10 takes: Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

After checking in with respective head coaches, Rick Heller, John Anderson and Darin Erstad, to share notes on the falls of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, here’s a rundown of thoughts pertaining to the three programs, a trio responsible for the last three Big Ten championships and a combined five regional appearances over that period.

At home at State U.

Anderson and Erstad are alumni of the programs they head and Heller is an Iowa native who knows the Hawkeye State inside and out. In talking to each, what’s foremost apparent is the pride they place in leading their state’s flagship school. It would be silly to suggest they’re coaching harder than coaches who may not have deeply rooted ties to their program, but it is clear that the highs experienced over the lat five years in Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis are extra special to the men at the helm of these Big Ten programs.

Minnesota’s 2018 is a blueprint for Nebraska in 2019

Helping power the Gophers to the program’s first super regional appearance was a strong, pitching-heavy freshman class. While it’s hard to expect a freshman to be named the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year, and have another freshman go on to play for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, it’s not unrealistic to expect freshmen pitchers to player a leading role in a team’s success. It’s too be seen if they can be just as effective as Joshua Culliver, Patrick Fredrickson, Max Meyer and company were for the Gophers, but in Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes and Spencer Schwellenbach, Nebraska has three potential frontline arms with high ceilings and the stuff to lead a powerful rookie class of pitchers themselves. 

Big XII showdowns

A lot has been made on this blog about how the Big Ten is displaying a greater capability of being able to stand up and go toe-to-toe against the Pac 12. And with Nebraska playing four games against Oregon State, Minnesota facing the Beavers twice in the first three weeks of the season, and Nebraska hosting Arizona State for a weekend series in May, there will be more opportunities to size up the two Rose Bowl-bounded conferences. But between these three, there will also be key series against Big XII programs, a conference that poses a significant threat in recruiting, given its geographic makeup. Key an eye on these three series, that figure to have regional implications, but could also help steer conversations on the recruiting trail:

Iowa at Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Nebraska vs. Baylor, March 8-10

Minnesota vs. Oklahoma, April 19-21

Anderson isn’t tinkering with what’s not broken

As Minnesota’s season ended in the Corvallis Super Regional, though painful to be so close to the College World Series, there was reason to look forward to the 2019 season with what Fredrickson and Meyer showed in the final game of their freshman season. A Minnesota rotation with the two right-handed pitchers at the top would draw preseason praise and potentially have the Gophers as conference favorites. Except that’s not going to happen. Anderson and Minnesota’s staff is electing to keep Meyer as the closer and leaning to having Fredrickson resume his Saturday duties. While utilizing Meyer as a two-way player sort of forces their hand in managing his workload, recent years have seen multiple standout closers try to be turned into weekend starters and not have the same success: Scott Effross (Indiana), Colton Howell (Nebraska), Riley McCauley (Michigan State), and Yianni Pavlopoulos (Ohio State) to name a few. Credit Minnesota for realizing it’s really hard for pitchers to step in and do what Meyer did a year ago.

Oh what a Big Ten West could be

In football, the Big Ten’s East Division drives the conversation, with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State leading one of the best divisions in college football. When looking at the recent run of success in Big Ten baseball, an equally strong division could be found in the conference, if there were division.

Since 2012, Big Ten West teams have combined for 11 regional appearances and have claimed five of seven conference championships. And with the continued rise in talent in prep baseball in Wisconsin, the state produced Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, one thinks a would-be Badger program could be competitive. Playing more games regularly against this half of the conference could have pushed Minnesota over the bubble in 2017, Illinois in 2014 and 2018. But, without Wisconsin sponsoring baseball, we have a one-division, 13-team Big Ten conference, and only a hypothetical of what could be a dynamite college baseball division.

Breakout season candidates

Between what was shared from the head coaches and personal observations over the past few years, among these three teams, a player from each I expect to take a step forward and be a key contributor to their respective team:

Iowa- Jr. RHP Grant Judkins

Minnesota- Jr. C Eli Wilson

Nebraska- Soph. OF Keegan Watson

Will tough schedules help or hurt postseason chances?

The non-conference schedules Anderson, Erstad and Heller put together can stack up against any in the country as far as being challenging and unforgiving. And Each coach suggested they wouldn’t change a thing about them, that they’re players want and expect to play against and that’s how championship teams are built. But with turnover in critical players for each, the need for players to step in and grow up fast, will all three clubs be ready to take on some of the country’s best early and often? As Erstad said, it won’t take long to find out what the players of these teams are made of.

