Chris Webb

One month to go

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

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

How many teams make the NCAA Tournament?

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

April 20-22

Indiana @ Ohio State

Iowa @ Minnesota

April 27-29

Illinois @ Indiana

Michigan @ Iowa

Minnesota @ Ohio State

May 4-6

Indiana @ Minnesota

Ohio State @ Illinois

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

Does anyone challenge Spillane as Player of the Year?

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

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

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

Will any records go down?

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

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

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

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

Can Michigan State make a second-half run?

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

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

Is this the year for Rutgers?

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

Who is the prospect that shoots up draft broads?

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

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

Does Ohio State win a marquee series?

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

Illinois: 1-3, 4-8

Indiana: 0-5, 2-15

Minnesota: 2-2, 6-6

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

Two months into the season

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

The new normal

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

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

Indiana- 24

Illinois- 36

Minnesota- 38

Ohio State- 40

Iowa- 44

Michigan- 52

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

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

Hoosiers continue to roll

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

Michigan fights to buck recent trend

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

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

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

Spillane draws a national spotlight

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

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

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

Inconsistency dooms Maryland and Purdue

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

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

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

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

Winter’s grip remains tight

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

Freshmen pitchers show polish and poise

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

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

Huskers in danger of postseason absence

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

Rutgers makes its move

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

Minnesota remains an offensive juggernaut

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

Weather Wrecks Week 8 Schedule

A part of playing for, coaching, or supporting a Big Ten baseball program is understanding and accepting the climate of the Midwest spring, Midwest being used liberally as the conference’s footprint runs from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Rocky Mountains, can create havoc due to rainouts. What isn’t expected is snow and cold temperatures postponing, moving up and suspending games a week into April.

But here we are.

Last year, the Big Ten implemented a rule that the Real Feel temperature must be 28 degrees for a game to be played. With that, there isn’t one conference series this weekend that will have played out as originally scheduled, a result of freezing temperatures and freezing precipitation.

Already the Big Ten lost the weekend finale between Indiana and Iowa due to snow, a result that may factor into who becomes the conference champion. Hoping to lose no further games, here’s a rundown of what games have been moved up, moved back, or completely moved from campus, from east to west.

La Salle at Rutgers

The one series that has not be altered is the lone non-conference series. The Big Ten’s easternmost program has yet to alter its home series against La Salle.

Illinois at Maryland

With anticipated cold temperatures and precipitation on Saturday, Illinois and Maryland played a doubleheader on Friday, while leaving the series finale for Sunday. The two teams split Friday’s doubleheader, and saw their finale moved up an hour to noon ET.

Nebraska at Michigan State

Falling temperatures throughout the day Friday pushed the series opener between the Huskers and Spartans to Saturday. But Saturday’s forecast high of 32 will make it tough to get two games in. Already Sunday’s game was moved up to 11 a.m. ET to accommodate for Nebraska’s travel. A lost game looks likely between these two.

Purdue at Indiana

The Big Ten’s best weekend weather will grace Bloomington, where all three games of the Hoosier State rivalry should get in. But even southern Indiana wasn’t immune to the cold conditions. Friday’s series opener was moved up to 3 p.m., from the originally set 6 p.m., as temperatures fell in the evening below the 28-degree threshold and also snow.

Michigan at Northwestern

The Wildcats and Wolverines saw their weekend opener push to Saturday due to cold temperatures. Without lights at Berenice and Rocky Miller Park, both games must be played before the sun starts to set, and Saturday’s forecast high of 37 may make it tough for both games to get in if there’s any wind to knock the Real Feel down.

Penn State at Minnesota

As soon as John Anderson saw the weekend forecast, the Gophers made plans to find an alternative site for their series against Penn State with temperatures and precipitation leaving no chance the games could take place at Siebert Field. As a result, the two will meet almost in the middle of their respective campuses, playing at Purdue’s Alexander Field. But even the change of location couldn’t get all games in as re-scheduled, Friday’s contest was halted after five innings due to temperatures falling near the 20-degree mark. Whether one, two, or all three games get in, credit Mark Wasikowski and the Purdue athletic department for finding a way to make this series happen.

Ohio State at Iowa

While not quite at the level of Penn State-Minnesota, the Ohio State-Iowa series set for Iowa City has gone through a few hoops to get as many games in as possible. First, the series was moved to a Saturday-Monday format, with snow and cold temperatures making any play on Friday impossible. But then, the amended scheduled was amended again, with the two teams squaring off in a Saturday doubleheader. Game three is tentatively set for Sunday, but Monday is still in play, as there is a 70% chance of mixed precipitation.

