Expect a Roaring Twenties for the Big Ten

Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:

The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).

Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)

Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)

Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.

For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.

Then the 2010s happened.

And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.

The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.

Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.

The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.

Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?

Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.

After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.

So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.

In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.

And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)

The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.

Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.

 

20 Showdowns to Circle in 2020

The 2020 season is full of big time matchups for Big Ten schools, both within and outside of conference, contests that can make or break a berth in the NCAA Tournament and hosting opportunities. For the prospect junkie out there, there will be more than a few head-to-head pairings of top draft prospects.

In addition to knowing the 20 stroylines to follow this season, here’s a rundown on the 20 dates to circle this year. From Michigan taking on a pair of top three teams on back-to-back dates to start the season, to an end-of-season, cross-country tough test for Penn State, here’s 20 games, series and tournaments to watch in 2020.

Rankings reflect Baseball America’s preseason poll

#20 Minnesota vs. TCU, Feb. 22-24

A prominent opponent marks the Gophers return to US Bank Stadium. Only one year removed from a run for four consecutive trips to Omaha, This could be one of those resume anchoring weekends, as well as one that puts an on-the-cusp team into the top 25.

#19 Maryland @ TCU, March 13-14

A month later, Maryland will have their own opportunity to knock off TCU. However, their showdown will be in Fort Worth. Maryland has a ballyhooed freshmen class that will be put in a hostile environment for the first time.

#18 Northwestern vs. Kent State, March 13-14

A meeting of former Purdue recruiting coordinators, in Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen, and Kent State’s Jeff Duncan, Kent State is a mid-major power, always stocked with pitching, and they will be as good as any opponent the week before conference play.

#17 Penn State @ #22 Arizona, May 14-16

The Tucson-end of a home-and-home, this series comes on the final weekend of the season. Penn State will not have an opportunity to play their way into the tournament or hold their Big Ten standings position, but this series may do more to show what progress has been made.

#16 Purdue @ Campbell, Feb. 21

Purdue head coach Greg Goff will lead his team against a program he led for six years in Campbell. In 2014, Goff coached Campbell to their first NCAA Tournament in 24 years, and will hope a strong start to the season will have Purdue in position to do the same.

#15 Rutgers @ #5 Miami, Feb. 14-16

Some things change: Steve Owens is now leading the Scarlet Knights after Rutgers did not renew Joe Litterio’s contract. Other things do not change: Rutgers opening the season at Miami. Over the last few years, Rutgers has not put up much of a fight against Miami. However this year Rutgers returns a strong rotation. Can they start the Owens era with a very big weekend win?

#14 Michigan State vs. #11 Arkansas, April 21-22

Give credit where credit is due. A Southeastern Conference team is set to take the road and travel to a Big Ten school. It may not be a three-game set, but it is still significant that Arkansas would travel to East Lansing for two midweek games. The Spartans were ravished last year by injuries before playing better as the season wound down. Can this two-game set in the middle of the season get MSU back on the upswing?

#13 Purdue @ Iowa, April 3-5

The battle of the conference’s respective black and gold outfits is positioned to be intriguing. At the season’s mid-point and third weekend of conference play, identities should be forged with contenders starting to emerge. The Boilermakers and Hawkeyes are as big of an unknown as any in the conference, how they leave this weekend may go a long way in what type of season is in store.

#12 #24 Ohio State @ Indiana, March 27-29

The Buckeyes enter a season for the first time in quite some time expected to be among the top three teams. But the Hoosiers are still the team to beat. And as Ohio State tries to go through Indiana in 2020, they will need to reverse the fortunes of the prior decade, as IU held a 21-6 advantage in meetings in the 2010s, including a 10-game stretch between 2013-15. For Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers, a win over the Bucks can go a long way in ensuring they continue to make in-roads in recruiting Ohio.

#11 Nebraska at Wichita State, March 13-15

Staying on the recruiting theme, Nebraska’s Will Bolt has done a great job of locking the state borders as he takes over the Husker program. One program that was a thorn in the side of Nebraska during the Darin Erstad Era was Wichita State. The Shockers plucked Alec Bohm out of Nebraska, the third overall pick in 2018. If the Huskers can have a weekend triumph it will give Bolt’s recruiting more of an edge and help keep Nebraska at the high that Erstad left it, as well as give a young team confidence with a solid road victory.

#10 Iowa & Nebraska vs. Tony Gwynn Legacy field, Feb. 21-23

One, there’s never a bad time to visit San Diego, but a late-February escape is pretty good one. Two, the Tony Gwynn Legacy field will present a good challenge for the Hawkeyes and Huskers. The Big Ten rivals will not play each other in San Diego, nor in the conference season, so the tournament will be a good barometer on where the Missouri River rivals are. Iowa and Nebraska will play the same weekend schedule, featuring #22 Arizona, San Diego and San Diego State.

#9 Minnesota @ Maryland, May 14-16

The ingredients are there for this to be a really good series. Maryland has a team full of talented underclassmen, while Minnesota has quite the junior class. Young or old, both have the potential to make a run at the conference crown. The series will pit Minnesota’s power pitching staff against Maryland’s potent bats. While Ohio State and Michigan may be the preseason favorites, this meeting on the final weekend could very well have a championship on the line.

#8 #24 Ohio State @ #21 Georgia Tech, Feb. 21-23

The Buckeyes will have their preseason ranking tested early with a trip to Atlanta. The Buckeyes have a weekend rotation in Seth Lonsway, Garrett Burhenn and Griffan Smith that could be a potent 1-2-3 in any conference. Taking on the ACC’s Georgia Tech is the type of series win needed to be in contention to host a regional.

#7 #8 Michigan @ #3 Arizona State, Feb. 15

A day after taking on the top team in the country, see below, Michigan travels across town for a date at #3 Arizona State. Whomever Michigan starts on the mound, be Ben Dragini or Steve Hajjar coming off injury, or promising underclassmen Isaiah Paige, they will be tested by an ASU lineup that features the #1, #32 and #48 prospects in the upcoming draft. Michigan can quickly show they’re are top 10 team.

#6 #8 Michigan @ Minnesota, May 8

This could be the opener of a series that decides the Big Ten championship, has NCAA Tournament implications and potentially regional hosting implications. But, speaking of top prospects, this particular game in the series will hopefully have Michigan’s Jeff Criswell squaring off against Minnesota’s Max Meyer, two right-handed pitchers that respectively rank #53 an #29 in Baseball America’s top 100 MLB draft prospects.

