As college baseball starts the second half of the season, this weekend’s Big Ten action is headline by a rivalry been a recent power and budding rebuilding program, a top-flight home run chase, two hot teams squaring off and conference teams trying to navigate everything Mother Nature throws its way.
Ahead of rivalry weekend, a culture is changing in West Lafayette
There’s no way around it, it was an ugly game.
Purdue’s 13-2 loss to Ohio State on March 31 featured eight walks, six wild pitches and five errors, in addition to several misplayed balls lost, on an evening where the gloomy weather conditions mirror the play of the Boilermakers. On the road for the seventh consecutive season, what changes Purdue enjoyed in winning 13 games over the first six weeks, after winning all of 10 in 2016, wasn’t evident to one watching in the stands. It was the same old Purdue team, the one that went 20-75 in Big Ten play over the prior four seasons.
But in how the Boilermakers responded the rest of the weekend showed times are changing in West Lafayette. Purdue rebounded to walk only two batters and commit just two errors over the final two games, collecting victories of 6-1 and 2-1 over the Buckeyes, giving the Boilermakers three wins in their first six Big Ten games, best their 2-22 conference mark of a year ago.
“I would have liked to have done it in a different way,” joked first-year head coach Mark Wasikowski on signs of a different clubhouse culture in the team’s ability to rebound from such a bad game. “Friday night we quit, we were soft, we were scared, we were timid, we got overwhelmed by bad elements. Anything you can say on a negative side is who we were and that was our identity that day. And that wasn’t the players, it was the coaching staff, the players, it was the bus driver, it was everybody involved. That’s who we were and we had to own it.
“I guess the culture part of it, is that we can all hang out heads and mope around for the rest of the year because we played a bad game or we can shake it off. When we left the dugout that night, the encouragement was can we get passed the day today? And don’t get off this bus, literally, when we got to the hotel, don’t get off this bus until you can get to tomorrow.”
Purdue was able to get to tomorrow, pick up a win, and now they stand 15-31 on the year, set to host in-state rival Indiana (15-11-2) for the first time since 2011.
In 2011, it was Purdue that appeared to be the state of Indiana’s top Big Ten program. The Hoosiers did have the 2009 NCAA Tournament appearance, but Purdue showed more consistency, appearing in four straight Big Ten Tournaments at the season’s end. A year later, the Boilermakers would go on to win the Big Ten for the first time since 1909, win the Big Ten Tournament, defeating Indiana in the tournament championship game, and host the Big Ten’s first regional in four years.
That was the last time Purdue had a winning season.
In the meantime, Indiana has appeared in the NCAA Tournament three times, captured two Big Ten championships and were the Big Ten’s first College World Series participant in 30 years, breaking through in 1983. As Indiana flourish Purdue bottomed out, leaving Wasikowski to pick up the pieces in hope of returning the Boilermakers to past promise.
“On day one, we couldn’t take an infield-outfield (practice), said Wasikowski, who was hired after serving on staffs at Oregon, Arizona, Florida and Southeast Missouri State. “We couldn’t do that. We didn’t have the ability to take an infield-outfield or literally play catch without the ball flying all over the park.”
Needing to completely revamp the Purdue program, Wasikowski started with the absolute basics, and it wasn’t on-field instruction.
“We started with locker room, how are we going to keep our lockers here at Purdue. How are we going to maintain our shoes, make sure that things are clean. Make sure that this is how screens go. We started from the beginning.”
With an emphasis on educating, in an effort to have players in positions for greater chances of success by having an understanding the why behind every actions, both on and off the field, Wasikowski set out in rebounding of the program. There wasn’t any expectation on what Purdue would do on the field, Wasikowski’s sole goal was to make sure his culture was in place by the end of the season.
As they showed at Ohio State, Purdue is working towards that, laying the foundation to once again reign supreme in the Hoosier State. Now, this weekend’s rivalry series against Indiana is another opportunity.
“I think we’re all fighting for the same thing and I think this weekend is going to be another fight in that battle of who is in charge of this state. I know it’s not us yet. But this is an opportunity for us to kind of chip away at getting at that point. That’s what we’re trying to do, start chipping away at whoever is the best team in the state, and eventually that’s going to be us is our mindset.”
