April 27 Power Rankings

A very big weekend is here for the Big Ten. With Illinois traveling to Indiana, Iowa hosting Michigan, and Minnesota taking on Ohio State in Columbus, there are three series between teams with sub-60 RPIs. As the NCAA Tournament picture starts to slowly come into focus, it’s a big weekend for teams pursuing a spot in the field of 64.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Purdue hosts Rutgers, where 1.5 games separates the respective sixth and 9th-place positions in the Big Ten. In East Lansing, Michigan State’s current eight-place standing will be on the line against Maryland who is trying to claw back into the Big Ten Tournament picture, while Northwestern and Penn State square off as they look to build momentum in order to finish the season strong and continue their rebuilding process.

Who’s playing the best baseball heading into a crucial weekend all around? This week’s power rankings highlights each team’s best victory thus far, before each team has a shot to reel in additional impressive wins this weekend.

Previous rankings: Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4Week 5, March 30

No. 1 Michigan (24-11 overall, 11-0 Big Ten) Previous: 5

Best win: March 3 at Stanford. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. Although the Wolverines opened the season 4-11, they showed they could compete with the best of the best. After a suffering a 3-2, walk-off loss, in game two of their series, Michigan rebounded to grab a 5-0 victory in the nightcap of their Saturday doubleheader at Stanford. The Cardinal check in at No. 2 in the RPI.

No. 2 Minnesota (26-11, 9-2) Pv: 4

Best win: March 30 vs. St. John’s. Minnesota opened March with a 1-2 showing in the Dairy Queen Classic, before falling twice at home to Creighton the next weekend. The Gophers squandered opportunities to pick up big weekend wins, and, as March closed, after dropping the first game at St. John’s, the same fate was before them. Minnesota rallied to win, 9-8, on March 30, before winning 6-3 in the finale, earning a weekend win against a RPI top 50 club.

No. 3 Ohio State (27-11, 8-4) Pv: 3

Best win: April 22 vs. Indiana. In back-to-back weekends in March, Ohio State knocked off Southern Miss and Coastal Carolina, two ranked teams. But it wasn’t until this past weekend when the Buckeyes made a statement. On Sunday, a 12-inning, 6-5 win over the Hoosiers gave Ohio State their first weekend over Indiana since 2011 and cemented the Buckeyes stature as a regional-worthy team.

No. 4 Purdue (21-16, 7-4) Pv: 10

Best win: April 25 vs. Indiana. Unfortunately for Indiana, their two most recent losses make the list. But for Purdue, their midweek triumph over Indiana leveled the season series at 2-2 games aside and kept the Boilermakers’ fringe NCAA Tournament hopes alive. But more than anything, an Alexander Field record crowd was broadcast to the nation on ESPNU, giving Mark Wasikowski’s rebuilding job incredible exposure.

No. 5 Indiana (29-9, 7-4) Pv: 1

Best win: Feb. 19 at Coastal Carolina. The Hoosiers entered the season with high expectations, which made their season-opening loss to Oklahoma a bit tough. But in Myrtle Beach, Indiana rallied to win their final three games of the weekend, capped by a win at Coastal Carolina, The win over the Chanticleers laid proof to Indiana being a top team and gives them a win over team in the RPI’s top 25.

No. 6 Iowa (24-13, 7-6) Pv: 6

Best win: April 22 at Minnesota. Another win from last weekend makes the list, this time it’s Iowa knocking off Minnesota, 5-3. Earlier in Big Ten play, Iowa compiled a combined 5-3 record against Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio State. But the Hawkeyes faced the possibility of a sweep by Minnesota, which would drop them below .500 in conference play, and may make their NCAA Tournament standing muddied. A sweep was averted with the win, a win that also moved Iowa to 4-4 against the RPI top 50, a strong mark.

No. 7 Illinois (24-12, 9-3) Pv: 2

Best win: March 2 vs. UCLA. This could be viewed as the win that brought Illinois back onto the national scene. In their first game of the Dairy Queen Classic, the Illini knocked off UCLA, 5-3. For the second time in three games, Illinois took down a ranked foe, and their showing against the Bruins started their weekend sweep of Pac-12 teams, which moved them to 6-3, in polls and back in the spotlight.

No. 8 Michigan State (15-21, 6-5) Pv: 13

Best win: March 4 vs. Arizona. A fourth win in Minneapolis makes the list. The last day of the showdown between Big Ten and Pac-12 clubs started with two teams yet to grab a victory on the weekend. For Michigan State, the Spartans had only two wins through their first nine games, before a 3-2 win over the Wildcats, who are 23-15 on the year, showed Jake Boss’ team shouldn’t be overlooked.

