Expect a Roaring Twenties for the Big Ten

Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:

The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).

Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)

Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)

Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.

For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.

Then the 2010s happened.

And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.

The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.

Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.

The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.

Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?

Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.

After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.

So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.

In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.

And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)

The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.

Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.

 

20 Showdowns to Circle in 2020

The 2020 season is full of big time matchups for Big Ten schools, both within and outside of conference, contests that can make or break a berth in the NCAA Tournament and hosting opportunities. For the prospect junkie out there, there will be more than a few head-to-head pairings of top draft prospects.

In addition to knowing the 20 stroylines to follow this season, here’s a rundown on the 20 dates to circle this year. From Michigan taking on a pair of top three teams on back-to-back dates to start the season, to an end-of-season, cross-country tough test for Penn State, here’s 20 games, series and tournaments to watch in 2020.

Rankings reflect Baseball America’s preseason poll

#20 Minnesota vs. TCU, Feb. 22-24

A prominent opponent marks the Gophers return to US Bank Stadium. Only one year removed from a run for four consecutive trips to Omaha, This could be one of those resume anchoring weekends, as well as one that puts an on-the-cusp team into the top 25.

#19 Maryland @ TCU, March 13-14

A month later, Maryland will have their own opportunity to knock off TCU. However, their showdown will be in Fort Worth. Maryland has a ballyhooed freshmen class that will be put in a hostile environment for the first time.

#18 Northwestern vs. Kent State, March 13-14

A meeting of former Purdue recruiting coordinators, in Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen, and Kent State’s Jeff Duncan, Kent State is a mid-major power, always stocked with pitching, and they will be as good as any opponent the week before conference play.

#17 Penn State @ #22 Arizona, May 14-16

The Tucson-end of a home-and-home, this series comes on the final weekend of the season. Penn State will not have an opportunity to play their way into the tournament or hold their Big Ten standings position, but this series may do more to show what progress has been made.

#16 Purdue @ Campbell, Feb. 21

Purdue head coach Greg Goff will lead his team against a program he led for six years in Campbell. In 2014, Goff coached Campbell to their first NCAA Tournament in 24 years, and will hope a strong start to the season will have Purdue in position to do the same.

#15 Rutgers @ #5 Miami, Feb. 14-16

Some things change: Steve Owens is now leading the Scarlet Knights after Rutgers did not renew Joe Litterio’s contract. Other things do not change: Rutgers opening the season at Miami. Over the last few years, Rutgers has not put up much of a fight against Miami. However this year Rutgers returns a strong rotation. Can they start the Owens era with a very big weekend win?

#14 Michigan State vs. #11 Arkansas, April 21-22

Give credit where credit is due. A Southeastern Conference team is set to take the road and travel to a Big Ten school. It may not be a three-game set, but it is still significant that Arkansas would travel to East Lansing for two midweek games. The Spartans were ravished last year by injuries before playing better as the season wound down. Can this two-game set in the middle of the season get MSU back on the upswing?

#13 Purdue @ Iowa, April 3-5

The battle of the conference’s respective black and gold outfits is positioned to be intriguing. At the season’s mid-point and third weekend of conference play, identities should be forged with contenders starting to emerge. The Boilermakers and Hawkeyes are as big of an unknown as any in the conference, how they leave this weekend may go a long way in what type of season is in store.

#12 #24 Ohio State @ Indiana, March 27-29

The Buckeyes enter a season for the first time in quite some time expected to be among the top three teams. But the Hoosiers are still the team to beat. And as Ohio State tries to go through Indiana in 2020, they will need to reverse the fortunes of the prior decade, as IU held a 21-6 advantage in meetings in the 2010s, including a 10-game stretch between 2013-15. For Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers, a win over the Bucks can go a long way in ensuring they continue to make in-roads in recruiting Ohio.

#11 Nebraska at Wichita State, March 13-15

Staying on the recruiting theme, Nebraska’s Will Bolt has done a great job of locking the state borders as he takes over the Husker program. One program that was a thorn in the side of Nebraska during the Darin Erstad Era was Wichita State. The Shockers plucked Alec Bohm out of Nebraska, the third overall pick in 2018. If the Huskers can have a weekend triumph it will give Bolt’s recruiting more of an edge and help keep Nebraska at the high that Erstad left it, as well as give a young team confidence with a solid road victory.

#10 Iowa & Nebraska vs. Tony Gwynn Legacy field, Feb. 21-23

One, there’s never a bad time to visit San Diego, but a late-February escape is pretty good one. Two, the Tony Gwynn Legacy field will present a good challenge for the Hawkeyes and Huskers. The Big Ten rivals will not play each other in San Diego, nor in the conference season, so the tournament will be a good barometer on where the Missouri River rivals are. Iowa and Nebraska will play the same weekend schedule, featuring #22 Arizona, San Diego and San Diego State.

#9 Minnesota @ Maryland, May 14-16

The ingredients are there for this to be a really good series. Maryland has a team full of talented underclassmen, while Minnesota has quite the junior class. Young or old, both have the potential to make a run at the conference crown. The series will pit Minnesota’s power pitching staff against Maryland’s potent bats. While Ohio State and Michigan may be the preseason favorites, this meeting on the final weekend could very well have a championship on the line.

