Big Ten bruised in Surprise on day one

The 2017 Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge features two teams from each conference, three of which are coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. The lone team to not play in a regional just happens to enter the challenge ranked fifth in the country in the latest NCBWA poll. As Nebraska and Ohio State play two games each against #5 Oregon State and Utah, the eight games over four days at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz., was expected to be a quality tournament with a field of four strong teams.

The quality games may yet come, but on Thursday the Pac-12 duo easily handled their foes from the Big Ten in blowout victories.

Oregon State explosive early in win over Nebraska

Nebraska opened the challenge with an afternoon game against designated hosts Oregon State, looking to knock the Beavers from the ranks of the undefeated. Oregon State entered after a perfect 4-0 opening weekend, which included a pair of victories in Surprise against Indiana, while the Huskers split a two-game rain-shortened weekend against UC Riverside in Tempe, Ariz.

In their first at-bat, two Husker strikeouts were followed by an infield single off the bat of first baseman Ben Miller and double inside the right field line by left fielder Luis Alvarado. With two in scoring position, Oregon State starter Luke Heimlich struck out Nebraska catcher Jesse Wilkening, to strike out the side, all looking.

“We get two quick strikeouts, very passive at the plate, then all of the sudden second and third with two outs, a chance to put some runs on the board and we don’t do it,” Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad said. “Against guys like that, teams like this, when you get opportunities like that you have to take advantage of them.”

The inability to capitalize on the scoring opportunity was quickly punished as Oregon State took command of the game in their first at-bat.

Oregon State sent nine batters to the plate, using six hits and a Nebraska error to score four runs off Husker right-handed pitcher Matt Waldron.  Nebraska responded with a run in the second when third baseman Mike Waldron reached on a single and scored on a two-our single up the middle by second baseman Jake Schleppenbach.

The 4-1 deficit would be as close as Nebraska could get the rest of the game as Oregon State punched back.

Two runs in the bottom of the second stretched the Beavers’ lead to 6-1. After both teams were held scoreless in the third, Oregon State scored a run in the four, tacked on two in the fifth and plated one more in the sixth to make it a 10-1 game. From there, three relievers between the two teams, including Alvarado making his collegiate pitching debut, held the score 10-1, pushing Oregon State to 5-0 on the season, dropping Nebraska to 1-2.

“We were good before the game, I thought everything was fine, they just came in and jumped all over us,” Erstad said.  “It wasn’t a lack of effort or lack of focus, we just got out butts kicked. The way we respond, those are the things that define you as a ballclub.”

Heimlich held Nebraska to one run off seven hits in seven innings in the victory. Miller was the lone Husker to record multiple hits, going 2-for-4, while a pair of Beavers went 3-for-4 in Oregon State’s 12-hit attack, led by first baseman KJ Harrison’s 3-for-4, three-RBI showing. Waldron received the lost, pitching 3.1 innings, allowing seven runs off 10 hits and two walks. Each team committed two errors, Nebraska pitchers also hit two batters.

“It’s a great learning experience for us,” Erstad said. “You can preach it all you want, but until you got out and see it, have it happen to you and have it sting a little bit, that’s when it really sets in. Obviously, Matt’s going to pitch better in the long run, defensively, we have to play well and offensively, we’ll get the bats rolling.”

Ohio State outmatched by Utah

Ohio State didn’t fare any better than their Big Ten brethren in Thursday night’s game against Utah.

Like Nebraska, Ohio State had a chance to strike in the first inning, putting the first two batters on base. But both were wiped away on pick-offs at first by Utah left-handed pitcher Josh Rebar, setting the tone for a forgettable night for the Buckeyes.

“The two pickoffs in my opinion was not letting the game come to ourselves,” said Ohio State head coach Greg Beals. “We’re forcing things.”

Going quietly in the first, Ohio State wasn’t able to match Utah in putting together a clean inning.

A throwing error on a bunt attempt stretched an infield single into two bases for Utah leadoff batter DaShawn Keirsey. A pair of groundouts advanced Keirsey 90 feet each time, giving the Utes a 1-0 lead after one at-bat. The game still in the balance, with eight innings to go, the wheels fell off for Ohio State in the second.

After Rebar needed nine pitches to retire the Buckeyes in order in the second, his teammates broke open the game at the plate. Five hits and an Ohio State error led to five runs for Utah, with second baseman Oliver Dunn providing the big hit, connecting on a bases loaded double to drive in three runs. The Utes added two runs in the fourth, three in the fifth and plated their final run of the game in the sixth to send the Buckeyes to a 12-0 defeat.

“What concerned me the most is our ability to show up and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Beals said. “Our ability to have the proper energy, the proper approach, the proper readiness on gameday. We can out yesterday to take batting practice and had an incredible air, energy and excitement about ourselves. That didn’t happen.”

Shortstop Jalen Washington picked up two of Ohio State’s five hits in the inning, with catcher Jacob Barnwell recording the lone extra-base hit with a double. Utah picked up five doubles and a home run by Josh Rose, in a striking the Buckeyes for 16 hits. Oliver led the Utes with four RBI and Hunter Simmons paced the club with three hits.

On the mound, Rebar, a freshman, stymied the Buckeyes to the tune of 5.2-scoreless innings, holding the Bucks to three hits. Niemeyer received the loss, pitching four innings, allowing eight runs, four earned off nine hits.

“Nemo wasn’t as good as he can be, but none of us were,” Beals said. “We have to support our pitching staff better than we did today.”

The four teams will be back in action on Friday, with Ohio State taking on Oregon State at 1 p.m. MT, and Nebraska tangling with Utah at 5 p.m. MT. For Beals, the quick turnaround is a blessing.

“Tomorrow’s exactly what we need,” the seventh-year head coach said. “We need something that like, something to pique our interest, spark ourselves, try to fire ourselves off. We’re going to play one of the better teams in the country and it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great test, but also a great opportunity.”

Feb. 17-20 Weekend Review

10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

College baseball is back. From coast to coast, Big Ten teams took the diamond opening weekend, looking to keep the conference’s upward momentum going. Here’s a roundup of the weekend that was.

Marquee Series: Minnesota at Irvine

The defending Big Ten champions opened their season at UC Irvine. But due to some of the heaviest rains Southern California has seen in recent year, the three-game series was shortened to a two-game matchup, as Friday’s game was washed away.

“It didn’t look like we would be able to get any games in, then to get two in a short time,” said Minnesota head coach John Anderson. “We saw a lot of positives.”

The delayed start didn’t set back the hot-hitting Gophers, who, after leading the Big Ten with a .323 average a year ago, quickly jumped out of the gates.