Iowa-Nebraska has the makings to be the Big Ten’s best rivalry.

Without Wisconsin, no divisions and an odd-number of teams, the Big Ten operates on a three-year scheduling cycle. As teams have eight conference series a year, not playing four teams, each team will play at home, away and skip every opponent over a three-year period. That last aspect flat out stinks as it means there will be rivalry contests that are skipped. That leaves Michigan and Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue to scheduling mid-week games to ensure they play each other every season. That agreement will hopefully as extend to Iowa and Nebraska.

With Iowa baseball sustaining its most successful period on the diamond in a generation, the fan base and support growing, and Nebraska baseball being Nebraska baseball, these border rivals need to play every year. How the two compete for recruits on either side of the Missouri River, both helping draw more than 10,000 people to TD Ameritrade Park for Big Ten Tournament title games, and Iowa having a good bit of success in Lincoln of late, the ingredients are there for a fun, competitive and passionate rivalry to blossom.

Get ready for them to run

Both Anderson and Heller alluded to their respective teams likely to have more action on the bases this year, with neither team having a big time slugger to anchor the lineup, nor the ability to wait for hits to string together. Iowa worked extensively on hit-and-run situations this fall and Minnesota made it a point of emphasis to steal more bases.

And looking at who left, who returns and the makeup of the players that joined the program, I suspect there will be more aggressive play on the bases for Nebraska, too. Nebraska’s 34 stolen bases were last in the Big Ten in 2018, Iowa’s 39 only one rung better, while Minnesota was in the middle of the pack with 67. It’ll be worth watching to see is those numbers increase and how effective a change in offensive style ends up being.

Recent success isn’t going away

Just a gut feeling here, although one based on how the teams are recruiting, the desire to invest in facilities, the coaches who are leading the programs and the state of the Big Ten, it’s easy to see multiple regional berths for each program over the next three years. In Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis, there is an expectation level that wasn’t there five years ago. All three programs have made headwinds nationally and are viewed as places where players can compete against college baseball’s best and walk away with more than a few wins. There’s reason to be optimistic for the 2019 season for each of these three programs.

Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

Fall Notes: Nebraska

Program at a glance

Head Coach: Darin Erstad, eighth year

2018 Record: 24-28 overall, 8-14 Big Ten (10th)

Key departures: 1B/DH Scott Schreiber (.369 AVG/.446 OBP/.692 SLG, 18 HR), C Jesse Wilkening (.372/.445/.588, 56 RBI), RHP Luis Alvarado (70 IP, 4.89 ERA, 65 SO) RHP Jake Hohensee (25.2 IP, 1.05 ERA, 28 SO, 13 SV)

Key returners: Sr. SS Angelo Altavilla (.228/.354/.352), Jr. OF Mojo Hagge (.275/.369/.376), Jr. RHP Chad Luensmann (DNP, Tommy John), Jr. RHP Robbie Palkert (4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 SV), Jr. 3B/1B/C Luke Roskam (.269/.373/.425, 13 2B), Sr. RHP Matt Waldron (69.2 IP, 4.26 ERA, 61 SO, 12)

Notable newcomers: Fr. RHP Bo Blessie, Fr. INF/RHP Colby Gomes, Soph. OF Aaron Planesky, Fr. RHP/INF Spencer Schwellenbach

2018 in review

No matter the adjective, unlucky, unbelievable, crestfallen, or downright weird, it’s hard to find the appropriate word to describe the Huskers’ 2018 campaign. Coming off of the program’s first Big Ten championship, the first conference team title a Nebraska men’s program has won as a member of the Big Ten, 2018 was to be the season Nebraska took the next step forward. Although the 2017 season ended with a third regional in four years, the program is only 1-6 over the trio of 64-team tournaments, including back-to-back 0-2 showings. With one monkey off of the back, it was time to eviscerate another.

That monkey postseason unfortunately still is there, as a black cloud seemingly formed over Lincoln and never left.