#8 #24 Ohio State @ #21 Georgia Tech, Feb. 21-23

The Buckeyes will have their preseason ranking tested early with a trip to Atlanta. The Buckeyes have a weekend rotation in Seth Lonsway, Garrett Burhenn and Griffan Smith that could be a potent 1-2-3 in any conference. Taking on the ACC’s Georgia Tech is the type of series win needed to be in contention to host a regional.

#7 #8 Michigan @ #3 Arizona State, Feb. 15

A day after taking on the top team in the country, see below, Michigan travels across town for a date at #3 Arizona State. Whomever Michigan starts on the mound, be Ben Dragini or Steve Hajjar coming off injury, or promising underclassmen Isaiah Paige, they will be tested by an ASU lineup that features the #1, #32 and #48 prospects in the upcoming draft. Michigan can quickly show they’re are top 10 team.

#6 #8 Michigan @ Minnesota, May 8

This could be the opener of a series that decides the Big Ten championship, has NCAA Tournament implications and potentially regional hosting implications. But, speaking of top prospects, this particular game in the series will hopefully have Michigan’s Jeff Criswell squaring off against Minnesota’s Max Meyer, two right-handed pitchers that respectively rank #53 an #29 in Baseball America’s top 100 MLB draft prospects.

#5 Illinois vs. Frisco Classic Field, Feb. 28-March 1

In a season full of marquee tournaments involving Big Ten teams, the Frisco Classic may be the best. Joining Illinois in the robsust field will be: #10 UCLA, #16 Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. UCLA and Oklahoma State are coming off years where they hosted a regional, the Bruins doing so as the tournaments top overall seed, while Texas A&M, like Illinois, also appeared in a regional. Facing a top clubs from the Big XII, Pac 12 and Southeastern conferences, the Illini will have an early season measuring stick in what should be great baseball.

#4 Indiana @ #14 LSU, Feb. 14-16

While the Big Ten’s traditional powers, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, have garnered plenty of offseason attention, the reigning Big Ten champion Hoosiers have quietly flown under the radar. Jeff Mercer’s blue collar program does need to retool a bit after having 10 draft picks last year, but a season-opening series against a college blueblood will quickly put them back under the spotlight. Indiana needs to replace their entire rotation in 2020, and if the new weekend rotation can handle the environment of Alex Box, a repeat isn’t far fetched.

#3 Big Ten – ACC Challenge

There isn’t an official name for it, but this season’s Big Ten –  X Conference Challenge pits Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue against Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State this year in Minneapolis, for a Big Ten – ACC showdown. Each of the three ACC teams are expected to be in a regional and enter the season with rankings, led by Duke at #15, with North Carolina and North Carolina State not too far behind at #17 and #18, respectively. Three Big Ten schools set to have three quality opponents, and not having to travel to their home diamond to boot, in a fun environment makes for a can’t miss weekend.

#2 #8 Michigan vs. #1 Vanderbilt, Feb. 14

Here’s a way to start the season. In the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Michigan’s first opponent of the season is the same as their final opponent of last. As the two College World Series finalist tangle, It’ll be another meeting between mentor and pupil as Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin coaches opposite of Erik Bakich. Any extra motivation Michigan may need to return to Omaha will be there in plenty, especially the #1 ranking Vanderbilt enters the season with, just as it was their ranking was last year in their triumph over Michigan. Potentially being Michigan’s highest draft pick in nearly 20 years, it’ll be interesting to see how Michigan ace Jeff Criswell fares against Vanderbilt, against a backdrop of scouts on top of scouts.

#1 #24 Ohio State @ #8 Michigan, April 10-12

What could top a preseason opener that a College World Series rematch? What some would call the rivalry. One of the most surprising facts of Big Ten baseball in the 2010s was that neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a Big Ten championship. With 50 conference crowns between them, that was the first decade it ever happened. On paper, year one in the 2020s looks to change that. Both enter the season with a preseason ranking, but have multiple draft prospects expected to be among the first 200 picked. There’s anticipated showdowns of Lonsway vs. Franklin, Criswell vs. Dingler. While Michigan played on college baseball’s biggest stage last year, Ohio State took three of four contests. Finally, games against Ohio State represent five of the 12 most attended games in Michigan’s Wilpon Complex history. Let’s pray for great weather and a setting this series should merit.

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 1-10

The 2020s figure to have plenty in store for Big Ten baseball. Here’s the top 10 things to watch for and the storylines that figure to make the decade’s first season a memorable one. Click here for 11-20.

