Chris Webb

Four Big Ten teams to play in 2018 NCAA Tournament

On Monday afternoon, the NCAA announced four Big Ten teams have been selected to play in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The 2018 tournament marks the third time in four years at least four Big Ten teams will participate in a regional tying. The conference record of five was set in 2015 and tied last year.

Hours after winning their 10th Big Ten Tournament title, securing the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota was announced on Sunday night as one of 16 host institutions for this weekend’s round of regional play. The Gophers were named the tournament’s No. 14 overall seed, before it was announced conference peers Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue, were tabbed as at-large selections, joining Minnesota in the 64-team tournament field.

For the fifth time in six years, Indiana is back in the NCAA Tournament. Heading to the Lone Star State as the No. 2 seed in the Austin Regional, where Texas is the top seed, The eighth time the Hoosiers will be on the road to Omaha, the Hoosiers were regional participants in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. Indiana enters regional play with a 38-17 record, including a 14-9 mark in the Big Ten to finish fifth.

Already safely in the field, and heading into the unveiling of the tournament field knowing they will be at home, Minnesota now knows they will be joined in the Minneapolis Regional by No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Gonzaga, and No. 4 seed Canisius. at 41-13, the Big Ten regular season and tournament champions will be in their second regional in three years, playing at home during the regional round for the first time since 2000.

Late movement around the country saw Ohio State bow out of the Big Ten Tournament on the NCAA Tournament bubble team, but Greg Beals has the Buckeyes safely back in a regional for the second time in three years, heading to the Greenville Regional, as the No. 3 seed, where East Carolina is the host. A year after going 22-34, the 2018 NCAA Tournament is the first time since 2009 the 36-22 Buckeyes have earned an at-large big to the NCAA Tournament, their 21st overall appearance.

Rounding out the Big Ten’s contingent of NCAA Tournament teams is the club with the most unlikely appearance. Just two years after finishing 2-22 in the Big Ten, second-year head coach Mark Wasikowski guided the Boilermakers to a second-place finish in the regular season before finishing as runners-up in the Big Ten Tournament. Now, Purdue will look to further cement the program’s turnaround, selected as the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional, hosted by North Carolina. Purdue heads to Chapel Hill with a 37-19 record, and one of the country’s hottest teams, winning 21 of their last 24 games.

The NCAA Tournament begins on Friday, June 1, on the 16 regional host sites. Regional play is a double-elimination format, among the four teams in each regional, with the winner advancing to next weekend’s best-of-three super regional. If all No. 1 seeds advances, the tournament’s top eight seeds will host super regional play. The NCAA will announce the sites of the super regionals on June 5, upon the completion of regional play.

The super regional winners will participate in the 2018 College World Series, held at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, the site of last week’s Big Ten Tournament. The last Big Ten team to reach the College World Series was Indiana in 2013. The Big Ten’s last national champion was Ohio State in 1966. Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue are in search of their first national championship, with Minnesota claiming three of the conference’s six titles, winning in 1956, 1960, and 1964. Michigan were national champions in 1953 and 1962.

Minnesota to host NCAA Tournament regional

Hours after winning their Big Ten-leading 10th Big Ten Tournament, securing a place in the NCAA Tournament for the 31st time via the conference’s automatic bid, Minnesota was selected as one of 16 hosting institutions for next weekend’s regional round of the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA announced Sunday evening.

Improving to 41-13 on the season with their 6-4 win over Purdue, the Big Ten regular season champions are set to host their second regional in program history, first doing so in 2000. This year’s Minneapolis Regional will be the first time the Gophers are the top seed in a regional, as the 2000 regional saw Nebraska, then a member of the Big XII, head to Siebert Field as the regional’s top seed, while the Gophers entered the postseason holding a No. 2 seed. The Huskers went on to win the regional, topping Wichita State in the championship game.

In the program’s 37th season under the guidance of head coach John Anderson’s, Minnesota has already accomplished much to garner attention on the national stage. The Gophers entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 11 team in the nation, ranked by the National College Baseball Writers Association. Their 41 wins are the most since their 41-18 campaign in 2017, and, next to their second conference championship in three years, the Big Ten title was their first since 2010.

The tournament’s top 16 seeds, 33 at-large teams, and the three other teams set to join Minnesota in the Minneapolis Regional will be announced on Monday at 12:30 p.m. ET, on ESPNU, when the tournament’s entire 64-team field is unveiled. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, and Purdue, are conference peers expected to be considered for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. If five teams are selected to play in a regional, it will tie the Big Ten’s high-water mark, set in 2015, when Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan and made the tournament, and tied last season, when Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and Nebraska all saw regional action.

The last Big Ten team to host a regional was Illinois in 2015. On the heels of a 21-1 Big Ten season, the Illini entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 6 overall seed. Illinois won the Champaign Regional, before falling two wins shy of reaching the College World Series, as Vanderbilt, national runners-up, won both games of the Champaign Super Regional.

As Minnesota left Omaha as conference tournament champions Sunday afternoon, the team’s road back to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, and a bid for the program’s fourth national championship, first since 1964, is set to start at home in Minneapolis.

Top-seeded Gophers claims Big Ten Tournament title

In oppressive, 97-degree Omaha heat, the battle between the Big Ten’s two best teams was a hotly-contested one, a contest which saw Minnesota outlast Purdue, winning 6-4, to claim the 2018 Big Ten Tournament championship. Their 10th tournament title, the Gophers claim the conference’s automatic bid to next week’s NCAA Tournament.

As they have all season, Minnesota performed in a workman-like fashion to cap a perfect 4-0 week.

With the second-seeded Boilermakers the designated visitors, in the top of the first, center fielder Skyler Hunter lined a first-pitch, two-out single up the middle. Three pitches later, first baseman Jacson McGowan lined a double over the head of Minnesota center fielder Alex Boxwell, plating Hunter for the initial 1-0 lead.

Where Purdue used a back-to-back hits to jump out in front, big blasts in back-to-back innings saw the Gophers grab the lead.

Making his fourth start of the season, the first pitch of the second inning from Purdue right-hander Andrew Bohm was hit into the left field bullpen by Minnesota catcher Eli Wilson, tying the game 1-1. In the third, another first-pitch big hit came off of the bat of Terrin Vavra, with the junior shortstop hitting his 10th home run of the season to right center, pushing Minnesota in front, 2-1.

After a scoreless fourth, the two regional-bound teams traded blows over the next two innings, creating a back-and-forth content fitting of the conference’s two hottest teams.

In the fifth inning, Purdue seized the opportunity created in Minnesota turning to the bullpen, relieving starter Nick Lackney who held the them to five hits over four inning. Facing right-hander Brett Schulze, a leadoff single from second baseman Tyler Powers and a one-out walk drawn by catcher Nick Dalesandro put two Boilers aboard. Hunter’s second single, followed by McGowan’s second double, put the Boilers back on top, 3-2. Minnesota responded with an RBI-single from left fielder Ben Mezzenga, scoring DH Toby Hanson, who singled to open the home-half of the frame before moving to second on a sac bunt by Luke Pettersen, then to third on a fly out by Boxwell.