Before the first out was recorded, three Gophers crossed home. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey hit a bases loaded, two-run single to right field, by junior first baseman Toby Hanson singled up the middle. Irvine countered with two two-out runs in the home-half of the first, but a Coffey two-run double was the big hit in Minnesota’s three-run second. The wild affair saw Irvine cut the deficit to 6-3 after two innings, but another big inning was in store for Minnesota in the third.

Sophomore DH Eduardo Estrada hit a two-run home run to right field, with sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga adding a run-scoring single to center field, giving Minnesota a 9-3 lead after three plate appearances. In the first three innings, Coffey had four RBI, junior right fielder Alex Boxwell had two walks and a hit by pitch, with junior second baseman Luke Pettersen recording a pair of single.

Minnesota needed every run of its early offensive onslaught.

Irvine right fielder Adam Alcantara picked up an RBI-triple in a two-run third inning, helping the Anteaters close the gap to 9-5. Minnesota starting left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath was relieved after three innings, giving way to Tyler Hanson. Hanson kept Irvine at bay for two innings, before a walk with two outs loaded the bases in the sixth innings.

A preseason All-American, Irvine DH Keston Hirua stepped to the plate in the big situation and delivered, hitting a bases-clearing double to center field on Gopher side-armer Tim Shannon. But Shannon induced a fly out in the next at-bat and held Irvine to three at-bats in each of the next two innings, before closer Brian Glowicki closed the door on the 9-8 win with two strikeouts in the ninth inning, including one of Hiura.

Minnesota picked up 15 hits, with Pettersen’s four, and three from senior left fielder Jordan Smith, who finished a home run shy of the cycle, as every starter recorded a hit.

The Gophers offensive momentum continued on Sunday, recording 12 hits. But it wasn’t enough to head back to Minnesota with a weekend sweep.

It was Alex Boxwell’s turn to pick up an extra-base hit, pulling a triple down the right-field line in the top of the first to give Minnesota the initial 1-0 line. A batter later, Pettersen punched a single up the middle to bring home Boxwell.

Unable to get more than three innings from Gilbreath on Saturday, starting pitcher Toby Anderson was unable to escape the second inning. Irvine loaded the bases with nobody out, before Hirua drew a walk to bring home a run. After an RBI-single, Alcantara hit a two-run double to left center. Another run-scoring hit would chase Anderson, bringing in freshman right-hander Brett Schulze in his collegiate debut. Schulze worked around the two-on, nobody-out situation to only concede one run, but Irvine’s big inning left them in front 6-2 after three innings.

“We have to throw more strikes, we have to pitch better,” Anderson said. “We knew it would take some time to get out pitching staff up to speed, but we’re confident they will be.”

Irvine’s lead grew to 7-2 in the fourth, before Minnesota was able to chip away. Coffey led off the sixth with a triple to right field, scoring on a Hanson single. Down, 7-3, Minnesota scored a pair of runs in the eighth, Boxwell and Pettersen recording RBI, to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But with two outs, sophomore shortstop Terrin Vavra flew out to right field. Minnesota had one more chance in the ninth, as Coffey doubled to open the inning, allowing Minnesota to bring the tying run to the plate. But a fly out, strike out and grounder ended the game.

Pettersen finished the contest 4-for-5 with Coffey going 3-for-5 from the cleanup spot. Pettersen finished the weekend 8-for-9, with Coffey added five hits in 10 at-bats, four for extra-bases as Minnesota picked up 27 hits on the weekend.

“We didn’t have a lot of bad at-bats, they were all competitive at-bats,” Anderson said. “We got deep in counts, we made them work hard to get us out, fouled off a lot of pitchers and just had really competitive at-bats.”

Schulze pitched four innings of one-run baseball, holding Irvine to three hits. Relievers Reggie Meyer and Nick Lackney pitched the final two innings as the Gopher bullpen tossed 13 innings on the weekend, allowing four runs.

On the weekend, Anderson was glad to take a split from a tough opponent in a jumbled weekend. But knows there are things his teams needs to improve on as they seek a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.

“I was encouraged by our offense. We’ll have plenty of offense, we’ll be able to play defense, just have to clean it up a bit, but more importantly we have to throw strikes.”

Minnesota will see another Big West foe later in the year when Long Beach State heads to Siebert Field in May. For now, the Gophers return home where they will play this weekend against Seattle University, the first baseball games played at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Trending topics

Big O leads to two Ws for Wasikowski

The Mark Wasikowski era in West Lafayette is off to a swinging start.

Named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, the first Boilermaker to win the honor since 2012, junior right-handed Tanner Andrews pitched seven innings of one-run baseball, holding Texas State to two hits with nine strikeouts. The stellar pitching performance was more than enough for a lineup locked in, leading Purdue to its first season-opening victory in four years.

Purdue pushed three runs across in their first at-bat of the season, tacking on five more by the end of the fourth. In a four-RBI day, sophomore first baseman Jacson McGowan picked up run-scoring doubles in the first and fourth innings, around an RBI-single in the third. The Bobcats scratched out a run in the fourth, but Purdue never lost control of the game.

It was another three-run first inning that saw Purdue make it 2-for-2 on the weekend in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader.

Alongside McGowan, freshman Mike Madej and junior Logan Poisall each hit a home run in the first inning for Purdue to start the twinbill in a big way. After scoring a run in the second, Purdue’s four-run first was matched by a four-run third, to have a 9-0 lead. Texas State struck for six runs in the third, but were unable to get any closer than the three-run deficit. Purdue added a run in the sixth, and two in the ninth, with Texas State also scoring a pair in the final inning to make it a 12-9 win.

The high-scoring continued in third game of the weekend, with Texas State being able to climb back and grab a victory. Purdue enjoyed leads of 8-3 and 10-5, before back-to-back four-run innings gave the Bobcats a 13-11 victory. The teams fought to a weekend split with Texas State grabbing the finale 14-5.

Weather wrecks havoc

Before the season’s first pitch was tossed, forecasted inclement weather saw a handful of Big Ten teams adjust their schedules. But even the precautions and changes weren’t enough to steer clear of Mother Nature.

The torrential rains that hit California Friday, leading to mudslides and flooring, shortening the Irvine-Minnesota series, made its way into Arizona on Saturday and Sunday. Nebraska saw the final two games of its neutral site series against UC Riverside washed away. Northwestern’s series at Arizona State needed the final two days of the weekend to play the finale.

It wasn’t just out west where weather impacted or interrupted games. In Texas, Illinois’ opener versus Wisconsin-Milwaukee was delayed nearly six hours, while Penn State’s weekend capper at TCU was moved up to beat the rain. Rain put a halt in Iowa’s first victory of the year, the Hawkeyes waited out a two-hour and forty-one-minute rain in a 4-2 win over South Florida.