#5 Illinois vs. Frisco Classic Field, Feb. 28-March 1

In a season full of marquee tournaments involving Big Ten teams, the Frisco Classic may be the best. Joining Illinois in the robsust field will be: #10 UCLA, #16 Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. UCLA and Oklahoma State are coming off years where they hosted a regional, the Bruins doing so as the tournaments top overall seed, while Texas A&M, like Illinois, also appeared in a regional. Facing a top clubs from the Big XII, Pac 12 and Southeastern conferences, the Illini will have an early season measuring stick in what should be great baseball.

#4 Indiana @ #14 LSU, Feb. 14-16

While the Big Ten’s traditional powers, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, have garnered plenty of offseason attention, the reigning Big Ten champion Hoosiers have quietly flown under the radar. Jeff Mercer’s blue collar program does need to retool a bit after having 10 draft picks last year, but a season-opening series against a college blueblood will quickly put them back under the spotlight. Indiana needs to replace their entire rotation in 2020, and if the new weekend rotation can handle the environment of Alex Box, a repeat isn’t far fetched.

#3 Big Ten – ACC Challenge

There isn’t an official name for it, but this season’s Big Ten –  X Conference Challenge pits Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue against Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State this year in Minneapolis, for a Big Ten – ACC showdown. Each of the three ACC teams are expected to be in a regional and enter the season with rankings, led by Duke at #15, with North Carolina and North Carolina State not too far behind at #17 and #18, respectively. Three Big Ten schools set to have three quality opponents, and not having to travel to their home diamond to boot, in a fun environment makes for a can’t miss weekend.

#2 #8 Michigan vs. #1 Vanderbilt, Feb. 14

Here’s a way to start the season. In the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament, in Scottsdale, Ariz., Michigan’s first opponent of the season is the same as their final opponent of last. As the two College World Series finalist tangle, It’ll be another meeting between mentor and pupil as Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin coaches opposite of Erik Bakich. Any extra motivation Michigan may need to return to Omaha will be there in plenty, especially the #1 ranking Vanderbilt enters the season with, just as it was their ranking was last year in their triumph over Michigan. Potentially being Michigan’s highest draft pick in nearly 20 years, it’ll be interesting to see how Michigan ace Jeff Criswell fares against Vanderbilt, against a backdrop of scouts on top of scouts.

#1 #24 Ohio State @ #8 Michigan, April 10-12

What could top a preseason opener that a College World Series rematch? What some would call the rivalry. One of the most surprising facts of Big Ten baseball in the 2010s was that neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a Big Ten championship. With 50 conference crowns between them, that was the first decade it ever happened. On paper, year one in the 2020s looks to change that. Both enter the season with a preseason ranking, but have multiple draft prospects expected to be among the first 200 picked. There’s anticipated showdowns of Lonsway vs. Franklin, Criswell vs. Dingler. While Michigan played on college baseball’s biggest stage last year, Ohio State took three of four contests. Finally, games against Ohio State represent five of the 12 most attended games in Michigan’s Wilpon Complex history. Let’s pray for great weather and a setting this series should merit.

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 1-10

The 2020s figure to have plenty in store for Big Ten baseball. Here’s the top 10 things to watch for and the storylines that figure to make the decade’s first season a memorable one. Click here for 11-20.

#10 Bolt is back

A captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, the program’s all-time leader in doubles, and the associate head coach to Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014, Will Bolt is back in Lincoln, now as the program’s 24th head coach. Following Erstad’s retirement, Bolt quickly emerged as the odds-on favorite to take over the Cornhusker program, and on June 14 he was selected to guide the program. In the first few years after Bolt left Erstad’s staff to join Rob Childress at Texas A&M, coaches around the conference spoke with relief as they felt Bolt was a significant factor in Nebraska being a pest to play. It’s hard to say Nebraska floundered in his absence, they did appear in regionals in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and won the Big Ten in 2017. But it did seem there was an element of Big Red’s attack that was missing. As Bolt returns, he inherits a team with more than enough talent to be in the top-half of the Big Ten. It will be worth watching how Nebraska takes the field this year and if the methodical, machine-like nature of the Husker lineup returns.

#9 Returning to the mound

There are several key arms returning to the mound that missed most or all of the 2019 season. Arms that have that the potential to be frontline starters, leading a conference-winning team or ready to take the ball in the first game of a regional. Headlining a return to the mound will be:

Illinois right-handed pitcher Ryan Kutt, missed all of last season

Maryland left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, limited to 15.2 innings

Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, missed all of last season.

Iowa left-handed pitcher Jack Dryer, appeared in just two games.

Michigan left-handed pitcher Steven Hajjar, missed all of last season.

Nebraska right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach, played in the field but did not pitch due to injury.

Purdue right-handed pitcher Trevor Cheaney, missed all of last season

#8 Ohio State’s weekend rotation

What a difference a year makes. Heading into the 2019 season, Ohio State needed to replace all three weekend starters. Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner and Adam Neimeyer each started at least 15 games for the Buckeyes in 2018. The consistent weekend rotation played a big role in Ohio State finishing the season in a regional. Relying on three underclassmen, Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith formed a new big three, as they too led Ohio State to a regional. Led by Smith, the lone true junior of the trio, each pitcher logged at least 90 innings, with Lonsway’s 92.1 innings and Burhenn’s 91, just behind Smith’s 96.2. As a redshirt-sophomore, Lonsway’s mid-90s fastball and sharp curveball has him garnering draft attention, attention that like will be garnered by Burhenn next year, when he is draft eligible as a junior. For now, a proven 1-2-3 weekend rotation is a big reason why the Buckeyes enter the season with a ranking, and gives head coach Greg Beals a foundation in seeking a fourth regional in five years.

#7 Rutgers’ postseason pursuit

Rutgers joined Penn State (see #19) last year as a team capable of going head-to-head against anyone on the mound only to fall short at the plate. The Scarlet Knights pitched to a 4.02 ERA in conference play, but batted only .226, and had league-worst marks in on-base percentage, .300, and slugging, .302. The offensive shortcomings halted Rutgers’ promising first-half of conference play, where they stood 7-5 at the mid-way mark. A 2-9 showing over the back-half of the conference slate ended hopes of reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, finishing in 10th. Unable to end the postseason drought, a change in leadership inserted Bryant’s Steve Owens as the program’s head coach. Owens takes over a program that returns the core of the strong pitching unit, with senior left-hander Tevin Murray, senior right-hander Tommy Genuario and junior right-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski all returning as weekend starters. There was some promise at the plate for Rutgers, led by Chris Brito, a sophomore first baseman with middle-of-the-order potential and and junior Mike Nyisztor. The question is now if Owens is the missing piece that gets the program over the hump and into postseason play.