An inning later, the roles reversed with Purdue scoring a run, countered by two from the Gophers.

Singles from right fielder Alec Olund, Powers, and a run-scoring drive to right from shortstop Harry Shipley put Purdue back in front, 4-3. But after the tying run crossed home, in the next at-bat, Shipley was thrown out trying to move into scoring position, with Wilson throwing him out on a dirt ball read.

A string of three singles in the bottom of the sixth pushed Minnesota back in front, the contest’s third lead change in four at-bats. A leadoff single from Boxwell, followed by a sacrifice bunt from right fielder Jordan Kozicky, then RBI-single from Petterson, tied the game, before the 25th RBI of the season by Mezzenga, a liner up the middle, gave the Gophers a 5-4 lead.

Purdue’s aggressive nature that saw Shipley thrown out to end their sixth inning at-bat, had already contributed to two outs on the bases before. In the top of the fourth, DH Nick Evarts was thrown out on an attempt to steal third base, an inning before Dalesandro tried to reach third on Hunter’s single to right that scored Powers. A fourth out on an aggressive play seeking an extra base prevented the tying run, Purdue’s last scoring threat.

With one out in the eighth inning, pinch-hitting for Evarts, DH Evan Kennedy hit a 2-2 double to right field, off Minnesota closer Max Meyer. Pinch-running for Kennedy, following a strikeout by Olund, Charlie Nasuti was thrown out at home, when Mezzenga fired to Wilson after a single to left-center field by third baseman Evan Warden.

Adding an insurance run, a one-out single by Hanson, paired with a two-out double to left center by Vavra gave Minnesota its sixth and final run of the game. Armed with a two-run lead, Meyer pitched a 1-2-3 inning for his 16th save of the season, giving the conference champion Gophers their Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

A lock to host their first regional since 2000, Minnesota moved to 41-13 on the season. Also heading to the NCAA Tournament, their first trip since 2012, Purdue fell to 37-19, and will find out their regional destination on Monday at noon Eastern when the entire field of 64 is announced.

10 Takes: Big Ten Tournament Day 4

And then there were two… the best two. Saturday’s semifinals saw No. 1 seed Minnesota top No. 7 Ohio State, 8-1, before second-seeded Purdue provided their own definite victory, toppling No. 4 Illinois, 11-5. As Minnesota seeks its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2010, and Purdue seeks a second crown to stand alongside their 2012 triumph, the Big Ten Tournament championship features the top two teams in the conference standings, the two teams with the highest rated RPIs, the two hottest teams, and two teams ticketed for a regional.

Here’s what was observed on Saturday.

Fredrickson cool under pressure (and heat)

If there was to be a time when Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was a bit vulnerable, the conditions were favorable for that time to arrive on Saturday morning. In his first taste of postseason action the freshman was on the rubber against a tough Ohio State lineup, one who has already faced him, in 90-degree weather. Neither the Buckeyes nor blistering Omaha sun could rattle the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. With an efficient 77-pitch, six-inning start, Fredrickson scattered only two hits, allowing one run, a first inning home run by Tyler Cowles, to improve to 9-0 on the year.

“The formula once again with Patrick Fredrickson on the mound was for him to pound the zone with three pitches and for us to play defense behind him,” said John Anderson after the game. He gave up the home run, but he … then got back to doing his thing. Before the six-run inning, I got the guys together in the dugout and said, we were trying too hard. We didn’t have a good approach at the plate the first half of the game. We had a lot of opportunities but couldn’t get the big hit.”

Minnesota exhibits offensive depth

With Fredrickson cruising, one big inning from Minnesota was all that was needed to cruise into Sunday’s title game. With the game tied 1-1, a Jordan Kozicky walk followed by Toby Hanson sending a triple over the head of Ohio State center fielder Dillon Dingler put the Gophers in front. Kozicky later singled in the inning, as to did Luke Pettersen and Cole McDevitt, with Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, and Eli Wilson all drawing walks. By the time the sixth inning was over, eight batters reached base safely, six Gophers crossed home, and Minnesota was well on their way to their 40th victory of the season. The inning summed up Minnesota’s ability to wear down the opposition, with multiple players showcasing an ability to be patient, string out at-bats and reach base. By the end of the game, seven Minnesota batters recorded a hit, even with leading hitter Terrin Vavra going 0-for-4.

Pavlopoulos gives Beals something to build on

Needing a fourth starter to step up in an effort to extend their tournament run, Greg Beals turned to senior right-handed pitcher Yianni Pavlopoulos. Making his fifth start, appearing in his 17th game overall, Pavlopoulos allowed one run off five hits in three innings. The right-handed did walk three batters, but Minnesota’s John Anderson spoke to Pavlopoulos’ changeup and sinking fastball keeping the Gophers off balance, and from being able to capitalize early in the contest. Ticketed for a regional, it’ll be important for Ohio State to be able to find a dependable fourth starter. Weekend starters Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner, and Adam Niemeyer have yet to pitch a complete game in their combined careers. Next weekend, the Buckeye bullpen, led by workhorse Seth Kinker, will likely be needed in every contest, chipping away at Ohio State’s pitching depth as the weekend progresses. If the Buckeyes find themselves in the loser’s bracket, it’s imperative a capable fourth starter emerges to alleviate some of the bullpen strain, that role may now be on Pavlopoulous.

Cowles breakthrough campaign continues

With a home run and two walks, Cowles continued his strong senior season, as his two-year Ohio State career enters the final month. A transfer from Sinclair Community College, Cowles struggled in 2017, batting .190. Saturday’s home run upped his average to .327 and boasted his slugging percentage to .527, an increase of .213. Teammate Noah McGowan received much attention throughout the year, and deserved attention, in leading the Buckeyes in hitting, average, on-base percentage, doubles, home runs, and RBI. But Cowles, a third-team All-Big Ten outfield selection, has allowed McGowan to put up big time numbers in his cleanup spot by being a force in the Ohio State three-hole. With Dominic Canzone and Kobie Foppe’s ability to reach base, Cowles, more than any other, is the Buckeye that stirs the pot and get the team going.

Don’t forget the Gopher upperclassmen pitchers

After Fredrickson qualified for a quality start and exited after six innings, senior right-handed pitcher Jackson Rose allowed one hit over two innings, before junior left-handed pitcher Jeff Fasching closed the door with a scoreless ninth. Rose and Fasching’s outings come on the heels of junior right-handed pitcher Reggie Meyer tossing a shutout against Illinois on Thursday, and Jake Steven logging 3.2 innings in the tournament opener against Michigan State. Minnesota’s underclassmen pitchers, led by Fredrickson and fellow first-team all-Big Ten selection Max Meyer, have been in the spotlight as they have excelled as first-year players. But with 15.2 innings of work from upperclassmen this week and only two earned runs allowed between them, the Gophers with hardware from the team’s 2016 championship have been a steady force in Minnesota on the verge of securing a regional at home.

