The final month of the college baseball season is here. With respect to February, March, April and even June, there’s nothing like baseball in May.
From fights for conference championships, battles for individual honors, the polishing og postseason resumes, the opportunity for some firsts and the heartbreaks of some, lasting memories are made in May.
What’s in store for the Big Ten in May? Here’s 10 things to watch across the conference as a wild month unfolds.
The Player of the Year showdown
Michigan’s Jordan Brewer and Ohio State’s Dominic Canzone are 1-2 in the Big Ten in batting. The Wolverine leads the conference with a .378 average, the Buckeye sits second at .367. Both are hitting for power in posting gaudy averages. With the conference’s top slugging percentage, .685, Brewer has 11 doubles with 11 home runs. Slugging .656, Canzone has 12 doubles, two triples and 12 home runs. Where Brewer trails in extra-base hits, and total hits (66 to 54) he bests Canzone in stolen bases. Brewer has swiped 13 bags in 17 attempts to Canzone’s six stolen bases in seven tries.
For the first time in several years, without a David Kerian, Matt Fielder, Jake Adams or Bren Spillane there isn’t a clear cut favorite for the conference’s top individual honor as the season enters the final month. With two equally viable candidates, last POY battle this tight was 2013 when Illinois Justin Parr and Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber each had a rightful claim. As Michigan looks for its first conference crown in 11 years, and the Buckeyes fight for a spot in the conference tournament, these two leading men will be needed to be at their best. And the one that is looks like they’ll go down as the Big Ten’s best.
Who takes home the ERA crown?
Seven Big Ten pitchers posses ERAs between 2.00 and 2.40. Extending it to 2.70 nets three more hurlers. While pitching continues to get better and better in the Big Ten, and teams possessing deeper staffs, there hasn’t been a year quite like the one we’re witnessing in 2019. There isn’t just one very good, perhaps dominant pitcher, there’s been several.
Minnesota’s Max Meyer leads the Big Ten with a 2.00 ERA, a sneeze better than Penn State’s Dante Biasi’s 2.01 mark. Iowa’s Grant Judkins is right there at 2.11. PSU stretch reliever Mason Mellott sports a 2.30 ERA, Indiana’s Andrew Saalfrank checks in at 2.31.
With 90 strikeouts in 62.2 innings and a .177 ERA, Biasi has incredible numbers alongside his ERA to stake his claim for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. But with ERAs as low as his, and the company breathing down his neck, it would take one bad outing to fall out of the top 10.
Big time bye weeks
The race for the Big Ten crown is going to be dramatic, with Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa all within two games of each other. The rounding out of the Big Ten Tournament field should be just as intense, with two games separating fifth and 11th places. But don’t forget about the action taking place outside of conference play.
Three significant bye weeks round out the regular season. Iowa hosts UC Irvine, Nebraska host Arizona State, and Arizona travels to Penn State. The first two series have NCAA Tournament implications. Both Irvine and ASU are ranked. Winning those series will help Iowa and Nebraska solidify their postseason resumes. For Penn State, it’s been a tough season, one that start with promise before fizzling out. While postseason play will elude them, winning their final series of the weekend, especially against a Power 5, nationally-recognized team like Arizona, will give a young team something to rally around in the offseason.
Regardless of outcome, it is great for the Big Ten to have perennial powers and college bluebloods on their turf, late in the season, with an opportunity to continue to shape the perception of Big Ten baseball.
Does Penn State play spoiler?
It just hasn’t been Penn State’s year. Although the team has pitched to a 3.84 ERA, fourth-best in the Big Ten, a conference-worst .231 batting average has been an anchor around the Nittany Lions all season. Of Penn State’s 15 conference losses, seven have been by one run and six by two runs. Penn State has suffered six defeats where they allowed three runs or fewer, and three when it’s only been one or two runs. Although a return to the Big Ten Tournament must wait at least another year, Penn State can do significant damage to a pair of club’s postseason hopes, prior to the season-ending series versus Arizona.
First up, Penn State welcomes Rutgers to town this weekend, a club with their own offensive struggles. The Nittany Lions play their final Big Ten in Columbus, against an Ohio State team that is incredibly sneaky. Every possible outcome is on the table as Penn State takes on these two scarlet-clad clubs. Including outcomes that can keep a club, or both, from Omaha.