#10 Bolt is back

A captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, the program’s all-time leader in doubles, and the associate head coach to Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014, Will Bolt is back in Lincoln, now as the program’s 24th head coach. Following Erstad’s retirement, Bolt quickly emerged as the odds-on favorite to take over the Cornhusker program, and on June 14 he was selected to guide the program. In the first few years after Bolt left Erstad’s staff to join Rob Childress at Texas A&M, coaches around the conference spoke with relief as they felt Bolt was a significant factor in Nebraska being a pest to play. It’s hard to say Nebraska floundered in his absence, they did appear in regionals in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and won the Big Ten in 2017. But it did seem there was an element of Big Red’s attack that was missing. As Bolt returns, he inherits a team with more than enough talent to be in the top-half of the Big Ten. It will be worth watching how Nebraska takes the field this year and if the methodical, machine-like nature of the Husker lineup returns.

#9 Returning to the mound

There are several key arms returning to the mound that missed most or all of the 2019 season. Arms that have that the potential to be frontline starters, leading a conference-winning team or ready to take the ball in the first game of a regional. Headlining a return to the mound will be:

Illinois right-handed pitcher Ryan Kutt, missed all of last season

Maryland left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, limited to 15.2 innings

Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, missed all of last season.

Iowa left-handed pitcher Jack Dryer, appeared in just two games.

Michigan left-handed pitcher Steven Hajjar, missed all of last season.

Nebraska right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach, played in the field but did not pitch due to injury.

Purdue right-handed pitcher Trevor Cheaney, missed all of last season

#8 Ohio State’s weekend rotation

What a difference a year makes. Heading into the 2019 season, Ohio State needed to replace all three weekend starters. Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner and Adam Neimeyer each started at least 15 games for the Buckeyes in 2018. The consistent weekend rotation played a big role in Ohio State finishing the season in a regional. Relying on three underclassmen, Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith formed a new big three, as they too led Ohio State to a regional. Led by Smith, the lone true junior of the trio, each pitcher logged at least 90 innings, with Lonsway’s 92.1 innings and Burhenn’s 91, just behind Smith’s 96.2. As a redshirt-sophomore, Lonsway’s mid-90s fastball and sharp curveball has him garnering draft attention, attention that like will be garnered by Burhenn next year, when he is draft eligible as a junior. For now, a proven 1-2-3 weekend rotation is a big reason why the Buckeyes enter the season with a ranking, and gives head coach Greg Beals a foundation in seeking a fourth regional in five years.

#7 Rutgers’ postseason pursuit

Rutgers joined Penn State (see #19) last year as a team capable of going head-to-head against anyone on the mound only to fall short at the plate. The Scarlet Knights pitched to a 4.02 ERA in conference play, but batted only .226, and had league-worst marks in on-base percentage, .300, and slugging, .302. The offensive shortcomings halted Rutgers’ promising first-half of conference play, where they stood 7-5 at the mid-way mark. A 2-9 showing over the back-half of the conference slate ended hopes of reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, finishing in 10th. Unable to end the postseason drought, a change in leadership inserted Bryant’s Steve Owens as the program’s head coach. Owens takes over a program that returns the core of the strong pitching unit, with senior left-hander Tevin Murray, senior right-hander Tommy Genuario and junior right-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski all returning as weekend starters. There was some promise at the plate for Rutgers, led by Chris Brito, a sophomore first baseman with middle-of-the-order potential and and junior Mike Nyisztor. The question is now if Owens is the missing piece that gets the program over the hump and into postseason play.

#6 Underdog Hoosiers

It’s been a quite some time since the reigning Big Ten champion was not picked to be among the conference’s top three teams by pundits. But that’s the reality for Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers face, as the champions see Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State garner preseason rankings by various outlets. If one were to look at 2019 stats and  the roster holdovers and it’s not that surprising there is relatively little noise regarding the Hoosiers. IU did have 10 players drafted, where there won’t be the likes of Matt Lloyd and Matt Gorski anchoring the lineup, nor Pauly Milto providing seven strong innings every weekend. In fact Indiana needs to replace their entire weekend rotation (see above for an example on that not being a death penalty however), in addition to needing new two and three-hole hitters to emerge. But what can’t be captured on paper is the blue-collar mentality that embodies Mercer and his programs, dating back to his time as a coach at Wright State. In fact, Mercer may prefer that there are little expectations to allow IU to keep their head down and work hard. After all, few saw Mercer stepping in and doing something prior head coach Chris Lemonis didn’t do and win a conference championship.

#5 Minnesota’s ability to maximize Meyer

After bursting onto the scene with a 16-save season and All-America campaign as a freshman in 2018, John Anderson intended to return Max Meyer to his two-way roots last year. With considerable turnover at the plate, Anderson wanted Meyer’s bat at the plate and speed on the bases. Meyer did arrive at Minnesota as a standout shortstop in addition to a dominant pitcher. But with Minnesota needing Meyer’s arm fresh to close games, he would be utilized as a DH, maybe in left field if needed. Anderson’s plan changed when Meyer was needed to lead the Gopher rotation. Meyer pitched brilliantly, tossing 76.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA with 87 strikeouts. But Minnesota didn’t get his bat in the lineup as much as desired, with Meyer batting .256 over 121 at-bats. The Minnesota staff has been impressed with the development in Meyer’s bat and still see him as a capable threat at the plate. But knowing how Meyer excelled as an ace, showing he does have the stamina to be a #1, how far he is under or above last years 121 at-bats may be a sign of what’s happening around him, both on the mound and in the lineup, and ultimately the kind of team success Minnesota has. Meyer can do a lot, how he does it to fit the team’s needs remains to be seen.

