Blake Dowson

Keys to tournament success

From Minnesota looking to host an NCAA Tournament regional, four teams fighting to solidify a resume worthy of garnering an at-large bid, and Michigan State needing to win or see their season end, a lot is at on the line this week as the Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha.

With a deep tournament field making a path to the title difficult for all, here’s what each team needs to do to leave Omaha on Sunday as victors, and get ready to fight for a return trip to Omaha in two weeks.

Minnesota

If the Gophers can put it all together and have both their pitching staff and batting order clicking, they will be tough to beat in a double elimination format. Minnesota is always in the tournament, but has fallen short lately. Two years ago, they were bounced after scoring four total runs in two games. Last year they scored 35 runs over five games, but couldn’t put up enough zeroes on the mound.

Purdue

Keep the underdog mentality, although you are tagged with the No. 2 seed. The Boilermakers haven’t had the amount of success they would have liked the past couple years. Of all the teams in this tournament, they probably have the biggest chip on their shoulder. Not to mention, they are firmly on the NCAA bubble. Play like the hunters, not the hunted.

Michigan

The Wolverines need to find a way to string wins together away from home. An 18-3 home record boosted Michigan quite a bit this year, but the Big Ten Tournament isn’t being held in Ann Arbor. Erik Bakich’s club is 2-3 in neutral site games this year.

Illinois

Can the Illini have someone other than Bren Spillane carry them in the order? Spillane shouldn’t see a single pitch to hit in this tournament. He’s been too good, and opposing pitchers would do well to stay away from him. Michael Massey has been really good this year, but it takes more than a 1-2 punch to win this tournament.

Indiana

Minnesota won the regular season. Purdue was the surprise. Michigan and Ohio State both have scary lineups. But throughout the season, Indiana was the team constantly ranked in the top-15. There’s a reason for that: the Hoosiers boast seven hitters with at least six home runs and five hurlers that have posted a sub-3.50 ERA in more than 35 innings of work.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes need to have the same amount of pitching depth they had a year ago, when they won the automatic bid. In 2017, Drake Robison tossed seven great innings in the championship game. The rotation is more stable with the return of Cole McDonald, but who is going to be that important fourth starter if Iowa makes another run?

Ohio State

The Buckeyes, more than any other team in Omaha, can hit their way to a Big Ten title. They scored almost seven runs per game this season. If those bats can put the Buckeyes into the lead into the middle-to-late innings and get Seth Kinker onto the mound, Ohio State could be the low seed that makes a run.

Michigan State

It’s possible to make a deep run through the tournament after losing the opener, but Michigan State’s first game against Minnesota feels really important. Win, and there is a lot of momentum to ride after knocking off the No. 1 seed. Lose, and you put yourself in a hole without much pitching depth. Win the opener.

Staying power: Culture keeps Iowa in regional mix

Iowa’s Cole McDonald threw an offspeed pitch in the fourth inning against Michigan on April 29, and came out of the game with elbow discomfort. The pitch was actually a fastball, it was his elbow that slowed the pitch down and made it seem like a changeup. It was deja vu for Iowa head coach Rick Heller, who around the same time a year ago lost Friday starter CJ Eldred to a UCL injury that required surgery.

In 2017, Iowa went on to win the Big Ten Tournament without Eldred, making an NCAA Regional for the second time in three years. Since losing McDonald, the Hawkeyes have finished off a series win against the Wolverines and took two-of-three from a top-15 Oklahoma State squad the weekend after.

The success that comes every May for his team must be starting to become deja vu for Heller, as well.

“It’s a priority for us to figure things out in the fall,” Heller said. “We talk about how important it is to play our best baseball down the stretch. It’s just talk at that point, but it sets the tone that we will work hard, we’ll stay in the weight room…We’re either moving forward or moving backward. We need to constantly be pushing forward. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s a part of our program that’s planned out.”

It seems as though Heller has it down to a science. Even with a series loss at Northwestern last weekend, the Hawkeyes still stand a good chance at grabbing an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, barring another series loss against Penn State this coming weekend.