No. 9 Rutgers (22-15, 6-6) Pv: 7

Best win: March 17 at Florida Gulf Coast. The first three weeks of the season saw Rutgers go 5-6. Heading to Florida for six games over spring break, the Scarlet Knights were looking to break .500 and gain momentum in advance of their fourth Big Ten season. Rutgers did just that. Six consecutive wins in the Sunshine State were capped by a March 17, 6-3 win at Florida Gulf Coast, giving Joe Literrio’s squad a road series win against a team in the RPI’s top 50.

No. 10 Nebraska (17-22, 4-9) Pv: 8

Best win: March 4 at Wichita State. Although the Nebraska has picked up wins against Iowa and Minnesota, and grabbed a road victory at Ohio State, it’s been a tough year for the reigning Big Ten champions. The best win on Nebraska’s resume is 10-9 triumph over Wichita State, a win that avoided a sweep, beat a nearby neighbor, but also showed Nebraska could still spoil someone’s season, having the ability to beat a top 35 team.

No. 11 Maryland (17-23, 3-8) Pv: 9

Best win: March 3 at Coastal Carolina. A team many expected to content for the Big Ten championship and reach an NCAA Regional for the third time in four years, the 2018 season has been rough for the Terps under first-year head coach Rob Vaughn. But on March 3, as part of a perfect weekend in the Coastal Carolina Classic, the Terps knocked off the Chanticleers, 7-6, a victory against a team in the top 20 of the polls, one that may leave Maryland with thoughts of what-if.

No. 12 Penn State (9-25, 1-14) Pv: 11

Best win: March 24 at Rutgers. After a season-opening sweep of Elon, times have been tough for Penn State, winning just six of the next 31 games. But on March 25, the Nittany Lions picked up a road win at Rutgers, 9-3, securing a Big Ten victory, and showing Rob Cooper’s club can hold down a potent offense, and score a few wins against a quality team.

No. 13 Northwestern (10-24, 1-14) Pv: 12

Best win: March 2 at Texas. Wins have been hard to come by for the Wildcats, but in their pocket is a Texas-sized win. In their series opener against the Longhorns, Northwestern grabbed headlines with a 6-2 victory over the Big XII foe. As Spencer Allen continues build up the program in Evanston, getting a taste of winning on a big stage will surely help.

Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

MSU Baseball Game At Comerica Vs. EMU Cancelled

Detroit — Michigan State baseball’s game against Eastern Michigan at Comerica Park on Tuesday was cancelled due to inclement weather in the Detroit area. Unfortunately, there will be no make-up date.

Tuesday’s cancellation was the second of the season between MSU and EMU, as the April 4 contest at East Lansing was also cancelled due to inclement weather. By not playing this season, it means that for the first time since 2007, that the Spartans will not tangle with the Eagles.

Tuesday’s game was full of coaching connections, including both teams’ head coaches, MSU’s Jake Boss Jr. and EMU interim head coach Eric Roof, and pitching coaches, Mark Van Ameyde for the Spartans and A.J. Achter for the Eagles, and MSU’s volunteer assistant coach, Jordan Keur.

Tickets from Tuesday’s game at Comerica will be good for admission at any upcoming Michigan State baseball game. For more information, contact the MSU Ticket Office at 517-355-1610.

MSU has a quick turnaround, returning home to host Toledo on Wednesday at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field. First pitch is slated for 3:05 p.m.

Penn State Baseball Game Against Bucknell Canceled

University Park, Penn. — Penn State baseball’s game scheduled for Tuesday against Bucknell in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park has been canceled due to forecasted rain, Penn State head coach Rob Cooper announced
Tuesday afternoon.

Fans with tickets for the Bucknell game or any other postponed game this season can redeem them at the State College Spikes box office for any other 2018 Penn State baseball game. Those planning to bring non-perishable food items to donate to Lion’s Pantry can bring them to this Friday’s game against Northwestern slated for 6:30 p.m. The 90’s Night theme has been postponed to Friday, May 4 against Michigan State.

Penn State will next play Wednesday starting at 6:30 p.m. in the home of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Coca-Cola Park, to take on Lafayette. The Lions will then play their next six at home starting with Northwestern Friday.

Tickets for the 2018 Penn State baseball season, presented by Family Clothesline, are available online at GoPSUsports.com or by calling the Medlar Field at Lubrano Park ticket office at 814-272-1711.

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

Maryland-George Mason Game Cancelled

College Park, Md. — Due to inclement weather, the Maryland baseball team’s game with George Mason scheduled for Tuesday has been cancelled.

To stay up to date on Maryland Baseball, log on to umterps.com or follow the team on Twitter at @TerpsBaseball.

Minnesota announces schedule changes

Minneapolis, Minn. — The Gopher Baseball team can announce future changes to its schedule for later this spring.

Due to the condensed schedule in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) this season, Bethel (Minn.) University must cancel the team’s May 2 match-up with the Gophers at Siebert Field. Minnesota has instead picked up a game against another local team as the Gophers will take on Concordia University, St. Paul of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) on May 1 at Siebert Field. First pitch is set for 6 p.m.