#6 Underdog Hoosiers

It’s been a quite some time since the reigning Big Ten champion was not picked to be among the conference’s top three teams by pundits. But that’s the reality for Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers face, as the champions see Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State garner preseason rankings by various outlets. If one were to look at 2019 stats and  the roster holdovers and it’s not that surprising there is relatively little noise regarding the Hoosiers. IU did have 10 players drafted, where there won’t be the likes of Matt Lloyd and Matt Gorski anchoring the lineup, nor Pauly Milto providing seven strong innings every weekend. In fact Indiana needs to replace their entire weekend rotation (see above for an example on that not being a death penalty however), in addition to needing new two and three-hole hitters to emerge. But what can’t be captured on paper is the blue-collar mentality that embodies Mercer and his programs, dating back to his time as a coach at Wright State. In fact, Mercer may prefer that there are little expectations to allow IU to keep their head down and work hard. After all, few saw Mercer stepping in and doing something prior head coach Chris Lemonis didn’t do and win a conference championship.

#5 Minnesota’s ability to maximize Meyer

After bursting onto the scene with a 16-save season and All-America campaign as a freshman in 2018, John Anderson intended to return Max Meyer to his two-way roots last year. With considerable turnover at the plate, Anderson wanted Meyer’s bat at the plate and speed on the bases. Meyer did arrive at Minnesota as a standout shortstop in addition to a dominant pitcher. But with Minnesota needing Meyer’s arm fresh to close games, he would be utilized as a DH, maybe in left field if needed. Anderson’s plan changed when Meyer was needed to lead the Gopher rotation. Meyer pitched brilliantly, tossing 76.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA with 87 strikeouts. But Minnesota didn’t get his bat in the lineup as much as desired, with Meyer batting .256 over 121 at-bats. The Minnesota staff has been impressed with the development in Meyer’s bat and still see him as a capable threat at the plate. But knowing how Meyer excelled as an ace, showing he does have the stamina to be a #1, how far he is under or above last years 121 at-bats may be a sign of what’s happening around him, both on the mound and in the lineup, and ultimately the kind of team success Minnesota has. Meyer can do a lot, how he does it to fit the team’s needs remains to be seen.

#4 Day one drafts

A handful of Big Ten players have the ability to have their name called among the draft’s first 100 picks. Per Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, as of Jan. 8, the following Big Ten players were listed:

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Max Meyer, No. 29

Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, No. 53

Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, No. 93.

MLB.com respectively ranks Meyer, Criswell and Dingler as the draft’s No. 25, 52 and 55 prospects.

In addition to those three, Michigan outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwugo, and Ohio State left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway have a shot to go inside the first five rounds.

#3 Is this the year for multiple regional

In the current format of the NCAA Tournament, since 1999, there has yet to be a year when two Big Ten programs hosted a regional on its campus. The Big Ten produced two super regional clubs in 2015, but Maryland played at Virginia, in the Charlottesville Regional, after winning the Los Angeles Regional, while Illinois hosted Vanderbilt in the Champaign Super Regional. Coaches around the conference feel the next step in the Big Ten’s ascend is to host more regionals and more than one regional in a year. That will be a better path forward to more teams in a super regional and ultimately more teams reaching Omaha on a regular basis. As the Big Ten leaves the 2010s on a high, the first year of the 2020s may be the year to break another ceiling. Both Michigan and Minnesota have the schedules and pitching staffs to compile a season that has them as a regional host. Ohio State may not have as many marquee series as those two, but a preseason ranking of #24 has them in the mind of others as being on the cusp of hosting worthy. Hosting a regional takes the right blend of performance, luck and the dominoes falling accordingly around the country. But as we enter the season, this year more than any in recent memory is one where it might be just the year.

#2 Michigan’s great expectations

There seems to be an endless number of college baseball polls, in fact there are six. While there may be a half-dozen different compilations on who the top teams are, there is consensus that Michigan is one of the 20 best teams entering the season. Justly so. The Wolverines did finish one win shy of being national champions and return key players in the heart of the diamond, a top prospect atop the rotation, a proven closer, and two key arms return from injury. It would be odd if Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason. But entering the season ranked #8 by Baseball America means Michigan is expected to be back in Omaha. That puts Michigan in a much different position than just a team expected to be good. While every team has a goal to finish the year in Omaha, the lone team to have similar expectations, Indiana in 2014 with a preseason #3 ranking, did not make it out of a regional they hosted. Erik Bakich preaches mental toughness, to treat to each game the same, take every game one-by-one. Can Michigan adhere to that? The schedule is a tough one, with an opening game against #1 Vanderbilt and a contest at #3 Arizona State the following day. Early and often, Michigan will be tested and needing to bring its A-game. That will help the Wolverines lock in, but it will still be worth following how a team that fell so painfully short of the ultimate goal plays without pressure under a magnified scope.

#1 Ohio State and Michigan battling for supremacy

The April 12 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State is the top showdown to circle in the 2020. But how Michigan and Ohio State fare will be worth watching beyond that weekend. With a combined 50 Big Ten championships between them, the 2010s were the first decade that ended without the Buckeyes or Wolverines claiming the conference championship. How rare is that? It’s the first time that has ever been the case since Chicago won the first Big Ten baseball championship in 1896. (Chicago was the first power in the Big Ten, winning championships in 1896-99, of course the Big Ten only had four schools, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin at the time.) Of course both Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed success in the last five years of the 2010s. Michigan appeared in regionals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, while the Bucks reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, Ohio State did so in 2016 and 2019. The rest of the Big Ten is hardly feeling bad for the two rivals, and all but one school would have traded Michigan’s position last year. But there is something odd in Michigan going on a 12-year Big Ten championship drought and Ohio State an 11-year void. For the first time since the clubs were respectively led by Rich Maloney and Bob Todd, this feels like the year when Michigan and Ohio State are in lockstep in the standings and will jockey for the top position. For every top prospect Michigan has, Jeff Criswell, Jesse Franklin, it feels Ohio State can counter, see Seth Lonsway and Dillon Dingler. Michigan is coming off of a year where they finished on a torrid run. The Buckeyes weren’t impressed, they did take three of four games, including a one-hitter that put Michigan’s season on the brink. And there is the whole rivalry thing. On the gridiron, the Ohio State-Michigan game draws the nations attention. With a #8 next to Michigan’s name and a #24 next to Ohio State’s, the battle on the baseball field may do just the same. And it may propel the victor forward to a long-awaited title and the first claim to Big Ten supremacy in the new decade.

