By Todd Lamb
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.
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
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 mound and up the middle, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.
The Terrapins lost all-everything ace Mike Shawaryn to the MLB Draft, a pitcher whose name is littered throughout the program’s record book. But the latter two-thirds of the Maryland rotation returns, providing as enviable and durable of a 1-2 punch as the Big Ten has seen in recent years. Junior right-hander pitcher Brian Shaffer led Maryland with an 8-3 record, tossing a team-best 103.2 innings. Shaffer’s 2.60 ERA only trailed classmate right-handed pitcher Taylor Bloom’s 2.43 mark over 102.1 innings. The two combined for 135 strikeouts and just 22 walks. Regardless of what Maryland gets in relief pitching and run production, Shaffer and Bloom will have Maryland in a position to win every weekend series.
All but three Big Ten teams will need to replace their Friday starter, but none have a candidate ready to step in who put up as impressive numbers in 2016 Michigan State redshirt sophomore Alex Troop, albeit in a short stint. Troop will take over the #1 spot in the MSU rotation after going 3-0 a year ago, sporting a 1.64 ERA. But a broken bone in the southpaw’s left thumb ended his season after 14 strikeouts in 11 innings. Junior right-handed pitcher Ethan Landon will resume his Saturday role, where he put together a very quiet but very strong season. In his first action with the Spartans, the transfer from Kansas State went 8-3 in 15 starts, pitching 85 innings with a 2.75 ERA. Michigan State will round its rotation with junior right-handed pitcher Andrew Gonzalez, he too had a sub-3.00 ERA at 2.84 in 54 innings over 17 appearances.
The Wolverines have six viable starting pitchers at their disposal, lead by junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie. Jaskie shined as a sophomore, going 7-3 with a team-best 3.19 ERA. Though Michigan lost Brett Adcock to the draft and Evan Hill to graduation, two pitchers who combined for 26 starts and 141.2 innings, junior righty Ryan Nutof is an experienced arm who has been in the rotation. Nutof pitched 54 innings in 2016, to the tune of a 3.67 ERA. Michigan’s big junior class continues with Michael Hendrickson who returns from a season-ending injury, after striking out 16 in 10.2 innings.
Honorable Mention: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers return their entire rotation from their 2016 NCAA Regional team, with senior right-hander Derek Burkamper, sophomore right-hander Matt Waldron and junior left-handed Jake Meyers. The trio combined to pitch 196 innings, each with ERAs below 3.10. None of the three have overpowering stuff, respectively K/9 inning totals of 7.07, 6.69 and 4.62, relying on command and inducing weak contact. Due to minor forearm matter, Burkamper will enter the season in the bullpen.
The loss of an All-American, especially one as dominant as Dakota Mekkes, would normally be a setback to a perceived team strength. While Jake Boss would love another year with Mekkes, Michigan State should be fine. The Spartans likely won’t have a reliever capable of striking out 96 batters in 57 innings, pitch to a 1.74 ERA, they have five returners with sub-3.65 ERAs who were significant contributors. Junior Jake Lowery will be MSU’s swingman, an arm capable of shutting down an opponent or going multiple innings. Lowery had a 2.73 ERA in 26.1 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery. Senior left-hander Joe Mockbee and classmate right-hander Walter Borkovich can be situational arms, 120.1 innings were tossed between them in 2016. All Keegan Baar did as a sophomore was stymie batters to a .212 average in 42.1 innings. While sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to take over the closer’s role for the Spartans, a year after pitching 17 innings with a 1.59 ERA.
The Buckeyes had a high octane offense in 2016, leading the Big Ten in doubles and home runs en route to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Gone are the extra-base machines Jacob Bosiokovic, Ronnie Dawson, Troy Kuhn, Troy Montgomery and Nick Sergakis, as good as Ohio State will rely on its pitching staff in 2017. Junior right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker has the ability to close a game or pitch in extended relief, turned to 38 times out of the bullpen, logging 54.2 innings while holding a 1.65. Closer Yianni Pavlopoulos returns after a 15-save, 3.03-ERA season, though he may be a starting option. If that is the case, Ohio State welcomes the return of senior Jake Post, a right-handed pitcher who missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, a capable closer. Another quality arm the Buckeyes relied heavily on who returns is senior Kyle Michalik. The submariner who tossed 32 innings of 1.69 ERA baseball as a key middle relief option.
Rick Heller believes his 2017 Hawkeye team has the deepest pitching corp in his four seasons. Looking at his roster, he has good reason to believe so. Six of Iowa’s top seven relievers return from a team that carried a collective 3.54 ERA. Sophomore Sam Lizarraga is ready for a big time role after holding a .79 ERA in eight outings, pitching 11.1 innings. Another potential super sophomore, Zach Daniels led the Hawkeyes with five saves, toeing the rubber for 18 innings, finishing his freshman year with a 1.50 ERA. Between Daniels and Lizaragga, only seven walks were issued while 27 batters were struck out. Right-handed pitcher Josh Martsching returns for his senior season, ready to build on a strong 2016 where he finished the year with a 2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings. Nick Allgeyer, Ryan Erickson and midweek starter Cole McDonald are three more dependable relief arms, capable of helping the Hawkeyes hold a lead and secure a win.
Honorable Mention: Michigan
As mentioned, Michigan has nearly half-dozen potential options to round out its rotation after Oliver Jaskie takes the Friday role. Those on the outside of the rotation will be a top bullpen option to go with senior right-hander Jackson Lamb and junior right-handed closer Bryan Pall. Pall returns after saving four games in 2016, using a fastball-slider combination to strikeout 33 batters in 32 innings and finish the season with a 2.81 ERA.
Up the middle (Catcher, second base, shortstop)
Maryland is home to the Big Ten’s top professional prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft in junior shortstop Kevin Smith. Though his spring numbers weren’t eye-popping, a .259 average with eight home runs, Smith went to the Cape and batted .301, being named an All-Star while showing scouts the ability to stick defensively at shortstop at the next level, and a belief that better days are ahead with the bat. Smith’s double play partner, sophomore Nick Dunn, needed only one college season to show he has a capable bat. Dunn led the Terrapins with a .300 average and 16 doubles in 2016, before he too was named a Cape Cod All-Star. Maryland struggled to receive consistency behind the plate a year ago, but both players who saw time, senior Nick Cieri and junior Justin Morris are back, looking to build upon a season where they allowed 56 stolen bases in 68 attempts, while respectively batting .256 and .194.
The depth of Michigan’s pitching staff is complimented with the return of catcher Harrison Wenson. A 39th-round flier by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June’s draft, Wenson opted to return for his senior year. In Wenson, Michigan has a durable catcher, a tough-nosed player as Wenson battled wrist and thumb injury throughout the 2016 season, still starting all 57 games. Wenson batted .289 on the year but did allow 16 passed balls. Behind the Michigan starter on the mound, both middle infielders return. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar is a steady glove, making the routine plays while sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas is a superb athlete, capable of making the spectacular play. Brdar a JUCO transfer, Thomas a freshman, both were serviceable with the bat in their first season of Big Ten play, respective .250 and .258 average, but will be asked of a bit more as Michigan looks to win its first Big Ten championship since 2008.
Like Michigan, Michigan State saw its catcher turn down a professional opportunity to return to school. Senior Matt Byars blossomed in 2016, becoming a premier two-way catcher. At the plate, Byars, a 24th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, batted .284 with 16 doubles and four home runs. Behind the dish, the Spartan committed only two errors with six passed balls. Throwing out a runner 12 times, Byars has senior Dan Durkin on the receiving end of throws at second base. Durkin batted .324 while starting all 56 games for MSU, posting a .963 fielding percentage. Michigan State will potentially platoon at shortstop until either Kory Young or Royce Ando asserts himself over the other. Young’s .224 average bettered Ando’s .197 clip, but Ando did collect three triples and is a player capable of making the WOW play look routine.
Honorable Mention: Indiana
Ryan Fineman turned in a strong debut season for a freshman catcher. Starting 50 games, Fineman batted .268 with eight doubles and three home runs. A good debut season at the plate, Fineman was better with the glove and arm. Committing just four errors with six passed balls, Fineman also showed an ability to control the opposition’s running game, throwing out 41% of would-be base stealers. Senior second baseman Tony Butler did not commit an error in 203 chances, though his .221 average made him one-dimensional. IU struggled to find either a bat or defensive wizard at shortstop, opening the door for highly-touted freshman Jeremy Houston to make an impact from the start.
The Big Ten has produced a first-round pick each of the last three seasons, with Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock emerging as one of the country’s top talents. Again, the Big Ten is not short of standout individual talent with Maryland’s Kevin Smith and Nebraska’s Jake Meyers receiving preseason All-American honors.
But beyond those two, there are several players ready to step into greater roles, capable of putting together noteworthy seasons. Here’s a look at five players primed for breakout seasons.
Maryland Soph. OF Marty Costes
It might not be fair to list Maryland sophomore outfielder Marty Costes as a player primed for a breakout season, he did lead Maryland with nine home runs, the most by a Big Ten freshman, after all. But if even gradual improvements are seen across the board, Costes has a chance to be the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and an All-American. Costes batted .260 in his freshman year, collecting 10 doubles with a pair of doubles, to reach 21 extra-base hits. The power, a .216 isolated slugging percentage, wasn’t terribly compromised with outrageous strikeouts, 21% of at-bats ended in strikeouts, while 28 walks spurred Costes to a .363 on-base percentage. During the Big Ten Tournament, Costes said he didn’t have the best approach as a freshman, there were times he’d chase bad pitches. With a year under his belt and better knowledge of the game, a banner year may be on deck.
Ohio State Jr. OF Tre’ Gantt
Tre’ Gantt emerged as a dynamic player for Ohio State in the second-half of the 2015 season. Arriving on campus in time for the winter semester, Gantt wasted no time getting up to speed and making an impact for the Buckeyes, batting .311 as a freshman over 74 at-bats. But Gantt had labrum surgery following the 2015 season and a slow start to his sophomore campaign led to a step backward offensive. Gantt did show a little more pop in year two, after collecting just one double and one triple in 2015, the outfielder picked up eight doubles, but he was unable to consistently reach base, finishing the season with a .255 average and .311 on-base percentage. More than a year removed from the surgery, the Buckeyes expect Gantt to excel in 2017, as a switch from right field to his natural center field position to help. Slated to start on opening day for the first time, with the departures of Ronnie Dawson and Trom Montgomery, the opportunity is there for Gantt to assert himself as the leader of the Buckeye outfield.
Indiana Jr. RHP Brian Hobbie
Since he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana junior right-handed pitcher Brian Hobbie has looked the part of a big-time college pitcher. Standing six-foot-seven, weighing 227 pounds, Hobbie is a physical presence on the mound. Long-limbed, the ball seemingly crosses home plate in no time. Hobbie does possess a low-90s fastball, a heavy offering that can continually induce weak contact, so his pitches have enough giddy-up. Hobbie has shown flashes of brilliance but the Hoosiers are waiting for everything to come together. Sporting a 6.27 ERA over 18.2 innings as a freshman, Hobbie took a step in the right direction as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 2.08 in 8.2 innings. But after striking out 19 batters against six walks in 2015, Hobbie walked five and struck out three in 2016, contributing to a decrease in usage. Hobbie’s best 2016 effort came in the summer, earning Prospect League Pitcher of the Year honors after holding an 0.82 ERA over 54.2 innings. As Indiana needs to replace its entire rotation, the innings will be there for Hobbie to make an impact.
Minnesota Soph. OF Ben Mezzenga
With Dan Motl batting .336, dialing up 19 doubles and playing superb defense, the opportunities for Ben Mezzenga to make an impact for Minnesota were limited. Making four starts, Mezzenga picked up three hits in 21 at-bats. But don’t think Mezzenga didn’t try his best to leave his mark. Mezzenga stole three bases in three opportunities, to help him score seven runs. In the summer, with a full season of reps, Mezzenga showed why the Gophers are high on him heading into the new season. In 34 games with the Eau Claire Express, Mezzenga batted .321, scored 39 runs, and continued his base stealing prowess, swiping 22 bags. Able to run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds, Mezzenga is viewed as one of the best Minnesota athletes since two-sport standout Eric Decker, with a chance to be an impact the game with the bat, his glove and on the bases.
Illinois Soph. 3B Bren Spillane
Those who cover Midwestern high school baseball saw Illinois’ Bren Spillane as one of the most college-ready players in the high school class of 2015. With an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to hit with power, Spillane was viewed as a player capable of stepping in and contributing from day one for an Illini tweet hit hard that June by the draft. But Spillane suffered a concussion towards the end of his final prep season, and the effects lingered throughout his freshman year. Limited to just two starts and five total games, Spillane went hitless in nine at-bats before Illinois opted to hold him out for the rest of the season. With no symptoms, Spillane looks to have a big second season, this past fall proof of what he’s capable of. In Illinois’ intra-squad Blue and Orange series, Spillane had a three-home run game, a second multi-hit contest and capped the week with two RBI. Dan Hartleb and staff expects Spillane to be a force in the heart of the Illini lineup as the team seeks a fourth regional appearance in seven seasons.
Five more to watch
Northwestern Jr. RHP Tommy Bordignon
Penn State Soph. INF Connor Klemann
Purdue Soph. C Nick Dalesandro
Michigan State Jr. FHP Andrew Gonzalez
Michigan Jr. RHP Jayce Vance
The 2017 season is littered with big series, week after week in the Big Ten. Here is a look at 10 series which will shape the season.
Penn State at TCU, Feb. 17-19
Penn State has improved upon the previous season in each of Rob Cooper’s first three seasons in State College. The Nittany Lions finished the 2016 season with a 28-27 record, above .500 for the first time since 2012, going 12-12 in Big Ten play. Penn State finished in a tie for eighth in the conference, with Illinois and Iowa, but due to tiebreakers was on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament field. Penn State will have an opportunity right out of the gate to put to rest any lingering wishes of last season, opening the 2017 season at consensus #1 TCU. Penn State returns its entire weekend rotation from 2016 and the talent base and depth continues to build for the Nittany Lions. There is no greater opportunity to see how far the program than facing a program which has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Penn State played TCU tough in a three-game set last year in State College, ultimately being swept. If Penn State can leave Fort Worth with a win, Coop’s crew may be in line for a breakout year.
Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26
Maryland’s series at LSU has been circled from the day the respective schedules were put out. Tabbed the Big Ten’s favorite by national media, Maryland’s mettle will be tested early. There is no environment in college baseball like LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, but this is a Maryland team used to unwelcoming settings. It wasn’t long ago the Terrapins were coming off of back-to-back super regional appearances, in fact, that was just last year. With across the board preseason rankings, expectations are again high for Maryland. The meeting with the Tigers will not provide an opportunity to build a strong RPI, but if Maryland performs as many expect, they could be in line for a regional host at year’s end, and an early season win on the road against a top 10 team would be quite the bullet on a resume. The series will also likely have the best pitching matchup of any game involving a Big Ten team this season when Terrapin Brian Shaffer toes the mound opposite LSU’s Alex Lange, both strong draft prospects, to kick the weekend off.
Rutgers at Virginia, Feb. 24-26
Rutgers opens the season at Miami, and 2016 College World Series participant, providing a tough opponent from the start. But it is Rutgers’ second weekend, still against a very good opponent, at Virginia that figures to be a better gauge on what’s in front of the Scarlet Knights in 2017. Joe Litterio’s team now calls the glistening Fred Hill Training Complex home, a fully turfed indoor infield, which allows Rutgers to do everything on a diamond indoor it seeks to do outside. This is quite critical in the preparation for the New Jersey program. Expected to be as game-ready as ever to enter the season, it’s still hard to duplicate the outdoor nature of baseball. With a weekend under their belt, how Rutgers battles Virginia, the 2015 national champions, should show if the team is on an upward trend. Can Rutgers pull the upset and leave Charlottesville with a weekend win? Even grabbing one win will show Rutgers will have a say in how the Big Ten table shakes out.
Michigan at Lipscomb, March 10-12
Michigan’s depth on the mound paired with a few questions in the gives the Wolverines an opportunity to bring the Big Ten championship, and a NCAA regional, to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2008. The Wolverines open March in the four-team Dodgertown Classic field alongside San Diego and hosts UCLA and USC, putting Michigan against top competition early in the season. But the following weekend is one to keep an eye on. In Nashville, Michigan will meet Lipscomb for a three-game series, its first weekend set against a team expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not only is Lipscomb viewed by national media as regional-bound, in some corners they’re seen as a College World Series darkhorse. Led by preseason All-American outfielder Michael Gigliotti, Lipscomb swept preseason Atlantic Sun coaches honors. Tabbed as conference favorites, Gigliotti is the ASUN Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while Brady Puckett earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year.
Michigan State at South Carolina, March 10-12
Michigan State broke a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2012, a year after being conference co-champions with Illinois. For six seasons now, Jake Boss’ team has been a club in the mix for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Unfortunately, Michigan State has yet to duplicate either feat, painstakingly being the first team left out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and one of the first four out in 2015. But every year, Michigan State attempts to put itself a position to be considered for a tournament berth, seeking out tough competition away from home. From Texas A&M to UCLA and Oregon, there is no place MSU won’t go. This year, they take on Southeastern Conference power South Carolina. Like their in-state rivals in Ann Arbor, the team in East Lansing has a roster strong enough to bring a NCAA Regional to town. Grabbing a road win in Columbia will give MSU the credibility it needs to show they are for real, to get over the hump and return to the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota at Ohio State, March 24-26
The pre-conference slate is filled with big series from coast to coast, putting teams in position to have a big 2017. The Big Ten season kicks off pitting two teams against each other, looking to continue what was started in 2016. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions welcome the reigning conference champions for a banner series out of the gate. Due to conference expansion and schedule quarks, Ohio State has not played host to Minnesota since 2012. Two tradition-ladened clubs, it’s mind-blogging five years could pass between the Gophers last trip to Columbus. On paper, both teams lost a lot from 2016 regional clubs, for Minnesota, the Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler is now in the pro ranks, the same for Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But enough parts return where a run at another conference crown should not be unexpected, nor a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Which team can start conference play on the right note will get a shot in the arm in turning a one-year rise into sustain success.
Maryland at Nebraska, April 7-9
In each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has yet to see the top two finishers square off in a weekend series. The 2016 season ended in high drama with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State all with a shot at the conference title, with the four teams squaring off in two series, but the season ended with Minnesota at the top, Nebraska second, one half-game separating the two with a game played between them. Illinois’ historic 21-1 season came without playing second-place Iowa. The 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game was a sensational spectacle, in part because Indiana and Nebraska, two ranked teams did not play in the regular season. Will this finally end? On the accord on national media, Nebraska is right there with Maryland as the team to beat in the Big Ten. An early April weekend sees the two square off, and it should be a dandy. Maryland’s dynamic pitching duo of Shaffer and Taylor Bloom will go against Nebraska’s big boopers in Scott Schreiber and Ben Miller. Both clubs have talent and experience, both are led by hard-nosed, no-nonsense coaches. With Hawks Field capable of filling up with thousands upon thousands, this will be a must-see series.
Xavier at Indiana, May 5-7
It’s a sneaky good non-conference series, quite the pickup for Indiana in its bye week. And the Hoosier didn’t have to look far for its opponent. While a mid-major, Xavier has a very capable team in 2017, should not be overlooked for a lack of power conference stature. The Musketeers, who may be home to the best pitching prospect in the Midwest in Zac Lowther, are the Big East preseason favorites return several capable players, from its Nashville Regional runners-up team. The Hoosiers will be the third Big Ten team Xavier faces in a weekend series, following Penn State and Ohio State, and, while the results do no count, have left Bloomington with an exhibition victory in each of the last two Autumns. Indiana returns its entire lineup and by May, the completely new rotation should have settled in. Looking to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, May will be a big month for the Hoosiers hopes, starting with this series against the Queen City club.
Long Beach State at Minnesota, May 12-14
Minnesota will open the season at the Big West’s UC Irvine and will conclude it’s out-of-conference slate by welcoming the Big West’s Long Beach State to Minneapolis in May. Long Beach State enters the season with a national ranking, looking primed to build on its program’s storied history. Minnesota is absent a preseason ranking, but they’ll be looking to do the same, shooting for a Big Ten-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance. By mid-May, RPI fluctuations will have calmed, teams will have a dozen weekends of showing who they are and what they’re capable of. For Minnesota to have a quality opponent come to town this late in the season is a boon. The Gophers will have the ability to make a final statement on the national landscape and potentially propel itself to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2004.
Michigan vs. Michigan State, May 18-20
Oh, what a dandy this could be. When Michigan and Michigan State meet, the two come together for a split-site series, alternating between two home games around one road contest, year after year. Last year, when the teams met in the final weekend of April, more than 7,000 fans came out to watch the rivals square off. That was with overcast skies twice in Ann Arbor and on a gray Saturday in East Lansing, the temperature resting in the upper 40s throughout the weekend. What could the turnout be if the two face off the final weekend of the season, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, as two teams stocked with pitchers and capable bats do battle? The imagination runs wild, what a way to end the season.