 

 

Minnesota vs. Penn State to be Relocated

Minneapolis –The Gopher Baseball team’s planned return to home outdoor baseball at Siebert Field will be delayed as Minnesota’s three-game Big Ten series against Penn State scheduled for this Friday-Sunday, April 6-8 will be relocated. The Gophers staff is currently working on finalizing options, and we will provide additional details, including the new location and game times, when available.

Minnesota (18-10, 2-1 Big Ten) will now host its Big Ten home-opening series against Iowa on April 20-22.

Ohio State’s Wednesday Game Versus Kent State Cancelled

Columbus, Ohio –Due to predicted weather this week across the Midwest, schedule updates have been made for the Ohio State baseball team. The midweek contest vs. Kent State Wednesday has been cancelled due to freezing wind chill temperatures around game time in Columbus. No makeup date has been announced.

Iowa-Ohio State Series Altered

Iowa City, Iowa –Due to the projected cold temperatures this weekend, the University of Iowa baseball team’s weekend series against Ohio State has been moved to Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

The series was originally scheduled to take place from Friday through Sunday. Saturday’s series opener is now scheduled for a 2 p.m. (CT) start followed by a 1 p.m. start Sunday and a 3 p.m. start Monday.

Wednesday’s Penn State-West Virginia Game Postponed

University Park, Penn. –Due to continuing inclement weather in the area, Tuesday’s Penn State baseball game against West Virginia in Medlar Field at Lubrano Park has been postponed to a date to be determined, Penn State head coach Rob Cooper announced Tuesday morning.

Fans with tickets for the West Virginia game can redeem them at the State College Spikes box office for any other 2018 Penn State baseball game. The scheduled 90’s Night promotion has been rescheduled for Tuesday, April 24 during the Bucknell game.

Penn State next hosts St. Bonaventure Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.. At every Wednesday game, fans can enjoy wings at the ballpark at the following prices: Three wings for $3, six wings for $5.50 and 12 wings for $10.

Season, flex and single-game tickets for the 2018 season, presented by Family Clothesline, are available online at GoPSUsports.com or by calling the Medlar Field at Lubrano Park ticket office at 814-272-1711.

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

Tuesday’s UIC-Northwestern Contest Cancelled

Evanston, Ill. –Northwestern’s Tuesday contest versus UIC has been canceled due to inclement weather conditions. There is no date set for a reschedule as of yet.

The Wildcats return to action at Miller Park on Friday, April 6, for a 3 p.m. CT contest against Michigan.

Week 7 Weekend Observations

While weather throughout the Midwest may be more appropriate for early February, it is in fact April. As Big Ten teams hope warmer, more baseball-friendly weather is on the way, each of the 13 baseball programs have played at least one conference series with the chase for the championship under way.

With the college baseball season nearing its midpoint, here’s what was gathered from the most recent round of weekend play, as slowly but surely the cream is rising to the top.

Hoosiers keep humming along

A close 6-5 victory opened the weekend series, before Indiana handily defeated Butler, 13-0 and 10-3 to sweep the Bulldogs. With the three wins, Indiana ran its record to 20-5 through the first seven weeks of the season. Tabbed as the preseason favorite by Big Ten coaches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana is off to a strong start, but the consistency Chris Lemonis’ club has shown deserves recognition. Indiana has yet to suffer a losing weekend and only once has the team dropped back-to-back games. Indiana’s 2.68 ERA leads the conference, while its .286 average ranks third. Checking in at No. 11 in this week’s NCBWA poll, IU has done nothing to suggest they are not one of the country’s top teams, and should be in the mix to host a regional at the end of the season. There may be teams and players who are grabbing more attention at the moment, but with a deep lineup, a depth on the mound and a team that can play clean defense, the baseball team in Bloomington is living up to lofty expectations and handling everything presented in front of them.

Minnesota’s strong March finish

Minnesota didn’t have the strongest start to March, going 1-2 against Pac-12 teams in the Dairy Queen Classic it hosted, before being out scored 14-6 in the first two games of the succeeding series against Creighton. But since a 15-1 win in the series finale against Creighton, Minnesota (18-10) won eight of 12 games to end the month, winning three consecutive series, defeating TCU and Nebraska on the road before a 9-8 win on Friday and 6-3 victory on Saturday led to taking two of three at home this weekend against St. John’s. One would believe John Anderson would have been thrilled in the preseason to take those results. TCU has been to the last four College World Series, Nebraska is the reigning Big Ten champion, and St. John’s was ranked in the preseason. March appeared to be a month that could either doom the Gophers or set them up for a big season. For a team rather green on the mound, the end-of-month success should build conference, and the results should still be strong enough to put the team in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, where their veteran-laden and deep lineup can carry a team.