#4 Day one drafts

A handful of Big Ten players have the ability to have their name called among the draft’s first 100 picks. Per Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, as of Jan. 8, the following Big Ten players were listed:

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Max Meyer, No. 29

Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, No. 53

Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, No. 93.

MLB.com respectively ranks Meyer, Criswell and Dingler as the draft’s No. 25, 52 and 55 prospects.

In addition to those three, Michigan outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwugo, and Ohio State left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway have a shot to go inside the first five rounds.

#3 Is this the year for multiple regional

In the current format of the NCAA Tournament, since 1999, there has yet to be a year when two Big Ten programs hosted a regional on its campus. The Big Ten produced two super regional clubs in 2015, but Maryland played at Virginia, in the Charlottesville Regional, after winning the Los Angeles Regional, while Illinois hosted Vanderbilt in the Champaign Super Regional. Coaches around the conference feel the next step in the Big Ten’s ascend is to host more regionals and more than one regional in a year. That will be a better path forward to more teams in a super regional and ultimately more teams reaching Omaha on a regular basis. As the Big Ten leaves the 2010s on a high, the first year of the 2020s may be the year to break another ceiling. Both Michigan and Minnesota have the schedules and pitching staffs to compile a season that has them as a regional host. Ohio State may not have as many marquee series as those two, but a preseason ranking of #24 has them in the mind of others as being on the cusp of hosting worthy. Hosting a regional takes the right blend of performance, luck and the dominoes falling accordingly around the country. But as we enter the season, this year more than any in recent memory is one where it might be just the year.

#2 Michigan’s great expectations

There seems to be an endless number of college baseball polls, in fact there are six. While there may be a half-dozen different compilations on who the top teams are, there is consensus that Michigan is one of the 20 best teams entering the season. Justly so. The Wolverines did finish one win shy of being national champions and return key players in the heart of the diamond, a top prospect atop the rotation, a proven closer, and two key arms return from injury. It would be odd if Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason. But entering the season ranked #8 by Baseball America means Michigan is expected to be back in Omaha. That puts Michigan in a much different position than just a team expected to be good. While every team has a goal to finish the year in Omaha, the lone team to have similar expectations, Indiana in 2014 with a preseason #3 ranking, did not make it out of a regional they hosted. Erik Bakich preaches mental toughness, to treat to each game the same, take every game one-by-one. Can Michigan adhere to that? The schedule is a tough one, with an opening game against #1 Vanderbilt and a contest at #3 Arizona State the following day. Early and often, Michigan will be tested and needing to bring its A-game. That will help the Wolverines lock in, but it will still be worth following how a team that fell so painfully short of the ultimate goal plays without pressure under a magnified scope.

#1 Ohio State and Michigan battling for supremacy

The April 12 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State is the top showdown to circle in the 2020. But how Michigan and Ohio State fare will be worth watching beyond that weekend. With a combined 50 Big Ten championships between them, the 2010s were the first decade that ended without the Buckeyes or Wolverines claiming the conference championship. How rare is that? It’s the first time that has ever been the case since Chicago won the first Big Ten baseball championship in 1896. (Chicago was the first power in the Big Ten, winning championships in 1896-99, of course the Big Ten only had four schools, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin at the time.) Of course both Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed success in the last five years of the 2010s. Michigan appeared in regionals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, while the Bucks reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, Ohio State did so in 2016 and 2019. The rest of the Big Ten is hardly feeling bad for the two rivals, and all but one school would have traded Michigan’s position last year. But there is something odd in Michigan going on a 12-year Big Ten championship drought and Ohio State an 11-year void. For the first time since the clubs were respectively led by Rich Maloney and Bob Todd, this feels like the year when Michigan and Ohio State are in lockstep in the standings and will jockey for the top position. For every top prospect Michigan has, Jeff Criswell, Jesse Franklin, it feels Ohio State can counter, see Seth Lonsway and Dillon Dingler. Michigan is coming off of a year where they finished on a torrid run. The Buckeyes weren’t impressed, they did take three of four games, including a one-hitter that put Michigan’s season on the brink. And there is the whole rivalry thing. On the gridiron, the Ohio State-Michigan game draws the nations attention. With a #8 next to Michigan’s name and a #24 next to Ohio State’s, the battle on the baseball field may do just the same. And it may propel the victor forward to a long-awaited title and the first claim to Big Ten supremacy in the new decade.

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 11-20

With five teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the national runner-up, it’s safe to say Big Ten baseball is reaching new heights in modern college baseball. Entering a new season, and a new decade, there is a lot to look forward to. With new coaches leading three programs, two clubs breaking Baseball America’s preseason poll, and a handful of different players receiving preseason All-America praise, there are endless storylines around the conference as the calendar creeps towards February.

Kicking off 10 Innings’ preseason coverage, here is the first 10 of 20 things to watch through Big Ten baseball in 2020.

