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.

10 B1G Baseball First-Half Thoughts

The Big Ten has reached the midway point of its conference season, bringing to close a first-half that had a bit over everything. A small sample size certainty contributes to it, but only one and a half games separate third from 10th place, as the first four weekends providing shocking results, one after another. It does appear two teams have jumped to the front of the pack, with two more teams hanging on by a thread, but for everyone else, it’s been a roller coaster of a conference slate.

Before looking ahead to what should be an equally frantic second-half, here’s a look at 10 first-half thoughts.

The wildest opening month in recent memory

Where does one begin? Whether it’s due to greater parity or weather forcing one Saturday doubleheader after another, the first four weeks of the Big Ten season has been full of twist and turns.

Illinois opened conference play with a 1-5 mark, after opening the season on a 17-4 tear. Iowa was primarily responsible for Illinois’ slow start, sweeping the Illini in their conference-opening series. Unfortunately for Rick Heller’s club, the Hawkeyes were on the opposite side of a sweep one week later at Indiana. Ohio State has also suffered a brooming, seeing Northwestern enter Columbus and leave with three wins. But the Buckeyes would then rebound the following weekend by taking two of three from a ranked Michigan team, a Wolverine club which some viewed to be the prohibitive favorite after taking a series against Minnesota.

Many times it has appeared a team was poised to make go on an extended run, only to take a step backwards the following weekend. Similarly, more than once has it appeared a club had a long season in front of them, before looking like a top club the next weekend. I guess that’s how you get five teams a game within .500.

Indiana has its scariest lineup in at least a decade

Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs and it’s not even close. The Hooisers have slugged 66 home runs, lapping Michigan’s second-best total of 37. In fact, with 13 home runs apiece, Cole Barr and Matt Lloyd have more home runs individually than Purdue (6) and Rutgers (10) do as a team and just as many as Michigan State. In total, 12 Hoosier have left the yard, with Matt Gorski (9) and Grant Richardson (7), set to join Barr and Lloyd in double-digits. It’s a 1-9 with power the Big Ten hasn’t seen in some time.

Indiana isn’t too far removed from the days of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, but this is the most potent IU lineup to take to Bart Kaufman Field. Indiana’s 2014 national seed team only hit 43 home runs on the year. The year before, when Indiana reached the College World Series, Tracy Smith’s club hit 53 home runs in 65 games. Those dominant clubs where more methodical and wore you down over nine innings, opposed to capable of putting up a crooked inning no matter which part of the lineup is due up, at whatever junction.

With 66 home runs in 37 games, this Indiana outfit is squarely on pace for a 100-home run season. Every player possesses the ability to go out of the yard, at any given moment, recall memories of Indiana’s 2009 club, when first-round Josh Phegley and freshman Alex Dickerson anchored a potent offense that mashed its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Again, the two best teams will not play each other

Speaking of the Hoosiers, its appears that they and the Huskers of Nebraska have separated from the pack and are moving forward as the two best clubs. Indiana’s 7-2 Big Ten mark trails only Nebraska’s 10-2 clip. While Indiana is powered by ferocious attack, Nebraska’s pitching has been at top form, stifling opponents. While they fight for the conference titles, fans look to be out in the cold, and won’t see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as the Hoosier and Huskers are not slated to play each other in the regular season. (Although that didn’t stop the two from meeting in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament for an unforgettable affairs.)

If the two finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the Big Ten standings, it will be another year when the top two clubs do not meet. Just as IU and Nebraska didn’t meet in 2014, nor did Illinois and Iowa in 2015, nor Minnesota and Nebraska in 2016, nor Nebraska and Illinois in 2017. The streak did end last year, as Minnesota and Purdue met in an abbreviated two-game as Minnesota outscored Purdue 40-15. That was far from the classic a not-to-be series between Indiana and Nebraska has the potential to be.

Penn State isn’t what their record says they are

At the opposite end of the standings, Penn State’s 1-10 conference mark has the Nittany Lions 12th in the 13-team table. It’s almost becoming downright cruel, but Penn State is far from what one would expect of a club with one win in 11 conference games. Of the 10 losses, five have been by two runs, with four coming by a lone run. Only once, a 5-1 loss to Minnesota in the first game of the Big Ten season, has Penn State been decisively outmatched.

In their 11 conference contests, Penn State has only gave up 41 runs, an average of 3.72 per game, pitching to a 2.79 ERA in conference play. Only Nebraska and Indiana, a pair of clubs Penn State has played, have lower ERAs, 1.92 and 2.32, respectively. But in baseball you can only win if you outscore the opposition. As strong as Penn State’s pitching has been, the oppositions has been better, holding PSU to 26 runs and a .202 batting average. But, as the Nittany Lions enter the second-half of Big Ten play with the two toughest opponents behind them, they do so with a weekend rotation that should have them in every game and will trip up any time gauging their ability by their Big Ten record. Especially as Dante Biasi and his 1.93 ERA and Big Ten-leading 70 strikeouts sits atop the weekend rotation.

A slow start for the stars

Heading into the season, prognosticators pegged Illinois Michael Massey, Indiana’s Matt Gorski and Michigan’s Jesse Franklin as the Big Ten tops players, with Minnesota sophomore right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson a heavy favorite to repeat as the conference’s top pitcher. While it’s far too early to write anyone off, the seasons those four players are having are not what was expected.

Injury has slowed Massey down and kept him out of the field, regulated to Illinois’ DH spot all through February and March. Just recently has the 2018 Rawlings Gold Glove recipient returned to his natural second base, as he bats a good, but not spectacular .333. Gorski does have the aforementioned nine home runs, but he is batting just .276. That’s still significantly better than Franklin’s .238 mark, although Franklin has one-upped Gorski with 10 home runs. Iowa’s Chris Whelan, Ohio State’s Kobie Foppe and Rutgers’ Carmen Scalfani are also expected offensive leaders who haven’t seen hits fall in as expected.

But the most perplexing slow start falls on Fredrickson. A year removed from going 9-0 with a 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson is 1-3 with a 5.74 ERA. En route to winning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors, Fredrickson issued just 27 walks in 97 innings. Control has been a significant issue in 2019, as the Gopher has walked 25 batters in just 26.2 innings.

Freshmen making an impact

Where some returning standouts have struggle, there’s a crop of rookies getting it done, a few stepping up to pick up some of the slack from those once all-conference performers, setting up a dandy of a Freshman of the Year race.

Right-hander Garrett Burhenn holds a 3.16 ERA as he has emerged as Ohio State’s ace. Richardson’s seven home runs pace freshmen, one more than Burhenn’s fellow Buckeye freshman, Zach Denzenzo and Maryland’s Maxwell Costes, the latter holding a .911 OPS and a Maryland-leading 30 RBI. Michigan closer Willie Weiss has six saves and a 3.38 ERA. While Cam McDonald has stepped up nicely for the Illini, with a .307 batting average and

Seniors are providing significant production

Of course, the seniors won’t have the freshman steal all of the spotlight.