Freshman arms continue to excel

Three freshmen pitchers made the Weekend 10, and the strong showings by rookie pitchers weren’t an aberration. A look at statistics throughout the Big Ten reveal three true freshmen among the top four leaders in ERA:

#1 Michigan LHP Ben Dragani: 1.38 ERA in 32.2 innings

#2 Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson: 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings.

#4 Northwestern LHP Quinn Lavelle: 2.10 ERA in 34.1 innings.

In additional to those three, who allowed one run while pitching a combined 19.1 innings, the weekend saw Purdue’s Trent Johnson join the Boilermaker rotation and shine to cap a sweep of Penn State, while Rutgers already calls on freshmen Harry Rutkowski and Eric Heatter to round out the Scarlet Knight rotation. Indiana has seen promise out of Tommy Sommer, Ohio State likes what they have in Griffan Smith, and Minnesota has Joshua Colliver, Ryan Duffy, Max Meyer and Sam Thoreson to join Fredrickson as a foundation for the future. Seemingly, everywhere one looks around the Big Ten, there is a freshman or two capable of providing big innings or lead a pitching staff.

Northwestern’s tough run continues

After Lavelle stymied Maryland’s lineup, to lead Northwestern to a 4-0 win on Friday, the Terrapins captured the weekend series by winning the next two games, 6-5 and 4-3. After two weekends, the Wildcats’ Big Ten record sits at 1-5, tied with Michigan State and Penn State at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. But the 1-5 record might not be a fair indicator of the team Spencer Allen has. Take a look at Northwestern’s conference results so far.

Northwestern’s Big Ten losses:

March 23, 5-4 to Illinois

March 24, 5-4 to Illinois in 11 innings

March 25, 4-2 to Illinois in 10 innings

March 31, 6-5 to Maryland in 10 innings

April 1, 4-3 to Maryland.

Runs allowed in Big Ten play: 24

Runs scored in Big Ten play: 22

A few breaks here or there could have Northwestern near the top of the conference, not at the bottom, meaning no conference team should look at the team’s current record and think an easy weekend is in store.

Iowa continues to be Iowa

It’s becoming a spring ritual: question how Iowa will replace a dominant core of players, then watch the Hawkeyes find a way to fight into the top-half of the Big Ten and have an NCAA Tournament appearance be a real opportunity. While Iowa didn’t exactly slow down Illinois’ potent offense, Iowa allowed 32 hits and 20 runs in three game, the Hawkeyes left Champaign with two victories against a ranked Illini team. The weekend win came a week after splitting a shortened set against Indiana. It wasn’t long ago when Iowa dropped five consecutive games and stand 8-6 on the season. But Rick Heller’s group has gone 8-3 since, with two headline-grabbing weekends. Iowa’s tough 2018 slate doesn’t let up, Ohio State, who is 19-8 on the season, visits Iowa City this weekend, then back-to-back series on the road at Nebraska and Minnesota take place. But if the first two weekends of conference play are any indication of what’s to come, Iowa will be in a position to compile a pretty impressive resume.

Catchers turning in strong seasons

With the All-America campaigns Illinois’ Bren Spillane, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are compiling, it’d be fair to call this the year of the first baseman in the Big Ten. And as previously mentioned, the strong seasons nearly a dozen freshman pitchers are putting together deserve praise. After a look at box scores from the weekend, the backstops who are on the receiving ends pitches are collectively having strong seasons in the Big Ten. Leading their teams in hitting are:

Sr. Tyler Cropley, Iowa (.356)

Jr. Ryan Fineman, Indiana  (.347)

Jr. Ryan Sloniger, Penn State (.289)

Jr. Nick Dalesandro, Purdue (.337)

Juniors Jacob Barnwell (.289), Jesse Wilkening (.299), and Eli Wilson (.356) are also enjoying strong seasons at the plate, respectively for Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota.

While the batting averages are good, so too have the throwing abilities for many.

Barnwell has thrown out eight of 23 runners on the bases. Dalesandro has gunned down 11 of 24 runners, Fineman has thrown out 14 runners against 12 successful swipes, Rutgers’ Nick Matera has caught seven of 19 runners attempting to steal a base, and Wilson has nabbed five runners in 12 tries.