staff at Michigan for the 2011 season. I had been around college baseball enough to know a coach doesn’t land at a place like Michigan, less than two years removed from his playing days, especially when one year is spent at ONU, no disrespect to the Polar Bears. I assumed Mercer had a bright future and kept track of what appeared to be an up-and-comer and the next big thing.

At the same time, you could say the same for the Indiana baseball program. While Mercer’s collegiate career was coming to an end in the Lone Star State, the Bluegrass State bore witness to a revived Hoosier program.

The 2009 season ended with Indiana in the Louisville Regional, its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years, as the Hoosiers won the Big Ten Tournament. A team decorated with three first-round picks, Eric Arnett, Matt Bashore and Josh Phegley, and three eventual Major League Baseball players, Alex Dickerson, Jake Dunning and Phegley, the third-seeded Hoosiers ran bullied the tournament field and showed there was a new kid on the block in Big Ten baseball.

While we fast forward a little, here is where we also show how timing is a funny thing and everything.

It’s June 2013. Indiana, now with Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, built upon the foundation laid by Dickerson and Phegley. The Hoosier appeared in the College World Series, finishing sixth in the country. Indiana became the first Big Ten team to reach Omaha since Michigan in 1984, as Tracy Smith was named National Coach of the Year.

At the other end of the Big Ten standings, Penn State relived Robbie Wine of his duties at Penn State. With coaches around the country seeing what is possible at a Big Ten program, the Penn State head coach vacancy received interest from all parts of the country. Three candidates emerged as finalists: Wright State’s Rob Cooper, Saint Louis’ Darin Hendrickson and Louisville assistant coach Chris Lemonis. Ultimately Lemonis decided to stay at Louisville and Penn State tabbed Cooper. With Cooper leaving Wright State, the Raider program was turned over to assistant Greg Lovelady, who then added Mercer to his staff.

The following year, Indiana wouldn’t quite reach their 2013 highs, but they did earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted a second consecutive regional. Hired by Indiana in 2006, Smith recruited the players that saw Indiana break their postseason drought in 2009 and over the next five years established himself as one of college baseball’s top coaches, spearheaded Indiana going from Sembower Field, a place that was on-par with a mid-tier high school program, as well as made Indiana the standard-bearer in the Big Ten. Arguably the most recognizable school in college baseball, Arizona State plucked Smith from Bloomington. And now, after being of interest for Ohio State’s vacancy in 2010, Michigan’s in 2012 and Penn State the prior summer, Indiana made Lemonis their head coach and put him in charge of keeping the Hoosier program at it’s peak.

For the most part, Lemonis did just that. In four years, Indiana went to three regionals. They continued to recruit at an elite level, contend for Big Ten championships, and saw college baseball become something you schedule to do in Bloomington.

Meanwhile, less than two hours across the border in Ohio, the Wright State machine continued to churn out conference crowns and regional appearances. Wright State set a program record with 43 wins in 2015, then reset the record book in 2016 with 45 wins. In the two years that Mercer led the Raiders, Wright State went 77-38, received their first national ranking in 2017 and appeared in the 2018 Stanford Regional.

While it was almost two years since I had that what-is-my-life moment, the moment came for Mercer to do what he had sought out to do all along.

A native of Bargersville, Ind., Mercer is the junior of Jeff Mercer Sr. When junior was a toddler, senior was an assistant baseball coach at Indiana from 1988-1989. As he would grow up and play for Franklin Community High School, he was only an hour away from the program he dreamed of leading. College baseball did land him in Bloomington, but Dayton and Wright State kept him in the region, as did coaching stops at ONU, Michigan, Western Kentucky and Wright State.

But now it was time to come home.

The success Indiana had from 2009-2018 was a bit bittersweet. Indiana was indeed one of the top 30 programs in the country. Their success in Bloomington made Smith and Lemonis top targets. Targets by athletic departments that pour seemingly unlimited funds and resources into their baseball programs. Just as multiple Big Ten schools were interested in Lemonis while he was an assistant at Louisville, it wasn’t long in his tenure that it became an annual eventual for Lemonis’ name was tied to a vacancy at a college baseball blueblood. Ultimately, Mississippi State was able to pluck Lemonis away from Bloomington following the 2018.