Illini uncharacteristically sloppy…

Illinois entered Saturday with a Big Ten-leading .980 fielding percentage, and arguably the country’s top defensive middle infield. Unfortunately for Dan Hartleb’s club, Illinois had more than a few miscues contribute to their exit from the tournament. Shortstop Ben Troike had a tailor-made double play ball roll under his glove, catcher David Craan threw a ball into center field trying to throw out a runner, and the webbing in the glove of first baseman Bren Spillane allowed a ball to tear through. In addition to the free bases allowed by the defense, Illinois pitchers issued four walks, hit two batters, and threw five wild pitches. It was an atypical outing from a team who defense and ability to eliminate extra opportunities had contributed mightily to the team’s 33 wins.

…and Purdue pounces on opportunities

Every time Illinois made a mistake, Purdue seemingly took advantage of the opportunity. It’s never ideal to give a quality team extra outs, but more so when that team is Purdue. Taking the mold of their head coach, Purdue seeks every opportunity to find an edge, pushes for extra bases, and tries to exert as much pressure as possible on the opposition. In addition to the three errors, four walks, two hit batters, and five wild pitches, Purdue stole four bases, led by Nick Dalesandro grabbing two. Purdue did get thrown out on the bases three times, but Mark Wasikowski’s club stayed true to form, and more times than not were rewarded for being the aggressor and taking the action to Illinois.

Hartleb’s confidence in Watson warrented

Ahead of his start against Purdue, Dan Hartleb showered right-handed pitcher Cyrillo Watson with praise, Saturday evening, saying he has all of the confidence in the sophomore, regardless of opponent. Illinois’ shaky defense did allow Purdue to score three unearned runs, but Watson put Illinois in a position to win, pitching six innings, allowing two earned runs of six hits and a walk, striking out three batters. Watson entered the year in the Illini rotation and much was expected of him. Illinois would see Andy Fisher and Quinn Snarskis blossom and grab weekend roles, limiting Watson’s opportunities, but the performance Watson gave against Purdue showed why much was thought of him, and also shows the Illini has the depth in starting pitching to make a run in a regional.

Boilermakers powered on by bullpen

Purdue did benefit from a sloppy Illinois performance, and they did set the tone offensively. But the Boilermakers didn’t play the cleanest baseball themselves, walking eight batters, hitting two, and committed two errors. The difference was the performance by the Boilermaker bullpen. Trent Johnson, Bo Hofstra and Dalton Parker combined to pitch the final 6.1 innings, allowing Illinois to score one run off two hits. The depth of Purdue’s bullpen has been on display this week, and is nicely summed up in the fact all-Big Ten closer Ross Learnard has yet to pitch, even though Purdue heads into the title game 3-0.

Purdue’s looks to give doubters one last statement

Purdue players and coaches alike have not shied away from referencing how one preseason prediction penciled the team to finish 11th in the Big Ten this year, and how that has fueled their motivation. From 2-22 to a second-place finish and a shot to return to West Lafayette with a Big Ten Tournament title, if there are any who still choose to cast doubt over Wasikowski and the direction of the Purdue program, they do so at their own peril, the Boilermakers have looked like one of the best teams in the nation this week in Omaha, and don’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. Sunday should be fun on.

10 Takes: Big Ten Tournament Day 3

With two teams eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament and two more set to go home after action on Friday, day three of action from TD Ameritrade Park was full of intense, breath-taking, post-season defining moments.

When the final outs where recorded, after Ohio State and Michigan resumed their rivalry, the Buckeyes turned back the Wolverines, 5-3, to stay alive, before Illinois knocked off Indiana for the second time in three days, winning 5-4.

Here’s a round up of the 10 leading storylines from action on Friday.

Big wins for Bucks and Illini

Although NCAA Tournament projections to begin the week had them in a regional, wins on Friday will mean Illinois and Ohio State leave Omaha with at worst 2-2 records. And with the .500 week, both teams have all but locked up an opportunity to continue their season next weekend. Ohio State’s 5-3 victory over Michigan was their 14th win over an RPI top 100 team, with Indiana’s 5-4 walk-off win against Indiana giving the Illini the season series in five games against the Hoosiers and evening their record to 7-7 against RPI top 50 teams. Ohio State’s 1-3 finish to the season, and dropping their first tournament game to Purdue caused slight concern, as well as a marquee series victory for Illinois. Both potential resume red flags have been alleviated as spots in the field of 64 have been secured.

It’s hot in Omaha

The first-pitch temperature for Michigan and Ohio State at 3:14 was 95 degrees. It was hot. It has been hot. It will continue to be extremely hot in Omaha. There’s nothing else to really add to that, it’s been blistering.

Call on Kinker

Ohio State head coach Greg Beals viewed a win over Michigan as being so vital to his team’s NCAA Tournament aspirations that after a three-inning, 50-pitch save on Thursday, Buckeye closer Seth Kinker was called on to get the final five outs on Friday. As he has done time and time again, showing why he has the unbridled trust from Beals, Kinker struck out four batters in 1.2 innings of scoreless work to record his 15th save of the year. The allowing just two hits over 4.2 innings, with seven punchouts, Kinker lowered his Big Ten-leading ERA to 1.49.

Coolen continues late-season flourish

A day after going 2-4 in OSU’s elimination game against Iowa, Coolen collected his first home run of the season, a solo blast in the sixth inning, to continue to pay dividends as a late-season lineup fixture for Beals. Highlighted by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy, changes to find a fix to Ohio State’s underwhelming infield defense created an opportunity for Coolen to take over at first. And now, as the Bucks close in on a second regional in three years, Coolen’s bat has helped add depth to an already impressive offensive attack.

Michigan’s tough ends promises for bright future

In his postgame press conference, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said he wasn’t going to try to make a case for the Wolverines to be in next week’s NCAA Tournament, that his team didn’t finish strong enough to warrant a spot nor grabbed enough marquee wins. But Bakich said his team will watch Monday’s announcement of the tournament field, with the thought in mind this will be the last time Michigan’s name is not announced on Memorial Day, as a team ticketed for a regional.

There is good reason for Bakich to be optimistic about the future.

Outside of senior first baseman Brock Keener, and center fielder Jonathan Engelmann, a likely high-round draft pick, Michigan’s starting lineup should return intact next year, as well as the Wolverine weekend rotation of Tommy Henry, Ben Dragani, and Karl Kaufmann, a sophomore-freshman-sophomore trio. A team that entered the final five games of the regular season atop the Big Ten standings, and were in contention for a regional berth a year after losing 11 players to the draft and five seniors to graduation, what would have been a major rebuilding year for many programs, wasn’t for Michigan.

“We put ourselves in a position, and as a coach you hope that all those pieces coming back next year will see, and remember that feeling of what it was like to be in first place and understand that championships and Michigan are synonymous — they go hand in hand. That’s the goal here is to win the Big Ten first before we start talking about things on a national scale. But the future is gonna be very bright because of the foundational year that we had, the toughness that went along with it.” -Erik Bakich

Indiana plays “soft”

Indiana held a 2-1 lead after two innings, then saw the score sit 3-1 in their favor through the first four innings. But even with a bullpen that is the perceived strength of the club, Indiana couldn’t hold on and fell to Illinois for the second time in Omaha to bow out of the tournament. It was a defeat that didn’t sit well with head coach Chris Lemonis nor senior outfielder Logan Sowers.