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 11-20

With five teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the national runner-up, it’s safe to say Big Ten baseball is reaching new heights in modern college baseball. Entering a new season, and a new decade, there is a lot to look forward to. With new coaches leading three programs, two clubs breaking Baseball America’s preseason poll, and a handful of different players receiving preseason All-America praise, there are endless storylines around the conference as the calendar creeps towards February.

Kicking off 10 Innings’ preseason coverage, here is the first 10 of 20 things to watch through Big Ten baseball in 2020.

20. Northwestern overachieving, again

Let’s get this one out of the way. Spencer Allen’s Northwestern Wildcats will again exceed expectations in 2020. Northwestern painfully finished on the outside of the top eight last year, where a confluence of events, including a lightning delay, occurred on the final day to keep the ‘Cats home for the postseason. At 11-13 in Big Ten play, Northwestern finished one game behind a three-team tie for sixth. Per usual, few outside of Evanston expected Northwestern to hover near .500, they finished 24-27, and so is the case again this year. Perfect Game projects Northwestern to finish 12th, with D1Baseball.com slotting Northwestern 10th in their preseason table. Year over year Northwestern has been a tough out, and they aren’t too far removed from their 2017 Big Ten Tournament runner-up showing. They may still be a year away when it is all said and done, but don’t take the Wildcats as walk-overs, their history under Allen shows they’re anything but.

19. Will the Penn State pitchers get a little support

Focusing on a different breed of cats, will the Nittany Lions find some much-needed potency at the plate? Here’s a fun Did You Know: the Big Ten leader in team-ERA during conference play last season was….Penn State. In their 22 conference games, Penn State hurlers pitched to a 3.38 ERA and held the opposition to a .233 average. Unfortunately, .233 was still .015 better than what Penn State batters did at the plate in conference play. Last in average, PSU had the second-fewest stolen bases and third-fewest extra-base hits. The morbid offense play a significant role in Penn State going 0-8 in one-run conference games, as they were held to two or fewer runs in half of their 22 Big Ten games. Pitching coach Josh Newman has done wonders with the PSU arms. Now it’s time for Penn State to supplement their staff with some punch at the plate.

18. Better January weather = better February records?

The first day of team practice for the spring season came on Jan. 24. For more than a few schools the weather was favorable enough to escape indoor tunnels and facilities to practice outside. So far through the last week of January, the conditions have similarly held up. With the likes of Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers taking advantage and repeatedly practicing outside, will practicing in truer settings lead help them get out of the gates better? Of course, since this is the Big Ten, any reprieve in weather in January will lead to unwelcome conditions throughout April.

17. This year’s JUCO star

Two of the last three Big Ten Player of the Year winners have been players in their first Big Ten season after transferring from a junior college, Iowa’s Jake Adams in 2017 and Michigan’s Jordan Brewer last year. The JUCO ranks have played quite a role in the Big Ten’s upward trend over the last decade with the likes of Matt Lloyd, Mason McCoy, Noah McGowan, Jordan Parr and Tyler Peyton being key players in strong years for their respective clubs. Will there be another player that seemingly comes out of nowhere to take the conference by storm that was playing at a junior college last year? Likely so, but who will it be?

16. Fredrickson’s form

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson didn’t come from the junior college ranks, but he was a newcomer that had a banner season two years ago. Becoming the first freshman named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Fredrickson spurred Minnesota to the 2018 Big Ten championship and Corvallis Super Regional appearance. Looking to join Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers as back-to-back Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recipients, Fredrickson battled injury and his stuff backing up last year, en route to a 5.56 ERA with 30 walks in 43.2 innings. The Gopher staff has worked this offseason to tweak Fredrickson’s motion, making it shorter, to increase his command of his offspeed. If Fredrickson can return to his 2018 form, that will go a long way in the Gophers doing the same, and putting their 29-27 season far behind them.

15. Maryland’s ballyhooed freshmen

Per D1Baseball.com, Maryland is home to the #3, #8 and #10 “Impact Freshmen” in the Big Ten, as well as four of the top 16 and five of the top 20. Viewing the freshmen as one, D1Baseball.com and Prep Baseball Report ranked Maryland as having the #7 freshman class in the country. Will the hype turn into a happy College Park? As Fredrickson and classmate Max Meyer showed in 2018, a pair of extremely talented rookies can make quite the impact. It’s worth watching what kind of seasons right-handed pitcher Nick Dean, and outfielders Bobby Zmarzlak and Tucker Flint have with high expectations.

14. Illini arms under Allen

After eight seasons developing and leading Illinois’ pitchers, assistant coach Drew Dickinson moved on to become the pitching coach at Virginia. Illini pitchers experienced tremendous success under Dickinson’s watch, most notably Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock, respectively the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and 2016. A testament to Dickinson, himself the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2002, neither Jay nor Sedlock, two eventual first-round draft picks, were blue chip recruits before arrive in Champaign and developing under Dickinson’s guidance, nor was Garrett Acton, last year’s Big Ten-leader in saves with 19, tied for the most ever by a Big Ten pitcher. It will now be up to Mark Allen to coach up and deploy Acton and the rest of the Illini staff as he sees fit. Allen arrives in Champaign after serving as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, ending a nine-year stay in professional baseball.

13. The 2020 iteration of #Hellerball

Iowa has been at the forefront of learning and implementing data, utilizing enhanced technology and thinking outside of the box in player development. Which might be exactly why nobody can really say what #Hellerball is. Playing off of the name of head coach Rick Heller, #Hellerball doesn’t really represent any style of baseball. And that in itself is probably the Iowa way. The Hawkeyes do an incredible job of creating an identity around the abilities and talents of their players. In years where you have Jake Adams, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, you don’t have to put as much in action, execute every first-to-third perfectly and be terrors on the bases. In years where there isn’t that punch in the lineup, you do need to do all of those things in order to create runs. Every year it seems Iowa finds a way to squeeze as much out of their players as any, continue to refine their process of player development. It’s to be determined what type of outfit Iowa rolls out in 2020, but whatever version of #Hellerball it is, it will likely optimize the talents on the lineup.

12. Big Ten vs. Big XII

There are a few Big Ten vs. Big XII matchups that will be worth watching in 2020. Over the last five years, the Big Ten has produced 22 NCAA Tournament teams to the Big XII’s 23. The conferences are closer in quality than many might assume. These five showdowns will give the Big Ten an opportunity to solidify that sentiment.