What was Indiana to do to not continue this cycle of hiring a good coach, see have success, step forward as one of college baseball’s best, then leave?

Hire a guy who sees Indiana as the final destination, one who planned for the opportunity from day one. Hire Jeff Mercer.

Throughout Indiana’s search to fill the surprise vacancy created by Lemonis’ departure, I spoke with those close to Indiana’s search. They did not want to become the Xavier basketball of college baseball: a very good to great program potentially losing a coach every handful of years. Where media threw out names like Nate Yeskie of Oregon State or Wes Johnson at Arkansas, Indiana had no such interest. They wanted a guy who knew what it meant to be a Hoosier, a guy who would want to retire in Bloomington. They weren’t interested in the hot name, let alone coaches who couldn’t tell you Bargersville from Brownsville, Indiana. If it meant sacrificing a ranking here or there, so be it, who wants to don the Crimson and Cream and not look elsewhere?

This time, it didn’t take a 30-minute talk with Mercer to contemplate what’s to come. It took all of 30 seconds.

When I called Mercer to ask if he would have interest in the Indiana vacancy, he said absolutely, that he wouldn’t leave Indiana even if the New York Yankees called offering their manager job. Mercer shared some family insight, like how his parents have a barn 15 minutes from campus, how at his grandparents thee first thing you saw when you opened the door was Christ on the crucifix and a picture of Bobby Knight. Mercer grew up only knowing Indiana and in his heart the possibility of leading Indiana is what everything he worked for in coaching was for.

And so it came to pass. Hundreds of resumes and well-qualified coaches applied, but it didn’t take long for Indiana to find their guy. On July 2, 2018, less than nine days after Lemonis left, Indiana Director of Athletics Fred Glass named Mercer the 25th head coach in Indiana’s baseball history. I’ll guess Glass will be long retired before Indiana needs their 26th head coach.

It was two and a half years after we chatted in Westfield, but one week out from the start of the 2019 season, Mercer and I had another conversation that saw time fly by. Speaking to culture and buy-in, nutrition plans, how he wants to build the IU program to his liking, every belief and principle had a purpose behind it. Every decision had a reason. Every action a why. While I was looking to the 2019 season, Mercer was operating just as he normally does. Everything he worked for led him to this moment, it was just another day in February, all actions prior led up to it, all actions to come to lead Indiana to a title.

On Saturday, Mercer led Indiana to their seventh Big Ten championship. In winning the conference crown in his first season, Mercer became the first Big Ten coach to win the conference championship in his first season at the school since Minnesota’s John Anderson did it in 1982. There were 32 hires in the Big Ten since Minnesota tabbed Anderson, if you were wondering.

The more I dug through record books and checked coaching records against who won the Big Ten, there were some pretty impressive coaches who were unable to do what Mercer did. Some hall of fame coaches in fact. Ohio State’s Bob Todd didn’t win a title in his first year, he needed two seasons to bring a title to Columbus. Maloney restored past promise and glory in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten until his fourth season. Darin Erstad and Dan Hartleb have opportunities to go down as the best coaches in the respective histories of Nebraska and Illinois baseball, but their first Big Ten crown didn’t come until their sixth season.

And so it was Anderson who last accomplished what Mercer did this weekend, fittingly. A coach back in his home state, a coach who has no desire to leave. A coach who’s planned it out for as long as he can remember. If there’s ever going to be a coach who matches Anderson with 11 Big Ten championships over a 38-year career, it’s the 33-year-old Mercer.

Rest easy, and celebrate Indiana, you have your coach, he’s home and not going anywhere. Bourbon’s on me.

Weekend Reads: May 2

With the college baseball season heading into its stretch run, there isn’t a shortage of fascinating subjects, interesting notes and compelling storylines. Heading into a big week of Big Ten baseball, here’s a half-dozen must-reads, as well as a look at how outlets see the NCAA Tournament field coming together.

 

There’s plenty of work left for the Hawkeyes, which are seeking their third regional berth in the last five seasons. But opportunity awaits in the final month. It starts this weekend, as Iowa (27-16, 11-7 Big Ten Conference) hosts No. 25 UC Irvine (28-11) in what is its most pivotal series of the year.