It wasn’t necessarily supposed to go this well for Iowa this season, though. Heller was tasked with replacing Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams, an impossible task after Adams reset the Big Ten’s single-season home run mark, and all-conference shortstop Mason McCoy, both sixth-round draft picks. And those were just the guys you fully expected were gone.

Eldred and fellow RHP Nick Gallagher both signed professional contracts after last season, although both had eligibility remaining.

“All those things are so uncontrollable. Visualize this team if we had those guys back,” Heller said. “It’s the same mindset of losing guys to injury. Whoever is here, whoever is put out there, is expected to be successful. The accountability is there on this team, that’s an expectation. You can’t dwell on it, [because] there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

Heller is not unlike other college coaches. The more control he can have, the better. Where he can’t control players leaving early in the draft, he can control the players filling their spots through recruiting. Now in his fifth year at Iowa, Heller’s lineup is filled entirely with his guys, instilled with his culture.

That’s a big reason why Iowa has become a contender each and every year.

“We have a culture established. The older guys understand you have to work hard on off days and in the weight room. They know we can’t just try to stay even,” Heller said. “It starts Day 1 when the players arrive. No matter who plays, we’re still going to find a way to get the job done. If somebody goes down, somebody’s prepared to fill in.

“We talk about it quite a bit, from the start of fall all the way through. That way, when someone does go down [or someone leaves], you don’t have that shock. we all know whoever that player that needs to step up might be and what he needs to do, and no one panics.”

There will be no panic this coming weekend for Iowa, although a series sweep of the Nittany Lions would go a long way in convincing the NCAA Selection Committee that the Hawkeyes should be in the tournament. Conference series wins against Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State make up a strong resume. The non-conference series win against Oklahoma State was another resume booster, and one that wouldn’t have happened without those Big Ten wins.

According to Heller, getting teams to travel to Iowa City has become easier as the team has improved each season. Come May, teams are looking for big wins, especially on the road, as those are worth more to the selection committee. For Oklahoma State, the idea of getting three games on the road against a team with a good RPI like Iowa was enticing.

The same was the case for Heller, with the added bonus of getting games in Stillwater next year. That being said, don’t picture Heller in his office calculating RPIs and scouring the internet for tournament projections depending on whether or not they were to beat the Cowboys, or any other high profile team. He doesn’t really pay attention to that stuff.

“I don’t [pay attention] a whole lot. It’s hard not to because everyone is talking about it, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re not taking care of your business on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t get caught up in any of that. If we don’t take care of our business, none of that matters. If we play well, and if wins come our way…against one of toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in the Big Ten, I think we’ll be okay.”

10 Innings Extra: Weathering travel curveballs

It’s a tricky thing, navigating an early spring schedule when you play an outdoor sport. Thus is life in college baseball.

That’s why northern teams travel south each weekend for about the first month of the season. However, the south isn’t always a safe haven from nasty late winter and early spring weather, as a number of Big Ten programs have already found out in the early goings of the 2018 season.

Illinois was supposed to fly to Texas to open its season, but because of fog hanging over Chicago’s Midway Airport, on the eve of opening day the team’s scheduled flight didn’t happen. Illini head coach Dan Hartleb didn’t want a wasted weekend, so he got on the phone.

“As soon as we started having trouble with the flight, and we found out we only had a slim chance getting out on Friday, and we already knew there was a possibility of rain in Texas, I called a friend down in the Nashville area who is head coach, asked him about maybe jumping in with them and the other team they were playing,” Hartleb said. “He said they were getting rain and it would be difficult to get everybody involved. But he told me about Austin Peay and South Dakota State, and told me to check with them.”

Austin Peay and South Dakota State, due to forecasted weather altering their schedule with weekend cancellations of their own, agreed to meet in St. Louis to kick their seasons off, and Hartleb asked if his Illinois team could join in at St. Louis University. That plan was OK’d, and the Illini got on a bus. Lucky for them, there was already a field waiting for them. That’s not always the case when teams are trying to get extra games on the schedule after cancellations.