Seniors have stepping up to pacing their respective club in hitting are:

Jack Dunn (.374), Northwestern

Grant Van Scoy (.363), Illinois

Jordan Bowersox (.344), Penn State

Matt Lloyd (.318), Indiana

Dunn leads the conference in average and on-base percentage (.477), while Lloyd leads in home runs and slugging percentage (.689) and RBI (38).

Seniors carrying the torch on the mound are:

Matt Waldron (1.76 ERA), Nebraska

Pauly Milto (1.98), Indiana

Hunter Parsons (2.95), Maryland

Waldron’s ERA leads Big Ten hurlers, with Parsons’ 64 innings the standard-bearer.

Max Meyer gives Minnesota a puncher’s chance

One star who has delivered on preseason promise would be the walk-away winner of any Most Valuable Player honor: Minnesota sophomore Max Meyer. With the Gophers struggling to find traction, the Gophers moved their all-american closer to the front of the rotation. Converting a key reliever to starter hasn’t worked out well for a few Big Ten teams in recent years (Indiana, Nebraska (several times), Michigan State, Northwestern just to name a few), but it has so far for John Anderson, and it may be a move that saved their season.

Minnesota sat 2-8 on the year, in part due to stout competition, before Meyer made his first start against Oregon State on March 8. Minnesota has gone 14-10 since, while Meyer sports a 1.97 ERA on the season, with 58 strikeouts in 50.1 innings and a .204 batting average against. With Meyer atop the rotation, Minnesota can go toe-to-toe against anyone in the country. With Fredrickson’s regression and all but Jeff Fasching and Brett Schulze providing inconsistent returns, Minnesota desperately need the experiment to work. And it has. Meyer emerging as a frontline starter is also coming as he tackled two-way duties, batting .292 over 96 at-bats in 29 games.

Rutgers has the staff it needs to reach the postseason

While Minnesota entered the season looking to reach Omaha as College World Series participants, looking build off last season’s end in the Corvallis Super Regional, Rutgers is looking to play in Omaha as participants in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. And for the first time under Joe Litterio, The Scarlet Knights have a weekend staff capable of getting them there.

Sophomore Harry Rutkowski, junior Tommy Genuario and junior Tevin Murray make up a rotation with respective ERAs of 3.23, 2.97 and 3.66. That has Rutgers join Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as Big Ten teams with each pitcher in their weekend rotation holding a sub-4.00 ERA. And just like the Hoosiers, Illinois and Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights have a reliable closer in senior Serafino Brito. Rutgers doesn’t have the pitching depth those three other clubs do, Rutgers’ team ERA is 4.69, ninth in the conference, but they can role out a strong rotation and close out games in a manner needed to finish in the top eight.

ESPN and Fox Sports provide more national exposure

As the Big Ten Network is in its second decade, the benefits of the conference-centric network have been invaluable. Additional revenue for Big Ten athletic departments have helped many olympic sports receive new or enhanced facilities. The network helps with recruiting in exposing those facilities and the game action to all parts of the country. And it’s new for friends and families to tune on a game when unable to travel and take in. But more and more BTN isn’t the only network airing Big Ten baseball to the country from coast to coast. Already ESPNU has aired Big Ten play, the finale of the Purdue-Nebraska series, while FS1 has shown a non-conference Purdue-Indiana midweek affair and a Butler-Purdue contest the following week. ESPNU will also air the finale of the Minnesota-Indiana , a week before FS1 broadcasts action from Minneapolis in a showdown between the Gophers and Buckeyes. While gates around the conference may take a small hit, it’s great to see Big Ten baseball on multiple airwaves around the country.

Saturday Roundup, March 9

Saturday was a busy day around the Big Ten, with 15 games spanning the country, from the foothills of the Appalachians all the way to Los Angeles. There wasn’t the drama that Friday possessed, but there were series clinched by Illinois and Nebraska, while Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers saw their weekend get underway after weather disrupted their planned weekend.

Here’s a rundown of how Saturday unfolded in the Big Ten.

Scores

Illinois (9-3) @ Grand Canyon (6-8), W, 5-2

Indiana (7-6) vs. #7 Oregon State (12-1), L, 8-3

Iowa (7-4) vs. Evansville (5-6), W, 18-7

Maryland (8-5) @ Stetson (6-8), L, 12-7

Michigan (9-3) @ USC (5-8), L, 4-1

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina (7-5), L, 6-4 (10)

Michigan State (3-10) 7 vs. Ohio State (7-6) 1

Minnesota (2-10) vs. San Diego (11-4), L, 6-5 (8)

Nebraska (6-6) @ #25 Baylor (9-4), W, 2-0

Northwestern (4-8) @ Missouri (8-5), L, 17-11

Penn State (8-3) @ Central Florida (10-4), L, 5-3

Purdue (2-10) vs. NJIT (6-3-1), L/W, 9-3 (10), 9-8

Rutgers (3-8) @ USC Upstate (6-8), L/W 1-0, 8-7

Saturday Highlights

Unhittable Fisher leads Huskers to series win

It’s going to be an easy call for the Big Ten when announcing this weekend’s individual honors. The effort Nebraska senior left-handed Nate Fisher together wasn’t only the best of the weekend, but it might end up as the top pitching performance of the year at season’s end.

Leading Nebraska to a series-clinching 2-0 win at #25 Baylor, Fisher could not be touched. Pitching into the ninth, Fisher did not allow a hit on the afternoon. Pulled after hitting the first batter of the ninth, Fisher’s final line read: eight innings, zero hits, zero runs, one walk and six strikeouts. Most impressive was the efficiency at which Fisher pitched, needing only 84 pitches to pitch into the ninth. Baylor did record a hit off reliever Robbie Palkert to avoid the no-hitter, before freshman right-hander Colby Gomes closed the door with a one-out save.

Offensively, lone runs in the fourth and ninth were enough to help the Huskers reach .500. In a 2-for-4 day, Gomes recorded a one-out single, before coming around to score on a sacrifice fly by Luke Roskam. In between, as part of a 3-for-4 afternoon, a single by Gunner Hellstrom advanced Gomes to third from first. Nebraska’s third multi-hit effort was secured by freshman shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach, with a RBI-single, giving the game it’s final 2-0 score.

Overpowering Mokma helps Spartans salvage Saturday split

After being unable to secure a 4-2 lead after eight innings in a 6-4, 10-inning loss to Western Carolina, Michigan State head coach Jake Boss took no chances with his bullpen in a non-conference showdown against Ohio State.

Holding the Ohio State lineup in check all night, sophomore right-handed pitcher Mike Mokma pitched a complete-game against the Buckeyes, scattering seven hits, allowing just one run, and strikeout 11. Over 127 pitches, the second-year sophomore did not issue a walk.