Examining the Hawkeyes’ postseason chances with college baseball analysts Dargan Southard, HawkCentral

 

“You just have to be able to continue to compete, it’s so cliché, but just the toughness,” Mercer said. “You just have to continue to go and go and go, and you can’t worry about what happens. We couldn’t worry about what happened Friday, we couldn’t worry about what happened in the first five of six innings (on Saturday). You’ve got to just keep going.”

Power, Toughness Have Indiana On The Rise Joe Healy, Baseball America

 

From a walk-on, who wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the 35-man roster his freshman season, to an emerging MLB prospect, Nwogu is living the dream playing for his hometown team.

Walk-on to MLB prospect, Ann Arbor native doing it all for Michigan Ryan Zuke, MLive.com

 

“We’ve talked about this being a young team,” Beals said. “Well, it’s time to get over that. They are not freshmen any longer. We’ve played 44 games…These games coming up are critical. Now, the test is: Can you stay in it? Can you play it out through the dog days.”

Beals Prods Bucks For The Stretch Run Greg Hoard, Press Pros Magazine

 

That petty cash goes towards groceries, cleaning supplies and other sundries around the apartment. Smith’s dedication more directly pays off on the mound. In the span of the past year, the left-hander from suburban Chicago has risen from little-used reliever to weekend starter.

Purdue baseball’s Patrick J. Smith seeing summer dedication pay off in starting rotation

 

During the second weekend of the season, the Cats were in a rain delay in Durham, North Carolina. Dunn said the team spent the delay in the dugout cracking jokes and telling stories. He cited junior Alex Erro as “probably the best storyteller,” as well as a great impersonator, highlighting his impression of freshman Anthony Calarco.

During delays, Northwestern players have different ways of staying loose Peter Warren, Daily Northwestern

 

NCAA Tournament Projections

Baseball America In: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska

D1Baseball.com In: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska

Perfect Game In: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska

10 B1G Baseball Things to Watch in May

The final month of the college baseball season is here. With respect to February, March, April and even June, there’s nothing like baseball in May.

From fights for conference championships, battles for individual honors, the polishing og postseason resumes, the opportunity for some firsts and the heartbreaks of some, lasting memories are made in May.

What’s in store for the Big Ten in May? Here’s 10 things to watch across the conference as a wild month unfolds.

The Player of the Year showdown

Michigan’s Jordan Brewer and Ohio State’s Dominic Canzone are 1-2 in the Big Ten in batting. The Wolverine leads the conference with a .378 average, the Buckeye sits second at .367. Both are hitting for power in posting gaudy averages. With the conference’s top slugging percentage, .685, Brewer has 11 doubles with 11 home runs. Slugging .656, Canzone has 12 doubles, two triples and 12 home runs. Where Brewer trails in extra-base hits, and total hits (66 to 54) he bests Canzone in stolen bases. Brewer has swiped 13 bags in 17 attempts to Canzone’s six stolen bases in seven tries.

For the first time in several years, without a David Kerian, Matt Fielder, Jake Adams or Bren Spillane there isn’t a clear cut favorite for the conference’s top individual honor as the season enters the final month. With two equally viable candidates, last POY battle this tight was 2013 when Illinois Justin Parr and Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber each had a rightful claim. As Michigan looks for its first conference crown in 11 years, and the Buckeyes fight for a spot in the conference tournament, these two leading men will be needed to be at their best. And the one that is looks like they’ll go down as the Big Ten’s best.

Who takes home the ERA crown?

Seven Big Ten pitchers posses ERAs between 2.00 and 2.40. Extending it to 2.70 nets three more hurlers. While pitching continues to get better and better in the Big Ten, and teams possessing deeper staffs, there hasn’t been a year quite like the one we’re witnessing in 2019. There isn’t just one very good, perhaps dominant pitcher, there’s been several.

Minnesota’s Max Meyer leads the Big Ten with a 2.00 ERA, a sneeze better than Penn State’s Dante Biasi’s 2.01 mark. Iowa’s Grant Judkins is right there at 2.11. PSU stretch reliever Mason Mellott sports a 2.30 ERA, Indiana’s Andrew Saalfrank checks in at 2.31.