Adams and McInerney evoke memories of Sosa and McGwire
It’s been nearly 20 years since Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captured the nation’s attention with their pursuit, and eventual passing, of the 61-home run, 1961 season of Roger Maris. Resetting Major League Baseball’s record book, the home runs Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, and McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals, racked up during the 1998 season had fans on the edge of their seat, holding their breath with each at-bat and continually checking newspaper box scores to see who was still on pace for the record, who hit the latest home run and had the leg on.
Now, two sluggers who were just learning to swing a bat during that unforgettable summer are locked in a home run chase of their own.
Iowa junior first baseman Jake Adams and Illinois first baseman Pat McInerney each have 11 home runs heading into the weekend’s action. Both are on pace to produce the Big Ten’s first 20-home run season since Indiana DH Alex Dickerson hit 24 in 2011, giving the conference a genuine, headline-grabbing home race.
“I’ve surprised myself a little bit,” said McInerney, who has a .727 slugging percentage on the strength of six home runs in Illinois’ last eight games. “It is a result of getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it, but I wouldn’t have guessed I would have 11 at this point, especially with the home run totals I’ve had in the past, and through the summers when you’re thinking it’s going really well.”
McInerney, batting .333 with a .427 on-base percentage, contributes his stellar senior season to a few offseason changes to his swing, where, as simple as it sounds, he hoped to hit the ball harder and in the air. The native of Glen Elyn, Ill. is also taking note of current conversation and dialogue throughout baseball on launch angles, and the results of balls hit higher in the air. But even before McInerney steps to the plate for a high, towering hit, the continued exposure over his career of seeing some of college baseball’s best pitchers in practice is paying off in a big way.
“When you have the experience of practicing against the guys we have faced on a daily basis in guys that have pitched at Illinois, between Cody (Sedlock), Tyler (Jay), (Kevin) Duchene, where our pitching staff has been so good the last couple of years, we got to see that every day at practice. You’re obviously going to get better when you face those guys.”
Adams, who is batting .340 with a .417 on-base percentage and .698 slugging percentage, hasn’t had the same fortune as McInerney when it comes to standing in the batter’s box against a pair of first-round pitchers. A transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, Adams is in his first season with the Hawkeyes, but came with quite the legacy. After hitting 25 home runs in 2016, leaving DMACC as the career home run leader with 41, the Iowa coaching staff knew Adams had power unlike they’ve ever seen, it was just a matter of how much would it translate to the Division I level. So far Adams has had no issues continuing his home run-hitting ways.
“Baseball is baseball,” said Adams, who hit his 11th home run of the season on Tuesday, helping Iowa 4-3 win over South Dakota State running their record to 18-9 on the season. “Going from a JUCO to the DI level, the pitchers have about the same velocity, but at the DI level they have a bit better off-speed pitches. Coming into Iowa I had to train a lot harder in the weight room, get stronger. I knew I could come in at this level and still put up some pretty big numbers.”
Where McInerney has paid attention to launch angles and noticing his home runs, outside of a time early at DMACC where he accepted he can’t hit a home run in every at-bat, Adams hasn’t changed a thing about his approach or plan of attack at the plate.
“I got into the flow of having to step up to the plate and look for the base hit. When the guys leave it over the plate, that’s when I have to hammer it,” said Adams, who has a three-home run game under his belt, doing so March 26 against Kansas State. “There will be occasions where, if there’s someone in scoring positions and I have two strikes, I’ll move up to the plate a little bit because I stand off the plate, and I just have to get the ball in play. But otherwise I don’t change up if I have two strikes.”
Wasting little time to establish himself as one of the Big Ten’s premier power threats, Adams is aware of how teams are trying to pitch to him and know it is on him to adjust. McInerney looks to continue to be as aggressive as possible in hitting the ball as hard as he can. With the two tied at 11 home runs, with no end in sight of their slugging ways, it’s shaping up to be a second half to remember in the Big Ten.