“Mike was outstanding in every way tonight,” MSU head coach Jake Boss Jr. said. “Mike did a heck of a job when we really needed it. We had a disappointing loss in game one, and thankfully for us, Mike was ready to go out and play. He threw a lot of strikes tonight and was in command the whole way.”

Mike Mokma was the story of the game,” Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. “He commanded his fastball really well and pitched in good counts almost all night long.”

Every batter in the MSU lineup recorded at least one hit in support of Mokma, with a 3-for-4 effort from Bryce Kelley, and a 2-for-3, two-double evening from Royce Ando leading the way.

Noteworthy relief efforts litter Saturday’s slate

There were a few outstanding relief efforts on Saturday that saw pitchers do everything they could to keep their team in the game.

Pitching 4.1 innings, Illinois’ Sean Leland struck out eight, did not walk a batter and held Grand Canyon to one hit, in Illinois’ 5-2 win.

Although they fell short of a comeback win, Penn State saw Kyle Virbitsky pitch the final three innings against Central Florida, allowing just one hit and one run.

Ohio State freshman TJ Brock pitched three perfect innings against Michigan State, striking out five Spartans.

Purdue’s Austin Peterson pitched the final 5.2 innings, surrendering just two hits while punching out nine in Purdue’s 9-8 win over NJIT.

Purdue and Rutgers bounce back to end skids

Tough losses on Saturday afternoon extended losing streaks for Purdue and Rutgers. But with nightcaps of Saturday doubleheaders still to play, both clubs were able to shake off the defeat and head to bed on Saturday night with a victory in tow.

USC Uptate did just enough in collecting six hits to turn back Rutgers, 1-0 in game one of their twinbill. With offense at a premium, Rutgers’ four hits weren’t enough to support a strong effort on the mound by Harry Rutkowski. The sophomore pitched 5.2 innings, scattered five hits and struck out eight. A second one-run contest was played Saturday night between the two, with the Scarlet Knights coming out on top this time, 8-7, overcoming five errors in the process. Chris Brito and Tyler McNamara both collected RBI-singles in the ninth inning to halt a four-game slide.

A pair of 10th-inning errors helped NJIT bring 10 batters to the plate, as a six-run extra frame powered the Highlanders to an game one victory over the Boilermakers, 9-3. Purdue had used a three-run eighth to tie the game. The ability to score later in the game continued into Saturday’s finale, as Purdue scored in each of the final four frames to win 9-8, putting an end to a five-game skid. Trailing 7-3 at the stretch, a three-run seventh, and two-run eighth set the stage for a dramatic ninth. After NJIT knotted the game 8-8 in the top of the inning, back-to-back four-pitch walks put Tyler Powers and Evan Albrecht on. A bunt single from Skyler Hunter loaded the bases, before a third four-pitch walk of the inning, drawn by Cole McKenzie, gave Purdue a literal walk-off victory.

Hawkeyes collect the hits

Before the season starter, Iowa head coach Rick Heller felt his 2019 lineup would be the most consistent, 1-9. Absent were the big threats of years past like Jake Adams, Tyler Cropley, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, but present was a collect of players Heller was confident all could do their job and come together as a potent force.

Saturday’s game against Evansville may have been exactly what Heller envision.

Taking on Evansville in Marian, Ill., Iowa pounded out a season-high 19 hits in their 18-7 romp. Supporting Cole McDonald’s six-inning, one-run effort, 10 Hawkeyes collected a hit, with first baseman Zeb Adreon leading the way, using three doubles to go 3-for-5 evening with four RBI. Izaya Fullard, Ben Norman and Matthew Sosa each collected a home run, as the Hawkeyes pounded out nine extra-base hits.

“I’m happy with how our team came out to play. They had great focus in all areas of the game, especially on offense. Zeb Adreon had a big night with four RBIs. Izaya Fullard had five RBIs. Matthew Sosa comes into the game and has three RBIs with some great at-bats. Up and down the lineup, guys put quality at-bats together. We did a job of executing when we needed to move runners.”

Oregon State still has the Big Ten’s number

With their 8-3 win over Indiana, Oregon State is now 7-0 against the Big Ten this year. The Beavers have twice beat Minnesota and swept Nebraska in a four-game series the second week of the season.

Unfortunately for the Big Ten, this is nothing new. Oregon State swept Minnesota in last year’s Corvallis Super Regional, and grabbed all four games, two apiece, against Nebraska and Ohio State last February. To find the last time a Big Ten team defeated Oregon State, you have to go back to Feb. 24, 2017, when the Buckeyes knocked off the Beavers, 6-1, in Surprise, Ariz. Since then, Oregon State has won 15 in a row.

Errors comes back to bite

Saturday wasn’t the finest day on the diamond for many conference teams, with poor showings in the field coming back to haunt teams in close losses. Here’s a look at whose defense let them down the hardest.

Indiana: three errors, two unearned runs.

Michigan State: two errors, two unearned runs, lost by two in 10 innings to WCU.

Maryland: three errors, four unearned runs.

Minnesota: four errors, two unearned runs, lost by one run.

Purdue: three errors in game one vs. NJIT, all six 10th inning runs were unearned.

Penn State’s three errors against Central Florida did not lead to any unearned runs.

Friday Roundup, March 8

With the non-conference slate winding down and teams having nearly a dozen games under their belt, it’s beginning to be more clear what can be excepted of Big Ten teams to come. And if Friday’s results were any indication, what is to come is an incredibly competitive conference season where no weekend will be a gimme.

Here’s a roundup of a big night for Big Ten baseball.

Scores

Illinois (8-3) @ Grand Canyon (6-7), W, 6-3

Indiana (7-5) vs. Washington (8-3), W, 1-0

Maryland (8-4) @ Stetson (5-7), W, 7-0

#18 Michigan (9-2) @ #2 UCLA (9-3), W, 7-5

Minnesota (2-9) vs. #7 Oregon State (11-1), L 2-1

Nebraska (5-6) @ #25 Baylor (9-3), W, 12-4

Northwestern (4-7) @ Missouri (7-5), L, 3-2

Penn State (8-2) @ Central Florida (9-3), W, 5-2

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, CLD

Ohio State vs. Furman PPD

Rutgers @ USC Upstate PPD

Rankings reflective of Baseball America’s March 4 top 25.

Friday highlights

The Big Ten makes some big noise

Just a look at yesterday’s scoreboard reveals a big day for the Big Ten. The conference grabbed two road wins against top 25 clubs, while going 6-2 overall. And the the two losses were one-run contest against Power 5 opponents. The most runs a team allowed were UCLA’s five against Michigan, as the conference outscored the opposition 41-19. The conference has collectively had an up-and-down first three weeks, but now with conference play around the corner, it appears teams are coming into form.

