10 takes: Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

After checking in with respective head coaches, Rick Heller, John Anderson and Darin Erstad, to share notes on the falls of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, here’s a rundown of thoughts pertaining to the three programs, a trio responsible for the last three Big Ten championships and a combined five regional appearances over that period.

At home at State U.

Anderson and Erstad are alumni of the programs they head and Heller is an Iowa native who knows the Hawkeye State inside and out. In talking to each, what’s foremost apparent is the pride they place in leading their state’s flagship school. It would be silly to suggest they’re coaching harder than coaches who may not have deeply rooted ties to their program, but it is clear that the highs experienced over the lat five years in Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis are extra special to the men at the helm of these Big Ten programs.

Minnesota’s 2018 is a blueprint for Nebraska in 2019

Helping power the Gophers to the program’s first super regional appearance was a strong, pitching-heavy freshman class. While it’s hard to expect a freshman to be named the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year, and have another freshman go on to play for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, it’s not unrealistic to expect freshmen pitchers to player a leading role in a team’s success. It’s too be seen if they can be just as effective as Joshua Culliver, Patrick Fredrickson, Max Meyer and company were for the Gophers, but in Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes and Spencer Schwellenbach, Nebraska has three potential frontline arms with high ceilings and the stuff to lead a powerful rookie class of pitchers themselves. 

Big XII showdowns

A lot has been made on this blog about how the Big Ten is displaying a greater capability of being able to stand up and go toe-to-toe against the Pac 12. And with Nebraska playing four games against Oregon State, Minnesota facing the Beavers twice in the first three weeks of the season, and Nebraska hosting Arizona State for a weekend series in May, there will be more opportunities to size up the two Rose Bowl-bounded conferences. But between these three, there will also be key series against Big XII programs, a conference that poses a significant threat in recruiting, given its geographic makeup. Key an eye on these three series, that figure to have regional implications, but could also help steer conversations on the recruiting trail:

Iowa at Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Nebraska vs. Baylor, March 8-10

Minnesota vs. Oklahoma, April 19-21

Anderson isn’t tinkering with what’s not broken

As Minnesota’s season ended in the Corvallis Super Regional, though painful to be so close to the College World Series, there was reason to look forward to the 2019 season with what Fredrickson and Meyer showed in the final game of their freshman season. A Minnesota rotation with the two right-handed pitchers at the top would draw preseason praise and potentially have the Gophers as conference favorites. Except that’s not going to happen. Anderson and Minnesota’s staff is electing to keep Meyer as the closer and leaning to having Fredrickson resume his Saturday duties. While utilizing Meyer as a two-way player sort of forces their hand in managing his workload, recent years have seen multiple standout closers try to be turned into weekend starters and not have the same success: Scott Effross (Indiana), Colton Howell (Nebraska), Riley McCauley (Michigan State), and Yianni Pavlopoulos (Ohio State) to name a few. Credit Minnesota for realizing it’s really hard for pitchers to step in and do what Meyer did a year ago.

Oh what a Big Ten West could be

In football, the Big Ten’s East Division drives the conversation, with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State leading one of the best divisions in college football. When looking at the recent run of success in Big Ten baseball, an equally strong division could be found in the conference, if there were division.

Since 2012, Big Ten West teams have combined for 11 regional appearances and have claimed five of seven conference championships. And with the continued rise in talent in prep baseball in Wisconsin, the state produced Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, one thinks a would-be Badger program could be competitive. Playing more games regularly against this half of the conference could have pushed Minnesota over the bubble in 2017, Illinois in 2014 and 2018. But, without Wisconsin sponsoring baseball, we have a one-division, 13-team Big Ten conference, and only a hypothetical of what could be a dynamite college baseball division.

Breakout season candidates

Between what was shared from the head coaches and personal observations over the past few years, among these three teams, a player from each I expect to take a step forward and be a key contributor to their respective team:

Iowa- Jr. RHP Grant Judkins

Minnesota- Jr. C Eli Wilson

Nebraska- Soph. OF Keegan Watson

Will tough schedules help or hurt postseason chances?

The non-conference schedules Anderson, Erstad and Heller put together can stack up against any in the country as far as being challenging and unforgiving. And Each coach suggested they wouldn’t change a thing about them, that they’re players want and expect to play against and that’s how championship teams are built. But with turnover in critical players for each, the need for players to step in and grow up fast, will all three clubs be ready to take on some of the country’s best early and often? As Erstad said, it won’t take long to find out what the players of these teams are made of.

Iowa-Nebraska has the makings to be the Big Ten’s best rivalry.

Without Wisconsin, no divisions and an odd-number of teams, the Big Ten operates on a three-year scheduling cycle. As teams have eight conference series a year, not playing four teams, each team will play at home, away and skip every opponent over a three-year period. That last aspect flat out stinks as it means there will be rivalry contests that are skipped. That leaves Michigan and Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue to scheduling mid-week games to ensure they play each other every season. That agreement will hopefully as extend to Iowa and Nebraska.