With 90 strikeouts in 62.2 innings and a .177 ERA, Biasi has incredible numbers alongside his ERA to stake his claim for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. But with ERAs as low as his, and the company breathing down his neck, it would take one bad outing to fall out of the top 10.

Big time bye weeks

The race for the Big Ten crown is going to be dramatic, with Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa all within two games of each other. The rounding out of the Big Ten Tournament field should be just as intense, with two games separating fifth and 11th places. But don’t forget about the action taking place outside of conference play.

Three significant bye weeks round out the regular season. Iowa hosts UC Irvine, Nebraska host Arizona State, and Arizona travels to Penn State. The first two series have NCAA Tournament implications. Both Irvine and ASU are ranked. Winning those series will help Iowa and Nebraska solidify their postseason resumes. For Penn State, it’s been a tough season, one that start with promise before fizzling out. While postseason play will elude them, winning their final series of the weekend, especially against a Power 5, nationally-recognized team like Arizona, will give a young team something to rally around in the offseason.

Regardless of outcome, it is great for the Big Ten to have perennial powers and college bluebloods on their turf, late in the season, with an opportunity to continue to shape the perception of Big Ten baseball.

Does Penn State play spoiler?

It just hasn’t been Penn State’s year. Although the team has pitched to a 3.84 ERA, fourth-best in the Big Ten, a conference-worst .231 batting average has been an anchor around the Nittany Lions all season. Of Penn State’s 15 conference losses, seven have been by one run and six by two runs. Penn State has suffered six defeats where they allowed three runs or fewer, and three when it’s only been one or two runs. Although a return to the Big Ten Tournament must wait at least another year, Penn State can do significant damage to a pair of club’s postseason hopes, prior to the season-ending series versus Arizona.

First up, Penn State welcomes Rutgers to town this weekend, a club with their own offensive struggles. The Nittany Lions play their final Big Ten in Columbus, against an Ohio State team that is incredibly sneaky. Every possible outcome is on the table as Penn State takes on these two scarlet-clad clubs. Including outcomes that can keep a club, or both, from Omaha.

Can the Hoosier slug 100 home runs?

Indiana leads the country with 77 home runs, a pace of 1.75 home runs per each of the team’s 44 games. Over a 56-game schedule that amounts to 98 home runs. Can the Hoosiers hit 100 home runs? With 11 games left in the regular season, IU needs to hit 2.1 per contest to hit the century mark before the postseason. Assuming all games are played in the regular season and Indiana at worst goes 0-2 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, they would need 23 over 15 games, a modest clip of 1.53 home runs per game. As the team creeps towards the century mark, the Big Ten record for home runs in a season is in play. The mark sits at 108, set by Michigan in 1985.

There is one record the Hoosiers are assuredly going to blow by: most times struck out. Indiana batters have struck out 469 times this season, just 14 shy of the single-season record set by Ohio State in 2016. Of course that Ohio State team won 40 games, and won the Big Ten Tournament. Success Indiana would take.

Is a regional heading to Champaign?

Earlier this season, there was a time when Illinois was ranked. Then, there was a time when Illinois sat 1-5 in Big Ten play. Now, the Illini are back on the upswing, with a few big opportunities in front on them.

Illinois picked up a 5-2 win over Indiana State on Wednesday, giving the team a ninth win in 13 contests against team with an RPI of 50 or better. And with an RPI of their own at 21, Illinois is compiling a resume that has a chance to host a regional. That resume can add a pretty shiny start with a weekend over Indiana, whom the Illini host this weekend. Illinois’ RPI may take a hit through the rest of May, series versus Purdue and at Michigan State has Illinois facing the Big Ten’s two worst rated clubs. But already Illinois has weekend wins against Florida Atlantic, Illinois State, Minnesota and Nebraska, in addition to taking two games against Coastal Carolina. Barring a complete collapse over the final month, Illinois zeroing in on a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. And just as they did that year, the Illini might be playing postseason baseball at home.

Will Rutgers have enough juice to get to Omaha?