Offensive explosions

Nine of the 13 Big Ten programs scored at least nine runs in one game this weekend, going 13-1 in such games. Here’s a rundown of the gaudy offensive performance.

Illinois- 10-2 win vs. Milwaukee, Friday

Indiana- 12-3 win vs. Gonzaga, Friday

Maryland- 9-7 win vs. Alabama State, Sunday

Michigan- 10-7 win vs. Seton Hall, Sunday

Michigan State- 9-2, 9-7, 19-7, 14-5 victories over Abilene Christian

Minnesota- 9-8 win vs. UC Irvine, Friday

Ohio State- 15-10 win vs. Delaware, Saturday

Purdue- 9-3, 12-8 wins vs. Texas State, 13-11 loss vs. Texas State

Rutgers- 17-6 win vs. Miami, Sunday

Of note

Michigan State finished the weekend with a .401 team average. Senior second baseman Dan Durkin was named the Big Ten Player of the Week after an 11-RBI weekend.

Michigan sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas stole six bases in six attempts, as Michigan stole a conference-best 12 on the weekend.

Ohio State hit two grand slams in their wild win over the Blue Hens. The Buckeyes used a seven-run seventh inning to capture the victory.

Michigan State’s Marty Bechina and Ohio State’s Zach Ratcliff, on Saturday, were joined by Rutgers’ Jawuan Harris and Penn State’s Willie Burger, on Sunday, as players to hit two home runs in one game this weekend.

Quick hits

Terps scuffle, fall from polls

Maryland entered the season as the lone Big Ten team in the NCBWA poll. After a 1-2 weekend in Clearwater, Fla. the Terps’ ranked status was short-lived and the Big Ten now without a ranked team. A five-run sixth inning doomed No. 22 Maryland in their opening, falling 8-3 to Ball State. In a battle of ranked clubs, Maryland was unable to keep pace with No. 8 Louisville, outslugged 10-7. The Terrapins salvaged the weekend with a 9-7 win over Alabama State.

Indiana’s see-saw weekend

Indiana went 2-2 in Surprise, taking two games against Gonzaga between dropping a pair of contests to #7 Oregon State. The first game of a Friday doubleheader, nine hits were collected between the Hoosiers and Beavers in a 1-0 Oregon State win. IU’s bats rebounded for a 12-3 against the Zags, led by freshman Jake Matheny connecting on a pair of home runs. On Sunday, Indiana made it 2-for-2 against Gonzaga with a 5-1 victory. But, the weekend ended on a sour note, unable to top Oregon State again, falling in the weekend finale 4-1. The Hoosiers finished the weekend with a 1.59 ERA, but were held to 10 hits against Oregon State in their two defeats.

Illini freshmen arms show promise

Illinois opened the weekend 1-3, splitting a pair of games against Milwaukee, falling twice to host Lamar. After opening the year with a 10-2 win over the Panthers, three straight defeats sent the club back to Champaign looking for answers. As Dan Hartleb’s club gets back to work, they do so with a trio of freshmen pitchers coming off of strong debuts. Right-hander Ty Weber started the weekend finale for the Illini and pitched 4.2 innings of scoreless baseball. Cyrillo Watson pitched in relief twice, with the right-hander tossing four innings, allowing one run, matching Weber with three strikeouts. Southpaw Zack Jones was also used twice out of the bullpen, pitching a total of 3.1 innings, conceding one run off two hits while racking up five punchouts.

10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

By Todd Lamb
10innings.com Contributor

FORT WORTH, Texas – There aren’t many teams that genuinely relish the opportunity to face the No. 1 team in the country, let alone open the season against nation’s top team on the road.

When the 2017 baseball schedule was put together, Penn State coach Rob Cooper didn’t know TCU would be unanimously ranked as the country’s best team, but he knew the Horned Frogs would provide the stiffest of tests for his young team, and that was by design.

TCU has been to the College World Series each of the past three seasons, including last season after they swept a three-game series at Penn State in early May. No team in the country has won more games than TCU’s total of 148 the previous three years.

“We could have scheduled a lot of different teams for this weekend and maybe won a couple or had a better outcome winning wise,” said Cooper, who began his fourth season with the Nittany Lions on Friday. “But we have the chance to get a lot better as a program, a lot better as a team and be the type of program we want to be by playing a great team like this.”

Penn State came up short in all three games to open the 2017 campaign, falling by scores of 6-3, 12-1 and 9-3 Sunday in the series finale. TCU averaged 5,258 fans for the three-game set.

“Anytime you get swept, it’s never the start you want, that’s for sure,” Cooper said. “You’re playing a great team in TCU and there is a reason why they are ranked No. 1 in the country.”

Penn State, which returned all three of its weekend starters, did not have a single starter reach the fifth inning against TCU and only one made it into the fourth. The entire pitching staff struggled with command, issuing 17 walks to go with 22 strikeouts.

That was no more evident than in the season-opening 6-3 loss, when the Lions limited TCU’s offense to only two hits. PSU pitchers walked six, hit a batter and allowed an eighth batter to reach on a wild pitch strikeout. It’s hard to overcome all of that, but a crucial error and a passed ball led to two unearned runs. It proved to be Penn State’s best opportunity for a victory in this series.

Starter Sal Biasi struck out seven, but walked four, turning the ball over in the fourth inning in a 4-0 hole. TCU added two more in the sixth before Penn State struck back with a three-run seventh inning.

Saturday, Penn State struck first with a single run in the top of the first inning, but starter Taylor Lehman lasted only 1.1 innings after giving up three runs in the bottom of the second inning. TCU scored two more in the third, exploded for six more in the fourth and scored its final run in the fifth. PSU pitchers managed six strikeouts, but walked five and hit two more batters.

Armed with a two-run lead, Sunday starter Justin Hagenman kept TCU off the scoreboard in the first, but gave up five runs over the next two innings before giving way to Dakota Forsyth to start the fourth inning. Penn State used four pitchers in the series finale and they combined for six strikeouts and six walks.

Pitch counts escalated quickly for the three starters. Biasi threw 79 pitches in his 3.2 innings, Lehman threw 50 in his 1.1 innings, while Hagenman threw 69 pitches in three innings of work.

“I know we can pitch better,” Cooper said. “When your three starters – and they’re all three really competitive guys and they’re going to build and get better from this – but when they’re 70 pitches into the game in the third or fourth inning, you have to have longer starts and take it deeper into the game so your bullpen is fresher and stronger.”