Nebraska @ Baylor, Feb. 14-16

TCU @ Minnesota, Feb. 22-24

Iowa vs. Kansas, March 10-11

Maryland @ TCU, March 13-15

Minnesota @ Texas Tech, March 20-22

11. Goff at the helm of the Boilermaker engine

Greg Goff will enter his first season leading a Big Ten program unlike any other in recent years. Purdue is only two years removed from appearing in an NCAA Regional. In recent years when a coach has left a program that so soon removed from a regional, they’ve left the program in a great spot. Coming off of hosting the 2014 Bloomington Regional, Indiana’s Tracy Smith left to go to Arizona State and then Chris Lemonis had the Hoosiers in a regional the following year. Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to the 2018 Austin Regional, before leaving to go head Mississippi State’s program, which led to Jeff Mercer stepping in and doing something Lemonis didn’t in leading IU to a Big Ten title, before he also put IU in a regional. But as Mark Wasikowski left Purdue to be the head coach at Oregon, he is did so after the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and 12th in the conference. For coaches that stepped into a setting where they’re program is coming of such a finish, they are usually an entirely new staff entering an unknown environment. Greg Goff was on Wasikowski’s staff, so too was Cooper Fouts, who Goff retain. So all that said, it’s really hard to know what may change under Goff, whether Purdue needs a rebuild, if they’re more like 2018 or more like 2019. We shall see.

Michigan Breaks the Big Ten’s Glass Slipper

June 15, 2013

For the first time in 30 seasons, a Big Ten program was taking the field in the College World Series. Capturing the attention of the college baseball universe, the upstart Indiana Hoosiers crashed a tournament of bluebloods. Joining Indiana’s first round opponent, Louisville, filling out the tournament bracket were LSU, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Oregon State and UCLA. Reaching its first College World Series after knocking off perennial power Florida State, while the front of the Indiana’s gray uniforms read in crimson script HOOSIERS, Cinderella was also a fitting moniker.

It wasn’t just that the boys from Bloomington weren’t supposed to be there, what business did the Big Ten have being in Omaha? This was a year before the conference moved its postseason tournament to TD Ameritrade Park, where Omaha was synonymous for the tournament at the end of June, not the one at the end of May. And unfortunately the place that too often felt it was on Pulto, not in Nebraska.

Before Indiana hosted and won Bloomington Regional and commenced the program’s storybook postseason, a Big Ten program last hosted a regional in 2008, with the Ann Arbor Regional. And that, too, was five years after the last out of NCAA Tournament contest came on a conference field, when Ohio State hosted the 2003 Columbus Super Regional. And while Indiana wasn’t that far removed from NCAA play, the Hoosiers won the 2009 Big Ten Tournament to join Minnesota and Ohio State in regional action, the Big Ten only produced four total NCAA teams between 2010-2012. Before the Power 5 label was in the conscience of sports fans, the Big Ten was a distant cousin of its to-be autonomous conference brethren.

Indiana knocked off Louisville, 2-0, before falling to Mississippi State 5-4 and Oregon State, 1-0, to bow out of the tournament. Kyle Schwarber would go on to be a household name and help the Chicago Cubs win a historic World Series in 2016. Sam Travis would be a second-round pick in 2014, and eventually be joined by teammate Aaron Slegers, the 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, in the big leagues. With the success of individuals going forward and the team’s tight contests with the best of the best, Indiana removed all doubt and proved it belong there. But there was one question that would go unanswered as Indiana bowed out and the clock struck midnight: What would happen to Cinderella?

Realizing a the possibility of a new reality for Big Ten programs, was Indiana’s run just a great story where generational talents spearheaded a once-a-generation feat? Was this truly the dawn of a new day in Big Ten baseball? Would the glass slipper return and another long-shot from the Midwest return? Or would it be left behind for another 30 years?

 

June 15, 2019

Six years to the day of Indiana’s victory over Louisville, the Big Ten claimed another two-run victory of an Omaha staple. After cutting the Big Ten’s College World Series drought by 80% over its last period of absence, Michigan knocked off Texas Tech, a team appearing in its fourth College World Series in six years, 5-3. The outfit of Wolverines that have led the program to the College World Series for the first time since 1984 are similar to those Hoosiers in many ways.

Where Indiana had a potent 1-2 punch that served as the catalyst to the team’s success, Schwarber and Travis, Michigan has a pair of top two round picks of their own, with Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann leading a rotation that can go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Michigan’s run saw them advance through a regional with a household name, Oregon State, just like Indiana turned away a Bloomington Regional field that saw Florida in it. And where IU went on the road and knocked off heavy favorite Florida State in super regional play to reach the pinnacle, Michigan grabbed two games against the tournament’s top overall seed, UCLA. In fact, in addition to knocking off #1 UCLA, one wouldn’t be wrong to say Michigan was more of an underdog to reach Omaha than Indiana.

An underdog they may be, but here’s where Michigan and the state of the Big Ten diverges from 2013: this isn’t a Cinderella story. The Wolverines aren’t coming from a home that’s looked down on and an outcast.

In the five previous years before the Big Ten’s last College World Series appearance, there was just the one, 2008 Ann Arbor, NCAA Regional on a conference campus. What’s happened in the five years before Erik Bakich, the NCBWA National Coach of the Year, has guided Michigan to college baseball’s final destination? Indiana hosted the 2014 Bloomington Regional as number fourth national seed. Illinois hosted the 2015 Champion Regional and Super Regional as the tournament’s sixth overall seed. Minnesota hosted and won the 2018 Minneapolis Regional. Only once, in 2014, did the Big Ten fail to produce three Regional teams, while twice placing five teams in the NCAA Tournament, 2015 and 2017.

And now, in 2019, the Big Ten is another five-bid conference, matching the number of teams placed in a regional by the Big XII and Pac 12. With Michigan knocking off Texas Tech, they stepped into the same batter’s boxes and on the same pitching mound as a team from a conference the Big Ten is now a peer of. Over the last five NCAA Tournaments, the Big Ten has produced 22 regional-bound clubs, just one off 23 the Big XII and Pac 12 have produced.

Michigan’s second round contest is against the same team Indiana knocked off to turn the college baseball world upside down, Florida State. A win for the Wolverines would do the same, and put Michigan in the driver’s seat of their bracket, within them three victories from claiming the program’s first national title since 1962 and the Big Ten’s first since Ohio State won it all in 1966. As one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament, a Michigan victory certainly would elicit more stories of the little team that could, of the mighty underdog and perhaps a few mentions of Cinderella story in a story here or there.

If that is the case, the glass slipper is indeed placed upon the Wolverines, it’s time for them to destroy it once and for all. Michigan has proved the conference is now in the same neighborhood as the home of those blueblood elites, ending the season in the place where the preseason favorite should. Regardless of whether Michigan wins it all or finishes with the same 1-2 showing as Indiana, the ending of this story doesn’t change. There’s no concern of what happens when the clock strikes midnight, the Big Ten has proven it is and will be back.