20. Northwestern overachieving, again

Let’s get this one out of the way. Spencer Allen’s Northwestern Wildcats will again exceed expectations in 2020. Northwestern painfully finished on the outside of the top eight last year, where a confluence of events, including a lightning delay, occurred on the final day to keep the ‘Cats home for the postseason. At 11-13 in Big Ten play, Northwestern finished one game behind a three-team tie for sixth. Per usual, few outside of Evanston expected Northwestern to hover near .500, they finished 24-27, and so is the case again this year. Perfect Game projects Northwestern to finish 12th, with D1Baseball.com slotting Northwestern 10th in their preseason table. Year over year Northwestern has been a tough out, and they aren’t too far removed from their 2017 Big Ten Tournament runner-up showing. They may still be a year away when it is all said and done, but don’t take the Wildcats as walk-overs, their history under Allen shows they’re anything but.

19. Will the Penn State pitchers get a little support

Focusing on a different breed of cats, will the Nittany Lions find some much-needed potency at the plate? Here’s a fun Did You Know: the Big Ten leader in team-ERA during conference play last season was….Penn State. In their 22 conference games, Penn State hurlers pitched to a 3.38 ERA and held the opposition to a .233 average. Unfortunately, .233 was still .015 better than what Penn State batters did at the plate in conference play. Last in average, PSU had the second-fewest stolen bases and third-fewest extra-base hits. The morbid offense play a significant role in Penn State going 0-8 in one-run conference games, as they were held to two or fewer runs in half of their 22 Big Ten games. Pitching coach Josh Newman has done wonders with the PSU arms. Now it’s time for Penn State to supplement their staff with some punch at the plate.

18. Better January weather = better February records?

The first day of team practice for the spring season came on Jan. 24. For more than a few schools the weather was favorable enough to escape indoor tunnels and facilities to practice outside. So far through the last week of January, the conditions have similarly held up. With the likes of Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers taking advantage and repeatedly practicing outside, will practicing in truer settings lead help them get out of the gates better? Of course, since this is the Big Ten, any reprieve in weather in January will lead to unwelcome conditions throughout April.

17. This year’s JUCO star

Two of the last three Big Ten Player of the Year winners have been players in their first Big Ten season after transferring from a junior college, Iowa’s Jake Adams in 2017 and Michigan’s Jordan Brewer last year. The JUCO ranks have played quite a role in the Big Ten’s upward trend over the last decade with the likes of Matt Lloyd, Mason McCoy, Noah McGowan, Jordan Parr and Tyler Peyton being key players in strong years for their respective clubs. Will there be another player that seemingly comes out of nowhere to take the conference by storm that was playing at a junior college last year? Likely so, but who will it be?

16. Fredrickson’s form

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson didn’t come from the junior college ranks, but he was a newcomer that had a banner season two years ago. Becoming the first freshman named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Fredrickson spurred Minnesota to the 2018 Big Ten championship and Corvallis Super Regional appearance. Looking to join Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers as back-to-back Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recipients, Fredrickson battled injury and his stuff backing up last year, en route to a 5.56 ERA with 30 walks in 43.2 innings. The Gopher staff has worked this offseason to tweak Fredrickson’s motion, making it shorter, to increase his command of his offspeed. If Fredrickson can return to his 2018 form, that will go a long way in the Gophers doing the same, and putting their 29-27 season far behind them.

15. Maryland’s ballyhooed freshmen

Per D1Baseball.com, Maryland is home to the #3, #8 and #10 “Impact Freshmen” in the Big Ten, as well as four of the top 16 and five of the top 20. Viewing the freshmen as one, D1Baseball.com and Prep Baseball Report ranked Maryland as having the #7 freshman class in the country. Will the hype turn into a happy College Park? As Fredrickson and classmate Max Meyer showed in 2018, a pair of extremely talented rookies can make quite the impact. It’s worth watching what kind of seasons right-handed pitcher Nick Dean, and outfielders Bobby Zmarzlak and Tucker Flint have with high expectations.

14. Illini arms under Allen

After eight seasons developing and leading Illinois’ pitchers, assistant coach Drew Dickinson moved on to become the pitching coach at Virginia. Illini pitchers experienced tremendous success under Dickinson’s watch, most notably Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock, respectively the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and 2016. A testament to Dickinson, himself the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2002, neither Jay nor Sedlock, two eventual first-round draft picks, were blue chip recruits before arrive in Champaign and developing under Dickinson’s guidance, nor was Garrett Acton, last year’s Big Ten-leader in saves with 19, tied for the most ever by a Big Ten pitcher. It will now be up to Mark Allen to coach up and deploy Acton and the rest of the Illini staff as he sees fit. Allen arrives in Champaign after serving as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, ending a nine-year stay in professional baseball.