Offensively, Penn State was outhit 25-13 despite the two-hitter by the TCU offense on Friday. Only two Nittany Lions had at least three hits in the series. That was second baseman Conlin Hughes, who was 2 for 4 on Saturday and 1 for 3 Sunday. He drove in a run on a fielder’s choice in the season opener. First baseman Willie Burger also went 3 for 10 in the series, including a pair of home runs in the finale, a two-run shot in the first and a solo shot in the eighth. He finished the weekend with four RBI with an RBI-double on Saturday.

“The thing I’m most proud of with Willie is that he’s starting to slow down his internal clock down a little bit and that is because he’s so competitive and wants to do well,” Cooper said. “Sometimes that gets him in trouble because sometimes he wants to hit like a ‘seven-run’ homer, but today he had some great at-bats and this weekend he had some great at -ats.”

Cooper said there were some things he liked from his team against TCU. There were guys who put together some good at-bats even when they weren’t productive. They had guys compete on the mound despite trailing for all but five innings and they got some young guys and true freshmen into the lineup.

Yet there remains plenty to work on, like having their pitchers work ahead in pitch counts as well as their defense taking care of the baseball. They also have to find a way to score against really good pitching.

“The thing I’m more excited about is the stuff we didn’t do well,” Cooper said. “Because that is the stuff we need to attack and move on with.”

“That’s the kind of program we want to be,” Cooper said about TCU. “So we’re going to look at the stuff that we need to do to compete at that level and get better at. Our goal is to try to be in a position at the end of the year to play in this type of environment again.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff that we can take (home) and work on and get better from and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Penn State returns to action Friday with four-game series against Xavier at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, N.C.

 

Pitching has U-M, Michigan State on collision course

With a 13-1 start, on March 14, 2016, Michigan State cracked Baseball America’s top 25 poll for the first time since April 11, 1988. The Spartans joined Big Ten peer and in-state rival Michigan in the rankings. The Wolverines’ 11-3 record had them ranked 18th in the poll the started the season in.

Michigan State would flirt with the rankings over the next six weeks, falling out and creeping back in, as the team embarked on the best start after 30 games in program history.

When Michigan and Michigan State met for a three-game series, April 29-May 1, Michigan State was unranked, but reflected a record identical to that of 16th ranked Michigan at 28-10. The Spartans had an 8-4 Big Ten record, one-half game behind the Wolverines’ 8-3 clip. Both appearing to be Big Ten championship contenders and in line for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the home and home series drew national attention.

More than 7,500 fans came out to watch the two schools do battle between two games in Ann Arbor and a Saturday game in East Lansing, where Michigan State grabbed the weekend series by winning the last two games. Unfortunately, that rubber match on the first day in May represented the high point in the college season for both clubs.

Sporting a 30-11 record after the weekend victory, Michigan State won only six of their last 15 games to finish 36-20. Similarly, Michigan finished the season in a tailspin. From 29-12, Erik Bakich’s club concluded the season with a near identical 36-21 record.

In a season where at the half-way point fans in two Michigan college towns were wondering if they were capable of hosting a regional, May misery left both on the outside of the NCAA Tournament.

Let’s consider 2016 a warmup because the 2017 Big Ten champion will be decided in the final weekend of the season when Michigan and Michigan State meet.

The two enter the season almost splitting images of each other. Both return veterans throughout the lineup, returning starters with a nice blend of speed and pop. But both clubs will be buoyed by exceptionally deep pitching staffs.

“We’re extremely deep on the mound, probably deeper than we’ve ever been,” said ninth-year Michigan State head coach Jake Boss Jr. “We’re excited about that depth.”

The depth of Michigan State speaks to the recruiting and development of assistants Graham Sykes and Skylar Meade. The Spartans are coming off of a year where two pitchers were selected in the first 10 rounds of the draft, two-year Friday starter Cam Vieaux and All-American relieve Dakota Mekkes. Michigan State would absolutely love to have both back for another year, but there is an embarrassment of riches on the mound in East Lansing.

Seniors Walter Borkovich and Joe Mockbee are seasoned veterans, respective right-handed and left-handed pitchers who have started, pitched in middle relief and closed out games. The duo will almost exclusively be bullpen arms. Junior right-handed pitcher Jake Lowery is a year removed from Tommy John surgery capable of closing an inning in a high-leverage situation or being extended for multiple innings. Sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to be MSU’s closer and an arm Boss calls one of the best in the country.

And that doesn’t hit on the starters. Two-way standout Alex Troop will lead the rotation before Ethan Landon and Andrew Gonzalez resume their Saturday and Sunday roles.

“We feel very good about Troop and Ethan Landon being two number ones for us,” Boss said. “Ethan was our number two last year, had a very good year for us. The decision to throw Alex on Friday night is essentially because he is a two-way player, I’d like to have him on the mound with a fresh arm on Friday.”

For good measure, Michigan State has one of the most explosive freshmen arms in right-hander Mason Erla, who can run it up into the mid-90s.

“As a freshman, he’s a big, strong athletic kid who has been up to 94-95 miles per hour, he could come out of the pen, he could start for us,” Boss said on Erla.

“We lost two very, very talented guys, we bring in four really good players that are freshmen, combine that with the returning guys and I really like where we are on mound.”

The script is the same for Bakich and the Wolverines.

Like Boss, Bakich must replace his Friday starter with the draft departure of junior left-handed pitcher Brett Adcock. But, also like his counterpart, Bakich has plenty of options to turn to, starting with junior Oliver Jaskie stepping into the Friday role, after going 7-3 with a 3.19 ERA as a sophomore.

“He was a kid we recruited not really sure what type of impact he would have with the program. He was a pitcher that was more low-80s, high-70s, changeup guy,” Bakich said. “But he had command and a feel for a changeup. The commitment he made to the weight room and developing himself as a pitcher and as athlete is as good as anyone I’ve seen or coached in 16 years.”

Along with Adcock, Michigan must also replace senior left-handed pitcher Evan Hill and key reliever left-handed pitcher Carmen Benedetti from a staff that carried a 3.86 ERA with 490 strikeouts in 492 innings. But there isn’t a shortage of arms in Ann Arbor waiting to step into bigger roles.

Junior right-handed pitchers Michael Hendrickson and Ryan Nutof appear in line to start after Jaskie. But from there, Jayce Vancena, another junior right-handed pitcher, JUCO transfer junior right-handed pitcher Alec Rennard, sophomore southpaw Will Tribucher and freshmen lefty Tommy Henry, the Wolverines expect to matchup with any on the mound.

“You’re never going to hear any coach complain about having depth on the mound,” Bakich said. “That’s one area you never want to be thin in. We’re lucky that not only do we have depth, it’s older depth, juniors, seniors.

“Four games opening weekend, or eight games in 10 days, that’s where the depth is really going to be a benefit, Bakich said. “It’ll give us a good look to give everyone a lot of opportunities where we go through this first four weeks, and get ready for the thick of a good conference race.”