With Iowa baseball sustaining its most successful period on the diamond in a generation, the fan base and support growing, and Nebraska baseball being Nebraska baseball, these border rivals need to play every year. How the two compete for recruits on either side of the Missouri River, both helping draw more than 10,000 people to TD Ameritrade Park for Big Ten Tournament title games, and Iowa having a good bit of success in Lincoln of late, the ingredients are there for a fun, competitive and passionate rivalry to blossom.

Get ready for them to run

Both Anderson and Heller alluded to their respective teams likely to have more action on the bases this year, with neither team having a big time slugger to anchor the lineup, nor the ability to wait for hits to string together. Iowa worked extensively on hit-and-run situations this fall and Minnesota made it a point of emphasis to steal more bases.

And looking at who left, who returns and the makeup of the players that joined the program, I suspect there will be more aggressive play on the bases for Nebraska, too. Nebraska’s 34 stolen bases were last in the Big Ten in 2018, Iowa’s 39 only one rung better, while Minnesota was in the middle of the pack with 67. It’ll be worth watching to see is those numbers increase and how effective a change in offensive style ends up being.

Recent success isn’t going away

Just a gut feeling here, although one based on how the teams are recruiting, the desire to invest in facilities, the coaches who are leading the programs and the state of the Big Ten, it’s easy to see multiple regional berths for each program over the next three years. In Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis, there is an expectation level that wasn’t there five years ago. All three programs have made headwinds nationally and are viewed as places where players can compete against college baseball’s best and walk away with more than a few wins. There’s reason to be optimistic for the 2019 season for each of these three programs.

Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

Fall Notes: Nebraska

Program at a glance

Head Coach: Darin Erstad, eighth year

2018 Record: 24-28 overall, 8-14 Big Ten (10th)

Key departures: 1B/DH Scott Schreiber (.369 AVG/.446 OBP/.692 SLG, 18 HR), C Jesse Wilkening (.372/.445/.588, 56 RBI), RHP Luis Alvarado (70 IP, 4.89 ERA, 65 SO) RHP Jake Hohensee (25.2 IP, 1.05 ERA, 28 SO, 13 SV)

Key returners: Sr. SS Angelo Altavilla (.228/.354/.352), Jr. OF Mojo Hagge (.275/.369/.376), Jr. RHP Chad Luensmann (DNP, Tommy John), Jr. RHP Robbie Palkert (4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 SV), Jr. 3B/1B/C Luke Roskam (.269/.373/.425, 13 2B), Sr. RHP Matt Waldron (69.2 IP, 4.26 ERA, 61 SO, 12)

Notable newcomers: Fr. RHP Bo Blessie, Fr. INF/RHP Colby Gomes, Soph. OF Aaron Planesky, Fr. RHP/INF Spencer Schwellenbach

2018 in review

No matter the adjective, unlucky, unbelievable, crestfallen, or downright weird, it’s hard to find the appropriate word to describe the Huskers’ 2018 campaign. Coming off of the program’s first Big Ten championship, the first conference team title a Nebraska men’s program has won as a member of the Big Ten, 2018 was to be the season Nebraska took the next step forward. Although the 2017 season ended with a third regional in four years, the program is only 1-6 over the trio of 64-team tournaments, including back-to-back 0-2 showings. With one monkey off of the back, it was time to eviscerate another.

That monkey postseason unfortunately still is there, as a black cloud seemingly formed over Lincoln and never left.

Before the season started, junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann was lost for the season, needing Tommy John surgery.  That created a void in the Huskers’ weekend rotation as the third-year player was expected to move from standout reliever to starter. Luensmann was lost for the year after sophomore southpaw Connor Curry also needed offseason surgery. Junior righty Robbie Palkert joined the mash unit, going under the knife after showing flashes of brilliance, limited to 4.2 innings. And Junior left-hander Jake McSteen encountered arm trouble as well, limited to two starts and 12.2 innings over five outings.

With pitchers recovering from injuries, a handful being lost to injury, and continuous shuffling of roles, Nebraska used 19 pitchers last season, eight receiving a start. The lack of consistency and players put in roles out of necessity, less merit, resulted in a team ERA of 5.70, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Led by senior first baseman Scott Schreiber and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska’s offence batted at a .274 clip, sixth in the conference. But after the two all-conference performances who combined for 27 doubles and home runs, no other Husker regular batted over .275, and only two reach double digits in extra-base hits. While Wilkening made a big leap forward following a sophomore campaign of .247/.330/.312, shortstop Angelo Altavilla took a step back in his draft year, going from .316/.407/.406 for the Big Ten champions to .228/.354/.352 for the conference’s 10th-place club. Sophomores Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam showed they can be solid players, complimentary of Nebraska’s two big bats, but there wasn’t the lineup depth of years past, where 1-9 Nebraska wore down opposing pitchers.

But Nebraska still managed to score 6.48 runs per game. The bug-a-boo for the Huskers was the ravaged pitching staff. Nebraska lost five conference games where they scored at least four runs, as its in-conference ERA of 6.35 was the Big Ten’s worst. Offensively, the batted .288 and slugged .457 against conference foes, both makes good for second.