Pauly Milto’s career-defining performance

Slowly, but very steadily and surely, Indiana right-hander Pauly Milto is carving space in the Indiana record books and is set to graduate as one of the Hoosiers best pitchers in program history. With a 2.87 ERA over 213.1 career innings, the numbers support the argument. And now, Milto has a defining outing that will live in the memories of Hoosier faithful well beyond his four-year career in Bloomington. The final game on opening day of the Seattle Baseball Showcase at T-Mobile Park, Milto was dominant against Washington, a 2018 College World Series participant and team entering with only two defeats over the 10 games in 2019.

In eight innings, Milto allowed just one hit, walked one batter and hit another, to face just three batters over the minimum. The senior struck out six batters in a 104-pitch outing, throwing 68 for strikes. Milto’s dominance on the mound was needed as the Hoosiers were held to just six hits, but Drew Ashley’s two-out single to left, scoring Cole Barr, was enough to give Indiana a key win.

Max Meyer’s statement-making first start

Before Milto silenced the Huskies, except for one pitch, Minnesota’s Max Meyer gave everything the Gophers could have asked for in his first career start, also twirling a gem. With Minnesota looking to turn around an 2-8 start, Meyer was moved into the Gopher rotation, following a 4.2-inning relief appearance at No. 23 North Carolina State, where the sophomore right-hander allowed one run and struck out four. In his second consecutive outing against a ranked team, Meyer gave John Anderson a career-high six innings against Oregon State, striking out eight batters without issuing a walk, and allowed only four hits. But one of the hits was a two-run home run against fellow USA Baseball Collegiate National Team member Adley Rutschman, one of the top two MLB Draft prospects. The 2-1 loss will sting, but Meyer showed he has the ability to go deep into contests, and if he can stymie a top five team the way he did last night, the season’s outlook is a lot brighter for Minnesota.

Penn State continues hot start

They didn’t defeat a ranked team, but Penn State knocking off Central Florida on the road might have been the most eye-catching result. Coming off of a 15-win season, few outside of State College expected much of the Nittany Lions. But a 7-2 showing after three weekends brought a little attention to what Rob Cooper’s club is doing in the early part of 2019, a spotlight surely to grow larger after holding an UCF team who entered the weekend at 9-3, to three hits. Sophomore Mason Mellott continues to shine as a stretch-reliever, pitching the final three innings without allowing a run, supporting 3-for-5 efforts by Jordan Bowersox and Parker Hendershot.

Tommy Henry’s B-game still plenty good

It wasn’t his best performance, but Wolverine junior left-handed pitcher Tommy Henry was still plenty good, leading Michigan to the road upset over UCLA. Michigan’s 7-5 win was the program’s first over a top five team since defeating #4 Illinois in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament. Entering the contest without conceding a run in 23 innings, the Bruins did tag Henry for two runs and six hits over six innings, but the southpaw’s 10 strikeouts to two walks helped keep the bears at bay, and push Michigan to 9-2 on the year.

Maryland’s Costes is picking up where his brother left off

With senior right-handed pitcher Hunter Parsons quieting the Hatters, Parsons scattered six hits over seven innings, with 10 strikeouts to one walk, freshman Maxwell Costes provided all of the offense the Terps would need. Now 8-4 on the young season with the 7-0 road win at Stetson, Maryland saw Costes go 2-for-3 with a walk, home run, two runs and RBI out of the cleanup spot. With a team-leading .326 average, two home runs and a 1.013 OPS, Costes is continuing the family trend of being a force in the heart of the Maryland lineup, more than adequately filling the shoes of Marty Costes, who was a 22nd-round draft pick of the Houston Astros following a three-year career in College Park.

Sweet swinging Jack Yalowitz is back

Following a breakout 2017 season, where he batted .335 with 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases as a sophomore, expectations were high for Illinois outfielder Jack Yalowitz in 2018. But the draft season played out in a surprising manner, with his average dropping to .216 and power dipping to four home runs. Back in Champaign for a senior season, Yalowitz is reverting to his 2017 form and giving the Illini the production they need to break a four-year NCAA Tournament drought. Powering Illinois to a 6-3 win over Grand Canyon, Yalowitz matched career highs with four hits, two home runs and five RBI. Helping Illinois to an 8-3 start, the former first-team all-conference outfielder is batting .350.

Nebraska finds the long ball, again, and again

Through their first 10 games, Nebraska had yet to hit a home run. The Huskers were able to find the long ball on Friday, then had so much fun they did it twice in the same inning. Just two batters in, senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla blasted a two-run home run, then three batters later it was junior catcher Luke Roskam’s turn to dial up a two-run long ball. En route to routing Baylor, 12-4, Altavilla hit his second home run of the game in the top of the ninth, to cap a five-RBI night. Roskam added three more hits, in addition to his home run in the first, to go 4-for-6 with two runs and four RBI. On the mound, senior right-hander Matt Waldron allowing two runs, one earned, over seven innings, striking out eight batters without issuing a walk.

 

The Ten: Week 1

It didn’t take long for a Big Ten player to grab the national spotlight.

With 11 strikeouts in a six-inning, no-hit outing, Iowa junior right-handed pitcher Grant Judkins received a pair of national accolades in addition to being the conference’s top pitcher over opening weekend. Who else starred to get a new season underway? Here’s the first edition of The 10 this year, rounding up the weekend’s top individual performances.

Michigan St. Sr. 3B Royce Ando

Sliding to the hot corner for his senior season, the Spartan’s swan song got off to a hot start. Racking up five hits in 11 at-bats, Ando picked up a hit of each kind, using two singles, a double, triple and home run to touch 11 bases. Ando’s weekend line finished .455/.500/1.000.

Ohio State Fr. RHP Garrett Burhenn

Burhenn’s collegiate debut was almost perfect, literally. Taking the mound for the Buckeyes on Saturday against Seton Hall, the rookie logged eight innings and pitched to the minimum of 24 batters. Striking out six without issuing a walk, Burhenn surrendered only one hit, then promptly erased the runner with a double play. Burhenn’s effort led an Ohio State staff that allowed just six runs over four games.

Ohio State Sr. OF Brady Cherry

A change of scenery appears to be exactly what Cherry needed. Anchored in Ohio State’s infield for his first three seasons, moving from third to second and even seeing time at first base, now an outfielder, Cherry’s senior season is off to a stellar start. The offensive force in Ohio State’s 4-0 weekend, Cherry recorded seven hits in 14 at-bats, connecting on a pair of doubles and two home runs, to slug 1.071. The 15 bases Cherry touched over opening weekend is already more than one-fourth of his 2018 total of 58.

Nebraska Soph. OF Jaxon Hallmark

Hallmark earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors after using eight hits in 18 at-bats to drive in 10 runs. The sophomore recorded two doubles and a stolen base, to score five runs. For good measure, Hallmark recorded two outs to close out Nebraska’s 10-6 win over UC Riverside on Saturday.

Michigan Jr. LHP Tommy Henry

Stepping into the role of ace for the Wolverines, the junior southpaw gave Erik Bakich and staff exactly what is desired from a leading pitcher. Pitching six innings of shutout baseball against Binghamton, Henry scattered six hits without conceding a run, struck out nine batters while walking just one.