“It’s kind of cool because growing up in Chicago, I would always remember the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire,” McInerney said. It’s not like we’re at five or six home runs, we’re putting up one every other game so it’s cool to go back and forth.
“We host Iowa the last weekend of the season and we’ll see if it comes down to that.”
Get ready for another great home run race, Midwest.
Rising teams square off in Lincoln
Maryland and Nebraska have one conference loss in the nine games played between them and both have racked up wins at a feverish pace over the last month. Victors in 18 of their last 21 games, the Terrapins head to Lincoln for a showdown against a Cornhusker team that has gone 15-4-1 in their last 20 games.
Last weekend, Maryland (19-8, 5-1) swept a road series at Rutgers while Nebraska (17-10-1) almost matched the feat in Bloomington, winning the first two games against Indiana before a travel curfew ended the series finale in a 1-1 ties after 11 innings. With the season’s midpoint here, Maryland is a projected NCAA Tournament team by D1Baseball.com and Baseball America, with the Cornhuskers among the first teams left outside of the field of 64. Both seeking their first Big Ten championship, and with Minnesota’s series against Rutgers cancelled, the weekend provides a prime opportunity for both to take a big step toward their goals.
The two teams enter the weekend with almost identical batting averages, Nebraska’s .267 clip just edges Maryland’s .266 average, but the Terrapins who a decisive advantage in power, a 26 home runs to nine, and stolen bases, 58 swipes against 24. On the other side of the ball is where Nebraska hold the advantage. The Cornhuskers have pitched to a 3.18 ERA, second in the Big Ten. Maryland pitchers have a cumulative 3.68 ERA.
Game two of the series will be broadcast live on BTN, providing a national audience for this key series.
Elsewhere around the conference
A series moved, another cancelled
Inclement weather and scrambled Big Ten baseball schedules are expected this time of year. But what occurred this week is beyond the normal unexpectedness.
Heavy rains throughout mid-Michigan caused flooding and made Michigan State’s Kobs Field unplayable this weekend for the Spartans non-conference series against Fresno State. As a result, the two teams will square off in Grand Rapids, an hour-drive west of East Lansing, playing a doubleheader on Saturday before concluding the series with a finale on Sunday.
But at least the two are schedule for three games, that’s not the case for Minnesota at Rutgers.
After starting the Big Ten season with consecutive road sweeps, the Gophers were set to begin the home conference season with a game tonight against Rutgers. But the weather system that left Michigan State’s home field underway, caused flight cancellations throughout the east coast on Thursday night, leaving the Scarlet Knights without a flight into Minneapolis. Friday’s game was cancelled with Rutgers, before the teams announced the entire weekend series has been called off with Rutgers unable to find a viable travel option. Minnesota’s 6-0 conference record, 19-8 overall, will remain intact while the Scarlet Knights must wait another weekend to seek for their first Big Ten victory, remaining 0-3, 10-18 overall.
Nittany Lions host Buckeyes in critical series
Penn State (10-17) is set to host Ohio State (12-16) for the first time since 2012. Ohio State’s first trip to State College to take on a Rob Cooper-led team, Penn State welcomes their border rivals for a big series. As the calendar has not yet hit Tax Day, it’s too early to panic, and the Buckeyes did overcome a 2-5 conference start to have a chance at the title in the last weekend, on their way to an NCAA Tournament appearance. But with Ohio State’s 1-5 conference record and Penn State’s 0-3 Big Ten mark, it’s important for each team to start getting wins soon, and with the two potentially fighting for one of the final tournament spots, the weekend winner getting a tiebreaking advantage can go a long way.
In spacious Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, hits may be at a premium. Ohio State’s .238 team batting average is 12th in the conference, only Penn State’s .230 clip is worse.
Terrapins’ aggressive style heightens Huskers’ intensity entering weekend series -Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald
Penn State baseball to host Ohio State, five games in five days -Kara Duriez, The Daily Collegian
Purdue’s Hunter proving his worth -Sam King, Lafayette Journal & Courier
Lugbauer’s surge powers Michigan’s offense -Jacob Shames, The Michigan Daily
Wildcats seek first conference win in weekend series against Iowa -Joseph Wilkinson, The Daily Northwestern