Rutgers has the weekend rotation to earn a spot in the program’s first Big Ten Tournament. With Harry Rutkowski, Tommy Genuario and Tevin Murray, all three holding sub-3.50 ERAs, the Scarlet Knights are capable of winning every weekend on the strength of their staff. But to win a baseball game one must outscore the opposition. The scoring part has been tough for Rutgers this year. While the team has a 3.29 ERA in Big Ten play, fifth-best, the bats havent’ match. The club’s .234 batting average is 11th and it’s .292 slugging percentage sits last. With the weekend rotation all in line to return next year, their success this season has opened the door for possibilities next year of vying for a conference crown and spot in the NCAA Tournament. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow if postseason play is put off another year with the way the Rutgers rotation has pitched.

What does Maryland get out of Blohm?

Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm opened May making just his third appearance on the mound. Prior to Wednesday’s action, the 2017 Big Ten Freshman of the Year was sidelined for two months, last pitching on Feb. 17 against Virginia Commonwealth, before returning to the mound on April 23 for a start against VCU. As he returns to form, the results have been encouraging. In his two outings, Blohm has logged 5.1 innings, allowed two hits and struck out nine batters against one walk. Blohm possesses the stuff to be among the Big Ten’s top pitching prospects when healthy. With his return, and doing so in strong from, he gives Rob Vaughn and the Terps one more bullet in the chamber as they fight a crowded field for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. It is worth watching if Maryland can get him back into the weekend rotation and stretched out, as their finishing stretch of Michigan-Minnesota-Iowa, might be the toughest in the conference.

Northwestern’s bid for a winning season

It’s been 15 years since Northwestern last had a non-losing season, going 25-25 in 2003. The drought dates back to 2000 to find Northwestern’s last winning season, a 30-27 campaign. The Wildcats opened May on a high, defeating Illinois State, 6-3, a team ranked 32 in the RPI. At 19-22 heading into their final 10 games, it would take a 7-3 run to finish the regular season north of .500. Northwestern’s final three weekends see Nebraska and Minnesota travel to Evanston, around a series at Rutgers. With that finishing stretch, a winning season may be a tall order. But the opportunity is there for Spencer Allen and company to take a significant step forward as a program.

Who wins the Big Ten? Who reaches Omaha?

Just look at the standings? It’s crowded. It’s time for chaos. Welcome to May.

10 B1G Baseball First-Half Thoughts

The Big Ten has reached the midway point of its conference season, bringing to close a first-half that had a bit over everything. A small sample size certainty contributes to it, but only one and a half games separate third from 10th place, as the first four weekends providing shocking results, one after another. It does appear two teams have jumped to the front of the pack, with two more teams hanging on by a thread, but for everyone else, it’s been a roller coaster of a conference slate.

Before looking ahead to what should be an equally frantic second-half, here’s a look at 10 first-half thoughts.

The wildest opening month in recent memory

Where does one begin? Whether it’s due to greater parity or weather forcing one Saturday doubleheader after another, the first four weeks of the Big Ten season has been full of twist and turns.

Illinois opened conference play with a 1-5 mark, after opening the season on a 17-4 tear. Iowa was primarily responsible for Illinois’ slow start, sweeping the Illini in their conference-opening series. Unfortunately for Rick Heller’s club, the Hawkeyes were on the opposite side of a sweep one week later at Indiana. Ohio State has also suffered a brooming, seeing Northwestern enter Columbus and leave with three wins. But the Buckeyes would then rebound the following weekend by taking two of three from a ranked Michigan team, a Wolverine club which some viewed to be the prohibitive favorite after taking a series against Minnesota.

Many times it has appeared a team was poised to make go on an extended run, only to take a step backwards the following weekend. Similarly, more than once has it appeared a club had a long season in front of them, before looking like a top club the next weekend. I guess that’s how you get five teams a game within .500.

Indiana has its scariest lineup in at least a decade

Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs and it’s not even close. The Hooisers have slugged 66 home runs, lapping Michigan’s second-best total of 37. In fact, with 13 home runs apiece, Cole Barr and Matt Lloyd have more home runs individually than Purdue (6) and Rutgers (10) do as a team and just as many as Michigan State. In total, 12 Hoosier have left the yard, with Matt Gorski (9) and Grant Richardson (7), set to join Barr and Lloyd in double-digits. It’s a 1-9 with power the Big Ten hasn’t seen in some time.