Michigan and Michigan State aren’t all pitch with little bat.

As Bakich enters his fifth season, Michigan returns their enter starting infield, providing few questions in the lineup.

“It’s not often you get an entire infield unit of returning starters back, but that’s what we have with Jake Bivens (first base), Drew Lugbauer (third base), Michael Brdar (shortstop), Ako Thomas  (second base) and Harrison Wenson (catcher),” Bakich said. “Those guys you would fear complacency, but those guys are so driven to improve themselves that that’s not going to happen.”

In the trend of mirroring each other, the Spartans will also have starters back around the horn, looking especially strong up the middle. Catcher Matt Byars turned down a pro opportunity after being selected in the 24th round by the Minnesota Twins, first-team All-Big Ten second baseman Dan Durkin back, as well as junior center fielder Brandon Hughes.

“It goes to the old adage you have to be strong up the middle,” Boss said.

With a deep pitching staff, around infield full of returners leading an attack that can do it all, Michigan State may have its most complete team in the Boss era.

“I think there’s very good balance offensively, with power and some speed. You go back to the mound, the amount of guys we’ll be able to run out of the bullpen, the confidence he have in our starters, four guys that I feel comfortable starting against anyone in the country. It could very well be as talented of a group that we’ve ever had.”

Bakich likes what he and assistants Sean Kenny and Nick Schnable have at their disposal as they seek a second regional appearance in three years. From the experience in the field and at the plate, the athleticism in the outfield, the depth on the mound, the leadership and commitment to get better, Bakich thinks this may be one of those years where it comes together.

And there’s a little extra motivation pushing the Wolverines.

“This team very much has an edge, last year is fresh in our minds,” Bakich said.  ”We had a good team last year, too, we just completely fell off the table at the end. This team is coming out with a hardened edge, a chip, they’re not only wanting to start strong, but stay strong and finish strong. That will be something that’s motivation for us, I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t.

If the Wolverines do finish strong, it’s set to be quite the series when the two rivals meet. Three games, two campuses, one title on the line.

Weekend preview Feb. 17-20

Gophers ready to show they have staying power

From last year’s Big Ten champion team, Minnesota lost its Friday night starter, Saturday starter, closer, catcher, second baseman, center fielder and DH. That’s a lot of innings, a lot of at-bats and a sizable hole to fill up the middle. On paper, one can wonder what the Gophers have left to as they look to become just the third Big Ten program since 2007-08 to win back-to-back Big Ten championships. But you’re not going to convince John Anderson the cupboard is bare as he enters his 36th season leading the Gophers. Whether or not the experts say so.

After winning the program’s first Big Ten championship in six years, Minnesota is ready to defend its crown and believes it has a roster capable of doing that. But the Gophers were predicted to finish sixth in the conference, along with Iowa, by conference coaches, and neither Baseball America or D1Baseball.com view the Gophers as contenders.

“I’m not big on paying attention to the noise, following the blogs and people saying who’s going to do what,” said Anderson, now a 10-time Big Ten champion. “I’ve always said performance is what matters, the effort you put into daily matters, the predictions don’t.”

In looked to repeat, Minnesota should get good performances mound with who they return.

The 2016 Big Ten Player of the Year, DH/RHP Matt Fiedler leaves a hole atop the Gopher rotation, but his numbers weren’t dominant on the mound, sporting a 4.32 ERA over 89.2 innings. Junior left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath, one of the Big Ten’s top pitching prospects, is ready to step into the lead role for Gopher pitchers. Missing the first five weeks due to personal matters, Gilbreath is coming off of a year where he was dominant, striking out 46 in 33 innings, carrying a 1.36 ERA.

“He made an impact, but I think he’ll make much more significant of an impact this year by having the whole year. He’s a better pitcher, he’s much more mature, he played in the Cape Cod League.” Anderson said about Gilbreath.

Minnesota will miss Dalton Sawyer, the team’s Saturday starter who struck out 112 in 94.2 innings, but senior right-hander Toby Anderson will resume his Sunday role, looking to pick up where he left off following a 7-1 season, posting a 3.32 ERA. Rounding out the rotation, Minnesota will look to freshman right-hander Brett Schulze, a lean and live-armed pitcher whose fastball runs into the mid-90s and is complimented with a sharp curveball.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen on the mound, the pitching isn’t bare,” Anderson said. “We think we’ll be able to put together eight quality arms to compete in the Big Ten. I’m not concerned we can’t put together a quality staff that won’t have us competitive in the Big Ten.”

There are more questions around the diamond and at the plate, but there’s enough firepower returns to believe the Gophers won’t easily relinquish the crown.

Junior third baseman Micah Coffey looks to be the driving force in the lineup, returning after a .333 season where he piled up extra-base hits, collecting 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs. He isn’t the only player who showed he’s capable of handling the bat in the Big Ten.

Coffey is one of five projected starters returning after batting .295 or better in 2016. Sophomore shortstop Terrin Varva started his career with a bang before injuries held him to 32 games, but in 120 at-bats he picked up 43 hits for a .358 average. Juniors Alex Boxwell and Toby Hanson respectively batted .327 and .301, while senior outfielder Jordan Smith posted a .296 clip.

With junior Luke Petterson and senior Matt Stemper set to take on everyday roles at second base and catcher, in limited opportunities they showed they could swim and not sink. Petterson picked up 27 hits in 96 at-bats, putting together a .281-season. Stemper hit six doubles and a home run in 30 games, sporting a respectable .272 average.

Add everything up and Minnesota has the star power and steady anchor in the rotation, quality starters at the plate returning paired with a few players ready to take on a bigger role after showing flashes in previous short stints.

Is it enough to win another Big Ten title? Time will tell. But if even if Minnesota isn’t the hunted, if they sneak up on anyone again, shame on them.

“With all of the preseason stuff that’s came out, we still have the underdog vibe,” said Toby Anderson. “A lot of teams that win the Big Ten have the target on their back, but we’ve been picked to finish anywhere from seventh to third. It’s a lot of the same feeling we had last year.”

“We’ll be in the thick of the Big Ten race, and I’m looking forward to it,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “They experienced some success last year and I think they want to stay at that level.”

The other Anderson, a six-foot-five right-hander with 74 career appearances agrees.

“We’re hungry, we want to prove people wrong.”

A look at the opponent: UC Irvine

The University of California-Irvine welcomes the University of Minnesota to town to begin the 2017 season with a three-game series.  Following a 31-25 2016 campaign, the Anteaters are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first team since reaching the College World Series in 2014.