Gopher Baseball alumni Marcus McKenzie and John Gaub are members of the Golden Bears coaching staff assisting head coach Mark “Lunch” McKenzie.

Tickets purchased for the canceled game with Bethel will be honored at the added game against Concordia-St. Paul. Fans unable to attend can receive tickets to a different contest. Please contact 612-624-8080 with questions. Stay tuned to GopherSports.com and our social channels for schedule and weather updates throughout the season.

April 20-22 Weekend Observations

Finally, the weather broke enough over the weekend for all games that were scheduled to be played, and what a weekend it was across the conference.

Sweeps by Michigan State and Purdue have tightened the middle of the Big Ten table, while Michigan has opened up a bit of light between them and second-place Minnesota, following a weekend sweep which has their winning streak up to 20 games. But the eyes of the Gophers have sights set on larger prizes than the conference title, with a weekend win over Iowa solidifying their ground as a regional club, likewise for Ohio State, who earned a hard fought weekend win over Indiana.

What were the key takeaways from an action-packed weekend in the Big Ten? Here they are.

Home field defended in key matchups

The weekend was the first of three consecutive where Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State play each other, with Illinois also taking on Indiana and Ohio State over the next two weeks. With each of the four teams not only jockeying for their place in the Big Ten standings, but also as potential hosts for an NCAA regional, taking care of business at home is instrumental.

All four teams will receive a boost in the RPI based on each of the four teams having a winning percentage of at least .667. But what’s more critical than just playing stout competition is to avoid home losses. In the RPI’s formula, a home win is weight at .7, a home loss is weighted at 1.3.

Putting that into better perspective, a 1-2 weekend on the road, as Indiana encountered at Ohio State, goes into the RPI as a 1.3-1.4 weekend. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes, with all the glory and deserved respect of knocking off a top 10 team, only had a 1.4-1.3 weekend in the eyes of the RPI. If Indiana found a way to close Sunday’s 6-5, 12-inning thrilled, Ohio State would have had a .7-2.6 weekend.

It is critical for these teams with lofty NCAA Tournament sights defend their home field, and in the first round of circled weekends, Minnesota and Ohio State did that, now it’s on to see if their respective opponents, Iowa and Indiana, can do the same this upcoming weekend to boost their regional chances.

Scott Schreiber continues to torture conference pitchers

Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane could go hitless over his next 55 at-bats and still hold a .303 average for the season. Barring an unthinkable decline in performance, or injury, Spillane is likely ticketed for an All-America team. But do not overlook the season another Big Ten first baseman is having, one who also deserves consideration for the highest individual honors.

A 1-2 weekend at Rutgers has Nebraska hanging on the thinnest of threads in pursuit of a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. At 4-9 in conference play, the Huskers are on pace for their worst showing in their seven-year Big Ten history. While it’s all but certain Nebraska won’t defend it’s conference crown, the scuffles of the Cornhuskers have all but alluded senior first baseman Scott Schreiber.

With home runs on Friday and Sunday in Piscataway, Schreiber increased his long ball total to 13, nine of which have come in Big Ten play. In Big Ten play, Schreiber is batting .481 with five doubles, nine home runs, and 58 total bases, 17 more than the closet player. Five Big Ten home runs shy of tying the in-conference mark, Schreiber’s reaching base at a .556 clip and slugging 1.074. With long-standing records in sight, Schreiber should join Spillane in being named one of the country’s best first basemen at season’s end.

Don’t dismiss Purdue’s regional chances

With outlets publishing NCAA Tournament projections, coming into discussion is the question of can the Big Ten break its record for most teams placed in a regional. The 2015 and 2017 seasons saw five teams participate in the field of 64, where today, six different teams, have been projected as a regional team by one outlet or another. The focus on the potential record-breaking season for the Big Ten has concentrated on the fates of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State.

Through games played on April 23, the NCAA’s listed RPI of those teams are:

Indiana- 26

Ohio State- 38

Minnesota- 40

Iowa- 45

Michigan- 53

Illinois- 58

Each team would merit consideration for a berth in this year’s team.

But there’s one more team to keep an eye on: Purdue.

After a weekend road sweep of Maryland, at 19-16, Prudue’s RPI is 77, closer to Illinois’ than the Illini’s is to Ohio State. The Boilermakers still have series left against Michigan and Ohio State, plus a non-conference midweek game on Wednesday against Indiana, a team who needed 13 innings to win their rubber match earlier this month. It may take a mighty push, plus a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament, but Purdue, who has 13 of their final 17 games at home, is hanging around the postseason picture.

Michigan State’s rotation shakeup pays off

Heading into the first weekend of April, Michigan State was 1-5 in Big Ten play. The Spartans were coming off of a win in their most recent Big Ten outing, but a sweep at the hands of in-state rival Michigan, then dropping two of three against Rutgers had MSU at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Facing a now-or-never moment, Jake Boss shook up his rotation, sending Friday starter Riley McCauley back into his closing role, moving Ethan Landon, the team’s best performing pitcher, atop the rotation, followed by Mason Erla, the undoubted ace of the future.

Their series limited to two games due to cold temperatures, MSU held Nebraska to eight runs in two victories. After a bye week hosting Valparaiso, Michigan State returned to Big Ten action this weekend with a road series at Northwestern, and left Evanston with three victories. Running their Big Ten-winning streak to six games, the Spartans held the Wildcats to 10 runs over three games.

In three outings since his return to the bullpen, McCauley has pitched five scoreless innings over three and recorded two saves this weekend at Northwestern. McCauley joins Mitchell Tyranski, three saves and a 1.71 ERA in 26.1 innings, as a two-headed monster at the back of the bullpen, ready to take the ball after setup Jake Lowery, who has pitched 4.2 innings over the run, without allowing an earned run, to make up a formidable late-inning trio.

Having a closer really, really, really helps

Speaking of the back of the bullpen, leading the Big Ten in saves are:

Illinois’ Joey Gerber (12)

Minnesota’s Max Meyer (10)

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker (9).

More wins will lead to more save opportunities, but it’s unlikely each of the three teams would be in a position to reach the NCAA Tournament without having their respective shutdown reliever. Highlighted by play around the conference this weekend, it’s evident how much having a standout reliever means.

Meyer, excelling as a freshman, recorded the final four outs in Minnesota’s 4-3 win over Iowa on Friday, before finishing a combined, 3-0 shutout on Saturday.

Earning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors, Purdue’s Ross Learnard recorded a save in all three games at Maryland.

After earning a two-inning save on Saturday against Indiana, Kinker pitched the final 5.1 innings on Sunday, to lead the Buckeyes to their weekend win over Indiana.

While a weapon like Gerber may be the ultimate desire, the Illini righy has six saves in six innings, with 12 strikeouts and zero walks in conference play, having a lockdown relief pitcher appears necessary for teams to win meaningful games, and rack up enough to be in the mix for a regional berth.

The Weekend 10

It’s starting to be crunch time in the Big Ten, with teams entering the back-half of their conference schedule and the postseason picture becoming clearer. The weekend saw many stout performances, so strong in fact that the Big Ten’s top sluggers, Bren Spillane and Scott Schreiber, didn’t make the cut, even though both connected on two home runs this weekend.

Here’s the standouts who did.

Northwestern Jr. 1B Willie Bourbon

Bourbon collected five hits in 10 at-bats, in additional to drawing three walks in Northwestern’s weekend series against Michigan State. The Wildcat picked scored a pair of runs and drove in teammates.

Iowa Sr. C Tyler Cropley

Cropley continued his strong season in the heart of the Hawkeye order, going 6-for-12 over three games in Minneapolis. Against the nationally-ranked Gophers, Cropley roped two doubles, and picked up a home run, driving in three runs.

Michigan Fr. 1B Jesse Franklin

A leading force in Michigan’s now 20-game winning streak, Franklin scored seven runs and drove in another seven, as the Wolverines defended their home turf with a weekend sweep over Penn State. In 13 at-bats, Franklin picked up two singles, a double, and two home runs.

Minnesota Fr. RHP Patrick Fredrickson

The race for Big Ten Freshman of the Year continues to be a tight one, with Fredrickson, this week’s 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week, continuing a stout season in the Gopher rotation. On Saturday, Fredrickson held Iowa to six hits and two walks over 7.2 innings, striking out a pair of Hawkeyes, en route to improving to 5-0 on the year in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory.

Ohio State Sr. RHP Seth Kinker

Ohio State head coach Greg Beals relied on Kinker to keep the Buckeyes in tight contests this weekend against Indiana, and did not take the ball out of the hand of his best reliever. On Saturday, Kinker, this week’s Pitcher of the Week, pitched two innings of scoreless baseball, holding the Hoosiers without a grab his ninth save in securing a 5-4 victory. In Sunday’s rubber match, Kinker pitched the final 5.1 innings, scattering two hits, and again kept the Hoosiers off the scoreboard, as the Buckeyes grabbed another upset victory with a 6-5 win in 12 innings.

Purdue Jr. 1B Jacson McGowan

In a weekend critical to the team’s postseason hopes, Purdue went on the road and swept their weekend series at Maryland, improving to 7-4 in conference play. Guiding the Boilermakers to three wins, McGowan, this week’s Player of the Week, recorded a multi-hit game in each contest. The slugger’s 6-for-12 weekend was highlighted by a game-tying, ninth-inning home run on Saturday, before connecting on the game-winning shot in the 11th.