Before the season started, junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann was lost for the season, needing Tommy John surgery.  That created a void in the Huskers’ weekend rotation as the third-year player was expected to move from standout reliever to starter. Luensmann was lost for the year after sophomore southpaw Connor Curry also needed offseason surgery. Junior righty Robbie Palkert joined the mash unit, going under the knife after showing flashes of brilliance, limited to 4.2 innings. And Junior left-hander Jake McSteen encountered arm trouble as well, limited to two starts and 12.2 innings over five outings.

With pitchers recovering from injuries, a handful being lost to injury, and continuous shuffling of roles, Nebraska used 19 pitchers last season, eight receiving a start. The lack of consistency and players put in roles out of necessity, less merit, resulted in a team ERA of 5.70, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Led by senior first baseman Scott Schreiber and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska’s offence batted at a .274 clip, sixth in the conference. But after the two all-conference performances who combined for 27 doubles and home runs, no other Husker regular batted over .275, and only two reach double digits in extra-base hits. While Wilkening made a big leap forward following a sophomore campaign of .247/.330/.312, shortstop Angelo Altavilla took a step back in his draft year, going from .316/.407/.406 for the Big Ten champions to .228/.354/.352 for the conference’s 10th-place club. Sophomores Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam showed they can be solid players, complimentary of Nebraska’s two big bats, but there wasn’t the lineup depth of years past, where 1-9 Nebraska wore down opposing pitchers.

But Nebraska still managed to score 6.48 runs per game. The bug-a-boo for the Huskers was the ravaged pitching staff. Nebraska lost five conference games where they scored at least four runs, as its in-conference ERA of 6.35 was the Big Ten’s worst. Offensively, the batted .288 and slugged .457 against conference foes, both makes good for second.

The 24-28 overall record, 8-14 Big Ten record and 10th place finish were the worst for an Erstad-led team. 

Fall notes

With the snake-bitten, disappointing year behind them, Erstad said every player returned to Lincoln motivated this fall. The eighth-year head coach added there was no need to speak of last year to his players, the players know their season wasn’t up to par, not even close. As such, compared to years past, Erstad says that a different feeling throughout the team was present this fall, noting it’s easy to coach a team who had their butt kicked.

Regarding the Curry, Luensmann and Palkert, Erstad said each are progressing fine in their recovery, no set backs have occurred and each are in line to return in 2019 at various points.

Even without the three pitchers on the mend, Erstad said the team he saw this fall has more depth than any team he’s had thus far in Lincoln. With the depth, and true to his M.O. nothing is in pen heading into the 2019 season, according to Erstad. It’ll be a battle for starts throughout the lineup and on the pitching staff. 

A key factor in the depth are the eleven freshman that make up the 2019 Nebraska roster. Right-handed pitchers Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes, and Spencer Schwellenbach drew praise and high attention during the prep and showcase circuit, each spurning the opportunity to play professional baseball. Gomes and Schwellenbach were also standout two-way players in high school, both possessing the bat and fielding prowess to make impacts all over the diamond. But, Erstad says the college game is a whole different ball game than what those and the other freshman have faced to date.

Another key newcomer is outfielder Aaron Palensky, who Erstad says is just a fun player to coach. A sophomore after spending one year at Southeast Community College, Palensky looks to be the part of a key bat in the Husker lineup, as they need a bat to emerge to fill the void of Schreiber and Wilkening. At the JUCO, last year Palensky batted .417 with 18 home runs, 77 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 24 stolen bases, while posting a .850 slugging percentage and .515 on-base percentage.

But for all of the accolades, the positive energy and determination present throughout the fall, Erstad knows none of it matters if the players don’t show up game after game.

And in 2019 the Huskers will need to be ready to bring it from day one. Nebraska’s schedule is as tough as it’s ever been, with Erstad saying, “We want to challenge our guys…we want to find out how good we are, and we will know right away.” Following a four-game series at UC Riverside to open the season, a four-game series against defending national champion Oregon State awaits. Nebraska opens March plays in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, alongside Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech. Non-conference series against Baylor and Arizona State are also on the schedule.

You’ll have to go to the bottom of Nebraska’s roster to find his name, but Curtis Ledbetter transitioning from Director of Operations to volunteer coach has been a boon for Erstad. Like he is, Erstad says Ledbetter being a Husker alum, adds an extra element to the staff. The head coach notes his volunteer assistant was on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, and knows what it takes to get there, determined to get the team, showing in turning away a paying job to be the volunteer coach.