Preseason All-American Keston Hiura will lead Mike Gillespie’s club, which was picked to finish fifth in the Big West by conference coaches. Hiura was a member of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, after batting .358 with 12 doubles and seven home runs as a sophomore in 2016. Hirua will be limited to DH duties to start the season due to a partial tear in his elbow. Providing support for Hirua at the plate will be senior shortstop Mikey Duarte. Duarte missed the 2016 season with an elbow injury but was a standout in his last action. An All-Big West selection in 2015, Duarte batted .345 with 17 doubles, leading the conference with 78 hits.

On the mound, junior left-handed pitcher Cameron Bishop will be atop Irvine’s rotation. Bishop went 5-5 over 15 starts ago, posting a 4.61 ERA. In 70.1 innings, Bishop struck out 79 batters against 33 walks. At the back of the bullpen, senior right-hander Calvin Faucher looks to pick up where he left off at the end of a strong 2016 season. Faucher led Irvine with eight saves, while pitching to the tune of a .71 ERA in 25.1 innings.

Freshman right-handed pitcher Andre Pallante will take the ball to start game two, before junior right-handed pitcher, Louis Raymond, a transfer from Cuesta College, starts the weekend finale.

Irvine holds a 5-2 series edge over Minnesota, most recently sweeping the Gophers in a three-game set, May 1-3, 2015 in Minneapolis. The meeting between Gillespie and Minnesota’s John Anderson will feature two Hall of Fame coaches, both with more than 1,000 wins in their career.

No time to ease into to

Penn State opens the season at consensus preseason #1 TCU, completing the TCU-half of the home-and-home agreement. Last year, the Nittany Lions welcomed the Horned Frogs to State College for three games, May 6-7. On their way to a third consecutive College World Series appearance, TCU swept the weekend series, taking the three games by scores of 6-2, 5-4 and 9-5.

Finishing in a tie for third last year, TCU returns their entire rotation, their closer and eight of nine starters, including preseason All-Americans Luken Baker, Elliott Barzilli and Evan Skoug. The trio was also named to USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Watch List.

But Penn State returns quite a bit as well, and Rob Cooper’s club is ready to see if the program’s momentum will continue forward. The Nittany Lions also return their entire weekend, Sal Biasi, Taylor Lehman and Justin Hagenman set to take the ball against TCU. Last year’s meeting was the first between the two, as Penn State looks to build off of the program’s first winning season since 2012, with a big win to start the 2017 campaign.

Penn State isn’t the lone team to start the year against a 2016 College World Series participant.

Rutgers travels to Miami for three games against the Hurricane this season, Miami sporting a #18 ranking in the NCBWA preseason poll.

With the completion of the Fred Hill Training Complex, Rutgers feels they’re more ready than ever to open a season. The new training complex features a fully turfed regulation-sized infield, while big enough to feature six drop-down batting cages/pitching tunnels.

Coaches around the conference experience Joe Litterio’s team to continue to improve as the Scarlet Knights are now in their third season in the Big Ten. The strength of Rutgers is their lineup, where sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris looks to continue to establish himself as a force in college baseball.

A two-sport standout, Harris led Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions in 2016, this after leading the Big Ten with 37 stolen bases last year. Rutgers played Miami close last year but were ultimately swept, falling 4-1, 2-0 and 8-1.

Elsewhere

Two Big Ten teams will open the season participating in tournaments.

The Big Ten’s lone ranked team in the NCBWA, #25 Maryland will be joined by #8 Louisville, Ball State and Alabama State in Clearwater, Fla., playing in the Clearwater Tournament at Spectrum Field, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Ohio State will play in the Sunshine State Classic Series in Osceola County, Fla, opening and closing the weekend with games against Kansas State, taking on Delaware and Pitt in-between.

Illinois is a part of a three-team field at the Lamar Cardinal Classic. Opening the season with two games against Milwaukee before playing host Lamar Saturday and Sunday.

The rest of the conference will play series to being the season, with Iowa traveling to Tampa to play at South Florida. Michigan opens with four in Port St. Lucie against Seton Hall. Michigan State opens a new season at Abilene Christian, while a three-game set welcomes Northwestern at Arizona State.

What to watch for

Weather

It wouldn’t be the college baseball season if Big Ten teams weren’t forced to watch the radar and play the waiting game. What is unusual is the havoc-causing weather is in parts west, not the Midwest, forcing teams opening the season in Arizona and California to prepare for alternate plans. A heavy rain system hitting the Pacific coast in southern California will move into Arizona on Saturday.

Already, Indiana has scrapped it’s Saturday game with Duke, in Surprise, adding a Friday game with Oregon State to their originally scheduled Friday contest against Gonzaga. The weekend will now see Indiana play both teams twice, wrapping up their stay in Surprise with a Sunday game against Gonzaga and Monday matinee against Oregon State.

Also opening the season in Arizona is Northwestern, taking on Arizona State for four games. Due to the expected inclement weather, Northwestern will open the season with a Friday doubleheader against the host Sun Devils, to be followed by its originally scheduled Saturday day. The two schools have left Sunday open to play, if Saturday’s game does not get in.

A third Big Ten team was forced to juggle its weekend due to rain in the desert. Nebraska’s four-game series with UC Riverside will now see a Friday doubleheader, instead of Saturday twinbill.

As of 9 a.m. Eastern, Minnesota’s three-game set at UC Irvine will play out as scheduled, single games Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The forecast calls for 100% rain throughout Orange County, leaving the prospect of the Gophers kicking off their title defense on Friday unlikely.

A new era for Purdue Baseball

Outside of John Anderson and his Minnesota Gophers, there hasn’t been a coach more synonymous with his program than former Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber. A Boilermaker in the 1980s, Schreiber led his alma mater for 18 seasons, building the Boilermaker program up to its 2012 high, when the program won its first Big Ten championship in 103 years. Purdue was a consistent force in the Big Ten in the mid-2000s, but have fallen on tough times since its 2012 Gary Regional hosting team.

Now, Mark Wasikowski is tasked to bring back promise to West Lafayette. As Purdue takes on Texas State for four games in Wasikowski’s head coaching debut, the Boilermakers have 15 new players on its 28-man travel roster. However, one of the returning players is junior right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews, who will open the season on the mound for Purdue for a second consecutive season.

With more than half the travel roster newcomers to the Purdue program, and the team playing four games versus a single opponent in the opening weekend for the first time since 1987, Wasikowski will quickly have an ability to discern what he has with the Boilermakers and start to form the program to his liking.

Freshmen pitching debuts

Around the Big Ten, several highly-touted freshmen will make their collegiate debuts, most notably a handful of pitchers on the mound.