“A lot of things come into play,” Hartleb said. “[If it’s a] neutral site, you have to rent the playing field, get umps, housing. One of our major obstacles was bus availability, and finding a driver who wasn’t already scheduled.”

Purdue was in the same situation as Illinois, trying to fly out of Chicago to get down to Texas. The Boilermakers were scheduled to play an opening weekend series against Baylor.

“It’s not a real fun drill to go to the airport and hang out for a couple hours and find out you can’t get a flight out for several days,” Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “[The players] were really disappointed. They wanted to play Baylor, they’re a really good program.”

Wasikowski looked for another way to get down to Waco, and when he was on the phone with the Baylor staff, they discussed splitting the costs of a charter flight.

But when pen met paper and they started adding up how much it was going to cost if they chartered a flight, it just didn’t make sense. Wasikowski said it would cost about $75,000 for his team and staff to charter a flight to Texas, and that’s just the cost for a one-way flight down there. Add in the flight home, and Wasikowski’s estimation of another $15,000 for the other legs of the trip, and it’s easy to see why Purdue elected to seek an alternative option.

Northwestern saw its opening weekend in flux as well, due to be unable to fly out of Chicago. Wildcat head coach Spencer Allen said cancelling games is not only hard enough logistically, but it puts some pressure on him to get guys into comfortable positions as they head into the bulk of their schedule.

“[Getting games in] is huge for us,” Allen said. “You want to figure out the pitching rotation, your batting order, everything. I think it’s very important, and that’s why we try to schedule with teams that will do four-game series, to get more games on weekends we can play. Midweek games aren’t really an option for us this early.”

Unlike Illinois and Purdue, Northwestern did ultimately reach its intended destination. Flying out a day later than anticipated and trimming a scheduled four-game series to three games, the Wildcats played Nebraska-Omaha for three games in Glendale, Ariz.

Wasikowski and Purdue were able to play a full complement of three games, finding a weekend opponent in against Western Michigan. The Broncos also had a weekend in Texas nixed and the two met in Emerson, Ga., at the Perfect Game Complex at the LakePoint Sporting Community.

The importance of finding those games for Purdue, and for every program that has early-season games cancelled, is two-fold. First, missing out on one of the first weekends of the season puts a team behind the eight ball at the beginning of the year. Second, as Wasikowski pointed out, it hurts you come NCAA Tournament time.

“You’re only allowed 56 games on your schedule,” he said. “You basically have the first five weekends of year that are non-conference, and if you’re going to leave any of those [unplayed], it can get risky at the end when it comes to getting into the postseason. They look at number of wins as a marker, and you’re looking at a 34-win minimum to be in the discussion. If you’re losing games [on the schedule], you’re at a real disadvantage.”

That’s why head coaches, who start out as meteorologists in predicting weekend weather, turn into journalists when they have games get cancelled, following every lead they get to try to find a couple games to play.

Playing baseball in the northern part of the country has its disadvantages, and this may be one of them. But it’s what the athletes and the coaches of the Big Ten signed up for.

“It can happen anytime,” Hartleb said. “Early, you get cancelled more with cold weather. But teams in the south can be cancelled because of rain. The thing I always tell my players is: good athletes adjust.”

The 10 Spot: Pitching performances

It’s been the year of the home run in the Big Ten, but that shouldn’t outshine the stellar pitching performances the conference has seen thus far. This week’s 10 Spot takes a look at the best of the best gems, shutouts and pitching-powered upsets from Big Ten teams to date.

Indiana’s one-run effort against Oregon State to start the season

Indiana’s offense was completely stymied in a 1-0, season-opening loss to Oregon State, but Jonathan Stiever and Pauly Milto were almost equally as nasty for the Hoosiers. Stiever threw 5.2 innings, allowing three hits and one earned run, while Milto threw the final 2.1 innings, allowing only one hit and no earned runs.