Tickets On Sale for MSU Baseball First Pitch Dinner

East Lansing, Mich. — Michigan State baseball will hold its 14th Annual First Pitch Dinner on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019 at the Kellogg Center in East Lansing. Tickets are now on sale for the event, which will begin at 6 p.m. with a silent auction and player autographs. Dinner and a formal program will follow at 7 p.m.

This year’s event will feature Major League Baseball 1997 World Series Champion manager Jim Leyland as the keynote speaker, while honoring Jay Gooding as the Alumnus of the Year.

Leyland was an MLB manager for 21 years, winning the World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. He won four division titles, including three-straight with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1990, 1991 and 1992). In 2006, Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to the American League Championship Series, becoming the seventh manager in MLB history to win pennants in both the National and American Leagues. Leyland was a three-time recipient of the Manager of the Year Award, twice in the National League with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992, and once in the American League with the Tigers in 2006.

A native of Perrysburg, Ohio, Leyland played seven seasons in the Tigers’ minor leagues from 1964-70, before beginning his coaching career. After serving as an assistant and minor league manager in the Tigers organization, Leyland was named the Pirates manager from 1986 to 1996. Leyland then took over the Florida Marlins from 1997 to 1998, winning the 1997 World Series. After resigning from the Marlins after the 1998 season, Leyland took over the Colorado Rockies for the 1999 season. He later was named manager of the Detroit Tigers from 2006 to 2013, leading the Tigers to three consecutive division titles, joining Tony La Russa as the only managers to lead two different MLB franchises to three-straight division titles. Leyland retired from the Tigers after the 2013 season.

Leyland currently serves as a special assistant to the Detroit Tigers and managed the United States national baseball team to the 2017 World Baseball Classic title. He became the only manager to win a World Series and a World Baseball Classic title.

Gooding is an MSU alum and was co-founder of Aqua Pharmaceuticals. He was instrumental in various Spartan Baseball projects including the infield heating project at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field, renovation of the team locker room, Dominican Republic trip and lights at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field.

The 2019 MSU Baseball First Pitch Dinner will feature a silent auction, door prizes, player autographs, a team poster, 2019 season ticket card and special tribute to the Annual Crosstown Showdown between the Spartans and Lansing Lugnuts.

Tickets for the First Pitch Dinner range in price from $15 per person for children and students (8th grade and under), $25 for college students (with student ID), $40 for Spartan baseball alumni and $50 each for adults. Sponsored tables of eight are also available.

For more information on the 2019 First Pitch Dinner, download the registration form here, call Theresa Ryan in the MSU baseball office at 517-353-0816 or email at ryant@ath.msu.edu.

Penn State Releases 2019 Schedule

University Park, Penn. –The 2019 Penn State baseball schedule unveiled Tuesday by head coach Rob Cooper features 28 game dates (29 games) in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, 15 games against 2018 NCAA Tournament teams and the continuation of several Big Ten and regional matchups.

The Nittany Lions open the season Friday, Feb. 15 against Monmouth at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, North Carolina. The three-game series is the first of a stretch of 10 neutral site and four road games before the home opener slated for Friday, Mar. 15. The Nittany Lions will host UMass Lowell during the opening series, playing four games in three days with a doubleheader Saturday.

SCHEDULE HIGHLIGHTS

· The 56-game schedule includes five opponents that participated in the 2018 NCAA Baseball tournament. Duke advanced to a Super Regional, while Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Ohio State were Regional participants.

· Penn State will open the season with back-to-back trips to the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, North Carolina, playing Monmouth during the first weekend (Feb. 15-17) and Fairfield (Feb. 22-24) during the second.

· Penn State will head south to the Sunshine State for Spring Break, playing Duke at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida (Mar. 1-3) and at UCF in Orlando (Mar. 8-10).

· Penn State plays eight Big Ten series, hosting Minnesota (Mar. 22-24), Nebraska (Apr. 12-14), Maryland (Apr. 26-28) and Rutgers (May 3-5), while traveling to Purdue (Mar. 29-31), Indiana (Apr. 5-7), Illinois (Apr. 19-21) and Ohio State (May 10-12).