Illinois right-handed pitcher Ty Weber will wrap up the weekend on the mound for the Illini, the freshman set to toe the rubber against Lamar on Sunday. Indiana left-handed pitcher Andrew Saalfrank will debut against Gonzaga on Saturday. Minnesota will send freshman right-handed pitcher Ben Schulze to the mound in their second game versus Irvine. Nebraska will trot out rookie Paul Tillotson on Saturday against UC Riverside, while Northwestern will have two freshmen in their opening weekend rotation, righty Hank Christie and southpaw Matt Gannon debuting in games two and game three against Arizona State.

Preseason Honors

 

A new season is here, which means a new group of players stepping up, looking to lead their teams to the NCAA Tournament, players breaking out and emerging as stars, and past standouts solidifying that stature.

Here’s a look at 10 Innings preseason All-Big Ten teams and the Freshmen 15

10 Innings Preseason All-Big Ten Teams

First Team

C- Michigan St. Sr. Matt Byars

1B- Michigan Jr. Jake Bivens

2B- Maryland Soph. Nick Dunn

SS- Iowa Sr. Mason McCoy

3B- Minnesota Jr. Micah Coffey

OF- Maryland Soph. Marty Costes

OF- Nebraska Jr. Scott Schreiber

OF- Indiana Jr. Logan Sowers

UTIL/DH/LHP- Michigan St. Soph. Alex Troop

SP- Ohio State Soph. RHP Ryan Feltner

SP- Michigan St. Jr. RHP Ethan Landon

SP- Maryland Jr. RHP Brian Shaffer

RP- Nebraska Soph. RHP Chad Luensmann

 

Second Team

C- Michigan Sr. Harrison Wenson

1B- Nebraska Sr. Ben Miller

2B- Michigan St. Sr. Dan Durkin

SS- Maryland Jr. Kevin Smith

3B- Indiana Soph. Luke Miller

OF- Michigan St. Jr. Brandon Hughes

OF- Iowa Soph. Robert Neustrom

OF- Rutgers Soph. Juwuan Harris

UTIL/OF/LHP- Nebraska Jr. Jake Meyers

SP- Michigan Jr. LHP Oliver Jaskie

SP- Maryland Jr. RHP Taylor Bloom

SP- Minnesota Jr. LHP Lucas Gilbreath

RP- Michigan St. Soph. RHP Riley McCauley

 

Third Team

C- Nebraska Soph. Jesse Wilkening

1B- Illinois Sr. Pat McInerney

2B- Nebraska Jr. Jake Schleppenbach

SS- Ohio State Sr. Jalen Washington

3B- Michigan Jr. Drew Lugbauer

OF- Indiana Sr. Craig Dedelow

OF- Penn State Sr. Nick Riotto

OF- Northwestern Sr. Matt Hopfner

SP- Michigan Jr. RHP Michael Hendrickson

SP- Indiana Soph. Jonathan Stiever

SP- Nebraska Soph. RHP Matt Waldron

RP- Ohio State Jr. RHP Seth Kinker

Freshmen 15

SS Ben Troike- Illinois

RHP Cyrillo Watson- Illinois

RHP Ty Weber- Illinois

SS Jeremy Houston- Indiana

RHP Andrew Saalfrank-Indiana

CF Justin Jenkins- Iowa

LHP Tommy Henry- Michigan

RHP Mason Erla- Michigan State

LF Danny Gleaves- Michigan State

RHP Brett Schulze- Minnesota

RHP Paul Tillotson-Nebraska

INF Alex Erro-Northwestern

RF Dominic Canzone- Ohio State

RHP Myles Gaymen- Penn State

INF Kevin Welsh- Rutgers

 

Player of the Year- Schreiber

Pitcher of the Year- Shaffer

Freshman of the Year- Erla

Preseason unit ranks: Corner infielders and outfielders

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the corners of the diamond and in the outfielder, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Corner infielders & DH

Minnesota

A potent offense led Minnesota to its first Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. While graduation or the MLB Draft forced the departure of three of the top four hitters from a .322 batting team, the Gophers return two key players at the corners and a breakout candidate at DH. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey has Big Ten Player of the Year Potential, coming off of a sophomore campaign where he filled up Gopher stat sheets. Coffey batted .333 with 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs, tying for the team-lead with 42 RBI. Defensively, Coffey committed only six errors in 154 chances, providing a solid glove at the hot corner. Across the diamond, classmate Toby Hanson looks to build off of a season where he batted .301 over 40 games, hitting five home runs. In the DH spot, sophomore Cole McDevitt put up big numbers in limited opportunities for the Big Ten champs. Appearing in 12 games, making four starts, McDevitt collected nine hits in 22 at-bats for a .409 average, two of which were home runs. The trio provides a power-packed core that John Anderson can build around.

Michigan

The Wolverines return every starter around the diamond, but the two on the corner will flip-flop position. A summer injury will force junior Jake Bivens to move from third base to first base, changing spots with classmate Drew Lugbauer. Regardless of where on the diamond the two suit up, opposing pitchers need to proceed with caution when facing both. Bivens, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has shown an ability to hit from his first day in Maize and Blue. Batting .319 as a freshman, Bivens bumped his average to .356 in 2016 and contributed 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Lugbauer saw a noteworthy increase in offensive production from year one to year two himself. After posting a line .211/.281/.300 in 2015, as a sophomore, Lugbauer’s respective batting average, on-base and slugging percentages made him a force in Michigan’s lineup. On the strength of 15 doubles, seven home runs and 30 walks, Lugbauer batted .294 with a .389 on-base percentage and .483 slugging clip.

Michigan State

Michigan State sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina did a bit of everything for the Spartans last year. A good athlete, Bechina moved to center field when injuries depleted the Michigan State outfield. Bechina also showed flashes of being an impact player at the plate. Starting out hot, Bechina carried a .326 average through March 31, before finishing his first season in East Lansing with a solid .260 average., with 11 doubles and two home runs. Back to his natural third base in 2017, Bechina will be depended upon to be a big bat for Jake Boss. At first base, sophomore Alex Troop will be in the infield, when not the Spartans’ Friday night ace. Troop batted .372 with six doubles in 2016, before a broken thumb ended his season in early March. Troops’ injury allowed Zack McGuire to step in and receive playing time, give MSU a quality option at first when Troop is on the mound, or at DH. McGuire batted .250 over 76 at-bats, dialing up seven doubles and a pair of home runs to help produce a .739 OPS as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, Baseball America has tabbed third baseman Luke Miller as one of the Big Ten’s top five prospects. Taking on a new position, a high school outfielder, Miller handled the hot corner well, while batting .284 with 11 doubles. At first base, senior Austin Cangelosi looks to rebound after a down campaign. Cangelosi batted .219 with six doubles and four home runs after carrying a .246 clip in 2015, with eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. IU has four capable outfielders in Craig Dedelow, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa and Logan Sowers, with the odd man out likely being the DH.