Indiana isn’t too far removed from the days of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, but this is the most potent IU lineup to take to Bart Kaufman Field. Indiana’s 2014 national seed team only hit 43 home runs on the year. The year before, when Indiana reached the College World Series, Tracy Smith’s club hit 53 home runs in 65 games. Those dominant clubs where more methodical and wore you down over nine innings, opposed to capable of putting up a crooked inning no matter which part of the lineup is due up, at whatever junction.

With 66 home runs in 37 games, this Indiana outfit is squarely on pace for a 100-home run season. Every player possesses the ability to go out of the yard, at any given moment, recall memories of Indiana’s 2009 club, when first-round Josh Phegley and freshman Alex Dickerson anchored a potent offense that mashed its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Again, the two best teams will not play each other

Speaking of the Hoosiers, its appears that they and the Huskers of Nebraska have separated from the pack and are moving forward as the two best clubs. Indiana’s 7-2 Big Ten mark trails only Nebraska’s 10-2 clip. While Indiana is powered by ferocious attack, Nebraska’s pitching has been at top form, stifling opponents. While they fight for the conference titles, fans look to be out in the cold, and won’t see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as the Hoosier and Huskers are not slated to play each other in the regular season. (Although that didn’t stop the two from meeting in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament for an unforgettable affairs.)

If the two finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the Big Ten standings, it will be another year when the top two clubs do not meet. Just as IU and Nebraska didn’t meet in 2014, nor did Illinois and Iowa in 2015, nor Minnesota and Nebraska in 2016, nor Nebraska and Illinois in 2017. The streak did end last year, as Minnesota and Purdue met in an abbreviated two-game as Minnesota outscored Purdue 40-15. That was far from the classic a not-to-be series between Indiana and Nebraska has the potential to be.

Penn State isn’t what their record says they are

At the opposite end of the standings, Penn State’s 1-10 conference mark has the Nittany Lions 12th in the 13-team table. It’s almost becoming downright cruel, but Penn State is far from what one would expect of a club with one win in 11 conference games. Of the 10 losses, five have been by two runs, with four coming by a lone run. Only once, a 5-1 loss to Minnesota in the first game of the Big Ten season, has Penn State been decisively outmatched.

In their 11 conference contests, Penn State has only gave up 41 runs, an average of 3.72 per game, pitching to a 2.79 ERA in conference play. Only Nebraska and Indiana, a pair of clubs Penn State has played, have lower ERAs, 1.92 and 2.32, respectively. But in baseball you can only win if you outscore the opposition. As strong as Penn State’s pitching has been, the oppositions has been better, holding PSU to 26 runs and a .202 batting average. But, as the Nittany Lions enter the second-half of Big Ten play with the two toughest opponents behind them, they do so with a weekend rotation that should have them in every game and will trip up any time gauging their ability by their Big Ten record. Especially as Dante Biasi and his 1.93 ERA and Big Ten-leading 70 strikeouts sits atop the weekend rotation.

A slow start for the stars

Heading into the season, prognosticators pegged Illinois Michael Massey, Indiana’s Matt Gorski and Michigan’s Jesse Franklin as the Big Ten tops players, with Minnesota sophomore right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson a heavy favorite to repeat as the conference’s top pitcher. While it’s far too early to write anyone off, the seasons those four players are having are not what was expected.

Injury has slowed Massey down and kept him out of the field, regulated to Illinois’ DH spot all through February and March. Just recently has the 2018 Rawlings Gold Glove recipient returned to his natural second base, as he bats a good, but not spectacular .333. Gorski does have the aforementioned nine home runs, but he is batting just .276. That’s still significantly better than Franklin’s .238 mark, although Franklin has one-upped Gorski with 10 home runs. Iowa’s Chris Whelan, Ohio State’s Kobie Foppe and Rutgers’ Carmen Scalfani are also expected offensive leaders who haven’t seen hits fall in as expected.

But the most perplexing slow start falls on Fredrickson. A year removed from going 9-0 with a 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson is 1-3 with a 5.74 ERA. En route to winning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors, Fredrickson issued just 27 walks in 97 innings. Control has been a significant issue in 2019, as the Gopher has walked 25 batters in just 26.2 innings.

Freshmen making an impact

Where some returning standouts have struggle, there’s a crop of rookies getting it done, a few stepping up to pick up some of the slack from those once all-conference performers, setting up a dandy of a Freshman of the Year race.