More than any team in Omaha, there wasn’t as much on the line for the Hoosiers. Their spot in a regional was safely set, a near-miracle was needed for them to be in a position to host. While other teams entered the week on the bubble, needed the auto-bid to continue their season, and Minnesota looks to secure their spot as being regional host, Lemonis thought he team could be relaxed, have fun, and just play, as their pursued the tournament title.

That didn’t happen, instead, Lemonis thought he team played soft. Both he and Sowers spoke to IU being better than they showed, with Sowers insisting there will be words shared in the locker room to get the team in gear, while Lemonis alluded to sharing a few words in their postgame huddle. After entering the week on the heels of a six-game winning streak, a 1-2 showing isn’t going to sit well with Indiana on their return to Bloomington, but it may be the shock to the system the team needs to turn the intensity up a notch to return to Omaha in two weeks.

Kaletha leaves Omaha with

A catalyst atop Indiana’s lineup for much of the season, junior center field Logan Kaletha saw his production tail off during May. Kaletha did draw three walks against Michigan State, but went six at-bats without recording a hit over the first two games, to drop his average to .271, down from .331 when Indiana was 28-6 prior to their series against Ohio State. A 2-for-5 effort against the Illini, including a game-tying solo home run to right field in the seventh, his eighth of the year, allows Kaletha to head into a regional with a little momentum, where he can be the ultimate table-setter in front of Matt Gorski, Sowers, and Luke Miller, creating a dynamic lineup capable of running through a regional, and beyond.

Spillane’s big blast

Following strikeouts in his first two at-bats, one wouldn’t have been wrong to wonder if it just wasn’t Bren Spillane’s week. At some point, even the best of the best have a slump. But then Spillane stepped to the plate with two on in the fifth and made all forget about his prior whiffs. In a 10-pitch at-bat, Spillane show a Tim Herrin fastball left-center, clearing the 375-foot mark, for his 23rd home run of the season, tying the contest. Now just three home runs shy of Illinois’ single-season mark, with his team’s back against the wall, Spillane showed why he was the Big Ten Player of the Year, potentially giving Illinois the hit they needed to not only play on Saturday, but next Saturday as well.

A total team effort the Illini

Where Spillane has been the linchpin to Illinois’ offense, and had the big blast the team needed to get back into the ball game, the winning run was a total team effort; from a team Dan Hartleb praised for their togetherness and desire to play for each other.

The bottom of the ninth started with a Jack Yalowitz single, a sacrifice bunt from Zac Taylor, before the game-winning double to deep center from Ben Troike. Where Yalowitz and Taylor entered the season as Illini’s top two draft prospects, not Spillane, the outfielders are respectively batting .221 and .228. While it isn’t atypical for the draft to be heavy on the minds of juniors and a lull in production occur, Hartleb stated any pressure the two placed upon themselves was due to wanting to be there and produce for the whole of the team. In a game which may have solidified their case as an NCAA Tournament, manufacturing the winning run, and doing whatever the team needed, was accomplished.

Optimism for different reason

Postseason press conferences can be tough when they follow an elimination game, but each coach who spoke on Friday expressed optimism for different reasons.

Even though their season has wrapped up for all intents and purposes, it was clear Bakich saw an incredibly bright future for the Wolverines, running off the players returning and the positions which will have the depth necessary to see Michigan return to the top of the conference table.

For Beals, the win over Michigan was an exclamation point on a resume which has the totality of showing a strong team from the start of the season to the end. Where prior years have seen the Buckeyes fall short of an at-large bid, there was confidence Ohio State has earned their spot, explicitly expressed when Beals said their usage of Kinker will be dialed back, in preparation of next week.

Similar to Beals, Dan Hartleb believed his club’s Friday win earned them the right to play another weekend. A spot in the NCAA Tournament is necessary for a return trip to Omaha in late June, but Hartleb’s joy in coaching this specific club, and that they will likely have another week together shone through.

And for Lemonis, there was disappointment in his team’s performance, but he knows the quality of his team and there was a hint of wanting to get back on the horse as soon as possible. Indiana didn’t play their best baseball, but with no concern of not making the NCAA Tournament the resiliency they have the opportunity show is something the fourth-year coach is looking forward to.

It wasn’t too long ago when the end of run at the Big Ten Tournament meant the end of a team’s season. But as this year’s affair is down to the final four teams, that’s not the case, which means very good teams are playing against each other, making for very good games.

Big Ten Announces Baseball All-Big Ten Honors and Individual Award Winners

Rosemont, Ill. — The Big Ten on Tuesday announced the 2018 baseball individual award winners and All-Big Ten teams, as selected by the conference coaches. Illinois’ Bren Spillane was named the Big Ten Player of the Year, Minnesota’s Patrick Fredrickson earned Pitcher and Freshman of the Year recognition and Minnesota head coach John Anderson was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Spillane becomes the 10th Illinois standout to claim Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and the first since David Kerian in 2015. A first baseman for the Illini, Spillane ranks first in the Big Ten in batting average (.407), slugging percentage (.944), on base percentage (.512), runs batted in (57) and home runs (22).

Fredrickson becomes the third Minnesota hurler to earn Big Ten Pitcher of the Year accolades and the fourth student to capture Big Ten Freshman of the Year plaudits. In all games, the right-handed starter currently leads the Big Ten in opponent’s batting average (.207) and ranks second with a 1.80 ERA.

Anderson was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the seventh time, the most in Big Ten history. Anderson, who claimed the award for the first time since 2016, guided the Golden Gophers to their 24th Big Ten Championship this season.

The Big Ten also announced the Sportsmanship Award honorees from each institution. The students chosen are individuals who have distinguished themselves through sportsmanship and ethical behavior. These students must also be in good academic standing and have demonstrated good citizenship outside of the sports-competition setting.

The complete list of All-Big Ten teams and award winners can be found below.