Iowa Jr. RHP Grant Judkins

When you’re the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, the National College Baseball Writers Association Pitcher of the Week and a Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week, it’s highly likely you had a dominant performance. Judkins was indeed dominant. Spurring Iowa to a winning weekend in a 10-0 win over Marshall, Judkins did not allow a hit over six innings and struck out 11 batters. Judkins’ 11 strikeouts sets a new career high, while edging teammate Jake Dreyer and Michigan’s Karl Kauffmann for the Big Ten lead after one weekend.

Penn State Soph. RHP Mason Mellott

Penn State pitchers proved mighty tough in their season-opening series against Monmouth. Powering the Nittany Lions to a 3-0 record, PSU hurlers allowed only eight hits and three earned runs. At the forefront of the charge on the mound was Mellott. The sophomore pitched four hitless innings in relief to earn the win in PSU’s 1-0 season opening victory. Then, on Sunday, Mellott logged two innings, allowing one hit and one unearned run, to earn the save in Penn State’s 6-4, securing the weekend sweep.

Indiana Sr. RHP Pauly Milto

It’s a new era in Bloomington as Jeff Mercer takes over the Hoosier program. But, at least for one game, it was more of the same. Pauly Milto continued to add to a dominant career with a gem in Indiana’s season opener. On Saturday, at Memphis, Milto pitched seven innings of scoreless baseball, striking out seven batters. The righty scattered just two hits without issuing a walk, giving Mercer a sign of what he can expect on Friday nights with his new club.

Illinois Sr. OF Zac Taylor

Few players in the Big Ten have the combo of power and speed that Taylor has. As Illinois looks to break a four-year NCAA Tournament drought, Taylor’s dynamic ability was on display, giving Dan Hartleb’s team the type of production needed to replace Big Ten Player of the Year Bren Spillane. In three games, Taylor rapped out six hits, collecting two doubles and a home run, while adding five stolen bases.

Illinois Jr. RHP Cyrillo Watson

As good as Taylor was at the plate and on the bases, Watson was his equal on the mound. Long viewed as the Illini with the best pure stuff and most potential, Watson put it all together in his 2019 debut. Helping Illinois finish the weekend 3-0, Watson logged six shutout innings against Sacred Heart. The junior righty scattered five hits while striking out eight batters, and did not issue a walk over the 90-pitch outing.

 

Freshman of the Week

Burhenn

Pitcher of the Week

Judkins

Player of the Week

Cherry

Trending Topics: Week 1

It was quite the weekend for Big Ten baseball teams, as action spanned the country from Miami, Fla., to Riverside, Calif. There were outstanding individual honors, like pitchers Grant Judkins of Iowa and Ohio State’s Garrett Burhenn, respectively logging a no-hit outing and flirting with perfection. A handful of teams sport spotless records: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And there were also a few surprises on the not as pleasant side, such as Minnesota losing to New Mexico and Oregon State by a combined score of 24-2 and Purdue and Rutgers concluding the opening weekend without a win.

Going beyond the scoreboard and box scores, the first of a weekly staple, Trending Topics, looks at five observations from the weekend that are either sending a team to success or holding them back.

Seniors stepping up

It’s hard to quantify, but ask any coach and there is something to draftitis affecting players over their junior year. Players who aren’t slam dunk draft picks, players with premium tools whose stock depends on production, time and time again press and scuffle, ultimately playing their way out of the draft. Then, when seniors, and facing the possibility of playing baseball competitively for the last time, no longer worrying about the draft just embracing the moment, an all-conference season unfolds.

The opening weekend showed there may be a few players who have strong senior seasons after watching their draft stock come and go, relaxed and just having the game come to them. Here’s a look at a few of those players, players who may end up having a significant say in how their team fares with them in the heart of the order.

Illinois OF Zac Taylor: 6-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5-5 SB-ATT

Indiana OF Logan Kaletha: 4-for-11, 2B

Maryland 3B Taylor Wright: 4-for-11

Michigan 1B Jimmy Kerr: 4-for-13, 2B, HR, 4 RBI

Ohio State LF Brady Cherry: 7-for-14, 2 2B, 2 HR

Buckeyes limit freebies

Although Ohio State went 36-24 and participated in the Greenville Regional last year, the Buckeyes were far from a well-oiled machine.

In 60 games, Ohio State’s defense committed 94 errors, more than 1.5 per contest and a whopping 20 more than the next closet team, leading to a Big Ten-worst .959 fielding percentage. The extra outs the Buckeyes gave the opposition were in addition to Ohio State hurlers hitting 77 batters, the most in the Big Ten, stood alongside surrendering 590 hits, also the most in the conference. A team that gives up a lot of hits, hits a lot of batters and routinely falls to play a clean game is far from the way Greg Beals wants his team to perform, regional or not.

Through the first weekend of the 2019 season, the Buckeyes have cleaned up their act.

Opening 4-0 for just the third time since 2010, Ohio State’s defense committed just two errors, for a .986 fielding percentage. Ohio State pitchers plunked only two batters, while walking just five hitters. As Ohio State breaks in an entirely new rotation, eliminating free passes, extra bases, and forced to record extra outs will go a long way in helping the Bucks reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03.

Huskers on the attack

Although Nebraska batted .274 in 2018, good for sixth in the conference, and scored 6.48 runs per contest, there was notable chatter on social media around the Huskers revolved around the offense. It is true Nebraska will no longer have the services of Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening, the team’s two leading batters who combined for 56 extra-base hits and 27 of the team’s 47 home runs. So on paper there is a noticeable void in power, but when looking back at Nebraska’s best teams under Erstad, they were never ones to so much power.

Take 2014, when Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten and participated in a regional. The Huskers batted .293 with only 19 homers. By comparison, Schreiber hit 18 by himself last year.

In 2016, another year in a regional, Nebraska batted .281 with 43 home runs.

Then, in 2017, when the Huskers won the Big Ten, the team held its .281 average but this time with just 25 home runs.

With Erstad leading the way, when Nebraska’s offense is at its best, it’s when every batter, 1-9, has a methodical approach of fouling balls off until one can be barreled, puts consistent pressure on the opponent, are aggressive with dirt ball reads, takes the extra 90 feet and squeezes the life out of the opposition.

In taking three of four games from UC Riverside, it appears Nebraska’s offense is getting back to that.

While it’s unlikely the team will bat .347 for the course of the season, there were 27 walks drawn in four games, 10 doubles, nine stolen bases and the team was able to generate 47 runs without needing to drop a sacrifice bunt, relying on three sac flies.

The key to Nebraska in 2019 isn’t necessarily who replaces the thump of Schreiber and Wilkening, it’s more who becomes the next Chad Christensen, Pat Kelly, Jake Meyers or Michael Pritchard, guys who did all of the little things that added up to a potent offense.

Did Minnesota’s superb defense graduate, too?