Michigan Opens College World Series with Win

Over three games in mid-March, Texas Tech swept Michigan in Lubbock, Texas, outscoring Michigan 29-10. A series that was circled in the offseason as a premier non-conference tilt, the Red Raiders knocked the Wolverines out of the writers’ poll and showed the Big Ten favorite had a ways to go before being able to go toe-to-toe with a program that appeared in three of the previous five College World Series.

That wouldn’t be the case in the fourth contest between the two.

Meeting again on college baseball’s biggest stage, Michigan reversed its fortunes against the Big XII champion. Behind seven strong innings from starter Karl Kauffmann, a two-inning save from Jeff Criswell, and a two-run triple from Jimmy Kerr, highlighting a three-run third, Michigan opened the 2019 College World Series with a 5-3 win over Texas Tech. Moving to 47-20 on the season, Michigan collected its first College World Series win since 1983, only the Big Ten’s second.

As Michigan continues a storybook run through the postseason, here’s a roundup of news, stories, and tweets on the victory in Omaha.

Box Score

Michigan Athletics recap

Karl Kauffman Battles, Leads Michigan To CWS-Opening Victory

Joe Healy, Baseball America

In the end, Kauffman, who two weeks ago was drafted 77th overall, threw seven innings, allowing eight hits and three runs with no walks and three strikeouts. He didn’t dominate, but as Bakich alluded to, he induced a ton of weak contact.

Michigan Showcases Impressive Opening Act

Kendall Rogers, D1Baseball.com

There were two unknowns for Michigan entering the contest against the Red Raiders. First, the Wolverines hadn’t been on this stage in a long time. So, would they come out a little nervous and show the rustiness that new teams in the CWS often do? Also, could the Wolverines find a way to corral a Texas Tech team that not only swept them down in Lubbock earlier this season, but also outscored them 29-10?

Erik Bakich, Bo Schembechler, and a Michigan baseball awakening

Anthony Fenech, Detroit Free Press

Bakich, 41, has been chasing the College World Series as a head coach for more than a decade. He’s considered one of the up-and-coming coaches in the country, has been wooed elsewhere, but stayed in Ann Arbor. He has the smallest salary among the head coaches competing in Omaha this week.

Wolverines get revenge on Red Raiders in opening game of CWS

Abby Snyder, Michigan Daily

The phrase Revenge Tour usually brings Michigan football to mind. But lately, the term has been just as true of Michigan’s baseball team (47-20), which defeated No. 8 Texas Tech, 5-3, in the opening game of the College World Series on Saturday. In March, the Red Raiders swept the Wolverines in disheartening fashion. But when it counted, and with a chip on their shoulders, Michigan emerged triumphant.

The key to Michigan’s postseason run: game one

Kent Schwartz, Michigan Daily

“The way we’ve been approaching all these tournaments is we’re just going to worry about Game 1 and do whatever we have to do in Game 1 and worry about Game 2 in Game 2,” said Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich.

The Wolverines are done playing with their backs against the wall.

Michigan beats Texas Tech 5-3 in its 1st CWS game since 1984

Eric Olson, Associated Press

Coming off a three-game super regional where they knocked off No. 1 national seed UCLA, the Wolverines built a 4-0 lead in the third and Kauffmann and Jeff Criswell worked out of trouble when the Red Raiders (44-19) threatened.

 

Nebraska Names Will Bolt Head Baseball Coach

Lincoln, Neb. — One of the catalysts in Nebraska baseball’s rise to national prominence in his playing days, Will Bolt returns to his alma mater as head coach. Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos named Bolt the 24th head coach of the Husker baseball program on Friday.

Bolt brings 16 years of coaching experience to the Nebraska program, including five seasons on the Husker baseball staff and four years as a head coach at Texarkana College.

Bolt served as Nebraska’s Associate Head Coach under Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014 and also was a volunteer assistant on the 2005 Husker team that reached the College World Series. As a player or coach, Bolt has been a part of all three of Nebraska’s College World Series teams and all four Super Regional squads.

Bolt returns to Lincoln after spending the past five seasons on the Texas A&M staff where he helped the Aggies to five straight NCAA regional appearances and a trip to the 2017 College World Series.

“The opportunity to come back home to Nebraska and lead the Husker baseball program is such a blessing and honor for my family and me,” Bolt said. “It is such an exciting time in Husker athletics with the foundation laid by Bill Moos within the athletic department, and the success Coach Erstad and staff have had on the field.

“My family and I have the fondest affection for the Huskers and the city of Lincoln, and truly cannot wait to become part of the Husker family again!”

The native of Conroe, Texas, had his first association with the Nebraska program as a player for the Huskers from 1999 to 2002. A member of Dave Van Horn’s first recruiting class at Nebraska, Bolt played on four NCAA regional teams and captained the Huskers’ first two College World Series teams in 2001 and 2002. Bolt finished his Husker playing career with school records in games played (251), games started (242), at-bats (922), hits (281), doubles (56) and assists (639).

“Will Bolt has been a winner at every stop he has made as a coach and player, and I am proud to welcome him back to Lincoln as our next head baseball coach,” Moos said. “Will was a part of the most successful teams in the history of our baseball program, and he knows what it takes to win here.

“Will has proven to be an outstanding recruiter wherever he has coached. He understands the appeal of Nebraska and everything our baseball program and University has to offer to student-athletes.”

Bolt and his wife, Lauren, have two sons, Jaxon and Austin, and one daughter, Bella. Bolt has signed a five-year contract that will pay him $300,000 annually.

Webb’s Words: At Home, Mercer Brings Home the Title

And then I thought to myself “Where at this complex can I buy some bourbon and be alone? I need to contemplate my existence.”

Ok, first, some background.

It was August 6, 2016. I was staring down a 30th birthday in exactly 45 days, but that wasn’t the root of a momentary life crisis.

I was at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., for Prep Baseball Report’s Future Games. Every August, the Future Games brings together the top uncommitted rising juniors in Prep Baseball Report’s coverage area. As the contingent of players from Ohio were battling Prep Baseball Report’s Michigan squad, I found enough space among the more than three dozen college coaches camped out on this game and squatted along a brick pillar to take in the action. Making small talk with the surrounding coaches, a coach to my left departed and afford me enough space to stand up and take an unobstructed view of the game.

Whoever did what, whether the green-clad Michigan team beat the scarlet-dressed Ohio State outfit or vice-versa, what player could be a middle-of-the-order bat for whomever in five years, I couldn’t tell you. My lasting impression from the evening was what I projected for a coach.