 

Outfielders

Indiana

Four capable guys for three spots gives Indiana the Big Ten’s best outfield. Sowers, a junior, has as much power potential as any player in the conference. Sowers connected for eight home runs in 2016, while being limited to 44 games due to injury. Later in the year, Sowers battled a banged up shoulder, contributing to a season-ending average of .273, which was as high as .337 in late April. Sowers has a big arm and runs well, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound mulit-tooled athlete. Dedelow led IU in batting as a junior in 2016, finishing year three in Bloomington with a .302 average. Dedelow’s 16 doubles also paced the club, a part of 23 extra-base hits with two triples and five home runs. Dedelow and Sowers can be as good of an offensive 1-2 punch in the conference. Krupa and Eustace don’t have the power of their Hoosier teammates, but both have a glove that can play in any outfield, while being spark plugs to the offense. Krupa, a senior, batted .281 with 14 stolen bases as the IU center fielder, after transferring from Iowa Western. When seeing playing time, Eustace batted .248 with a .746 OPS, steal six bases over 40 games as a sophomore. Eustace had a big summer in the Northwoods League, batting .320 over 63 with the wood bat for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.

Nebraska

Nebraska is right there in touting the Big Ten’s top outfield. Junior Scott Schreiber has All-American potential, slugging a Big Ten-best 16 home runs and posting a 1.020 OPS will do that. Schreiber, a former high school quarterback, was Nebraska’s primary first baseman in 2016, but will slide to right field, with Nebraska expecting Schreiber’s athleticism able to handle the change. Schreiber’s .325 average was bested by junior center fielder Jake Meyer’s .326 mark. Meyers, Nebraska’s Sunday starting pitcher, showed a good blend of speed and pop, recording 12 doubles, six triples and two home runs, with 10 stolen bases. Spending a little time in the infield in 2016, junior Luis Alvarado is back to calling left field is home. Alvarado finished his sophomore season witha  .251 average over 53 games.

Rutgers

Rutgers outfield deep enough that senior Mike Carter can move to first base, after batting .367 over 28 games, without head coach Joe Litterio worrying about a production drop off from his outfield. All eyes will be on sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris to see what the two-sport standout does in year two. After leading Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, no returning player in NCAA baseball stolen more bases than Harris last season. Leading the Big Ten with 37 swipes, batting .273, Harris providing an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights. To Harris’ right, senior Tom Marcinczyk led Rutgers with a .446 slugging percentage in 2016, picking up 12 doubles with six triples and four home runs, batting .270, adding 18 stolen bases for good measure. Left field will be manned by sophomore Luke Bowerbank, who comes off a quality rookie season where he batted .301 in 34 games.

Honorable Mention: Minnesota

While sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga is primed for a breakout season, the two Gophers around him look to pick up where 2016 left off, when they experienced breakthrough seasons. Junior right fielder Alex Boxwell put together a nice .327/.379/.464 season as he stepped into an everyday role. Boxwell’s 10 doubles were matched by senior Jordan Smith, who carried a .296 average throughout his junior season, adding a pair of triples and three home runs.

The Prospect Junkie: Who I’m watching

There’s no denying that the Big Ten Conference is gaining respect in the collegiate baseball world. From 2010-2014, the conference earned no more than two bids into the NCAA Tournament each season before peaking with a whopping five bids in 2015 followed by three more in 2016.

The Big Ten has deeper program talent and more parity from top to bottom than it has for years, as the eight bids notched by the conference over the past two seasons were earned by eight different teams.

Whether that program depth within the conference translates into individual prospect talent is another question.  While there doesn’t appear to be a Kyle Schwarber or Tyler Jay in the Big Ten this season, both of whom were drafted in the top 10 overall picks in 2014 and 2015 respectively, there are still noteworthy players.

We’re taking the opportunity to highlight a few of the top prospects in the Big Ten that I’ll be watching closely this spring in preparation for June’s MLB Draft.

Kevin Smith, SS, Maryland

Not only did Smith go undrafted out of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, he was barely recruited, with Maryland being his one and only DI scholarship offer.

If he was unknown prior to stepping onto campus, Smith made people take notice by starting 65 games in his freshman season for a Maryland team that would eventually make it’s second consecutive trip to the Super Regional round. A glove-first shortstop, Smith also produced a serviceable .259/.308/.407 slash line, with eight home runs as a sophomore before taking a step forward in the Cape Cod League.

Using wood bats last summer, Smith hit .301/.348/.427 with five home runs including the playoffs. Decorated with several preseason All-American accolades, Smith offers the best chance at a first round selection for the Big Ten due to his likelihood to stick at shortstop paired with an above-average power profile.

Brian Shaffer, RHP, Maryland

Shaffer has some pretty large shoes to fill as the ace of the Maryland staff. Mike Shawaryn started 48 games over three seasons for the Terrapins, winning 30 games and logging over 300 innings before the Red Sox him in the 5th round of the MLB Draft last summer.

Shaffer was no slouch last season, even stepping in for a struggling Shawaryn in the Friday night role for a brief period in route to an 8-3, 2.60 ERA 0.88 WHIP season. Shaffer has excellent control, walking just 1.13 batters per nine innings last season and 1.20 for his career.

Like Smith, Shaffer went undrafted out of high school but that will change in June. Standing 6’5” and 200 pounds, Shaffer worked at 92-94 mph last season at his best. The prototypical pitcher’s frame, velocity, and low walk rate make Shaffer an intriguing prospect to follow for this draft season.

Logan Sowers, OF, Indiana

Sowers has the most distinguished pedigree in this bunch. As a prep standout at McCutcheon HS in Lafayettte, Sowers earned Indiana Mr. Baseball honors in 2014 before being drafted by the Padres in the 31st round that summer.  Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six

Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six homeruns which earned him All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. Sowers improved on his sophomore campaign, and he was named team MVP while hitting .273/.377/.466 and leading the team with eight home runs despite missing three weeks with a shoulder injury.

Perhaps what’s most encouraging sign is that Sowers was able to tap into his plus raw power while improving his strikeout to walk ratio from 3.19 to 1.64 year over year. The last live look I got of Sowers was early in his collegiate career as Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman made him look like the raw teenager he was. Eshelman had a tendency to do that. I’m looking forward seeing the continued maturation this season to determine of my eyes corroborate what the numbers are indicating.

 

Five more to watch

Luke Miller, 3B, Indiana*

Scott Schreiber, OF, Nebraska

Drew Lugbauer, C/INF, Michigan

Alex Troop, LHP, Michigan State**

Lucas Gilbreth, LHP, Minnesota

 

*Draft-eligible sophomore

**Redshirt sophomore