Picked by conference coaches to defend their Big Ten title, a lot of Minnesota’s expected success stems from their pitching staff. Last year, Minnesota pitched to a 3.20 ERA, a mark lowered to a conference-best 2.64 in Big Ten games. With the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson back in his Saturday role for his sophomore season, fellow all-american and classmate Max Meyer resuming his closing duties, and many capable high-ceiling arms back, such as Joshua Culliver, Jeff Fasching, Bubba Horton and Brett Schultz, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Gophers on the mound.

But the expected strength of the team falling on the pitching staff was also in part due to the graduation of multiple starters with at least three years of starting under their belt: Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and arguably the Big Ten’s best two-way player in Terrin Varva. Any concern regarding Minnesota would be on how John Anderson and staff would replace the key contributors at the plate,

After a rocky opening weekend, the real concern may be how does Minnesota replace the quintet in the field.

In addition to the second-best ERA, Minnesota had the second-best fielding percentage among Big Ten teams. With a .977 fielding percentage, Minnesota committed just 52 errors over 59 games. In 2017 Minnesota had a .978 fielding percentage, committing 47 errors in 57 games, and in 2016 the Gophers fielded at a .980 mark, with 43 errors in 56 games.

In four games in Arizona, Minnesota committed six errors, including four in Saturday’s 11-1 defeat to New Mexico. Each error in Saturday’s game came from a position where Minnesota last a starter, with the weekend’s six errors leading to nine unearned runs.

Now, it was opening weekend. It was Minnesota’s first time being outside on a baseball field since the fall, and young players need time to adjust to the speed of the game. But Minnesota’s pitchers are only as good as the defense behind them, and if too many extra bases and extra outs are provided to the opponents, it won’t matter what the Gophers do or don’t do at the plate.

Hawkkkkkeyes ring them up

When your former pitching coach is hired away by the Yankees for a position called Director of Pitch Development, a position created exclusively for him, chances are your pitchers were working with one of the best in the business as they perfected their craft. The results from Iowa’s three games over opening weekend would support that.

Although Iowa’s former pitcher coach Desi Druschel was behind the plate, taking in Saturday’s games as a bystander and not participant, his work with the Hawkeye pitchers was on display.

Against George Mason, Pitt and Marshall, Hawkeye pitchers were on the mound for 26 innings. In that time, Iowa struck out 41 batters. Jack Dreyer started the parade of eye-popping numbers with a 10-strikeout showing in 5.1 innings on Saturday against the Panthers. Less than 24 hours later, Grant Judkins grabbed the Big Ten lead in punch outs with 11, in six innings against the Thundering Herd. With relievers in tow, Iowa’s game totals for strikeouts were: 10, 15 and 16.

The 41 strikeouts helped Iowa hold the opposition to a .114 batting average, 10 hits in 88 at-bats. The 20 walks are an issue to address, but Iowa’s 14.19 K/9 showing through one weekend is impressive. In case you’re wondering, that would be 795 over a 56-game schedule. The Big Ten record is 549, set by Maryland in 2015.

Season Preview: Penn State

After two years of building up the program, Rob Cooper guided Penn State to a 28-27 record in 2016, a winning season which included a 12-12 mark in the Big Ten. The postseason eluded the Nittany Lions as the tiebreaker to break a three-team tie for eighth place between Illinois, Iowa and Penn State went to the Hawkeyes. But as Penn State’s NCAA Tournament drought approached driving age, there was reason to look to the future with optimism. Since then, Penn State has finished last in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons, winning just 33 games in the process. Outsiders may look to Cooper’s team in State College and, based on recent history, not expect the Nittany Lions to make much noise. But the displeasure experienced in 2018 may yield positive results, as PSU heads into 2019 with a sizable sophomore class looking to lessons learned during struggles into foundations of success and take a step forward.

Program facts

Head coach: Rob Cooper, sixth season, 97-190

Last conference championship: 1996

Last NCAA Tournament: 2000 Austin Super Regional

2018 in review

Record: 15-34 overall, 3-21 in the Big Ten; 13th

At the plate: .233 AVG, .332 OBP, .342 SLG, 79 2B, 17 3B, 21 HR, 47-60 SB-ATT

On the mound: 5.53 ERA, 421.2 IP, 231 BB, 339 SO, .272 BAA

In the field: .960  FLD, 26 double plays, 20 passed balls, 48 SBA, 19 CS

 

Roster rundown

Key losses: OF Braxton Giavedoni (.247 AVG/.292 OBP/.382 SLG), RHP Justin Hagenman (3-7, 4.60, 78.1 IP), LHP Taylor Lehman (2-7, 5.36, 47.0)

Key returners: Soph. LHP Dante Biasi (3-6, 5.20, 62.1), Soph. RHP Bailey Dees (1-2, 5.14, 28.0), Soph. DH Parker Hendershot (.283/.379/.363), Jr. 3B Connor Klemann (.234/.343/.345, 10 XBH) Soph. RHP Mason Mellott (0-1, 4 saves, 3.18, 34.0), Sr. C Ryan Sloniger (.303/.404/.494, 13 2B)

Key newcomers: Fr. LHP Hutch Gagnon, Fr. OF/INF Ryan Ford, Jr. INF Gavin Homer, Jr. C Jacob Padilla, Fr. LHP Kyle Shingledecker, Fr. INF Justin Williams

Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (8), Sophomores (15), Juniors (6), Seniors (6)

 

What to expect in 2019

There are two ways to view the state of the Penn State program entering 2019. The first, seeing the glass as half-empty, would be that every team but Northwestern won as many Big Ten games in 2018 as Penn State has combined between the 2017-2018 seasons, seven. A 4-20 conference season followed by a 3-21 campaign makes for the lowest two-year Big Ten win total since Indiana won seven conference games between the 1981-2 seasons. But even then, the Hoosiers played only 30 Big Ten games, opposed to Penn State’s 48. But enough of the negative. Viewing a three-win season in lens of the glass being half-full would reveals the only team of the last 40 years with a worst winning percentage in Big Ten games than Penn State’s .125 clip in 2018 was Purdue in 2016. Just three years ago, Purdue went 2-22 in Big Ten play for an .083 winning percentage. Where many outside West Lafayette wrote off Purdue for the near future following the 2016 season, first-year head coach Mark Wasikowski guided Purdue to a 29-27 season. Breaking even in Big Ten play at 12-12 Purdue shocked all by finishing eighth and earning a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.

That 2017 Boilermaker team wasn’t all that unlike what the 2019 Nittany Lions may be. Where Purdue had a strong sophomore class, led by Nick Dalesandro, Jackson McGowan and Gareth Stroh, so too does Penn State, with the likes of Bailey Dees, Parker Hendershot and Mason Mellott. A third-year pitcher, Tanner Andrews spearheaded the rotation. Can Penn State’s Dante Biasi be that guy for them? A few transfers from junior college helped set the mentality while providing much needed production, with freshmen sprinkled up the middle. The 2019 PSU team can check those boxes, too.