With more space to stand up and take in the game, I ended up standing next to Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer. Mercer had recently been named head coach of his alma mater, taking over for Greg Lovelady, whom Central Florida named head coach. After congratulating Mercer on his first head coach position, and reliving a bit of the 2016 Louisville Regional, where Wright State knocked out Ohio State en route to finishing runners-up to the Cardinals, Mercer and I started talking recruiting.

What made Wright State successful under Loverlady, and before that Penn State’s Rob Cooper, was Wright State’s uncanny ability to find gems in the recruiting trail. Whether they trusted the bat to provide enough value to overcome defensive deficiencies other recruiters saw, took a chance on the undersized kid, or just had a better scouting eye, for going on a decade, Wright State did more than any other Midwest program given resources, brand name, facilities, location. To be candid, it shouldn’t be possible that a commuter school outside of Dayton, Ohio could on multiple occasions beat the top team in the nation (Georgia in 2009 and Virginia in 2010) be a consistent regional presence, rack up 40-win seasons and knockout the state’s flagship school with at least five times as much resources. But Wright State did all of the above.

At an event where coaches are ask to project players just coming off of their sophomore, if not freshman, high school seasons, I asked Mercer how the recruiting landscape had changed since he played, and if the Wright State model was sustainable with the recruiting cycles continued acceleration. For the next 30 minutes, Mercer not only explained what made Wright State successful on the recruiting trail, but identified trends and inefficiencies in recruiting, how to recruit a football player versus a one-sport baseball specialist, what type of nutrition plan is demanded of different body types and he will provide a player once on campus to maximize their physical being.

As the class of 2018 and 2019 graduates from Ohio and Michigan shook hands at the end of their game, Mercer and I vowed to keep in touch, exchanged pleasantries and asked for the inning and who’s on the mound of the other games.

It’s not uncommon to lost track of time when talking to coaches as events on the recruiting trails. Especially by August, most of the players have been seen too many times to count. Conversations drift and can span the range of ranking fast food burgers to desired careers as amateur storm chasers to debating the merits of Marriott versus Hilton hotels. What made the conversation with Mercer stand out was the articulation, thoroughness and precision of plans. There was no wavering from one thought to the next. Mercer wasn’t just a new head coach learning as he went, he was prepared for this day from the time he entered the coaching ranks.

And then there’s me, the to-be-30-year-old, who had trouble on a daily basis figuring out what to eat for lunch and how to cook it. This level of detail, articulation of a vision, and purposeful intention behind every action was beyond me and my 29 3/4 years. I needed that bourbon.

I first knew of Mercer when he a first baseman at Wright State. During the 2009 season, I ran a blog called Buckeye State Baseball that covered all of Ohio college baseball. Under the direction of Cooper, Mercer was on a 2009 Wright State team I followedthat participated in the Forth Worth Regional. It was also a year that saw Mercer named Horizon League Player of the Year.

Following Mercer’s decorated career between Dayton and Wright State, he spent a year as a Graduate Assistant at Ohio Northern, and then coached on Rich Maloney’s staff at Michigan for the 2011 season. I had been around college baseball enough to know a coach doesn’t land at a place like Michigan, less than two years removed from his playing days, especially when one year is spent at ONU, no disrespect to the Polar Bears. I assumed Mercer had a bright future and kept track of what appeared to be an up-and-comer and the next big thing.

At the same time, you could say the same for the Indiana baseball program. While Mercer’s collegiate career was coming to an end in the Lone Star State, the Bluegrass State bore witness to a revived Hoosier program.

The 2009 season ended with Indiana in the Louisville Regional, its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years, as the Hoosiers won the Big Ten Tournament. A team decorated with three first-round picks, Eric Arnett, Matt Bashore and Josh Phegley, and three eventual Major League Baseball players, Alex Dickerson, Jake Dunning and Phegley, the third-seeded Hoosiers ran bullied the tournament field and showed there was a new kid on the block in Big Ten baseball.

While we fast forward a little, here is where we also show how timing is a funny thing and everything.

It’s June 2013. Indiana, now with Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, built upon the foundation laid by Dickerson and Phegley. The Hoosier appeared in the College World Series, finishing sixth in the country. Indiana became the first Big Ten team to reach Omaha since Michigan in 1984, as Tracy Smith was named National Coach of the Year.

At the other end of the Big Ten standings, Penn State relived Robbie Wine of his duties at Penn State. With coaches around the country seeing what is possible at a Big Ten program, the Penn State head coach vacancy received interest from all parts of the country. Three candidates emerged as finalists: Wright State’s Rob Cooper, Saint Louis’ Darin Hendrickson and Louisville assistant coach Chris Lemonis. Ultimately Lemonis decided to stay at Louisville and Penn State tabbed Cooper. With Cooper leaving Wright State, the Raider program was turned over to assistant Greg Lovelady, who then added Mercer to his staff.

The following year, Indiana wouldn’t quite reach their 2013 highs, but they did earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted a second consecutive regional. Hired by Indiana in 2006, Smith recruited the players that saw Indiana break their postseason drought in 2009 and over the next five years established himself as one of college baseball’s top coaches, spearheaded Indiana going from Sembower Field, a place that was on-par with a mid-tier high school program, as well as made Indiana the standard-bearer in the Big Ten. Arguably the most recognizable school in college baseball, Arizona State plucked Smith from Bloomington. And now, after being of interest for Ohio State’s vacancy in 2010, Michigan’s in 2012 and Penn State the prior summer, Indiana made Lemonis their head coach and put him in charge of keeping the Hoosier program at it’s peak.

For the most part, Lemonis did just that. In four years, Indiana went to three regionals. They continued to recruit at an elite level, contend for Big Ten championships, and saw college baseball become something you schedule to do in Bloomington.

Meanwhile, less than two hours across the border in Ohio, the Wright State machine continued to churn out conference crowns and regional appearances. Wright State set a program record with 43 wins in 2015, then reset the record book in 2016 with 45 wins. In the two years that Mercer led the Raiders, Wright State went 77-38, received their first national ranking in 2017 and appeared in the 2018 Stanford Regional.

While it was almost two years since I had that what-is-my-life moment, the moment came for Mercer to do what he had sought out to do all along.

A native of Bargersville, Ind., Mercer is the junior of Jeff Mercer Sr. When junior was a toddler, senior was an assistant baseball coach at Indiana from 1988-1989. As he would grow up and play for Franklin Community High School, he was only an hour away from the program he dreamed of leading. College baseball did land him in Bloomington, but Dayton and Wright State kept him in the region, as did coaching stops at ONU, Michigan, Western Kentucky and Wright State.

But now it was time to come home.