The 24-28 overall record, 8-14 Big Ten record and 10th place finish were the worst for an Erstad-led team. 

Fall notes

With the snake-bitten, disappointing year behind them, Erstad said every player returned to Lincoln motivated this fall. The eighth-year head coach added there was no need to speak of last year to his players, the players know their season wasn’t up to par, not even close. As such, compared to years past, Erstad says that a different feeling throughout the team was present this fall, noting it’s easy to coach a team who had their butt kicked.

Regarding the Curry, Luensmann and Palkert, Erstad said each are progressing fine in their recovery, no set backs have occurred and each are in line to return in 2019 at various points.

Even without the three pitchers on the mend, Erstad said the team he saw this fall has more depth than any team he’s had thus far in Lincoln. With the depth, and true to his M.O. nothing is in pen heading into the 2019 season, according to Erstad. It’ll be a battle for starts throughout the lineup and on the pitching staff. 

A key factor in the depth are the eleven freshman that make up the 2019 Nebraska roster. Right-handed pitchers Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes, and Spencer Schwellenbach drew praise and high attention during the prep and showcase circuit, each spurning the opportunity to play professional baseball. Gomes and Schwellenbach were also standout two-way players in high school, both possessing the bat and fielding prowess to make impacts all over the diamond. But, Erstad says the college game is a whole different ball game than what those and the other freshman have faced to date.

Another key newcomer is outfielder Aaron Palensky, who Erstad says is just a fun player to coach. A sophomore after spending one year at Southeast Community College, Palensky looks to be the part of a key bat in the Husker lineup, as they need a bat to emerge to fill the void of Schreiber and Wilkening. At the JUCO, last year Palensky batted .417 with 18 home runs, 77 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 24 stolen bases, while posting a .850 slugging percentage and .515 on-base percentage.

But for all of the accolades, the positive energy and determination present throughout the fall, Erstad knows none of it matters if the players don’t show up game after game.

And in 2019 the Huskers will need to be ready to bring it from day one. Nebraska’s schedule is as tough as it’s ever been, with Erstad saying, “We want to challenge our guys…we want to find out how good we are, and we will know right away.” Following a four-game series at UC Riverside to open the season, a four-game series against defending national champion Oregon State awaits. Nebraska opens March plays in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, alongside Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech. Non-conference series against Baylor and Arizona State are also on the schedule.

You’ll have to go to the bottom of Nebraska’s roster to find his name, but Curtis Ledbetter transitioning from Director of Operations to volunteer coach has been a boon for Erstad. Like he is, Erstad says Ledbetter being a Husker alum, adds an extra element to the staff. The head coach notes his volunteer assistant was on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, and knows what it takes to get there, determined to get the team, showing in turning away a paying job to be the volunteer coach.

2019 Big Ten Baseball Schedule

With the calendar set to turn over to November, not only is there just two months left in 2018, but the start of the 2019 college baseball season is nearly 100 days away. With the Feb. 15 start of the college baseball season inching closer and closer, here’s a look at the 2019 Big Ten schedule of games, as Minnesota looks to defend its second conference championship in three years, while the other 12 Big Ten programs look to knock the Gophers off their perch.

 

Weekly schedule

 

March 22-24

Iowa @ Indiana

Michigan State @ Nebraska

Minnesota @ Penn State

Purdue @ Northwestern

Bye week: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

March 29-31

Illinois @ Iowa

Indiana @ Maryland

Michigan @, vs., @ Michigan State

Nebraska @ Minnesota

Penn State @ Purdue

Rutgers @ Ohio State

Bye week: Northwestern

 

April 5-7

Maryland @ Illinois

Minnesota @ Michigan

Ohio State @ Northwestern

Penn State @ Indiana

Purdue @ Nebraska

Rutgers @ Iowa

Bye week: Michigan State

 

April 12-14

Illinois @ Minnesota

Iowa @ Purdue

Michigan @ Ohio State

Michigan State @ Rutgers

Maryland @ Northwestern

Nebraska @ Penn State

Bye week: Indiana

 

April 19-21

Indiana @ Michigan State

Nebraska @ Iowa

Ohio State @ Maryland

Northwestern @ Michigan

Penn State @ Illinois

Purdue @ Rutgers

Bye week: Minnesota

 

April 26-28

Illinois @ Nebraska

Iowa @ Ohio State

Maryland @ Penn State

Minnesota @ Indiana

Northwestern @ Michigan State

Rutgers @ Michigan

Bye week: Purdue

 

May 3-5

Indiana @ Illinois

Michigan @ Maryland

Michigan State @ Purdue

Nebraska @ Northwestern* May 4-6

Ohio State @ Minnesota

Rutgers @ Penn State

Bye week: Iowa

 

May 10-12

Maryland @ Minnesota

Michigan @ Indiana

Michigan State @ Iowa

Penn State @ Ohio State

Purdue @ Illinois

Rutgers @ Northwestern

Bye week: Nebraska

 