· Additional Autonomy Five non-conference matchups include home-and-home series against Pittsburgh (Mar. 12 [A] & Apr. 10 [H]) and West Virginia (Apr. 17 [H] & Apr. 23 [A]) and a three-game series against Arizona (May 16-18) to conclude the regular season.

Rutgers Releases 2019 Schedule

Piscataway, N.J. –Under the direction of sixth-year head coach Joe Litterio, Rutgers baseball released its 2019 schedule on Tuesday. The Scarlet Knights have 53 games listed, including 19 at Bainton Field and 24 in Big Ten play.

“I am happy with how the schedule came together for this season,” Litterio said. “The difficult early-season games will prepare us for league play in the competitive Big Ten Conference.”

The Scarlet Knights will open at Miami for the 10th time in 11 seasons with a three-game set beginning Feb. 15 against the Hurricanes. Next up, RU will take part in a tournament at New Orleans that will also feature games versus Butler and Chicago. Succeeding non-conference weekends will at Old Dominion and at USC Upstate. The spring break trip to Florida starts with a series at Florida Gulf Coast before playing Harvard midweek in Port Charlotte and wrapping up against Indiana State in a neutral weekend at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers.

The home opener at Bainton Field is scheduled for Feb. 26 versus Wagner, which would once again be the earliest home contest in program history. Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern will all visit Piscataway during Big Ten play. The conference road trips will be to Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana. The top eight teams in the conference standings will qualify for the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha.

The Scarlet Knights are finishing up fall practice after improving by six wins in 2018. RU had a streak of six-straight series wins, winning seven-of-eight weekends during a stretch into mid-April. That included a 6-1 spring break trip in Florida that propelled the team to 12 victories in March, the most since 2001, and later to as high as seven games over .500 for the first time since 2012. The pitching staff lowered its season ERA from 6.11 to 4.82 and the gloves led the Big Ten with 50 double plays. At the plate, the Scarlet Knights picked up 111 RBIs with two outs for an average of more than two per game.

Click here for the full 2019 schedule.

2019 Big Ten Baseball Schedule

With the calendar set to turn over to November, not only is there just two months left in 2018, but the start of the 2019 college baseball season is nearly 100 days away. With the Feb. 15 start of the college baseball season inching closer and closer, here’s a look at the 2019 Big Ten schedule of games, as Minnesota looks to defend its second conference championship in three years, while the other 12 Big Ten programs look to knock the Gophers off their perch.

 

Weekly schedule

 

March 22-24

Iowa @ Indiana

Michigan State @ Nebraska

Minnesota @ Penn State

Purdue @ Northwestern

Bye week: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

March 29-31

Illinois @ Iowa

Indiana @ Maryland

Michigan @, vs., @ Michigan State

Nebraska @ Minnesota

Penn State @ Purdue

Rutgers @ Ohio State

Bye week: Northwestern

 

April 5-7

Maryland @ Illinois

Minnesota @ Michigan

Ohio State @ Northwestern

Penn State @ Indiana

Purdue @ Nebraska

Rutgers @ Iowa

Bye week: Michigan State

 

April 12-14

Illinois @ Minnesota

Iowa @ Purdue

Michigan @ Ohio State

Michigan State @ Rutgers

Maryland @ Northwestern

Nebraska @ Penn State

Bye week: Indiana

 

April 19-21

Indiana @ Michigan State

Nebraska @ Iowa

Ohio State @ Maryland

Northwestern @ Michigan

Penn State @ Illinois

Purdue @ Rutgers

Bye week: Minnesota

 

April 26-28

Illinois @ Nebraska

Iowa @ Ohio State

Maryland @ Penn State

Minnesota @ Indiana

Northwestern @ Michigan State

Rutgers @ Michigan

Bye week: Purdue

 

May 3-5

Indiana @ Illinois

Michigan @ Maryland

Michigan State @ Purdue

Nebraska @ Northwestern* May 4-6

Ohio State @ Minnesota

Rutgers @ Penn State

Bye week: Iowa

 

May 10-12

Maryland @ Minnesota

Michigan @ Indiana

Michigan State @ Iowa

Penn State @ Ohio State

Purdue @ Illinois

Rutgers @ Northwestern

Bye week: Nebraska

 