13. The 2020 iteration of #Hellerball

Iowa has been at the forefront of learning and implementing data, utilizing enhanced technology and thinking outside of the box in player development. Which might be exactly why nobody can really say what #Hellerball is. Playing off of the name of head coach Rick Heller, #Hellerball doesn’t really represent any style of baseball. And that in itself is probably the Iowa way. The Hawkeyes do an incredible job of creating an identity around the abilities and talents of their players. In years where you have Jake Adams, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, you don’t have to put as much in action, execute every first-to-third perfectly and be terrors on the bases. In years where there isn’t that punch in the lineup, you do need to do all of those things in order to create runs. Every year it seems Iowa finds a way to squeeze as much out of their players as any, continue to refine their process of player development. It’s to be determined what type of outfit Iowa rolls out in 2020, but whatever version of #Hellerball it is, it will likely optimize the talents on the lineup.

12. Big Ten vs. Big XII

There are a few Big Ten vs. Big XII matchups that will be worth watching in 2020. Over the last five years, the Big Ten has produced 22 NCAA Tournament teams to the Big XII’s 23. The conferences are closer in quality than many might assume. These five showdowns will give the Big Ten an opportunity to solidify that sentiment.

Nebraska @ Baylor, Feb. 14-16

TCU @ Minnesota, Feb. 22-24

Iowa vs. Kansas, March 10-11

Maryland @ TCU, March 13-15

Minnesota @ Texas Tech, March 20-22

11. Goff at the helm of the Boilermaker engine

Greg Goff will enter his first season leading a Big Ten program unlike any other in recent years. Purdue is only two years removed from appearing in an NCAA Regional. In recent years when a coach has left a program that so soon removed from a regional, they’ve left the program in a great spot. Coming off of hosting the 2014 Bloomington Regional, Indiana’s Tracy Smith left to go to Arizona State and then Chris Lemonis had the Hoosiers in a regional the following year. Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to the 2018 Austin Regional, before leaving to go head Mississippi State’s program, which led to Jeff Mercer stepping in and doing something Lemonis didn’t in leading IU to a Big Ten title, before he also put IU in a regional. But as Mark Wasikowski left Purdue to be the head coach at Oregon, he is did so after the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and 12th in the conference. For coaches that stepped into a setting where they’re program is coming of such a finish, they are usually an entirely new staff entering an unknown environment. Greg Goff was on Wasikowski’s staff, so too was Cooper Fouts, who Goff retain. So all that said, it’s really hard to know what may change under Goff, whether Purdue needs a rebuild, if they’re more like 2018 or more like 2019. We shall see.

Gorzelanny Returns to Iowa Staff in New Role

Iowa City, Iowa — Tom Gorzelanny, who spent the 2019 season as the University of Iowa baseball program’s volunteer assistant and pitching coach, returns to the staff in 2020 as the Hawkeyes’ director of player development.

“We’re excited bring Tom back to our staff in the player development role,” said Iowa head coach Rick Heller. “He did a great job with our pitching staff last year. He will be a valuable addition to our staff with his familiarity with our program.”

Gorzelanny helped the team post 31 victories last season – the program’s sixth straight 30-win season – and record a sixth straight Big Ten Tournament appearance. Iowa won six straight series during the regular season, which included series wins over No. 23 Illinois, No. 30 Nebraska, and No. 18 UC Irvine.

The Hawkeyes went 10-3 against top-30 opponents in 2019, including taking two of three games at No. 19 Oklahoma State.

Gorzelanny coached Grant Leonard to second-team All-Big Ten honors after the reliever set a program record, converting all 14 of his save chances. Leonard was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Midseason List and he finished seventh nationally in saves.

After leading the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten Tournament win over top-seeded Indiana, Friday night starter Cole McDonald was selected in the 14th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Houston Astros. It marked the 13th straight year a Hawkeye was drafted.

Gorzelanny joined the Hawkeyes following a 12-year career in Major League Baseball where he pitched for Pittsburgh (five years), Chicago Cubs (two years), Washington (two years), Milwaukee (two years), Detroit (one year), and Cleveland (one year).

The left-handed pitcher finished his career with a 50-53 record with a 4.40 ERA over 314 appearances (121 starts). Gorzelanny’s best season came in 2007, where he went 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA, making 32 starts and logging more than 200 innings for the Pirates.

Gorzelanny retired from professional baseball in 2017.

Following his senior season at Marist (Illinois) High School, Gorzelanny was selected in the 38th round of the 2000 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, but he elected to attend the University of Kansas. Gorzelanny spent two seasons in Lawrence — one as a redshirt — before transferring to Triton Community College.

After one season with the Trojans, Gorzelanny was drafted in the second round of the 2003 MLB Draft (45th overall pick) by Pittsburgh. He made his Major League debut in 2005 and played in the 2006 All-Star Futures Game.

Gorzelanny earned a regular spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation in 2007 — a season where he was a National League All-Star after being one of five players chosen from a final fan vote for the last spot on the NL roster.

Gorzelanny and his wife, Lindsey, reside in North Liberty with their two sons, Gavin and Connor.

Rutgers to Retire Glen Gardner’s No. 49

Piscataway, N.J. — Director of athletics Pat Hobbs and head coach Steve Owens announced that Rutgers baseball will retire Glen Gardner’s No. 49 on Oct. 11 at Bainton Field. It will be the third number retired in program history, joining Jeff Torborg’s No. 10 and Fred Hill’s No. 24. The announcement was made Saturday evening to close the inaugural Leadoff Banquet held at The Rutgers Club.