May 16-18

Iowa @ Maryland

Michigan @ Nebraska

Michigan State @ Illinois

Minnesota @ Northwestern

Ohio State @ Purdue

Rutgers @ Indiana

Bye week: Penn State

 

Big Ten Tournament May 22-26

TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

 

Breakdown by opponent

 

Illinois

Home-Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan State

Away– Maryland, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue

Do not play-Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

Indiana

Home– Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota, Rutgers

Away-Maryland, Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan

Do not play– Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue

 

Iowa

Home– Illinois, Rutgers, Nebraska, Michigan State

Away– Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Maryland

Do not play– Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State

 

Michigan

Home– Minnesota, Northwestern, Rutgers, Indiana,

Away– Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland, Nebraska

Do not play– Illinois, Iowa, Penn State, Purdue

 

Michigan State

Home– Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois

Away– Nebraska, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa

Do not play– Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State

 

Minnesota

Home– Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State, Maryland

Away– Penn State, Michigan, Indiana, Northwestern

Do not play– Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers

 

Nebraska

Home– Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan

Away– Minnesota, Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern

Do not play– Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Rutgers

 

Northwestern

Home– Purdue, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota

Away– Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers

Do not play– Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Penn State

 

Ohio State

Home– Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa, Penn State

Away– Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota, Purdue

Do not play– Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska

 

Penn State

Home-Minnesota, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers

Away-Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State

Do not play– Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern

 

Purdue

Home– Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State

Away– Northwestern, Nebraska, Rutgers, Illinois

Do not play– Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota

 

Rutgers

Home– Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern

Away– Iowa, Michigan, Penn State, Indiana

Do not play– Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska

The best recruiting classes from 2010-2014

There’s still a few Big Ten programs yet to start their fall practice season. But for most, new faces are mixing with returning places as rosters start to take shape with the 2019 season in mind.

As the talent across the Big Ten continues to get better and deep year over year, many freshmen will arrive to campus and put on their school’s colors with prodigious accolades from their prep days, with a few having the honor of being selected in the MLB Draft. The past of a freshman makes it easier to fill out bios and for outside publications to compile all of the freshmen who compose a recruiting class, list them next to each other, and proclaim who has the best recruiting class. But when the time comes to step into the batter’s box or toe the rubber, what was done in high school means little.

Instead, we think it’s best to allow a recruiting to have their four-year window on campus come to pass, in order to compare and determine who had the best. Here, before fall practice has commenced throughout the conference, and a sense of who may be a standout can fully form, 10 Innings looks at the top recruiting class over the last five years in the Big Ten.

To note, more emphasis was placed on individual success, believing that while one recruiting class can drastically change the fortunes of a program, the success of a team in any given year is made up of four recruiting classes. Also, recruiting classes were based on who was a freshman on campus in the fall of their high school graduating year. This would, for example, exclude considering Scott Donley as a part of Indiana’s class of 2011, as he was a transfer from Virginia Tech. Finally, the first classes for Maryland and Rutgers to have spent all four years in the Big Ten would have been 2014, four-year graduates of this past spring.

So with history on our side which program had the top recruiting class over the last five years?

2010- Indiana

Key players: Dustin DeMuth, Joey DeNato, Ryan Halstead, Aaron Slegers

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 153-82 overall, 65-31 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: DeNato. 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: DeMuth, DeNato, Halstead. 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Slegers. 2014 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: DeNato.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 7

Highest draft pick: Slegers, fifth round, 140th overall, 2013.

Why them? This class was the foundation of teams that helped Indiana lead the change in conversation regarding Big Ten baseball. The following year’s recruiting class drew the headlines, covered magazines and have two MLBers, but this is the class that was necessary to take Indiana into college baseball’s upper echelon. A four-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, holding the school record for innings, strikeouts and wins. Slegers’ 2013 campaign was quietly dominant. DeMuth litters the Indiana record book, and Halstead was a rock of a reliever at the back of the IU bullpen for their two regional clubs. Arriving to campus two years after Indiana broke through and won the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, this group pushed IU over the top.

 

2011- Indiana

Key players: Kyle Hart, Luke Harrison, Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2015 NCAA Tournament. 158-81 overall, 66-28 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Travis. 2012 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Chad Clark, Hart, Schwarber, Chris Sujka, Travis. 2013 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Travis. 2013 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Schwarber, Travis. 2014 Big Ten Player of the Year: Travis. 2014 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Schwarber.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 5

Highest draft pick: Schwarber, first round, fourth overall, 2014.

Why them? The Bash Brothers. What hasn’t been said of the impact that Schwarber and Travis had on Indiana, Big Ten and college baseball? A rival coach called Schwarber a generational talent, one you see every 20-25 years, Travis a once-a-decade player. Where DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, quite the argument can be made that Hart is the second-best. Appearing in 87 games, Harrison pitched 167 innings to the tune of a 2.86 ERA and 15-4 record. While Schwarber and Travis were ascending the ranks in the minors in 2015, Harrison and Hart were  key factors in Indiana’s transition between head coaches Tracy Smith and Chris Lemonis, making sure Indiana’s two-year run wasn’t a blip on the radar, but the start of a new day for IU baseball.