Player of the Year: Bren Spillane, Illinois

Pitcher of the Year: Patrick Fredrickson, Minnesota

Freshman of the Year: Patrick Fredrickson, Minnesota

Coach of the Year: John Anderson, Minnesota

All-Big Ten First Team

C – Tyler Cropley, Iowa

1B – BREN SPILLANE, ILLINOIS

2B – Nick Dunn, Maryland

SS – TERRIN VAVRA, MINNESOTA

3B – Noah McGowan, Ohio State

OF – Matt Gorski, Indiana

OF – Robert Neustrom, Iowa

OF – Jonathan Engelmann, Michigan

SP – Jonathan Stiever, Indiana

SP – Nick Allgeyer, Iowa

SP – Patrick Fredrickson, Minnesota

RP – Max Meyer, Minnesota

DH – Dominic Clementi, Michigan

UTIL – Matt Lloyd, Indiana

All-Big Ten Second Team

C – Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska

1B – Scott Schreiber, Nebraska

2B – Michael Massey, Illinois

SS – Ben Troike, Illinois

3B – Micah Coffey, Minnesota

OF – Jordan Nwogu, Michigan

OF – Ben Mezzenga, Minnesota

OF – Dominic Canzone, Ohio State

SP – Pauly Milto, Indiana

SP – Tommy Henry, Michigan

SP – Reggie Meyer, Minnesota

RP – Seth Kinker, Ohio State

DH – Scotty Bradley, Indiana

UTIL – Kevin Biondic, Maryland

All-Big Ten Third Team*

C – Nick Dalesandro, Purdue

1B – Jacson McGowan, Purdue

2B – Luke Pettersen, Minnesota

SS – Jack Dunn, Northwestern

3B – Luke Miller, Indiana

OF – Doran Turchin, Illinois

OF – Logan Sowers, Indiana

OF – Tyler Cowles, Ohio State

SP – Ben Dragani, Michigan

SP – Karl Kauffmann, Michigan

SP – Tanner Andrews, Purdue

RP – Joey Gerber, Illinois

RP – Ross Learnard, Purdue

DH – Chris Whelan, Iowa

UTIL – Conner Pohl, Ohio State

All-Big Ten Freshman Team*

C – Gunner Hellstrom, Nebraska

1B – JESSE FRANKLIN, MICHIGAN

2B – Drew Ashley, Indiana

SS – Dan DiGeorgio, Rutgers

3B – Zach Iverson, Michigan State

OF – JORDAN NWOGU, MICHIGAN

OF – Jaxon Hallmark, Nebraska

OF – Dillon Dingler, Ohio State

OF – BEN NISLE, PURDUE

SP – Ben Dragani, Michigan

SP – Mason Erla, Michigan State

SP – PATRICK FREDRICKSON, MINNESOTA

SP – Trent Johnson, Purdue

RP – MAX MEYER, MINNESOTA

DH – Parker Hendershot, Penn State

UTIL – Zach Iverson, Michigan State

Sportsmanship Award Honorees

Jackson Douglas, Illinois

B.J. Sabol, Indiana

Austin Guzzo, Iowa

Billy Phillips, Maryland

Harrison Salter, Michigan

Kory Young, Michigan State

Micah Coffey, Minnesota

Mojo Hagge, Nebraska

J.R. Reimer, Northwestern

Adam Niemeyer, Ohio State

Jake Pilewicz, Penn State

Tanner Andrews, Purdue

Kyle Walker, Rutgers

* Additional honorees due to ties

Unanimous selections in ALL CAPS

What to watch for in Omaha

After a year hiatus, the Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha, where it will be for four more years. College baseball’s grand stage is set to host what many believe will be the Big Ten’s best tournament, as seven teams are in the mix for an at-large berth to next week’s NCAA Tournament.

From potential regional hosts, to Golden Spike Award semifinalists, to record-setting players on nearly every team, here’s the 10 leading storylines to follow this week in Omaha.

The Bren Spillane Show

Illinois’ 10th Big Ten Player of the Year is having a season rivaled by few, if any, in Illinois’ storied history. Spillane finished the regular season as the Big Ten’s Triple Crown winner, batting .407 with 22 home runs and 57 RBI. Regional projections from national outlets have Illinois safely in next week’s NCAA Tournament. But a big week by the Big Ten’s brightest star can make their case a slam dunk, by using his premium power to send a few balls out of TD Ameritrade Park.

Spartan speed

While Spillane has the power to hit home runs in any environment, TD Ameritrade Park is known for being tough on home run hitters. Perhaps better suited for teams with the ability to run, Michigan State enters the tournament as a potential dangerous No. 8 seed, thanks to their speed. The Spartans led the Big Ten in stolen bases and attempts, swiping 98 bags in 125 attempts. Sophomore outfielder Bryce Kelley paced Big Ten players with 31 steals, setting a new Michigan State single-season record.

Luke Miller’s power surge

Three home runs during a weekend sweep over Maryland helped Indiana junior third baseman Luke Miller grab the final Big Ten Player of the Week honor. After missing some time in the middle of the season due to injury, Miller is back being a force in the hear of IU’s lineup. Now leading the Hoosiers with 11 home runs, Miller has the type of bat that change the tide of a game in one swing, and do it again, game after game. Heading to Omaha on a six-game winning strike, IU looks poised to make a deep postseason run, spurred by one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous players getting hot.

Ohio State’s reliance on Seth Kinker

No Buckeye pitcher has appeared in more games over his career than senior right-hander Seth Kinker. No reliever in the eight-year tenure of Greg Beals has been as trusted as Kinker. Leading the Big Ten with a 1.62 ERA, Kinker has been Mr. Reliable for Beals and the Buckeyes, racking up 13 saves and a 6-1 record in 26 appearances. But those 26 outings have resulted in 55.2 innings pitched, as Kinker is more than a one-inning save. With few other Buckeyes showing the ability to close the door or escape a tight jam, how will Beals used Kinker? In past history is any indication, it’s a lot, Kinker pitched in five games during Ohio State’s run to the 2016 tournament title.

Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers

Minnesota has more than enough depth to pitch through the Big Ten Tournament, there isn’t a concern on how often a pitcher will be turned to, and how long he pitches. What is worth keeping in mind with the Big Ten championships is how their first-year pitchers perform in their first taste of postseason baseball. Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson, and fellow first-team All-Big Ten selection, closer Max Meyer, will be front and center as the pressure cranks up a notch, as too will Jake Stevenson and Sam Thoresen, fellow freshmen who will likely start Minnesota’s third and fourth games respectively, if Minnesota tracks towards their 10 tournament title.

Attendance

A loaded Big Ten Tournament field does not include the team nearest to Omaha. For the first time in their Big Ten history, Nebraska will not participate in the postseason tournament. A part of the return to Omaha was the attendance of the 2014 and 2016 tournaments, in large part due to Nebraska’s presence. Without the Huskers in the field, will Omaha still show up?

Hellerball

One caveat to a potential drop in attendance is Iowa’s making the tournament. Under Rick Heller, the Big Ten Tournament has provided some magical moments. Two years ago, Iowa almost shocked the conference, falling one game shy of winning the tournament as the No. 8 seed. Last year, the Hawkeyes did win the tournament, and reached the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. It appears the automatic bid is Iowa’s key to the NCAA Tournament again, but it seems Iowa is comfortable fighting with their back against the wall. And if the Hawkeyes reach the weekend, they will undoubtedly have a homefield advantage as Hellerball is running deep in the heart of those in the Hawkeye State.

Who has a fourth starter?

No matter what, in this format with eight teams, a team must play a minimum of four games to win the tournament. The Big Ten experienced some of the worst spring weather in recent memory, seeing games cancelled week after week. As a result, a team may not have a fourth starter as polished as previous seasons, where the ability to play numerous midweek games would help build depth in the rotation. Some teams, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, have more than one option available after their traditional weekend three. Others, Michigan State, and Ohio State, come to mind first, may utilize Johnny Wholestaff if they have a deep tournament run.

Does momentum matter?

The postseason is often called a new season. Starting today, the records reset, all eight teams have a 0-0 record, and there is a clean table. But does the end of the regular season matter? Does a teams form carry over? If so, that’s good news for Indiana and Purdue, who respectively start the tournament on a six-game winning streak and victors in 18 of their last 20, and not so good news for Michigan and Ohio State, teams who finished the regular season in six and four games, respectively.