Pavlopoulos, Kinker knock off Oregon State

Oregon State is the overwhelming #1 team in the country this season, with only one blemish on its record thus far. That blemish came at the hands of Ohio State and Yianni Pavlopoulos. Pavlopoulos, the Buckeye closer in 2016, threw the first six innings in only his second career start. He allowed only three hits and shut out the Beavers. Seth Kinker threw the final three innings, giving up two hits and one earned run, and the Buckeyes won, 6-1.

Andrews dominant in Cape Girardeau

Purdue’s turnaround campaign has been one of the leading headlines so far the 2017 season. In the season’s third weekend, a serious at Southeast Missouri State gave early notice to Purdue’s changed fortunes. Leading the Boilermakers to a 4-0 win, junior right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews pitched a four-hit shutout, striking out eight batters without issuing a walk, en route to his second Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honor in just three weeks.

Oliver Jaskie deals in LA

Jaskie, pitching against UCLA and potential first round pick Griffin Canning, during the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic, looked like he belonged in a big league stadium. In his six innings of shutout work, Jaskie only allowed three hits while striking out six Bruins. Tommy Henry relieved Jaskie in the seventh and gave up only one unearned run, but that was ultimately enough for Canning, who went eight innings allowing three hits and zero earned runs while striking out 12 in UCLA’s 1-0 victory. Jaskie proved, however, that the Big Ten elite could compete with the rest of the country.

Wolverines stay hot in SoCal

Michigan continued it’s run of stellar pitching against Pac-12 teams in a contest at USC the next day. Ryan Nutof started the game on the mound for Michigan, and the Wolverines got everything they could have asked out of him. Nutof threw 6.1 innings, allowing only three hits, one earned run, and struck out eight Trojans. The bullpen combined for the final 2.2 innings, allowing only one hit in Michigan’s 4-1 win on the road against the most storied program in the country.

Taylor Bloom leads dominating win over #6 NC State

Maryland has put together a quality season to this point, finding itself in the discussion to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years. Leading the Terrapin’s postseason résumé may be against #6 North Carolina State in early March. Junior right-handed pitcher Taylore Bloom was a big reason for that, throwing seven innings of five-hit ball, allowing the only two runs of the game for the Wolfpack in a 9-2 Terrapin win.

Nebraska blanks Arizona

Jake Meyers has put together a really good season already for the Huskers, but his performance against Arizona may be his best. Meyers went five shutout innings allowing only six hits and striking out four on his way to the win. Chad Luensmann earned the rare four-inning save, allowing only two hits over those four innings. Nebraska scored one run in the first inning, and held on to beat the Wildcats, 1-0. It was Arizona’s first loss of the season.

Alex Troop duels at South Carolina

Michigan State sophomore left-handed Alex Troop matched up against potential first rounder Clarke Schmidt and the No. 10 South Carolina Gamecocks in a top-tier pitching duel much like Jaskie-Canning. Troop went eight innings against the Gamecocks high-powered bats, allowing only three hits and two earned runs. Troop, a two-way player, hit a home run the next day against South Carolina, making what he did both on the mound and at the plate even more impressive.

Ty Weber quiets the defending national champs

Coastal Carolina lost quite a few players to the draft after last season’s national championship run, but there was plenty of meat left on the bone when Weber and the Fighting Illini traveled to Conway, South Carolina to take on the Chanticleers. Weber went 7.2 innings, allowing only 1 hit and 1 earned run, striking out six hitters. If it weren’t for his high pitch count (105 pitches), Weber might have sealed the win. However, Ryan Schmitt gave up two solo home runs in the bottom of the ninth and the Chanticleers walked off with a 3-2 win.

Meyers curtails Catamounts

When a pitcher has a 2.25 ERA over seven starts it’s likely they have had a few quality starts, and that’s certainly the case for Meyers. Building off of his effort against the Wildcats in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, Meyers twirled a five-hit shutout against Western Carolina the following weekend. In striking out five batters while only issuing one walk, Meyers added to a scoreless innings streak which ultimately ended two weeks later at 25.2 innings.