The success Indiana had from 2009-2018 was a bit bittersweet. Indiana was indeed one of the top 30 programs in the country. Their success in Bloomington made Smith and Lemonis top targets. Targets by athletic departments that pour seemingly unlimited funds and resources into their baseball programs. Just as multiple Big Ten schools were interested in Lemonis while he was an assistant at Louisville, it wasn’t long in his tenure that it became an annual eventual for Lemonis’ name was tied to a vacancy at a college baseball blueblood. Ultimately, Mississippi State was able to pluck Lemonis away from Bloomington following the 2018.

What was Indiana to do to not continue this cycle of hiring a good coach, see have success, step forward as one of college baseball’s best, then leave?

Hire a guy who sees Indiana as the final destination, one who planned for the opportunity from day one. Hire Jeff Mercer.

Throughout Indiana’s search to fill the surprise vacancy created by Lemonis’ departure, I spoke with those close to Indiana’s search. They did not want to become the Xavier basketball of college baseball: a very good to great program potentially losing a coach every handful of years. Where media threw out names like Nate Yeskie of Oregon State or Wes Johnson at Arkansas, Indiana had no such interest. They wanted a guy who knew what it meant to be a Hoosier, a guy who would want to retire in Bloomington. They weren’t interested in the hot name, let alone coaches who couldn’t tell you Bargersville from Brownsville, Indiana. If it meant sacrificing a ranking here or there, so be it, who wants to don the Crimson and Cream and not look elsewhere?

This time, it didn’t take a 30-minute talk with Mercer to contemplate what’s to come. It took all of 30 seconds.

When I called Mercer to ask if he would have interest in the Indiana vacancy, he said absolutely, that he wouldn’t leave Indiana even if the New York Yankees called offering their manager job. Mercer shared some family insight, like how his parents have a barn 15 minutes from campus, how at his grandparents thee first thing you saw when you opened the door was Christ on the crucifix and a picture of Bobby Knight. Mercer grew up only knowing Indiana and in his heart the possibility of leading Indiana is what everything he worked for in coaching was for.

And so it came to pass. Hundreds of resumes and well-qualified coaches applied, but it didn’t take long for Indiana to find their guy. On July 2, 2018, less than nine days after Lemonis left, Indiana Director of Athletics Fred Glass named Mercer the 25th head coach in Indiana’s baseball history. I’ll guess Glass will be long retired before Indiana needs their 26th head coach.

It was two and a half years after we chatted in Westfield, but one week out from the start of the 2019 season, Mercer and I had another conversation that saw time fly by. Speaking to culture and buy-in, nutrition plans, how he wants to build the IU program to his liking, every belief and principle had a purpose behind it. Every decision had a reason. Every action a why. While I was looking to the 2019 season, Mercer was operating just as he normally does. Everything he worked for led him to this moment, it was just another day in February, all actions prior led up to it, all actions to come to lead Indiana to a title.

On Saturday, Mercer led Indiana to their seventh Big Ten championship. In winning the conference crown in his first season, Mercer became the first Big Ten coach to win the conference championship in his first season at the school since Minnesota’s John Anderson did it in 1982. There were 32 hires in the Big Ten since Minnesota tabbed Anderson, if you were wondering.

The more I dug through record books and checked coaching records against who won the Big Ten, there were some pretty impressive coaches who were unable to do what Mercer did. Some hall of fame coaches in fact. Ohio State’s Bob Todd didn’t win a title in his first year, he needed two seasons to bring a title to Columbus. Maloney restored past promise and glory in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines didn’t win the Big Ten until his fourth season. Darin Erstad and Dan Hartleb have opportunities to go down as the best coaches in the respective histories of Nebraska and Illinois baseball, but their first Big Ten crown didn’t come until their sixth season.

And so it was Anderson who last accomplished what Mercer did this weekend, fittingly. A coach back in his home state, a coach who has no desire to leave. A coach who’s planned it out for as long as he can remember. If there’s ever going to be a coach who matches Anderson with 11 Big Ten championships over a 38-year career, it’s the 33-year-old Mercer.

Rest easy, and celebrate Indiana, you have your coach, he’s home and not going anywhere. Bourbon’s on me.

Weekend Reads: May 2

With the college baseball season heading into its stretch run, there isn’t a shortage of fascinating subjects, interesting notes and compelling storylines. Heading into a big week of Big Ten baseball, here’s a half-dozen must-reads, as well as a look at how outlets see the NCAA Tournament field coming together.

 

There’s plenty of work left for the Hawkeyes, which are seeking their third regional berth in the last five seasons. But opportunity awaits in the final month. It starts this weekend, as Iowa (27-16, 11-7 Big Ten Conference) hosts No. 25 UC Irvine (28-11) in what is its most pivotal series of the year.

Examining the Hawkeyes’ postseason chances with college baseball analysts Dargan Southard, HawkCentral

 

“You just have to be able to continue to compete, it’s so cliché, but just the toughness,” Mercer said. “You just have to continue to go and go and go, and you can’t worry about what happens. We couldn’t worry about what happened Friday, we couldn’t worry about what happened in the first five of six innings (on Saturday). You’ve got to just keep going.”

Power, Toughness Have Indiana On The Rise Joe Healy, Baseball America

 

From a walk-on, who wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the 35-man roster his freshman season, to an emerging MLB prospect, Nwogu is living the dream playing for his hometown team.

Walk-on to MLB prospect, Ann Arbor native doing it all for Michigan Ryan Zuke, MLive.com

 

“We’ve talked about this being a young team,” Beals said. “Well, it’s time to get over that. They are not freshmen any longer. We’ve played 44 games…These games coming up are critical. Now, the test is: Can you stay in it? Can you play it out through the dog days.”

Beals Prods Bucks For The Stretch Run Greg Hoard, Press Pros Magazine

 

That petty cash goes towards groceries, cleaning supplies and other sundries around the apartment. Smith’s dedication more directly pays off on the mound. In the span of the past year, the left-hander from suburban Chicago has risen from little-used reliever to weekend starter.

Purdue baseball’s Patrick J. Smith seeing summer dedication pay off in starting rotation

 

During the second weekend of the season, the Cats were in a rain delay in Durham, North Carolina. Dunn said the team spent the delay in the dugout cracking jokes and telling stories. He cited junior Alex Erro as “probably the best storyteller,” as well as a great impersonator, highlighting his impression of freshman Anthony Calarco.

During delays, Northwestern players have different ways of staying loose Peter Warren, Daily Northwestern

 

NCAA Tournament Projections

Baseball America In: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska

D1Baseball.com In: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska

Perfect Game In: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska

10 B1G Baseball Things to Watch in May

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.

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: