While weather throughout the Midwest may be more appropriate for early February, it is in fact April. As Big Ten teams hope warmer, more baseball-friendly weather is on the way, each of the 13 baseball programs have played at least one conference series with the chase for the championship under way.
With the college baseball season nearing its midpoint, here’s what was gathered from the most recent round of weekend play, as slowly but surely the cream is rising to the top.
Hoosiers keep humming along
A close 6-5 victory opened the weekend series, before Indiana handily defeated Butler, 13-0 and 10-3 to sweep the Bulldogs. With the three wins, Indiana ran its record to 20-5 through the first seven weeks of the season. Tabbed as the preseason favorite by Big Ten coaches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana is off to a strong start, but the consistency Chris Lemonis’ club has shown deserves recognition. Indiana has yet to suffer a losing weekend and only once has the team dropped back-to-back games. Indiana’s 2.68 ERA leads the conference, while its .286 average ranks third. Checking in at No. 11 in this week’s NCBWA poll, IU has done nothing to suggest they are not one of the country’s top teams, and should be in the mix to host a regional at the end of the season. There may be teams and players who are grabbing more attention at the moment, but with a deep lineup, a depth on the mound and a team that can play clean defense, the baseball team in Bloomington is living up to lofty expectations and handling everything presented in front of them.
Minnesota’s strong March finish
Minnesota didn’t have the strongest start to March, going 1-2 against Pac-12 teams in the Dairy Queen Classic it hosted, before being out scored 14-6 in the first two games of the succeeding series against Creighton. But since a 15-1 win in the series finale against Creighton, Minnesota (18-10) won eight of 12 games to end the month, winning three consecutive series, defeating TCU and Nebraska on the road before a 9-8 win on Friday and 6-3 victory on Saturday led to taking two of three at home this weekend against St. John’s. One would believe John Anderson would have been thrilled in the preseason to take those results. TCU has been to the last four College World Series, Nebraska is the reigning Big Ten champion, and St. John’s was ranked in the preseason. March appeared to be a month that could either doom the Gophers or set them up for a big season. For a team rather green on the mound, the end-of-month success should build conference, and the results should still be strong enough to put the team in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, where their veteran-laden and deep lineup can carry a team.
Freshman arms continue to excel
Three freshmen pitchers made the Weekend 10, and the strong showings by rookie pitchers weren’t an aberration. A look at statistics throughout the Big Ten reveal three true freshmen among the top four leaders in ERA:
#1 Michigan LHP Ben Dragani: 1.38 ERA in 32.2 innings
#2 Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson: 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings.
#4 Northwestern LHP Quinn Lavelle: 2.10 ERA in 34.1 innings.
In additional to those three, who allowed one run while pitching a combined 19.1 innings, the weekend saw Purdue’s Trent Johnson join the Boilermaker rotation and shine to cap a sweep of Penn State, while Rutgers already calls on freshmen Harry Rutkowski and Eric Heatter to round out the Scarlet Knight rotation. Indiana has seen promise out of Tommy Sommer, Ohio State likes what they have in Griffan Smith, and Minnesota has Joshua Colliver, Ryan Duffy, Max Meyer and Sam Thoreson to join Fredrickson as a foundation for the future. Seemingly, everywhere one looks around the Big Ten, there is a freshman or two capable of providing big innings or lead a pitching staff.
Northwestern’s tough run continues
After Lavelle stymied Maryland’s lineup, to lead Northwestern to a 4-0 win on Friday, the Terrapins captured the weekend series by winning the next two games, 6-5 and 4-3. After two weekends, the Wildcats’ Big Ten record sits at 1-5, tied with Michigan State and Penn State at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. But the 1-5 record might not be a fair indicator of the team Spencer Allen has. Take a look at Northwestern’s conference results so far.
Northwestern’s Big Ten losses:
March 23, 5-4 to Illinois
March 24, 5-4 to Illinois in 11 innings
March 25, 4-2 to Illinois in 10 innings
March 31, 6-5 to Maryland in 10 innings
April 1, 4-3 to Maryland.
Runs allowed in Big Ten play: 24
Runs scored in Big Ten play: 22
A few breaks here or there could have Northwestern near the top of the conference, not at the bottom, meaning no conference team should look at the team’s current record and think an easy weekend is in store.
Iowa continues to be Iowa
It’s becoming a spring ritual: question how Iowa will replace a dominant core of players, then watch the Hawkeyes find a way to fight into the top-half of the Big Ten and have an NCAA Tournament appearance be a real opportunity. While Iowa didn’t exactly slow down Illinois’ potent offense, Iowa allowed 32 hits and 20 runs in three game, the Hawkeyes left Champaign with two victories against a ranked Illini team. The weekend win came a week after splitting a shortened set against Indiana. It wasn’t long ago when Iowa dropped five consecutive games and stand 8-6 on the season. But Rick Heller’s group has gone 8-3 since, with two headline-grabbing weekends. Iowa’s tough 2018 slate doesn’t let up, Ohio State, who is 19-8 on the season, visits Iowa City this weekend, then back-to-back series on the road at Nebraska and Minnesota take place. But if the first two weekends of conference play are any indication of what’s to come, Iowa will be in a position to compile a pretty impressive resume.
Catchers turning in strong seasons
With the All-America campaigns Illinois’ Bren Spillane, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are compiling, it’d be fair to call this the year of the first baseman in the Big Ten. And as previously mentioned, the strong seasons nearly a dozen freshman pitchers are putting together deserve praise. After a look at box scores from the weekend, the backstops who are on the receiving ends pitches are collectively having strong seasons in the Big Ten. Leading their teams in hitting are:
Sr. Tyler Cropley, Iowa (.356)
Jr. Ryan Fineman, Indiana (.347)
Jr. Ryan Sloniger, Penn State (.289)
Jr. Nick Dalesandro, Purdue (.337)
Juniors Jacob Barnwell (.289), Jesse Wilkening (.299), and Eli Wilson (.356) are also enjoying strong seasons at the plate, respectively for Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota.
While the batting averages are good, so too have the throwing abilities for many.
Barnwell has thrown out eight of 23 runners on the bases. Dalesandro has gunned down 11 of 24 runners, Fineman has thrown out 14 runners against 12 successful swipes, Rutgers’ Nick Matera has caught seven of 19 runners attempting to steal a base, and Wilson has nabbed five runners in 12 tries.