May 16-18

Iowa @ Maryland

Michigan @ Nebraska

Michigan State @ Illinois

Minnesota @ Northwestern

Ohio State @ Purdue

Rutgers @ Indiana

Bye week: Penn State

 

Big Ten Tournament May 22-26

TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

 

Breakdown by opponent

 

Illinois

Home-Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan State

Away– Maryland, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue

Do not play-Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

Indiana

Home– Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota, Rutgers

Away-Maryland, Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan

Do not play– Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue

 

Iowa

Home– Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska, Michigan State

Away– Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Maryland

Do not play– Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State

 

Michigan

Home– Minnesota, Northwestern, Rutgers, Indiana,

Away– Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland, Nebraska

Do not play– Illinois, Iowa, Penn State, Purdue

 

Michigan State

Home– Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois

Away– Nebraska, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa

Do not play– Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State

 

Minnesota

Home– Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State, Maryland

Away– Penn State, Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern

Do not play– Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers

 

Nebraska

Home– Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan

Away– Minnesota, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern

Do not play– Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

Northwestern

Home– Purdue, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota

Away– Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers

Do not play– Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Penn State

 

Ohio State

Home– Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State

Away– Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota, Purdue

Do not play– Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska

 

Penn State

Home-Minnesota, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers

Away-Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State

Do not play– Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern

 

Purdue

Home– Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State

Away– Northwestern, Nebraska, Rutgers, Illinois

Do not play– Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota

 

Rutgers

Home– Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern

Away– Iowa, Michigan, Penn State, Indiana

Do not play– Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska

Maryland Releases 2019 Schedule

College Park, Md. — Maryland baseball head coach Rob Vaughn announced the program’s 2019 schedule Wednesday, which features marquee home series against East Carolina, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan. All four of those programs have made the NCAA Tournament over the last two seasons, giving the Terps one of their strongest home slates in recent memory.

Maryland, who has made NCAA Regionals in three of the last five seasons, begins its 126th season of baseball in 2019. The Terrapins will play a total of 24 games at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, including nine against teams that advanced the NCAA Tournament. The Terps will also play three-game sets on the road against two teams that advanced to NCAA Super Regionals last season: Stetson and Minnesota.

“One of the reasons that guys choose to come and play at Maryland is that they know, year in and year out, we will line up against some of the best teams in the country and this year is no different,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “A trip to Louisiana-Lafayette along with competing against two regional hosts from last season in weeks four and five gives us a chance to see where we stack up. As always, the Big Ten is continuing to pump out good teams and we are excited to compete for a conference championship. We’ve got our hands full this year, but we aren’t going to back down from the challenge and we are looking forward to February!”

The Terps will play 13 games against teams that finished in the top-50 in the RPI in 2018, including six against top-20 RPI teams. Twenty-four games will be played against 2018 RPI Top-100 teams.

The Terps open the season in Conway, S.C. at a tournament hosted by 2016 National Champion Coastal Carolina where the Terps will also face Campbell and VCU (Feb. 15-17). Maryland begins its home slate with a three-game set against Maine (Feb. 22-24) before traveling to VCU for a midweek clash (Feb. 26).

Maryland will head to Sun Belt power Louisiana-Lafayette for a three game set (March 1-3) prior to hosting Delaware at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium (March 5). The Terps then go back on the road to face off with Stetson in a three-game series (March 8-10) before traveling to take on Delaware (March 13).

A super regional program in 2014 and 2015, Louisiana-Lafayette, who regularly ranks in the top-10 attendance in the nation, will provide a tough early test for Maryland. The Terps won its series against Stetson in College Park in 2018, the biggest series victory of the season for Maryland.

A three-game series between the Terps and East Carolina is Maryland’s final non-conference home set (March 15-17). The Terps traveled to face the Pirates on the road last year, and ECU will represent Maryland’s toughest home non-conference opponent since Cal State Fullerton came to College Park in 2015.

A five-game spring break road trip follows as the Terps clash with Elon for two midweek matchups (March 19-20) and go to Creighton (March 22-24) for a weekend series. Creighton plays its home games at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the Big Ten Tournament and the College World Series.

The Terps open Big Ten play against Indiana to finish out March (29-31) before making the short trip to William & Mary (April 2). Maryland then faces Illinois on the road in its second conference series (April 5-7). A pair of midweek home games against William & Mary (April 9) and West Virginia (April 10) come prior to the Terps returning to Illinois to take on Northwestern (April 12-14).

