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.

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