 

2012- Illinois

Key players: Kevin Duchene, Jason Goldstein, Tyler Jay, Adam Walton

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013 NCAA Tournament. 2015 Big Ten champions. 2015 National Seed. 2015 Champaign Regional champions. 145-74-1 overall, 64-30 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Duchene. 2013 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Duchene, Goldstein. 2015 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Jay. 2014 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Jay.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 4

Highest draft pick: Jay, first round, sixth overall, 2015.

Why them? If Indiana forced a different discussion around Big Ten baseball, this recruiting class of Illini helped cement the change in perception. After helping Illinois to the Nashville Regional in 2013, being left on the outside of the 2014 NCAA Tournament helped fuel the most dominant showing by a team in Big Ten play the following year. As upperclassmen, the class helped Dan Hartleb’s team to a school-record 27-game winning streak, and a 21-1 Big Ten record in 2015. The regular season ended with the Illini were earning the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. From their first spring, Duchene was a key starter, Jay a lights-out receiver and Goldstein a rock behind the plate. Walton gave this recruiting class its fourth All-Big Ten first-team selection in 2015, with strong two-way play at short.

 

2013- Ohio State

Key players: Ronnie Dawson, Travis Lakins, Troy Montgomery, Tanner Tully

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 127-102 overall. 46-50 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Tully. 2014 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Dawson, Tully. 2016 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Dawson.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 2

Highest draft pick: Dawson, second round, 62nd overall, 2016.

Why them? The toughest class to pick, the individual star power between Dawson, Montgomery, Lakins and Tully helped pushed this class over Nebraska’s 2013 recruiting class. The Husker did appear in three NCAA Tournaments, 2014, 2016-17, and won the Big Ten, topping Ohio State’s one regional and tournament title. But of Nebraska’s 11 freshmen in the fall of 2013, there were only a combined four All-Big Ten selections, no first-team picks, only five of the 11 made significant contributions over their career. Dawson and Tully were both All-Big Ten second-team picks as freshmen in 2014, before earning first-team nods in 2016, while Montgomery was a second-team selection in 2015. Lakins was a sixth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2015.

 

2014- Minnesota

Key players: Micah Coffey, Lucas Gilbreath, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 2018 Big Ten champions. 2018 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2018 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2018 Minneapolis Regional Champions. 137-88 overall, 58-34 in Big Ten.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 1

Highest draft pick: Gilbreath, seventh round, 216th overall.

Why them? The class didn’t have a star like Schwarber, Travis, or Dawson, but collectively they were steady contributors, year after year. Gilbreath is responsible for the lone All-Big Ten first-team selection in the recruiting class, tabbed as one of the three best Big Ten pitchers in 2017. But Coffey was a three-time All-Big Ten pick, a second-team selection in each of his final three seasons, with Hanson earning third-team praise in 2016, before Pettersen did in 2018. The last three years of their time in Minnesota stands against any three-year period for any Big Ten program over the last 25 years, capping their career with winning the Minneapolis Regional, advancing the program to its first super regional appearance.

The Big Ten’s newest assistants

The transition from the summer offseason to the fall practice season isn’t complete without a rundown of new faces. Yes, the Big Ten is welcoming another talented freshman class, headlined by several players saying no to professional organizations, but they will also be new faces in the in the coaches’ boxes and in the dugout as part of the coaching staff.

With an entirely new staff in Bloomington as head coach Jeff Mercer leads the Hoosiers, to two new assistants up the road in West Lafayette under Mark Wasikowski, rounded out by promotions in Columbus and Minneapolis, heres a look at the new full-time assistants coaches in the Big Ten.

Read more

Ten thoughts from the summer II

It’s time to close the book on summer thoughts, news and notes.

Here’s the second part of ten thoughts from the summer, as we get ready to shift gears to fall practices and the 2019 season.

Top prospects heading to campus

The MLB Draft was pretty kind to Big Ten programs this year. Across the conference, from Minnesota to New Jersey, top prep players with pledges to Big Ten programs spurned professional overtures.

A few players did sign a contact. Michigan lost Drew Rom, a Kentucky prep left-handed pitcher, to the Baltimore Orioles, after the American League organization picked him in the fourth round. Ohio State saw recruit Keegan Fish, a catcher and 13th-round pick from southwest Ohio, sign with the Miami Marlins. And Iowa-signee Korry Howell, a JUCO transfer picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 12th round.

But more players who were the highlights of respective recruiting classes will arrive on campus.

A few noteworthy players:

Illinois

Catcher Jacob Campbell- 36th round, Chicago Cubs

RHP Aidan Maldonando- 38th round, Milwaukee Brewers

Michigan

RHP Steven Hajjar- 21st round, Brewers

Michigan State

OF Zaid Walker- 36th round, Cincinnati Reds

Nebraska

SS/RHP Spencer Schwellenbach- 34th round, Cleveland Indians

Rutgers

C- Peter Serruto- 22nd round, Reds

Worth noting, a player picked in the 30th+ rounds may not seem overly impressive, outside of the impressiveness of being draft in the first place, but each of the above player’s talent merited being selected earlier. They were drafted in the final quarter of the draft due to their respective commitments to their school. Professional clubs viewed them as unlikely to sign, but the talent each possessed warranted selecting them, just in case there was a change of heart, or a signing bonus of $125,000, the maximum a club can offer without it counting against its allotted pool to sign players drafted in the first 10 rounds, would be a enough.