Indiana and Illinois will represent a big opportunity for the Terps in Big Ten play. The Hoosiers were an NCAA Regional club in 2018 while Illinois was one of the last four teams left out of the tournament last season.

Maryland hosts James Madison (April 16) before traveling to George Mason the following day (April 17). The Terps then face Ohio State for the first time since 2016 in a three-game home series (April 19-21). The Buckeyes rebounded from a tough 2017 campaign to make the NCAA Tournament in 2018.

The Terps face off with VCU in their return at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium on April 23 before a weekend set at Penn State (April 26-28). After a midweek clash at Villanova (May 1), the Terps host Michigan for three contests (May 3-5).

The final home midweek game of the season comes against Towson on May 7 before the Terps travel to face Minnesota for a three-game series (May 10-12). The Golden Gophers are the defending Big Ten Regular Season and Tournament Champions. After a road matchup with James Madison (May 14), Maryland closes the season with three games at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium against Iowa (May 16-18).

The Big Ten Tournament will take place at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., May 22-26. Maryland’s non-conference home weekend series tentatively have the following game times: Friday (4 p.m.), Saturday (2 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.). Maryland’s conference home weekend series will tentatively have a 6:30 p.m. first pitch time on Friday with first pitch times for Saturday and Sunday remaining at 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. Game times are tentative until television broadcasts designations are announced.

Rutgers Hires Tom Conley as Assistant Coach

Piscataway, N.J. –Rutgers baseball head coach Joe Litterio has announced the hiring of Tom Conley as an assistant coach. A four-year starter at catcher for Massachusetts, he spent the last two seasons on the coaching staff at Harvard. The Quincy, Massachusetts, native will work with the Scarlet Knight catchers among other duties.

“We are excited to welcome Tom to our staff,” Litterio said. “He brings with him a ton of knowledge and experience at the catching position.”

“My fiancée, Amelia, and I are excited to join the Rutgers University community,” Conley said. “I want to thank coach Litterio and the Rutgers administration for giving me this opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with the coaching staff and helping in any way that I can to get our guys better and achieve our goals.”

In his second year at Harvard in 2018, Conley saw success with the Crimson as he accompanied a successful team to a Beanpot Championship title — its first since 2014 and fifth in program history — and its most wins since 2005 with a 22-20 overall record. Harvard tied for third in the conference with a record of 12-9, with contribution from seven All-Ivy players and four NEIBA All-New England selections.

Conley was a part of the coaching staff that helped Noah Zavolas and Simon Rosenblum-Larson become 2018 MLB Draft picks for the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays, respectively. In addition, the team was recognized for the NCAA Academic Progress Rate Public Recognition Award, with 21 players recognized by the ECAC for academic accomplishments.

Conley previously spent three seasons at Trinity. During his tenure with the Bantams, Conley helped the team improve its conference record in each of his three seasons, working with the catchers and hitters. The team finished second in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Championships in 2016. Conley mentored five players who earned NESCAC All-Conference honors, including 2016 NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Scott Cullinane at catcher.

As the head coach for the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, Conley assisted the Suns in reaching the playoffs in the past three seasons with the team winning its first playoff game in franchise history in 2014. He served as a mentor to four players selected in the Major League Baseball draft while in Pittsfield.

Conley served as an assistant coach at Bryant University during the 2012-13 season, and supported the team to the NEC Conference Championships. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts in 2012, where he played catcher, Conley later received his master’s degree from Trinity College in 2016.

Conley joins a Rutgers staff that also includes pitching coach Phil Cundari, assistant coach Jim Duffy, director of player development Peter Barron and senior advisor to the head coach Glen Gardner.

The Scarlet Knights are in the midst of fall practice after improving by six wins in 2018. RU had a streak of six-straight series wins, winning seven-of-eight weekends during a stretch into mid-April. That included a 6-1 spring break trip in Florida that propelled the team to 12 victories in March, the most since 2001, and later to as high as seven games over .500 for the first time since 2012. The pitching staff lowered its season ERA from 6.11 to 4.82 and the gloves led the Big Ten with 50 double plays. At the plate, the Scarlet Knights picked up 111 RBIs with two outs for an average of more than two per game.

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