Yes, times have been tough in State College. But history has shown things can change in a hurry in the Big Ten. Penn State will need to hit better, throw more strikes and field better. But with the shear volume of innings pitched, trips to the plate, balls fielded and thrown by a freshman last year, there’s the opportunity for Penn State to take a big step forward. It’s too be seen just how big that step is, and if it gets the program back on track and trending up in the same way Cooper’s first three years unfolded.

At the plate and in the field

There’s no where to go but up for the Penn State bats. A .233 team batting average ranked last in the Big Ten, .010 points behind the closest team, Maryland. Only Indiana struck out more times than the Nittany Lions’ 451 punchouts, but Indiana’s 463 total came in 10 more games. PSU finished next to last in on-base percentage and slugging, with 10 teams hitting more than the 21 home runs the clubs produced. Through it all, one player had a banner year, and forced his name into being considered one of the Big Ten’s best.

Serving as Penn State’s primary catcher, Ryan Sloniger led Penn State with a .306 average, the line Nittany Lion regular to bat at least .300, with 13 doubles, two triples an five home runs. Adding a .404 on-base percentage and .494 slugging mark, Sloniger looked little like the player he was the prior season. As a sophomore, the Punxsutawney, Penn., native batted .215 with four doubles, two triples and one home run, posting a .613 OPS. Heading into his senior season, Sloniger will be looked upon as Penn State’s offensive leader. Although there might be a position change.

With the addition of transfer Jacob Padilla, from Murray State College, and Penn State coaches seeing growth in Shea Sbranti, multiple players will take their spot behind the plate. When Sloniger is not suited up behind the plate, he will be at first base, looking to provide PSU with the necessary offense at a position which is expected to provide a little thump in the middle of a Big Ten lineup. Like Padilla, transferring from a junior college, Gavin Homer from Kellogg Community College, will be asked to provide a good glove and capable bat, as he takes on second base for Cooper.

The left side of the infield will have familiar faces with senior Conlin Hughes and redshirt-junior Connor Klemann returning to shortstop and third base respectively. Where Sloniger took a step forward in 2018, it was a step backward for Hughes. In 2017, Hughes batted .255 with nine doubles, three triples and four home runs, adding seven stolen bases. Hughes’ average dipped to .189 in 2018, recording six doubles, one triple and no home runs. Rebounding from an injury which limited him to 10 games in 2017, Klemann batted .234 with 10 extra-base hits. As a freshman, Klemann batted .260 over 28 games, lending belief there’s more in the third baseman a full year removed from a season-ending injury.

The first of several important sophomores, Parker Hendershot looks to build off of a strong debut season and fortify the DH spot in the PSU lineup. Appearing in 35 games, Hendershot batted .283 with six doubles and a home run, and drew 16 walks to sport a .379 on-base percentage. Those numbers would be good for classmate Curtis Robison to match, as he fills out a corner outfield spot in year two for the Nittany Lions. Although he batted .179 over 42 games, Robison collected eight doubles, a triple and two home runs as a freshman.

Penn State’s most consistent offensive force over the last two years, Bowersox used nine doubles and four triples to bat .276 last year. In 2017, over 33 games the right-handed hitter batted .333 with seven doubles and three home runs. Junior outfielder Mason Nadeau rounds out he returning players who saw the bulk of their time in the outfield last year. Like Bowersox, Nadeau’s 2017 season was better than his 2018 go. Last year, Nadeau’s average plunged to .202, after beginning his career in State College with a .308 average. Sbranti may see time in the outfield, as well as freshmen Ryan Ford and Justin Williams, with the veteran of the group being senior Jordan Bowersox.

Throughout the lineup, there are players who have shown they can be solid contributors for Penn State. What’s held the team back is rarely have those good years aligned. Where Sloniger stepped forward in 2018, several players regressed. Now, if Solinger maintains the high level of play he established last year, Bowersox, Hughes and Nadeau hit at their 2017 clip, Klemann shows the ability he did as a freshman before injuries set him back in 2017 and Hendershot and Robison show growth in their second year as DI athletes, last year’s .233 team average will fill look a distant memory. That may seem like a lot of ifs, but to even be an if the possibility has to be there, and past performances have indicated they are there for Cooper and Penn State.

On the mound

The outlook isn’t as clear on the mound for Penn State where youth is found in abundance. The Nittany Lions will need to replace Friday starter Justin Hagenman and the 76 strikeouts he recorded over 78.1 innings. Also gone are Taylor Lehman and Marko Borichich, two pitchers who flashed signs of promise but never put it all together, but still combined to pitch 75.1 innings, as Lehman made 10 starts and Borichich appeared in 21 games out of the bullpen.

With 15 sophomores on the team, second-year players will have a big say in Penn State’s success in 2018. They will especially do so on the mound. Sophomores Dante Biasi and Bailey Dees will lead the rotation, with Dees making a significant jump according to Cooper, as he gets ready for a bigger role. Biasi logged 62.1 innings over 13 starts and struck out 51 batters to 36 walks. He may not have the mid-to-upper-90s fastball his older brother Sal Biasi brought to the Penn State rotation two years ago, when he struck out 88 batters in 72.1 innings, but Biasi was serviceable in his first year on the mound after Tommy John surgery. As he made four starts and appeared in 12 games, it was Dees who wowed with strikeouts, punching out 36 in 28 innings. Dees did walk 16 and surrender 31 hits, but the stuff is there to be a big time arm, it’s a matter of control and developing a greater sense of pitchability.

A third sophomore, Conor Larkin, looks to be a key contributor in the bullpen, following 18 relief appearances last year, compiling a 5.79 ERA. In 37.1 innings, Larkin was tagged for 43 hits, but did record 38 strikeouts to 17 walks. Classmate Mason Mellott recorded four saves as his 3.18 ERA led all pitchers, contributing 34 innings over 24 relief outings. Kyle Virbitsky, yet another sophomore, pitched to a 5.40 ERA in 21.2 innings, with 14 of his 15 appearances coming as a reliever. Fourth-year junior Eric Mock started the season at the back of the Penn State bullpen, and finished with three saves over 31.2 innings and a 5.97 ERA.

For newcomers, Cooper likes the promise left-handed freshmen Tyler Shingledecker and Hutch Gagnon have shown leading up to the season and expect the ball to be in their hands early and often.

There are a few key innings that need filled and throughout the pitching staff there isn’t a lot of history for the players Penn State will rely on on the mound. But there are a lot of players that were thrown to the fire early, players that arrived on campus together and look to turn the tide together, who figure to be battle tested, with little that can come there way in 2018 to throw them off. If a few players take a step forward in their second season, there may be enough in the rotation and in relief for the pitchers to do their part, and take some pressure off the bats so the best of their abilities come out and get the ship turned for Penn State.

Five things to watch

Sloniger building off of last year and becoming one of the Big Ten’s top bats.