Prep Baseball Report ranks Maldonado, Schwellenbach and Walker the respective number two players in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, players who have a chance to standout on campus over the next three years before their time comes again to be picked by a professional club.

Midwest vs. West

Players like Hajjar and Serruo heading to campus is another example of the Big Ten providing a great product on the field, alongside the world-class education the student-athletes receive. How good that product is might surprise the casual fan, but more and more there is proof the Big Ten is an elite baseball conference.

I remember five years ago, after his first season in Ann Arbor, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich told me there was no reason the Big Ten would not only be a true Power 5 conference in baseball, but would be on par, if not better than the Pac-12 and Big XII. The depth of the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, along with the geographic advantage will likely have those two be 1-2 in some order for the foreseeable future. But Bakich had no doubt the Midwest could be the Big Ten’s and level to those on the Pacific coast.

Looking at NCAA Tournament participants, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 17 teams in a regional, with the Pac-12 one ahead at 18. Last year, the Big Ten and Pac-12 split 24 regular season games.

The Pac-12 has done a better job of advancing teams through the NCAA Tournament, and of course have the reigning national champion in Oregon State, who knocked out Minnesota in the Corvallis Regional, but not before the Gophers twice beat UCLA to win the Minneapolis Regional. Now, as schedules begin to trickle out, the 2019 season will offer more opportunities for to two conferences with Rose Bowl ties to square off on the mind.

In touching base with coaches around the conference, what’s known so far in Big Ten-Pac 12 showdowns:

Arizona will travel to Penn State during the final weekend of the regular season, the start of a home-and-home series which has Penn State traveling to Tucson in 2020.

Michigan State has a three-game series at Arizona State, followed by a midweek game at Arizona.

Minnesota will see Oregon State in back-to-back weekends to open the season, the two participating in a pair of tournaments.

Michigan will participate in the Dodger Stadium/Dodgertown College Baseball Classic with USC, UCLA and Arizona. Two years ago the Wolverines were in the field with USC, UCLA and San Diego.

Lengthy droughts continue for Michigan and Ohio State

I started blogging on Big Ten baseball matters 10 years ago, taking over the Ohio State-centric Buckeye Nine. One, I have no idea how that turned into this. Two, it’s a bit scary to think a decade has passed.

Nonetheless, to say the Big Ten of 2018 is not the Big Ten of 2008 is an understatement. Forget recruits, facilities, head coach salaries, just look who has won the Big Ten this decade.

Since 2010, Minnesota has three titles (2010, 2016, 2018) and Illinois has two (2011, 2015). Those two have been historically strong programs, their championships would cause someone to bat an eye in 2008. But Michigan State (2011), Purdue (2012), Indiana (2013-14), Nebraska, hello realignment, (2017) certainly would. But perhaps more than who has won the conference crown is who hasn’t.

The 2019 season will be the ten-year mark since the Buckeyes last won the Big Ten. But even then, they will have a more recent championship than their arch-rival, Michigan last winning the conference championship in 2008. To know just how rare this is, the last time neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a Big Ten championship in a nine-year window would be 1908-1916. A period when the University of Chicago found themselves Big Ten baseball champs.

For the conference as a whole, it’s a good thing the Big Ten isn’t dominated by Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, as was the case for four decades from 1980-2010. More teams winning means more depth, more depth means more teams in the NCAA Tournament, more teams in the NCAA Tournament increases the odds of having a representative in Omaha.

But it is a bit surprising two of collegiate athletics most recognizable names, programs with storied histories, have gone so long without winning the conference.

Wisconsin baseball isn’t coming back

With the team they have returning, losing only one underclassman to the draft, many view Michigan as a preseason Big Ten favorite, a club ready to end that aforementioned drought. While certainly possible, if not probably, we know for certain one Big Ten institution that’s not winning a baseball championship any time soon: Wisconsin.

The baseball-less Badgers are the lone Big Ten university without a varsity baseball program. As Big Ten baseball continues to make strides, as well as Wisconsin producing top baseball talent (Campbell is a Wisconsin native, as was Minnesota All-American shortstop Terrin Vavra), it’s entertaining to think is the time coming for Wisconsin to revive its baseball program.

I don’t think it’s happening.

In June, the Detroit News revealed the University of Michigan will receive $52.1 million in Big Ten conference distributions, stemming from the television rights the conference has with ABC/ESPN, FOX, and its own Big Ten Network.

There would be Title IX matters to resolve in terms of scholarship equality between female and male students, as well as figuring out where games will be played. But if living in a day and age where Big Ten universities are receiving more than $50 million a year from television rights doesn’t create the landscape for Wisconsin to bring back a program, one that many believe would have more than a shot to compete for conference championships and regional bids when brought back, I can’t see when the time will be right.