Ohio State Sr. 3B Noah McGowan

Ohio State’s athletic communications department was unable to find the last time the Buckeyes won a weekend set against a top 10 team. Leading the Bucks to the big weekend win was McGowan, responsible for the game-winning hits in both of OSU’s victories. Going 6-for-12 with three RBI, McGowan connected on a solo home run on Saturday, before hitting an opposite-field double to drive in Ohio State’s sixth and final run on Sunday in the 12-inning thriller.

Michigan State Sr. 1B Zach McGuire

A second-half surge continued for Michigan State, with the Spartans sweeping Northwestern. Running their conference winning streak to six games, MSU got a big weekend from first baseman Zach McGuire, who picked up two home runs on the weekend, half of his four hits in 11 at-bats, as he scored four runs and drove in five.

Michigan Jr. 3B Blake Nelson

No player drove in more runs over the weekend than Nelson, responsible for driving in nine of the 41 runs the Wolverines scored. Over 13 at-bats, the junior third baseman grabbed six hits, half of which were doubles on Saturday. Nelson reached base twice more by way or walk and scored two runs.

Indiana Jr. RHP Jonathan Stiever

Starting Indiana’s weekend off on the right foot, Stiever held a high-powered Ohio State offense off of the scoreboard on Friday. In seven innings of work, the righty surrendered only five hits, walked four Buckeyes and struck out six batters, improving to 5-1 on the year with a 2.53 ERA.

One month to go

One month from today, on May 20, the  regular season will be over for Big Ten clubs. The eight-team field that will make up the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha will be set, players will have put forth all evidence to merit all-conference honors, and a clearer picture of who will be in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks time will be set.

What can we expect to unfold over the final five weekends of the season? Here’s some of the most intriguing questions we’re looking forward to seeing answered.

How many teams make the NCAA Tournament?

Long gone are the days of wondering if the Big Ten will place multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament. The question now becomes, how many teams less or greater than four will make the field. Currently, six teams are in position to receive strong consideration to be in the field of 64 if the season ended today. National outlets have between four and six clubs participating in a regional. The final tally of teams will likely depend on who much teams beat up on each other, if there are a few sweeps or if series are tight. The next three weeks will provide a bit of clarity as the schedule has:

April 20-22

Indiana @ Ohio State

Iowa @ Minnesota

April 27-29

Illinois @ Indiana

Michigan @ Iowa

Minnesota @ Ohio State

May 4-6

Indiana @ Minnesota

Ohio State @ Illinois

The weekend of May 4-6 also sees Iowa welcome Oklahoma State to town for a big series during their bye week. With all but Michigan having multiple weeks against opponents in the RPIs top 50, the next three weeks could punch a team’s ticket to a regional, or hang a cloud of a thus far strong season.

Does anyone challenge Spillane as Player of the Year?

So far, the only thing that has slowed down Illinois junior first baseman Bren Spillane is an injury which has forced the slugger to miss the Illini’s last three games and render his status as day-to-day. Prior to the injury, Spillane was punishing pitchers to the tune of .457/.540/1.038, cranking out 15 doubles and 14 home runs, and adding 12 stolen bases for good measure. But if Spillane is out for an extended period, or his numbers aren’t as video game-esque, will he cruise to being the third Illini in six years to be name Big Ten Player of the Year? There’s a handful of players that suggest no.

A pair of Gophers, Ben Mezzenga and Terrin Vara, check in with averages north of .400, .411 and .406, respectively. Right behind them are a pair of first basemen, who, like Spillane, are compiling all-america campaigns. Nebraska senior Scott Schreiber is batting .399 with 11 doubles and 11 home runs. Ohio State senior Noah McGowan is batting .396 with 16 doubles, seven home runs, and a Big Ten-best 43 RBI.

Spillane should enter the final month as the even-odds favorite to be named the Big Ten’s top player, but there are a few players putting together seasons which otherwise would have the competition well behind.

Will any records go down?

With Spillane missing a few games, as well as the Illini losing contests to weather, the single-season home run record of 29, set by Iowa’s Jake Adams last year appears to be safe, for now. But what other records may be in jeopardy?

Illinois closer Joey Gerber already has racked up 11 saves, just seven shy of the record set by Ohio State’s Jake Hale in 2009.

Spillane could threat the slugging percentage mark of .869, set by Michigan’s Casey Close in 1986.

With four series down and four to go, Schreiber is on pace to tie the record for most home runs in a Big Ten season at 14. And if Schreiber matches his efforts during Nebraska’s back-half of the Big Ten slate, the record for total bases of 92 will fall, he currently has 49, as will the slugging (1.022) and on-base (.568) percentages, as he currently leads the Big Ten with respective marks of 1.195 and .625.