Can the Hoosier slug 100 home runs?
Indiana leads the country with 77 home runs, a pace of 1.75 home runs per each of the team’s 44 games. Over a 56-game schedule that amounts to 98 home runs. Can the Hoosiers hit 100 home runs? With 11 games left in the regular season, IU needs to hit 2.1 per contest to hit the century mark before the postseason. Assuming all games are played in the regular season and Indiana at worst goes 0-2 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, they would need 23 over 15 games, a modest clip of 1.53 home runs per game. As the team creeps towards the century mark, the Big Ten record for home runs in a season is in play. The mark sits at 108, set by Michigan in 1985.
There is one record the Hoosiers are assuredly going to blow by: most times struck out. Indiana batters have struck out 469 times this season, just 14 shy of the single-season record set by Ohio State in 2016. Of course that Ohio State team won 40 games, and won the Big Ten Tournament. Success Indiana would take.
Is a regional heading to Champaign?
Earlier this season, there was a time when Illinois was ranked. Then, there was a time when Illinois sat 1-5 in Big Ten play. Now, the Illini are back on the upswing, with a few big opportunities in front on them.
Illinois picked up a 5-2 win over Indiana State on Wednesday, giving the team a ninth win in 13 contests against team with an RPI of 50 or better. And with an RPI of their own at 21, Illinois is compiling a resume that has a chance to host a regional. That resume can add a pretty shiny start with a weekend over Indiana, whom the Illini host this weekend. Illinois’ RPI may take a hit through the rest of May, series versus Purdue and at Michigan State has Illinois facing the Big Ten’s two worst rated clubs. But already Illinois has weekend wins against Florida Atlantic, Illinois State, Minnesota and Nebraska, in addition to taking two games against Coastal Carolina. Barring a complete collapse over the final month, Illinois zeroing in on a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. And just as they did that year, the Illini might be playing postseason baseball at home.
Will Rutgers have enough juice to get to Omaha?
Rutgers has the weekend rotation to earn a spot in the program’s first Big Ten Tournament. With Harry Rutkowski, Tommy Genuario and Tevin Murray, all three holding sub-3.50 ERAs, the Scarlet Knights are capable of winning every weekend on the strength of their staff. But to win a baseball game one must outscore the opposition. The scoring part has been tough for Rutgers this year. While the team has a 3.29 ERA in Big Ten play, fifth-best, the bats havent’ match. The club’s .234 batting average is 11th and it’s .292 slugging percentage sits last. With the weekend rotation all in line to return next year, their success this season has opened the door for possibilities next year of vying for a conference crown and spot in the NCAA Tournament. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow if postseason play is put off another year with the way the Rutgers rotation has pitched.
What does Maryland get out of Blohm?
Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm opened May making just his third appearance on the mound. Prior to Wednesday’s action, the 2017 Big Ten Freshman of the Year was sidelined for two months, last pitching on Feb. 17 against Virginia Commonwealth, before returning to the mound on April 23 for a start against VCU. As he returns to form, the results have been encouraging. In his two outings, Blohm has logged 5.1 innings, allowed two hits and struck out nine batters against one walk. Blohm possesses the stuff to be among the Big Ten’s top pitching prospects when healthy. With his return, and doing so in strong from, he gives Rob Vaughn and the Terps one more bullet in the chamber as they fight a crowded field for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. It is worth watching if Maryland can get him back into the weekend rotation and stretched out, as their finishing stretch of Michigan-Minnesota-Iowa, might be the toughest in the conference.
Northwestern’s bid for a winning season
It’s been 15 years since Northwestern last had a non-losing season, going 25-25 in 2003. The drought dates back to 2000 to find Northwestern’s last winning season, a 30-27 campaign. The Wildcats opened May on a high, defeating Illinois State, 6-3, a team ranked 32 in the RPI. At 19-22 heading into their final 10 games, it would take a 7-3 run to finish the regular season north of .500. Northwestern’s final three weekends see Nebraska and Minnesota travel to Evanston, around a series at Rutgers. With that finishing stretch, a winning season may be a tall order. But the opportunity is there for Spencer Allen and company to take a significant step forward as a program.
Who wins the Big Ten? Who reaches Omaha?
Just look at the standings? It’s crowded. It’s time for chaos. Welcome to May.