Do Hughes, Bowersox and Nadeau return to 2017 form.

Can Mellott and Mock form to 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen.

Which sophomore in the rotation takes a step forward.

Does Cooper rotate catchers or does someone make the position theirs through production.

One weekend to circle

March 1-3 vs. Duke. After playing in a super regional and ending the season with a top 10 ranking, picked to be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best teams, Penn State’s neutral site series against the Blue Devils will be a great barometer of progress. The first two series of the season, three games against Monmouth and four games against Fairfield, all played in Cary, N.C, should give Penn State the ability to head into March with a winning record. For a young team, success in the opening weekends are critical, creating confidence by seeing the offseason efforts pay dividends is a must. In taking on Duke, Penn State will see first hand what a regional club looks like and where they have to go to become one themselves. If Biasi, Mellott, Mock and Dees can put together quality outings against a potential top 25 team, or Hendershot, Sloniger or Ford run into one as Duke features one of the country’s best pitchers in left-hander Graeme Stinson. A strong showing against Duke can quickly parlay into bigger things, as another good non-conference series at Central Florida follows, before a series against UMass-Lowell concludes the pre-Big Ten slate where date with Minnesota starts Big Ten play.

For Vaughn, 2018’s obstacles to lead the way in 2019

When the final out was recorded in Maryland’s 4-0, Feb. 16, 2018 win over Tennessee, it was the period on the perfect script.

Terrapin ace Taylor Bloom pitched seven dominant innings, scattering six hits while striking out nine batters without issuing a walk. Second baseman Nick Dunn, entering the season as one of the Big Ten’s top draft prospects, showed his star power, going 2-for-3 with two walks and two home runs. Junior all-conference outfielder Marty Costes recorded a pair of hits in five at-bats.

And first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, after spending five years on the staff of former coach John Szefc, led the team to victory in his first game at the helm.

Everything was there. Pitching, offense, an errorless contest, and the new coach grabbing a road win at an Southeastern Conference school.

The feel good story didn’t last long, as Maryland’s 2018 went every which way except what was to be expected on paper.

Heading into the 2018 season, Maryland was a consensus pick to finish among the Big Ten’s top three, ticketed for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Alongside Bloom, sophomore left-hander Tyler Blohm, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, spearheaded the rotation. Dunn and Costes were to make up the heart of a deep lineup, surrounded by the likes of shortstop A.J. Lee and outfielder Zach Jancarski. Lee was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection in 2017, while Jancarski batted .325 with 17 home runs.

On paper, there was a lot to like about Maryland, the rotation, the veterans in the field, the power potential and enough speed to keep opposing pitchers on their toes. It all appeared to be there. And with Vaughn’s knowledge of the programs and players, having recruited them and serving as their hitting coach, the high expectations didn’t seem out of hand, even for a first-year coach. But in hindsight, that familiarity, as well as it served him to take over the Terrapin program as one of Division I baseball’s youngest head coaches, may have ultimately hindered the team’s on-field success.

“I think as a coaching staff, that’s where I really dropped the ball, and I wish like anything I could take it back for that group of seniors and juniors that left,” Vaughn said, as a 24-30 season saw Maryland fall well shy of preseason expectations. “I think you had such a group that you look on paper and think, you know what, they have been through the ringer, I’ve busted those guys up for three years, I can be a little lighter on them, I can kind of pull the reigns back a bit because they’ve got it…and then when we got punched in the mouth in March, we had no idea how to respond to adversity, no idea how to pick ourselves up and grind through something.”

Instead of participating in a regional for the fourth time in five seasons, Maryland’s season ended before the Big Ten Tournament started. A 9-14 record in conference play produced way to a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten table. In an up-and-down year, which never saw Maryland garner any traction, there wasn’t a guide for Vaughn to fall back on. As the team took their lumps, it was Maryland’s first losing season since 2011, when current Michigan head coach Erik Bakich oversaw a 21-35 season, so too did he, learning the nuances of being a head coach and how to lead an entire program on and away from the diamond.

“As a young coach, one of the biggest things I had to learn was balancing different things,” said Vaughn, who at age 30 was named the eighth head coach in program history. “Me and Coach Szfec aren’t the same person, we manage people differently, we lead a bit differently.

“I was kind of caught in this place last year, where it was like, I worked with the hitters for five years, that’s all I’ve ever coached, those are my guys, to trying to figure out what does my role actually look like. Am I the CEO type? Am I the still the guy that coaches the hitters? What exactly does that role look like, and there’s honestly some growing pains with that because I felt like I was trying to find myself.”

Heading into a second offseason leading the program, to go forward Vaughn realized he needed to take a step back.

“I kind of got back to what I’m super passionate about and the reason I got into this in the first place. It’s not to be a CEO, it’s not to sit at the top and watch other people coach; I love recruiting, I love coaching hitters, I like being on the field every day.

“I think I listened to a lot of people last year where it’s like man, as a head coach you have so many responsibilities, you’re just not going to have time, this and that. Frankly, you find time for what you really care about. For me, a big piece of it is getting back to the stuff I love.”

Although the team may not have reached its full potential, a .243 average bettered only Penn State’s .233 clip and the team pitched to a 5.28 ERA, Dunn did bat .330 with 17 doubles and 10 home runs, Jancarski and fellow senior Kevin Boindic batted .279, Costes reached base at a .382 mark with six home runs, and Bloom logged 79.1 innings.

All of those players, each a three or four-year starter, are gone. With a roster off 22 underclassmen and seven transfers, Vaughn’s hand was almost forced for him to get back to being more hands on.

Sometimes the obstacles in front of us provide the way forward.

“The first week, we didn’t even get on a baseball field, we spent it in the classroom,” Vaughn said. “We actually took them down to D.C. one day, did some stuff in D.C. one morning from a conditioning standpoint. Just really try to get them to understand that we’re not a program that’s going to compare our success based on going to Omaha or not going to Omaha, it’s about developing people. At the heart of it, that’s what we want to be about. I think the byproduct of that is you’ll get guys that will run through a wall for you, at this level you end up winning a ton of games.”

With a better understanding of how to lead a program of young men and finding a balance with hitting coach Justin Swope, Vaughn feels everything he and the team went through last year will only make them tougher, closer and ready to rebound in a big way.

“I think I learned a ton, I had a ton of growing pains last year. But it’s been really good with this group of freshmen, combined with our sophomores, our freshmen last year, sophomores this year. (Justin) Vought, (Randy) Bednar and those guys, that left them with a really sour taste in their mouths. They weren’t the guys that said screw it, I’m going to go transfer somewhere else, we gotta make this thing right. So those guys have seen how it’s been done when we weren’t firing on all cylinders, when we weren’t going about our business the right and those guys have been bound and determined to not let it happen again. Between those classes and having a few really, really impact seniors back this year, it’s been really fun to get back to coaching those guys up the way we want to do.”

The way they want to. Now it’s time to get back to that script.

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