Right-hander Garrett Burhenn holds a 3.16 ERA as he has emerged as Ohio State’s ace. Richardson’s seven home runs pace freshmen, one more than Burhenn’s fellow Buckeye freshman, Zach Denzenzo and Maryland’s Maxwell Costes, the latter holding a .911 OPS and a Maryland-leading 30 RBI. Michigan closer Willie Weiss has six saves and a 3.38 ERA. While Cam McDonald has stepped up nicely for the Illini, with a .307 batting average and

Seniors are providing significant production

Of course, the seniors won’t have the freshman steal all of the spotlight.

Seniors have stepping up to pacing their respective club in hitting are:

Jack Dunn (.374), Northwestern

Grant Van Scoy (.363), Illinois

Jordan Bowersox (.344), Penn State

Matt Lloyd (.318), Indiana

Dunn leads the conference in average and on-base percentage (.477), while Lloyd leads in home runs and slugging percentage (.689) and RBI (38).

Seniors carrying the torch on the mound are:

Matt Waldron (1.76 ERA), Nebraska

Pauly Milto (1.98), Indiana

Hunter Parsons (2.95), Maryland

Waldron’s ERA leads Big Ten hurlers, with Parsons’ 64 innings the standard-bearer.

Max Meyer gives Minnesota a puncher’s chance

One star who has delivered on preseason promise would be the walk-away winner of any Most Valuable Player honor: Minnesota sophomore Max Meyer. With the Gophers struggling to find traction, the Gophers moved their all-american closer to the front of the rotation. Converting a key reliever to starter hasn’t worked out well for a few Big Ten teams in recent years (Indiana, Nebraska (several times), Michigan State, Northwestern just to name a few), but it has so far for John Anderson, and it may be a move that saved their season.

Minnesota sat 2-8 on the year, in part due to stout competition, before Meyer made his first start against Oregon State on March 8. Minnesota has gone 14-10 since, while Meyer sports a 1.97 ERA on the season, with 58 strikeouts in 50.1 innings and a .204 batting average against. With Meyer atop the rotation, Minnesota can go toe-to-toe against anyone in the country. With Fredrickson’s regression and all but Jeff Fasching and Brett Schulze providing inconsistent returns, Minnesota desperately need the experiment to work. And it has. Meyer emerging as a frontline starter is also coming as he tackled two-way duties, batting .292 over 96 at-bats in 29 games.

Rutgers has the staff it needs to reach the postseason

While Minnesota entered the season looking to reach Omaha as College World Series participants, looking build off last season’s end in the Corvallis Super Regional, Rutgers is looking to play in Omaha as participants in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. And for the first time under Joe Litterio, The Scarlet Knights have a weekend staff capable of getting them there.

Sophomore Harry Rutkowski, junior Tommy Genuario and junior Tevin Murray make up a rotation with respective ERAs of 3.23, 2.97 and 3.66. That has Rutgers join Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as Big Ten teams with each pitcher in their weekend rotation holding a sub-4.00 ERA. And just like the Hoosiers, Illinois and Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights have a reliable closer in senior Serafino Brito. Rutgers doesn’t have the pitching depth those three other clubs do, Rutgers’ team ERA is 4.69, ninth in the conference, but they can role out a strong rotation and close out games in a manner needed to finish in the top eight.

ESPN and Fox Sports provide more national exposure

As the Big Ten Network is in its second decade, the benefits of the conference-centric network have been invaluable. Additional revenue for Big Ten athletic departments have helped many olympic sports receive new or enhanced facilities. The network helps with recruiting in exposing those facilities and the game action to all parts of the country. And it’s new for friends and families to tune on a game when unable to travel and take in. But more and more BTN isn’t the only network airing Big Ten baseball to the country from coast to coast. Already ESPNU has aired Big Ten play, the finale of the Purdue-Nebraska series, while FS1 has shown a non-conference Purdue-Indiana midweek affair and a Butler-Purdue contest the following week. ESPNU will also air the finale of the Minnesota-Indiana , a week before FS1 broadcasts action from Minneapolis in a showdown between the Gophers and Buckeyes. While gates around the conference may take a small hit, it’s great to see Big Ten baseball on multiple airwaves around the country.

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