Can Michigan State make a second-half run?

After a 3-10 start to the season, Michigan State is showing signs of playing better baseball, winning five of their last seven games, including three straight in Big Ten play. Although the Spartans are 11-21 overall, a .344 winning percentage which would be the worse regular season in Jake Boss’ 10-year tenure, MSU is only one half-game behind eight-place Rutgers and a game behind seventh-place Purdue, a spot in the Big Ten Tournament is still within sight for the Spartans.

Coming off of their bye week against Valparaiso, Michigan State’s next three weekends will have them host Maryland, in between traveling to Northwestern and Penn State. Maryland has the same 3-5 record in Big Ten play, while the Wildcats and Nittany Lions have only won one of 12 conference games. The opportunity is there for Michigan State to pick up wins against teams struggling in league play, before finishing against Minnesota and Ohio State.

Is this the year for Rutgers?

The feel-good story of the first two months has been Rutgers. Yet to finish above 11th in their three-season Big Ten history, a winning season is possible with a 19-14 record, and, as mentioned, the Scarlet Knights are above the cut, holding onto eight place in the standings. Will Rutgers be able to continue their winning ways over the final five weeks? The schedule is a bit tough, with trips to Maryland and Purdue, two teams also fighting for a spot in the conference tournament, while Nebraska, Michigan, and Minnesota head to Piscataway. But Rutgers has shown an ability to go head-to-head against quality teams and come out on top, taking five of six over consecutive weekends playing Army and Florida Gulf Coast. Head coach Joe Literrio has raved about the new culture that exists in the program and there seems to be a greater sense of resiliency with this year’s outfit.

Who is the prospect that shoots up draft broads?

It’s been a muted spring in terms of prospect buzz in the Big Ten. There isn’t a Tyler Jay or Cody Sedlock on the mound, nor a Ryan Boldt, Ronnie Dawson, or Kevin Smith in the field. But there still are a few prospects worth keeping tabs on as the temperatures, hopefully, rises.

Joey Gerber is drawing scouting attention at the back of the Illini bullpen as he shows a power arm with a feel for a slider. Ohio State’s Ryan Feltner is starting to turn potential into promise, showing a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by an upper-90s fastball with improving command. Hoosier right-hander Johnathan Stiever has the best blend of production and potential, the most pro-ready pitcher in the conference. Indiana outfielder Logan Kaletha and Iowa right fielder Robert Neustrom have solid tools across the board. Purdue right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are proving to be potential high round senior signs.

Does Ohio State win a marquee series?

The Buckeyes enter the final month of the season in position to mark the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. At 25-10, Greg Beals’ club is enjoying a turnaround season after winning 22 games last year. But prior to the 2017 season, Ohio State entered the final month of the season each of the last four years in a position to participate in a regional, only to run out of steam. Will this year have the Buckeyes turn into a pumpkin again? We’ll soon find out, as Ohio State takes on Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois over back-to-back-to-back weekends. If Ohio State can win two of three weekends, the Bucks may be in a position to host NCAA play for the first time since 2003. But the Buckeyes have struggled against each of those three teams in recent years. Dating back to 2012, Ohio State’s series record and overall record against the three are:

Illinois: 1-3, 4-8

Indiana: 0-5, 2-15

Minnesota: 2-2, 6-6

The last time Ohio State grabbed a series from a team that finished in the top two of the conference was 2013, taking two of three from Nebraska, who they finished in a tie for second with.

Two months into the season

The first weekend of the season came to an end on Feb. 18. And, after eight more weekends of play, the calendar rests on April 18. Before looking ahead to what the final month of the regular season has in store for Big Ten teams, we take a look back at the first two months, and note the ten players, teams, trends, and stories which have put the conference in a position to have a frantic fight to finish as the conference tournament’s return to Omaha comes into view.

The new normal

In 2015, the Big Ten set a conference-record with five teams in the NCAA Tournament. That total was one less than the combined total of the prior three seasons. The following year produced three regional teams, a slight step backward, but noteworthy in that neither Minnesota, Nebraska, or Ohio State were a part of the quintet of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan which reached a regional in 2015, giving the conference eight different teams to have a reached a regional over a two-year window. Last year, the conference all but squashed any doubt of its status as a premier conference, again placing five teams in a regional. Now  the Big Ten may yet again take a step further with six potential NCAA Tournament clubs.

According to the NCAA’s latest RPI figures, through games played on April 17, the Big Ten has six teams in the top 55 of the RPI.

Indiana- 24

Illinois- 36

Minnesota- 38

Ohio State- 40

Iowa- 44

Michigan- 52

It may still be a few weeks before the RPI has enough data to truly represent the quality of teams throughout the country, but that’s not stopping national outlets D1Baseball and Baseball America from taking stock of where teams standing in the ratings, and publish projected NCAA Tournament fields. Bot where the conference has five teams that make the cut in D1’s projections (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota) and four teams in Baseball America’s version (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State) those not in the field among each outlet’s first teams out of the field, making it an even half-dozen clubs with realistic regional odds.