“To be going on the wall as a retired number with Jeff Torborg and coach Hill, it really doesn’t seem real or that I’m worthy of it,” Gardner said in a statement. “This is a great honor and it’s one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. But really, this is a tribute to all the players I had the chance to coach over the years. This is about them. I’ll always be grateful for their dedication to Rutgers baseball.

“I’m also thankful to coach Hill for giving me the opportunity to come back to Rutgers as a coach. I learned so much from him, on and off the field. Coach Hill always let me be me. He let me be myself and that’s the way I coached.”

A Rutgers baseball legend, Gardner was one of the most prolific hitters in school history and returned to work 29 seasons on staff. He was inducted into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997.

Gardner spent 18 seasons as an assistant coach under Hill before serving as the director of baseball operations, volunteer assistant coach and senior advisor to the head coach. The Scarlet Knights secured 870 wins, eight NCAA Regional appearances, seven regular season conference championships and five conference tournament titles with Gardner on staff. That included hosting an NCAA Regional in 2000, a rarity for a Northeast school. Gardner played a key role in identifying, recruiting and developing talent.

Iowa’s 2020 Team Captains Announced

Iowa City, Iowa — Seniors Justin Jenkins, Grant Judkins, Grant Leonard, and Austin Martin have been voted team captains for the 2020 University of Iowa baseball season, it was announced Thursday by head coach Rick Heller.

Jenkins, an outfielder from Terre Haute, Indiana, started 22 games in 2019, where he was a .260 hitter with 12 runs and six steals. Jenkins had a career-high three hits in the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament opening round victory over No. 21 Indiana last May.

Judkins, a right-handed pitcher from Pella, Iowa, returns as the leader of the Iowa starting rotation. Last season as the Sunday starter, Judkins went 4-7 with a 2.72 ERA with 65 strikeouts over 82 2/3 innings. Judkins was the Collegiate Baseball and NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week on Feb. 19 and he finished the season ranking in the top 14 in the Big Ten in ERA, batting average against, and innings.

Leonard, a right-handed pitcher from Mokena, Illinois, returns for his second season as the Hawkeyes’ closer. The reliever was a second-team All-Big Ten All-Big Ten selection in 2019 after tallying a single-season school record 14 saves. Leonard, who was named to the NCBWA Midseason Closer of the Year list, was 2-3 with a 3.37 ERA in 28 appearances.

Martin, a catcher from Altoona, Iowa, started 53 games — 49 behind the plate — during his first season as a Hawkeye, where he hit .294 with 10 doubles, 30 RBIs, and 29 runs scored. Martin had a team-leading 18 multi-hit games in 2019 and he hit safely in 34 contests.

The Hawkeyes begin official team practices Friday. Iowa opens the regular season at the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 14, facing Kent State in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Iowa’s home opener is set for March 3 against Grand View at Duane Banks Field. Season tickets for the team’s 23 home contests are available at hawkeyesports.com/tickets.

Carpenter, Dingler Named Ohio State Captains for 2020

Dingler becomes two-time captain of the Buckeyes

Columbus, Ohio — Infielder Matt Carpenter and catcher Dillon Dingler have been named captains of the 2020 Ohio State baseball team, head coach Greg Beals announced Thursday. The captains, as selected by their teammates, have combined to appear in 169 career games.

“Both Carp and Ding have the pulse of the locker room,” Beals said. “They each have a great feel for the game and they know how to win. Both are well-deserving of their roles as captain.”

Carpenter, a fifth-year senior, has appeared in 67 games, including 41 starts as a redshirt junior a season ago. A native of Aurora, Ohio, Carpenter hit .257 with eight doubles, two triples 25 runs scored and 15 RBI as the Buckeyes won the Big Ten Tournament and advanced to an NCAA Regional in Nashville in 2019. Carpenter is a four-time OSU Scholar-Athlete and three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.

“Matt’s body of work here at Ohio State screams ‘student-athlete’ and what it means to be a Buckeye,” Beals added. “Matt has worked really hard to get where he is on the field and I know his teammates respect that as much as we do on the coaching staff.”

Dingler, selected a team captain as a sophomore last season, was named second team All-Big Ten and earned Big Ten All-Tournament team recognition in 2019 after being selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2018. The North Canton, Ohio, native as appeared in 102 career games, including 88 starts, totaling 17 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, 62 runs scored and 36 RBI in two seasons. The backstop is a two-time OSU Scholar-Athlete and a 2019 Academic All-Big Ten selection.

“Dillon returns for his second year as captain,” Beals said. “Dillon has great leadership skills, primarily by example, which are especially critical at the catching position. I have said it before, he has ‘dude factor’ which has earned his teammates’ respect.”