Joe Healy’s appreciated work

Wrapping up everything that crossed my mind over the summer, I cannot go without shining a light on the work done by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy and his podcast series, especially in the absence of myself producing any content. Throughout the summer, Healy spoke to people throughout the media, often beat writers, to dig into ongoings regarding programs around the country. Many of Healy’s podcast covered Big Ten teams, and here you can listen to insights, news and opinion on:

Indiana

Iowa

Nebraska

Purdue

Joe was the lone national writer to cover the Big Ten Tournament this past year, and is a great reference and source for news and content covering the Big Ten.

Ten thoughts from the summer I

With Labor Day behind us, summer has unofficially come to an end. While temperatures throughout the Midwest have been more typical of those seen in the days following Independence Day, students at Big Ten universities have returned to campus and conference baseball teams have begun fall practice.

As programs around the country insert the keys into the ignition and start the engine, in preparation of taking on the road to Omaha, 10 Innings’ Chris Webb puts a bow on summer with the first five of 10 thoughts and observations from news and trends that developed over the summer.

An Indiana man comes home

On July 2, Indiana named Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer the 25th head coach in program history. Mercer filled the vacancy created when Mississippi State tabbed former Hoosier head coach Chris Lemonis as their head coach, eight days prior. Lemonis’ tenure in Bloomington lasted four seasons, creating an situation where IU will be on its third head coach in six seasons in 2019, even though the program has been one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.

Lemonis followed Tracy Smith who left after nine years to try to revive the once dominant Arizona State program. But if Indiana continues the success first established by Smith and continued by Lemonis, the Hoosiers have appeared in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, there shouldn’t be any need for Indiana to be in search over another coach in the near future; Mercer is home.

A native of Bargersville, Indiana, Mercer guided Wright State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances during the first two years of his head coaching career. Continuing the high level of success at the Dayton, Ohio-based program, first established by current Penn State head coach Rob Cooper, Mercer was emerging as one of college baseball’s bright young coaches. But more importantly than Mercer budding as a promising coach, is Mercer viewing Bloomington as home. To him, there is no next step, no call from a Pac-12 nor Southeastern conference program will pull him from the Hoosier State as happened to his predecessors. Calling the Indiana position his dream job, Mercer is ready to retire as a Hoosier.

“I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” said Mercer in the press release of his hiring. And to talk to Mercer, it’s quick to learn those words weren’t just the correct answer to go on-record with. Leading the Indiana program, one his father was an assistant coach at from 1988-1989, is where his career goals have been aimed towards and now heart and mind is fully vested in.

This should be welcomed by IU faithful, if not demanded. Lemonis, with his hand in helping nearby Louisville develop into a regional program, was the perfect fit to succeed Smith and keep Indiana at a high-level. The seemingly seamless transition that took place four years ago shouldn’t be taken for granted, each coach has his own identity and belief in how a program should be ran and the culture that’s created. All signs point to Mercer be just as much of a slam dunk hire as Lemonis, and for Indiana players, administrators and fans alike, this should be the last hire of a head baseball coach for the foreseeable future.

As Mercer told me this summer, “it wouldn’t matter if the New York Yankees are calling, I’m saying no, this is where I want to be for the next 25 years.”

Iowa personifies the conference-wide investment in baseball

There could have been a second Big Ten program in need of a new head coach if it wasn’t for the commitment to keep Rick Heller in place by Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and his department. Pursued by Kansas State, Heller turned down an offer to lead the Wildcats in June, to stay at Iowa.

Announced on Aug. 24, with Heller’s loyalty to the Hawkeyes came a restructured contract and a pay raise. A bump in base salary to $325,000 annually, from $262,000, for the 2018-2019 season, then to $341,000, from $275,000, the next year, on a contract that runs through the 2024 season. Crossing the $300,000-threshold placed Heller among the top five highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten, a thought unfathomable not too long about. But in five seasons in Iowa City, Heller has average a hair shy of 35 wins, collecting 173 victories, for a program that had gone 24 seasons since its last 35-win campaign, with only five such years in the program’s annuals prior to Heller’s arrival.

But ponying up additional pennies to keep Heller in place is only a part of the commitment Iowa has thrown baseball’s way, a reflection of an increase in attention Big Ten programs are experiencing all over the conference. Duane Banks Field has undergone renovations, with more plans on the table to give the grandstands a makeover. Iowa has been able to create the necessary pool for assistant coach compensation in order to flank Heller with strong assistant coaches, coaches that are active in recruiting as well as taking a forward-thinking approach on technology and analytics in baseball.

If Iowa’s two regional trips since 2015 isn’t enough to show the Big Ten of yesteryear is a distant memory, the steps took to bring Iowa to national prominence, mirror throughout the conference, should leave one with no doubt.