If there are any lingering skeptics of Big Ten baseball, it’s time to let go of past perceptions and expect a handful or more of teams to be among the best in the country.

Hoosiers continue to roll

At 27-6, Indiana has its best record through 33 games since 1987. Indiana’s ability to run over nearly everything in sight is propelled by a 2.27 team ERA, the best in the country. Entering the season as the Big Ten favorite in the eyes of conference coaches, viewed by head coach Chris Lemonis as his deepest team in four-year tenure, so far Indiana has lived up to every expectation and billing. In additional to leading the country in pitching, Indiana is batting .300, the third-best clip; has slugged 38 home runs, second to Illinois; while posting a .970 fielding percentage, good for fourth in the conference. Indiana’s core of returning veterans like Luke Miller, Pauly Milto, Logan Sowers, and Johnathan Stiever, have produced as expected, with newcomers like Elijah Dunham, Logan Kaletha, Connor Maous, and Tommy Sommer stepping into supporting roles and flourishing. Yet to drop a weekend series, only once losing consecutive games, Indiana is showing a completeness and ability to take care of business that merits its current position as one of the 10 best teams in the country.

Michigan fights to buck recent trend

Over the last decade, there’s been a familiar life cycle to Big Ten programs. Any sustain period of success, capped with a superb season, usually is followed by a large roster turnover, either due to graduation or Major League organizations plucking away the talent that was at the core of a team’s success.

Following their 2012 Big Ten championship, Purdue saw seven players drafted from a team that hosted the Gary Regional. Purdue went 6-18 the following year to finish 10th in the Big Ten. After earning a national seed and hosting regional and super regional play, Illinois has nine players drafted from its 2015 50-win team. The Illini finished in a three-way tie for eighth in 2016. In 2016, Ohio State ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, finishing third in the Big Ten before winning the conference tournament. Six Buckeyes were grabbed in the MLB Draft, players who were not a part of last year’s 11th-place finish for the Buckeyes.

So what would happen when Michigan lost nation-leading 11 players to last years draft, after winning 42 games? Through the teams first 15 games, it appeared the Wolverines would go down the same path as those before them. At 4-11, including a midweek loss to NAIA Lawrence Tech, a long spring appeared in store for Michigan. Michigan hasn’t lost since that March 14 loss to Lawrence Tech, currently owning a 17-game winning streak. Prior to this weekend, each win was against a team with an RPI lower than 200, making pollsters hesitant to buy into Erik Bakich’s team. But give a young U-M credit for taking care of business against lesser teams, before taking both games in a weather-shortened series against Maryland to lend more validity to Michigan’s run.

Spillane draws a national spotlight

The lone Big Ten player on the midseason Golden Spike Watch List is Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane. While a few other Big Ten first baseman are having seasons which would stack up to any player in any conference, see Ohio State’s Noah McGowan, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, Spillane’s production over the first two months would have caused a riot in Champaign if he was not included among the list of 40 amateur players. Here’s Spillane’s numbers without much comment, because there isn’t many words that are proper to describe how eye-popping they are.

Games- 29 Avg.- .457, Doubles- 15, Triples- 2, Home Runs- 14, RBI- 43, Runs- 34, Total Bases- 109, Slugging- 1.038, On-Base- .540, Stolen Bases- 12.

Spillane became the first player in Big Ten history to earn three consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week honors. An undisclosed injury, which Illinois reports has his status day-to-day, has kept Spillane out of the Illini’s last three games. That may be the only thing that can contain Spillane this spring.

Inconsistency dooms Maryland and Purdue

It’s been a head-scratching season for the two newest Big Ten coaches.

After guiding Purdue to a surprising eighth-place finish in his first season leading the Boilermarkers, Mark Wasikowski has seen his club play very well for extended stretches, then not so well. Here’s Purdue’s season:

Start 8-1, lose nine of ten, win five straight, lose five consecutive contests. All told, Purdue is 16-15, an even 4-4 in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers did grab a game in Bloomington before the series’ rubber match was decided in extras, showing when they’re on, they’re a tough out. Currently Purdue is one game ahead of ninth place in the conference, which is where Maryland sits.

First-year head coach Rob Vaughn hasn’t had the sustained highs and lows that Wasikowski has, his team’s ebb and flow has been rockier, changing course from game to game. Within a 16-20 record, and  3-5 mark in the Big Ten, are four wins against the teams in the RPI’s top 50. But they also have six losses to teams with an RPI worse than 150. A microcosm of Maryland’s season is their 3-7 record in midweek games, and back-to-back weekend series where they were swept in convincing fashion at East Carolina, before taking two of three against Stetson. A year after participating in the Wake Forest Regional, with two returning weekend starters and six positional players, Maryland is 11th in the conference in hitting (.229) and ERA (5.27).