The out of town scoreboard

Yes, it is true, one should focus on only the things which they can control. For teams in Omaha this week, that means effort, confidence, execution. But for more than a few teams it will be worth finding a way to send positive vibes into the environment, and wish a few teams good luck throughout the country. It appears Iowa, Michigan, and Purdue are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. For them, along with a few wins this week, it would be nice if favorites in other conference tournaments win, that no bids are stolen. There will be enough to watch in Omaha to keep fans interested and engaged through the weekend, keeping track of scores around the country is the cherry on the cake of conference tournament chaos.

The Weekend 10

And just like that the regular season has come to an end. With Big Ten Tournament bids on the line, teams fighting for NCAA Tournament berths, and, unfortunately, the last round of collegiate at-bats and pitches for some players in the conference, from Rutgers to Iowa, and campuses in-between, big performances were found throughout the Big Ten.

Here’s the 10 weekend performances that caught the eye of 10 Innings.

Iowa Jr. LHP Nick Allgeyer

Allgeyer’s ledger held at 5-4, but the junior southpaw twirled a gem to open Iowa’s series against Penn State. Over seven innings, Allgeyer kept the Nittany Lions from crossing home, scattering five hits in a scoreless outing. Six Penn State batters went down on strikes, to two drawing walks, as Allgeyer ran his season total to 86 punchouts in 90 innings.

Purdue Sr. RHP Tanner Andrews

The final start of Andrews career at Alexander Field was a memorable. Helping Purdue take control of a key weekend series against Michigan, the senior pitched 7.1 innings of shutout baseball on Thursday. Holding the Wolverines to six hits and two walks, Andrews used five strikeouts in 107 pitches to move to 6-4 on the year, and lower his ERA to 2.71.

Ohio State Sr. 1B Bo Coolen

Providing Greg Beals with a late-season burst, Coolen went 3-for-5 with three doubles in Ohio State’s series-opening win against Michigan State on Thursday. The Buckeye first baseman scored a run and drove in two, before picking up two more hits over the weekend’s final two games.

Iowa Soph. SS Kyle Crowl

Crowl only went collected a single and a double over five at-bats, scoring three runs against Penn State. But Hawkeye had back-to-back games where he drew four walks, and added a hit by pitch in the weekend finale to reach base 11 times. It may not be the most offensive weekend, but it was an impressive weekend of plate discipline and pitch recognition by Crowl.

Penn State Fr. RHP Bailey Dees

Making his fourth start of the season, Dees saved his best outing for last. Grabbing the ball to start Penn State’s opener at Iowa, Dees kept the Hawkeyes off of the scoreboard in his five-inning outing. The rookie allowed only three hits, issued four walks, and struck out six batters. The fine outing in Iowa City nets Dees this week’s 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week nod.

Illinois Jr. LHP Andy Fisher

Fisher held Nebraska in check on Friday, allowing one run off six hits, in six innings of work. In his first season of action, after transferring from Eastern Illinois, Fisher closed the regular season with his sixth win in eight decisions, striking out six batters to one walk.

Minnesota Jr. RHP Reggie Meyer

Meyer has been solid atop the Gopher pitching staff all season, the lone veteran in a rotation rounded out by freshmen. Perhaps fittingly, the upperclassmen’s best game of the year was the gem that clinched the 24th Big Ten championship in Minnesota’s history. On the road at Rutgers, on Thursday, Meyer, the Big Ten and 10 Innings Pitcher of the Week, tossed an efficient eight innings, in holding the Scarlet Knights off the scoreboard. Tossing 93 pitches, and allowing only three hits, Meyer improved to 6-3 on the year, thanks to out five strikeouts against one walk.

Indiana Jr. 3B Luke Miller

The Hoosiers are hot heading to Omaha, using a six-game winning streak to cap the regular season. Helping fuel Indiana’s sweep of Maryland was an offensive outburst from junior third baseman Luke Miller. The Big Ten and 10 Innings Player of the Week, Miller recorded a multi-hit game in each of Indiana’s three wins over the Terps. The weekend started with Miller going 2-for-3 with two home runs, a walk, and four RBI on Thursday. On Friday, Miller picked up his 11th home run of the season in a 2-for-4 game, before going 3-for-4 on Saturday with an double and his sixth RBI of the weekend.

Michigan State Soph. RHP Mike Mokma

With their postseason hopes on the line, Michigan State sophomore Mike Mokma turned in a dominant outing, lifting the Spartans past Ohio State, 8-3. Moving to 2-4 on the year, Mokma logged seven innings of work, holding the Buckeyes to one run off six hits. Mokma needed just 79 pitches to toss seven innings, issuing just one walk, while punching out four Buckeye batters.

Nebraska Jr. DH Jesse Wilkening

The Huskers weren’t able to find a last-weekend miracle, falling short of qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament. It was in no part due to the performance of Jesse Wilkening. In three games in Champaign, the junior collected six hits in 12 at-bats, drawing a pair of walks in two other plate appearances, recording two doubles and a home run, en route to driving in three runs and scoring twice.

Appreciating John Anderson’s legacy

I think Nick Dalesandro has the brightest future of any Big Ten catcher since Kevin Plawecki. The Purdue backstop can catch, throw, run, and I believe he has more pop than his home run output would suggest. Watching Dalesandro on Saturday, I wondered how good Illinois would be with him behind the plate. For those unaware, Dalesandro’s father, Mark, was the 1990 Big Ten Player of the Year at Illinois.

Mark played 79 games in the big leagues, after being drafted in the 18th round of the 1990 MLB Draft. Nick will surely be drafted higher, with it yet to be seen if he will eclipse his dad’s big league service time. Surely a topic of discussion at some point in the Dalesandro household, it could be fun to debate who was the better player in college. Unfortunately, 28 years will separate the end of the two collegiate careers, leaving a void in impartial opinions.

But wait, there isn’t just one person who has seen the two Dalesandros. In fact, he would has also seen the father-son tandem of Darrin and Casey Fletcher of Illinois, and even Cal and C.J. Eldred at Iowa.

That’s Minnesota head coach John Anderson.

Anderson was named the head coach at his alma mater in the fall of 1981. As evident by coaching against the sons of players he previously faced in competition a generation ago, Anderson has seen a bit of baseball. In his time in Minneapolis, the conference has added four schools, saw one drop baseball. He’s witnessed an infusion of cash into the sport which has ballooned salaries, enhanced facilities, and brought college baseball closer to the money-generating sports of college basketball and football. In short, there’s been a bit of change in college baseball since Anderson’s first.

But what hasn’t changed is Minnesota being conference champions. In his 37th season, Minnesota’s two wins at Rutgers netted the program its 11th Big Ten title under Anderson, a tally which started in his first season in 1982.

Between this past weekend and the upcoming weekend, the college baseball world will celebrate the end of the decorated and storied careers of Mike Gillespie, Wayne Graham, and Jim Morris. Each of those three coaches have left a lasting impression on college baseball, respectively transforming Miami, Rice, and UC Irvine into blueblood programs. May has also seen Florida State’s Mike Martin pass the late and legendary head coach Augie Garrido as the winningest coach in college baseball history. With the celebrations, grand sendoffs, and reflections, it’s been great to hear the stories of college baseball’s leading coaches, how they have been a vital part in the growth of the sport, and how many are indebted to their service.