Max Meyer Mania continues

Helping Minnesota to its first super regional appearance, and a top ten final ranking, right-handed pitcher Max Meyer compiled one of the most decorated freshman seasons in recent Big Ten history. Tying Minnesota’s single-season saves record with 16, next to a 2.03 ERA, the standout at the back of the Gopher bullpen received All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com, a third-team selection on each all-star rundown. Collegiate Baseball, Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association picked the Woodbury, Minn. product as a first-team Freshman All-American, with Collegiate Baseball naming Meyer the Freshman Relief Pitcher of the Year. Closing to home, Meyer was the first-team All-Big Ten selection at reliever.

Those accolades alone would not only fill a trophy case, but maker Meyer one of the nation’s top pitchers heading into the 2019 seasons. But what Meyer did over the summer as an encore to his freshman season places him in the elite of the elite among college baseball pitchers.

One of six freshmen named to the 26-member USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, on a team littered with the best talent from coast to coast, Meyer’s performance took a backseat to none this summer. Helping Team USA to a 12-3 showing, Meyer appeared in eight games, saving seven of USA’s victories. Although he only pitched eight innings, the ninth-most on the team, Meyer’s 15 strikeouts paced all USA pitchers. Off five hits and four walks, Meyer allowed three earned runs for a 3.38 ERA.

The last Big Ten pitcher to don the Red, White and Blue for the Collegiate National Team was Maryland right-handed Mike Shawaryn during the summer of 2016. There hasn’t been a Big Ten player play for Team USA as a freshman in at least a decade.

And one last note on Meyer, he was recruited to Minnesota as a two-way player, but the depth of the Gophers in the field and at the plate relegated him to just 30 at-bats in 2018. With program stalwarts such as Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson and Luke Pettersen lost to graduation, and the drafting of shortstop Terrin Vavra, the plan is for Meyer to go all-in as a two-way player, where the Minnesota staff believes he’s capable of just as much production at the plate as on the mound.

Ty McDevitt’s more-than-deserved promotion

But, what if I said Meyer wasn’t even the most decorated Minnesota freshman pitcher? That could be true, as classmate Patrick Fredrickson was picked as Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, the first freshman to win the honor, alongside being names conference freshman of the year, National Freshman Pitcher of the Year by both Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA, was on every Freshman All-America team, and the ABCA named him a first-team All-American and D1Baseball.com a third-team pick.

Clearly, in Fredrickson and Meyer Minnesota has a two-headed monster every coach in the country would sign up for, potentially the best tandem of rising sophomore righties in the country. But Minnesota’s depth in the freshman class extends to Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen, a collection of six pitchers poised to be the foundation of a program looking to continue the run of success that has saw the program win two of the last three Big Ten championships.

As stout as Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class was on the mound, nearly as impressive is how quickly the group collective got up to speed and started producing, with none of the six from a location south of Omaha, all lead by a volunteer coach.

The structure of Minnesota’s coaching staff for the last two years saw Rob Fornasiere as the top assistant to John Anderson, serving as third base coach and handling a lot of the in-game strategy. Pat Casey has served as Minnesota’s hitting coach and dominant force on the recruiting trail, elevated to a full-time position after the passing of longtime pitching coach Todd Oakes. That left the volunteer role to handle the pitching duties, which former Minnesota pitcher Ty McDevitt has done in a lights out manner. Minnesota’s 3.18 team ERA in 2018 was a full run better than the 4.19 mark in 2017, even though Minnesota had to replace their ace and closer.

In the run-up to Minnesota’s memorable postseason, it was announced Fornasiere was retiring at the end of the season. With nary a negative word to be said about him as a person or coach, Fornasiere will be missed in the Gopher program, Minnesota wouldn’t be where they are without him. But it was as perfect of timing as possible for a position to open. In Anderson elevating McDevitt to be Minnesota’s third full-time coach, one of college baseball’s brightest young pitching minds will stay home and work to keep Minnesota among national prominence.

Coaching staffs continue to expand

With Indiana welcoming Mercer, Iowa keeping Heller, and McDevitt moving into a full-time role, coaching news carried most of the summer action. But, increasingly, staff news is no longer just pertains to a head coach, two full-time assistants and a volunteer assistant.

A look at news around the Big Ten this summer saw Illinois and Penn State add a director of operations positions, with Sean Moore, former Iowa volunteer, having an additional title of player development next to his director of operations position for the Nittany Lions. Now all programs except Michigan State have a director of operations position, when no program did before Nebraska joined the conference in 2012.

Mercer won’t only have a director of operations on his first staff, but former Major League veteran Scott Rolen will be Indiana’s Director of Player Development. Ohio State saw their volunteer video coordinator, Matt Angle, move into a full-time role, then realigned the role to be a control position in hiring former Buckeye and all-conference infielder Kirby Pellant.  Michigan has a standalone video coordinator position, while a year ago Rutgers introduced the position of Director of Player Development to the Scarlet Knight program.

Just as the Big Ten has seen head coach salaries have doubled on average over the last decade and increases in assistant coach salary pools to attract and retain top assistants, the sizes of Big Ten baseball staffs continue to swell, showing more and more teams are trying to find that edge to be a perennial winner.

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.

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