Winter’s grip remains tight

This will be brief, certainly everyone in the Midwest is tired of. But their is no denying the affect snow, sleet, ice, and cold weather has had on Big Ten baseball this spring. It’s become nearly as common to see doubleheaders, as a scheduled Friday-Saturday-Sunday series. With series held to two games in Ann Arbor, Lincoln, and West Lafayette last weekend, five conference games have been lost due to weather this year, the most since 10 were cancelled in the 2007 season, a team when there were only 10 Big Ten programs, none with an outfield artificial field.

Freshmen pitchers show polish and poise

When Ohio State head coach Greg Beals announced freshman left-handed Seth Lonsway was ineligible this season, due to a matter from high school and the NCAA Clearinghouse, the 2018 season would come and go without the Big Ten’s top recruit participating. Two months into the season, Lonsway has been an afterthought, not only due to the success of Ohio State, but also with the impressive showings around the conference by fellow freshmen pitchers.

Michigan LHP Ben Dragani, (1.38) and Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson (1.96), respectively rank first and third in the Big Ten in ERA. Rutgers has two freshman LHPs, Eric Heatter (4.40) and Harry Rutkowski (3.38) rounding out the weekend rotation. Gopher RHP Max Meyer has racked up eight saves next to a 2.61 ERA, southpaw Quinn Lavelle has emerged as the ace of Northwestern’s staff, and right-hander Trent Johnson has emerged as a stout Sunday starter for Purdue, boasting a 1.88 ERA over 24 innings. With the performances of these rookies, many coaches throughout the Big Ten have multiple aces in the awaiting.

Huskers in danger of postseason absence

One of the lasting memories of Big Ten baseball in recent years is the spectacle of 19,965 in attendance for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game between Indiana and Nebraska. The top two finishers in the conference, and two would-be NCAA Tournament participants, a sea of red filled TD Ameritrade Park as the Huskers fought for the crown. Indiana is on track to potentially have another regional-bound season, but to match their part in reliving history, Nebraska has a mighty uphill battle. With Big Ten series down and four to go, Nebraska is 3-7 in the conference, in 11th place. Injuries have depleted the Husker pitching staff, while the offense has had little to support the all-america campaign senior first baseman Scott Schreiber is having. The Huskers have shown they can beat good teams, only Iowa’s five wins against the RPI top 50 are more than Nebraska’s four, but the depth hasn’t been there for Nebraska to win a weekend against a quality team. Darin Erstad has led Nebraska baseball to highs only seen in the early 2000s, earning a conference title, three runners-up finishes and three NCAA Tournament appearances, but at 16-18, this may be the inevitable one step back that befalls all conference teams.

Rutgers makes its move

Even though Rutgers was swept in a three-game series last weekend at Illinois, it’s worth highlighint the turnaround season the Scarlet Knights are enjoying, spurred in part by the first-year success of Heatter and Rutkowski. Prior to their trip to Champaign, Rutgers had won five consecutive weekend series, including taking two of three at 25-9 Florida Gulf Coast. At the mid-way mark of the conference season, Rutgers is above the fold to make the eight-team Big Ten Tournament for the first time. At 19-14, with a 7-7 mark against teams in the RPI’s top 100, the on-field product for Rutgers is reflecting the change in culture head coach Joe Literrio focused on in the offseason, which included revamping his coaching staff with new assistants and a dedicated director of player development. With five series to go, Rutgers is only five wins away from tying the program’s best showing in conference play, a 9-15 season in 2016.

Minnesota remains an offensive juggernaut

The Big Ten’s best hitting team once again resides in Minneapolis. Through 33 games, Minnesota’s .311 team batting average leads the Big Ten, as does their 362 hits, 253 runs, 26 sacrifice flies, 25 sacrifice hits, and .416 on-base percentage. Last year, Minnesota’s .297 average paced the Big Ten, as did the team’s .322 clip during their Big Ten championship season in 2016. Junior shortstop Terrin Vavra’s .411 average leads six Gophers batting .300 or better, with each one having an on-base percentage of at least .422. The ability for numerous Gophers to reach base at a stout rate has lead to nine games of scoring at least 10 runs, while scoring less than three runs only five times. Once a program known to be led by pitching, it is worth mentioning Minnesota’s 3.68 ERA is third-best in the conference, the Gophers are once again establishing an identity at the plate as a team that will wear down a pitcher, drawing 179 walks to 215 strikeouts. Minnesota’s attempt to take home the Big Ten’s team batting title for a third consecutive season is on the heels of a three-year period where the team’s seasonal batting averages were .258, .256, .261., from 2013-15.

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