Not to take away from the very deserved rounds of celebration, but I think we would do well to take a step back and do a better good of appreciating sustained success before it unfortunately wanes. While Gillespie, Graham, and Morris have reach some of college baseball’s highest highs, their respective programs are not as strong in the current as the past, and the thank yous are a bit bittersweet, yearning for once was that is so far away.

Fortunately for Anderson and Minnesota, the current is as bright as the past, if not brighter, with the program is knocking on the door of a top 10 ranking. There isn’t a decline in sight.

Minnesota’s forthcoming, Big Ten-leading, 32nd NCAA Tournament appearance, 19th under Anderson, should bring the program its first regional at home in the tournament’s since 2000. In additional to bringing NCAA Tournament play back to a Big Ten campus for the first time since 2015, the Gophers have claimed two of the last three Big Ten championships, and are one 2017 win away from having a three-peat. The Big Ten, by the way, is a conference that has sent 13 teams to the NCAA Tournament over the prior three seasons.

The Big Ten in 2018 isn’t the Big Ten of 1988, or even 2008, when Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois passed around the conference championship. The Big Ten is deeper than ever, the stakes are higher than ever, and yet Minnesota is right there.

It would be silly, and it was not a call worth attempting to make, to try to have Anderson pat himself on the back, raving about the job he’s and his staff has done over the last three years. That’s not who he is. There would be deflection, humility, and words expressed of how his players and staffs have allowed his teams to enjoy the success they have. And, for him, his staff, and players, there is no time to reflect on what’s been accomplished when there is still work to be done; this Minnesota team is not content with just a conference championship, they want to reach the College World Series for the first time since 1977, a Minnesota team Anderson was on.

But, as his win-loss record now stands at 1,281-858-3, as a third hand is needed to display all of the conference championship rings, as Big Ten foes, father and son alike, look up at Minnesota in the standings, it is just, fair, and necessary for those outside of the Minnesota program to congratulate, appreciate, and draw attention to what Anderson, the presumptive seven-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has done.

As Gillespie, Graham, and Morris leave the game, there aren’t many left around like Anderson, let’s appreciate that before its too late and make sure his name is be echoed right alongside those legends of the sport.

May 17-19 Weekend Observations

The regular season came to an end with a dramatic weekend throughout the Big Ten. With the conference championship decided on the season’s penultimate day, and a fight to the finish for the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten Tournament, stakes were in every series.

On hand for three of those series, here’s what was observed in Bloomington, Champaign, and West Lafayette, followed by quick hits from around the conference.

Maryland at Indiana

The leading storyline heading into the series between Maryland and Indiana was the Terps controlling their destiny in pursuit of the Big Ten Tournament. Hanging on to the tournament’s final seed, Maryland held the head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan state, who also entered the weekend the same 9-11 mark in conference play. Secondary, though not in the mind of Chris Lemonis, was Indiana’s desire to round into form, as they entered the postseason. With little doubt the Hoosiers will be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament, finding a way to hit on all cylinders would be timely for a club that appears to have the pieces on paper to make a deep postseason run. In the end, the Hoosiers (37-15, 14-9) showed their process, adding a weekend sweep on top of a big midweek win at Louisville to head to Omaha hot, a place where Maryland (24-30, 9-14) will not be traveling to, as their season came to an end.

Luke Miller’s promising power display

On Thursday, after Maryland’s Zach Jancarski gave the Terps a 2-0 lead with a home run to left in the top of the second, IU junior third baseman Luke Miller answered with a solo shot to left field in the bottom of the inning. Then, with Indiana trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Miller hit a three-run home run to right field, giving Indiana their first lead of the game, en route to a 6-5 victory. On Friday, Miller added a home run to center field, providing the final run in Indiana’s 5-1 victory. Now pacing Indiana with 11 home runs, Miller’s performance comes at a time when big talent has played a big role in postseason success in recent years.

In 2016, it was Ronnie Dawson for Ohio State. Last year, Jake Adams produced home run after home run in the postseason. As much as pitching and defense may win regular season titles, the teams which have shown a bit of muscle have fared favorably in recent years. Illinois’ Bren Spillane, more on him later, is drawing attention for his eye-popping season and 22 home runs, but scouts and opposing coaches in the Big Ten feel Miller has the most raw power in the conference. It’s power that can carry Indiana through Omaha, and help the club find their way back to TD Ameritrade three weeks later.

Indiana baseball is ingrained in the Bloomington culture

It’s been five years since Indiana made their run to Omaha, capturing the attention of the nation behind Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Aaron Slegers, Joey DeNato, and company. There isn’t a member of Indiana’s College World Series team still in Bloomington, but on Thursday, with the athletic department passed out commemorative banners honoring the 2013 season, it was evident that baseball is there to stay in Btown. After 2,114 fans poured into Bart Kaufman Field for the series opener, the turnout was 1,790 on Friday, then 2,765 in the regular season finale, for a weekend average of 2,223. Attendance figures like that don’t happen by chance, especially when games are moved up and pushed back due to weather, but by conscious decisions. From the young to old, students and alumni, Indiana baseball has become entrenched into the fabric of life in Bloomington, where the program receives the type of support necessary to stay among the best in the country. And as Indiana has all but wrapped up a fifth regional in sixth years, it’s safe to say the Hoosiers are among the best programs in the country.

It was just that type of year for Maryland

An inning before Miller’s second home run of the game, Maryland held a 4-2 lead. Unfortunately for the Terps, storms in the area forced a rain delay of 1:50 with two outs in the top of the seventh, and ended the outing of right-handed pitcher Hunter Parsons. Outside of Miller’s second-inning home run, Parsons had been effective, scattering five hits, needing just 77 pitches to get through six innings. Once play resumed, Maryland’s bullpen was unable to hold the lead, dealing the Terps a tough defeat in the series opener, which the club never seemed able to rebound from. In a nutshell, the final three innings of Thursday’s contest seems to sum up the Maryland season. The Terps had shown streaks of playing good baseball, but weren’t able to get over the hump and live up to the potential they showed on paper. Rare did Maryland get blown out, instead there were games throughout with a defining play or moment that spelled doom. More will be shared on Maryland and what first-year head coach Rob Vaughn learned later this week.

 

Nebraska at Illinois

A little more than 150 miles northwest of Bloomington, the series between Nebraska and Illinois had much of the same elements. Like Maryland, Nebraska was fighting to reach the Big Ten Tournament as the last seed in, although unlike the Terps they needed quite the help and did not control their own destiny. For the host Illini, coming off of a weekend win at Michigan by most accounts put them in the NCAA Tournament. Winning the weekend against the Cornhuskers would send them into postseason play with momentum, as they look to play well into June. A sweep didn’t occur in Champaign as Nebraska salvaged their weekend with a win in their season finale, but Illinois showed a deep lineup on Friday, anchored by the conference player of the year.