The Buckeyes open the 2020 campaign against St. Joseph’s at 1 p.m. Feb. 14 in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Former Hawkeye Jimmy Frankos Joins Iowa Coaching Staff

Former Hawkeye Jimmy Frankos Joins Iowa Coaching Staff

Iowa City, Iowa — Former Hawkeye and University of Iowa graduate Jimmy Frankos has been named the volunteer assistant coach with the Iowa baseball program, head coach Rick Heller announced Wednesday.

Frankos replaces former Iowa teammate Jake Yacinich, who accepted a full-time assistant coach/recruiting coordinator position at Xavier University in December.

“We’re excited to welcome Jimmy to our program,” said Heller. “He returns with head coaching experience and knows our team and culture. He will be an excellent addition to our staff with his energy, work ethic, and will to succeed.”

Frankos joins the program after spending the past three seasons at Heartland (Illinois) Community College. He was an assistant coach in 2017 and 2018 before being promoted to head coach in 2019. During his stint, the Hawks accumulated 119 wins, including a 34-20 record last season.

Heartland won one regular season MWAC Championship and finished runner-up in the 2018 Region 24 Regional Tournament. During his three seasons, 29 student-athletes went on to play at the Division I level, including a program record 14 in 2018. PJ Smith, a former Hawk and Purdue graduate, was an MLB Draft selection in 2019.

Frankos also has coaching experience in the Cape Cod Summer League, where he served as an assistant coach for the Wareham Gatemen in 2017. He worked with some of the nation’s top hitters, coached third base, and both catchers he coached were top 10 round selections in the 2018 MLB Draft.

Frankos played for the Hawkeyes from 2013-16, where he was a three-year starter. He finished his career with a .270 batting average with a career-best .313 average in 2014. Frankos was a team captain and Iowa’s recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award as a senior.

The Park Ridge, Illinois, native ranked 10th in the Big Ten in batting average (.344) as a sophomore and he was a Big Ten Co-Player of the Week during the 2015 season. During the 2015 campaign, the Hawkeyes won 41 games — the second most in a single season in program history — advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years, and posted their first NCAA Regional win since 1972.

Iowa finished the season in the national rankings for the first time in program history — 20th by Collegiate Baseball, 25th by Baseball America, and 28th by the NCBWA. As a senior in 2016, Frankos helped the Hawkeyes advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.

Frankos graduated from the University of Iowa in 2016 with a business management and leadership degree and a minor in sports studies.

Rob Cooper Named an Inaugural Baseball Vs. Cancer Ambassador

Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Vs. Cancer Ambassadors Program to Increase Awareness Through the Athletics Community to Cure the Deadliest Childhood Cancer

University Park, Penn./Asheville, N.C. — Penn State baseball head coach Rob Cooper has been named one of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s inaugural Baseball Vs. Cancer Ambassadors. Comprised of current and former coaches, players and members of the press, Baseball Vs. Cancer Ambassadors represent the athletic community’s shared resolve to raise awareness and funds for a world without childhood brain tumors.

Since Cooper arrived at Penn State for the 2014 season, Penn State baseball has supported Vs. Cancer by raising nearly $50,000 to date and hosting annual Vs. Cancer and THON games that have welcomed THON families and featured team members shaving their heads postgame. The efforts have helped raise support for Penn State Children’s Hospital’s Four Diamonds and its mission to conquer childhood cancer by assisting children and their families through superior care, comprehensive support and innovative research.

The Penn State baseball team has already started its 2020 campaign and has raised $6,390 through the end of November, ranking second nationally only to Texas A&M ($16,517). Fans can support the Nittany Lions’ drive by visiting https://team.curethekids.org/pennstatebaseball2020.

“I am honored and humbled to be a Vs. Cancer Ambassador,” said Cooper. “This great organization is committed to helping kids fight cancer. I look forward to helping in any way possible!”

Since 2013, Vs. Cancer has empowered thousands of athletes to help kids with cancer. As a signature fundraising campaign of the PBTF, Vs. Cancer proceeds help fund groundbreaking research to cure pediatric brain tumors, the deadliest childhood cancer, as well as family support and child life programs in teams’ communities.

Vs. Cancer Ambassadors recognize firsthand the importance of supporting the childhood cancer community and the positive impact it has on their team. They will serve as a resource for other coaches and teams by answering questions about the program, sharing their inspiring success stories and working with athletic departments to spread Vs. Cancer’s mission and get more teams involved.

“The quality of coaching in our inaugural Vs. Cancer Ambassadors class is outstanding, but the quality of character is even greater,” says Vs. Cancer Director Rachel Mark. “In the battle against pediatric brain tumors, finding a cure is no small task – but with the continued efforts of this group, we’ll be able to support more children and families by increasing Vs. Cancer’s presence throughout collegiate baseball and athletics.”

The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s Vs. Cancer Ambassadors program will expand in 2020 to include members from the lacrosse, softball, soccer and other athletic communities. Learn more at www.vs-cancer.org/vs-cancer-ambassadors or email info@vs-cancer.org.

Check back to GoPSUSports.com for continued updates on Penn State Baseball. Follow on Twitter at @PennStateBASE and Facebook at Penn State Baseball.

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