Spillane continues shock and awe show

He didn’t match Miller with three home runs on the weekend, but Spillane hit home runs in the final two games of the series, running his season total to 22, four off of Illinois’ single-season record.

Friday’s contest was a microcosm of Spillane. In his first at-bat, Spillane struck out swinging, which he did again in the third inning. But on his second strikeout, Spillane showed the speed which has allowed him to steal 14 stolen bases, reaching first on the wild pitch. In the fourth inning, Nebraska intentionally walked Spillane, to load the bases. In his final at-bat, Spillane sent the first pitch of the sixth inning over the right field wall at Illinois Field for his 21st home run. Three official at-bats, respect from the opposing team, a run, an RBI, and four total bases.

The amount of strikeouts Spillane has is a red flag for scouts, 51 in 158 at-bats. But the opposite field power is a point in his favor. Regardless of how evaluators view him, it’s a joy, unless you’re the opposing team, to wait for the moment to happen, then have it happen, as one of Illinois’ best individual seasons ever winds down.

But the Illini aren’t Spillane and a bag of schmoes

Spillane is the big threat in the Illini lineup, but Dan Hartleb’s club has the ability to beat you with multiple players. Joining Spillane in homering during the 13-6 rout over the Huskers was Zac Taylor, pulling his 10th home run of the season out to left. As the team collected 15 hits, Michael Massey and Doran Turchin contributed doubles. In addition to those four players, Ben Troike continues to reach base in every game, while Jack Yalowitz is still capable of showing in flashes the ability which had him enter the season projected as one of the Big Ten’s top outfielders. Friday’s contest showed that even when the opposition does well to contain Spillane, Illinois has multiple players who can step up, and beat you with contact, speed, and power. The starting 6-9 hitters combined to go 9-for-17 with four RBI and five runs.

Wilkening’s plate potential turns into production

Although injuries have limited his time behind the plate, Nebraska catcher Jesse Wilkening has put together an outstanding season. On Friday, in a 2-for-4 game, Wilkening hit his ninth home run of the season, as he finished the year with a .372 average, 14 doubles, .445 on-base percentage, .588 slugging mark, and team-best 56 RBI. It was the type of offensive season many predicted when Wilkening was a highly sought recruit out of Indiana in 2015. A 28th-round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks three years ago, Wilkening hit .270 as a freshman, then .247 last year. Wilkening had previously shown the ability to be a good receiver and defensive backstop, but the offense had yet to develop. It did this year in a big way, giving Nebraska a potent 1-2 threat in support of first baseman Scott Schreiber. Unfortunately too many injuries on the mound created a pitching situation which made Nebraska’s solid offensive season an afterthought. But at least for Wilkening, he enjoyed the type of season to put him back on scouts’ radars, and showcased what made him one of Darin Erstad’s top recruits.

 

Michigan at Purdue

Wrapping up the weekend back in Indiana, by the time action began on Saturday, ignoring the four outs needed to complete Friday’s suspended contest, Purdue had secured second place in the Big Ten, and couldn’t catch Minnesota. Michigan had lost a second consecutive series to leave their NCAA Tournament status fully in the air. On paper, whichever way the result unfolded would seem to have mattered little. But as Purdue capped a weekend sweep with a 2-1 victory, the two teams separated in the Big Ten standings by just one game, are heading into postseason going in opposite directions.

Purdue’s mental makeup shines

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski praised his teams toughness following Saturday’s victory. Sometimes mental toughness is hard to put into words, but for every at Alexander Field on the sun-soaked day, it was clear Purdue has a bit of fortitude.

In the first inning, after striking out the leadoff batter, Purdue starter Ryan Beard allowed a single, issued a walk, then it a batter to load the bases. A third straight free base drove in a run and it appeared Purdue’s Senior Day would be a sour one. But the left-hander struck out the next two batters to limit the damage to one run. From the second inning on, until he was relieved with two outs in the sixth, Beard only allowed one Wolverine to reach second.

Two more examples came in the ninth, when closer Ross Learnard was called upon to close his third game of the weekend. He did just that, reaching 15 saves, which sets a new single-season record at Purdue. But a final element of toughness aided Learnard’s save. With a runner on first base and two outs, Michigan’s Jordan Nwogu pulled a rocket down the third base line. On the short hop, Purdue third baseman Evan Warden dove to smother the ball. Off the hop, the ball hit Warden in the mouth, leaving him bloodied and lying face down in the dirt, but the ball did not end up in the corner for a tying double, which it appeared ticketed. Michigan’s Jack Blomgren reached third on the play, but stayed there, as a fielder’s choice one batter later ended the game.

The parts are in place to sustain success in West Lafayette

In a cruel twist of luck, Purdue’s Alexander Field opened the season after the Boilermakers earned the right to host a regional. And up until now, the joys of the 2012 season, and what Purdue enjoyed as a program, and its fan, were a distant memory. But taking in the action on Saturday, one cannot help but see Purdue has the pieces in place to continue to enjoy the success the program is enjoying in Wasikowski’s second season.

From a facility standpoint, few places in the Big Ten, if any, can go toe-to-toe with the look, feel, and amenities of Alexander Field, for player, fans, and press alike. West Lafayette is located in a state with a strong prep baseball presence, and not far from the hotbed that is Chicagoland. But most importantly, the Purdue players, in how they carry themselves before and after games, their play in the field, their at-bats, and how their pitchers perform, are consistent, 1-35. That shows a complete buy-in into the message Wasikowski is preaching and are a 180-degree reversal from where they were just two years ago. The nature of the Big Ten, with the depth and unbalanced schedule, makes predicting future success tough, but there are the necessary foundation pieces in place for Purdue to continue to trend up.

Michigan’s underclassmen have Omaha-potential

Finishing the regular season on a 1-5 skid, a second consecutive regional appearance may have fell out of Michigan’s grip. But to be in a position where that thought is even entertained is a testament to the job Erik Bakich and his staff has done recruiting. Last year, after a Big Ten-leading 42-win season, Michigan saw 11 players drafted and five other players graduate from the program. In prior years, such roster turnover would have a team going into the final weekend of the regular season fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, not sit one game out of first-place. Many would say Michigan has benefited from a favorable in-conference schedule. But not every team beats the teams they’re supposed to, and it is extremely impressive for a team loaded with underclassmen to reel off 20 games in a row.

While there may be pain in potentially missing the NCAA Tournament this season, it’s clear the future is bright in Ann Arbor, with a core of underclassmen that should be thinking beyond just a regional. Every Michigan starting pitching will return next season. As too will the team’s catcher, shortstop, DH, corner outfielder, and a do-it-all in Jesse Franklin. Although Indiana was starting to perform like a top 25 team at the end of 2012, and Michigan has fallen from the rankings, Blomgren, Franklin, Nwogu, Ben Dragani, and company have the feel of that 2012 first-year core of Schwarber, Travis, Kyle Hart, and Scott Effross. Blomgren shows the ability of being the Big Ten’s best defensive shortstop, Nwogo has big time power, and Franklin has the all-around game and moxie to leave Ann Arbor with a Player of the Year honor in his bag. Add sophomores Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann, who sandwich Dragani in the rotation, and special days may not be too far down the road for Michigan.