Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

The Prospect Junkie: Q&A with Mike Rooney

In this week’s edition of The Prospect Junkie, I spent some time chatting with ESPN College Baseball Analyst Mike Rooney as he provided perspective on the strength of the Big Ten Conference, and thoughts on some of the prospects within. In addition to providing in-game commentary on ESPN throughout the season, Rooney provides insight as a writer for Perfect Game.

BG: Which Big Ten teams have you had a chance to see thus far this season?

I’ve seen Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, and then I watched recently caught one of the Michigan State and South Carolina games last weekend on the Watch ESPN App. I also feel like I have a good feel for Maryland because I covered their Regional in 2015 when they upset UCLA, and I also sat on them for a series against Cal State Fullerton last year which was a very good series for them.  I feel like I know their roster pretty well.

BG: What are your general thoughts on the strength of those teams?

Michigan looked really good, they stack up with anyone, anywhere. I loved everything about Michigan. I loved their style of play. I loved that they had seniors in center field, at shortstop, and at catcher. I love that they’ve got a little mojo. They were in the Regional a couple years ago and then they faltered last year so I actually like that they have a little scar from last year. So Michigan I think is a threat anywhere or anytime, I love that club.

I had really high hopes for Nebraska, and I feel like I just didn’t see them well. I’m sure with any of the Big Ten teams, you need to temper yourself when you see them in February and early March. I think that league is notorious for clubs playing differently at the end of the year. I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

BG: Ohio State’s Tre’ Gantt got off to a hot start, in particular in the Big Ten PAC-12 Challenge. Tell me what you saw out of him.

He was good in that weekend. He’s a left-hander who has a feel for his game and a very handsy swing, which I like.  He used the entire field and ran well. I understand he hasn’t played a ton of baseball, but he’s very intriguing. He moves well and has a good feel for how to play the game. He wasn’t really tested in CF in the games that I saw, but he’s definitely a name that you write down because’s he’s left-handed, and he can really run.

BG: Indiana has one of the better pro prospects in the conference in outfielder Logan Sowers. Did he make an impression on you?

Yeah, he was really interesting because while he didn’t play great, he so strong. He was stiffer than I anticipated, but he ran into two breaking balls. They play that tournament in Surprise (Ariz.) which is a Spring Training park that is massive in order to showcase outfield range. He hit a double in the gap and another ball to the base of the wall in centerfield. He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

BG: The Big Ten may not have a top 10 overall talent like Tyler Jay or Kyle Schwarber this year, but Kevin Smith of Maryland might be the best bet at a first-rounder. What are your impressions of him?

I came out of that Regional in 2015 as the president of the Kevin Smith fan club. UCLA was the #1 overall seed, and this kid as a true freshman was so good. He handled every play, the game never sped up on him. And he had some really good at-bats, I think they hit him second in the order, so it was disappointing to see him have such a rough sophomore year.

When I saw him last year, you could tell he was trying to do too much. I was encouraged to hear about the summer. He’s off to a really rough start, and he’s not the first junior in the history of college baseball to have a rough time with the pressures of the draft year. Especially for a kid like him whose tools aren’t that loud but you start getting first round noise around you, I think that would be tough to reconcile mentally. I see he has 17 punch-outs in 14 games. Unless I’m whiffing on this, he’s a way better hitter than that. So to me, that screams that he’s trying to do too much. The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out

The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out right-center field, and he‘s a good baserunner. Also, really good pitching didn’t seem to phase him.

Preseason unit ranks: Corner infielders and outfielders

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the corners of the diamond and in the outfielder, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Corner infielders & DH

Minnesota

A potent offense led Minnesota to its first Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. While graduation or the MLB Draft forced the departure of three of the top four hitters from a .322 batting team, the Gophers return two key players at the corners and a breakout candidate at DH. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey has Big Ten Player of the Year Potential, coming off of a sophomore campaign where he filled up Gopher stat sheets. Coffey batted .333 with 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs, tying for the team-lead with 42 RBI. Defensively, Coffey committed only six errors in 154 chances, providing a solid glove at the hot corner. Across the diamond, classmate Toby Hanson looks to build off of a season where he batted .301 over 40 games, hitting five home runs. In the DH spot, sophomore Cole McDevitt put up big numbers in limited opportunities for the Big Ten champs. Appearing in 12 games, making four starts, McDevitt collected nine hits in 22 at-bats for a .409 average, two of which were home runs. The trio provides a power-packed core that John Anderson can build around.

Michigan

The Wolverines return every starter around the diamond, but the two on the corner will flip-flop position. A summer injury will force junior Jake Bivens to move from third base to first base, changing spots with classmate Drew Lugbauer. Regardless of where on the diamond the two suit up, opposing pitchers need to proceed with caution when facing both. Bivens, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has shown an ability to hit from his first day in Maize and Blue. Batting .319 as a freshman, Bivens bumped his average to .356 in 2016 and contributed 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Lugbauer saw a noteworthy increase in offensive production from year one to year two himself. After posting a line .211/.281/.300 in 2015, as a sophomore, Lugbauer’s respective batting average, on-base and slugging percentages made him a force in Michigan’s lineup. On the strength of 15 doubles, seven home runs and 30 walks, Lugbauer batted .294 with a .389 on-base percentage and .483 slugging clip.

Michigan State

Michigan State sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina did a bit of everything for the Spartans last year. A good athlete, Bechina moved to center field when injuries depleted the Michigan State outfield. Bechina also showed flashes of being an impact player at the plate. Starting out hot, Bechina carried a .326 average through March 31, before finishing his first season in East Lansing with a solid .260 average., with 11 doubles and two home runs. Back to his natural third base in 2017, Bechina will be depended upon to be a big bat for Jake Boss. At first base, sophomore Alex Troop will be in the infield, when not the Spartans’ Friday night ace. Troop batted .372 with six doubles in 2016, before a broken thumb ended his season in early March. Troops’ injury allowed Zack McGuire to step in and receive playing time, give MSU a quality option at first when Troop is on the mound, or at DH. McGuire batted .250 over 76 at-bats, dialing up seven doubles and a pair of home runs to help produce a .739 OPS as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, Baseball America has tabbed third baseman Luke Miller as one of the Big Ten’s top five prospects. Taking on a new position, a high school outfielder, Miller handled the hot corner well, while batting .284 with 11 doubles. At first base, senior Austin Cangelosi looks to rebound after a down campaign. Cangelosi batted .219 with six doubles and four home runs after carrying a .246 clip in 2015, with eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. IU has four capable outfielders in Craig Dedelow, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa and Logan Sowers, with the odd man out likely being the DH.

 

Outfielders

Indiana

Four capable guys for three spots gives Indiana the Big Ten’s best outfield. Sowers, a junior, has as much power potential as any player in the conference. Sowers connected for eight home runs in 2016, while being limited to 44 games due to injury. Later in the year, Sowers battled a banged up shoulder, contributing to a season-ending average of .273, which was as high as .337 in late April. Sowers has a big arm and runs well, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound mulit-tooled athlete. Dedelow led IU in batting as a junior in 2016, finishing year three in Bloomington with a .302 average. Dedelow’s 16 doubles also paced the club, a part of 23 extra-base hits with two triples and five home runs. Dedelow and Sowers can be as good of an offensive 1-2 punch in the conference. Krupa and Eustace don’t have the power of their Hoosier teammates, but both have a glove that can play in any outfield, while being spark plugs to the offense. Krupa, a senior, batted .281 with 14 stolen bases as the IU center fielder, after transferring from Iowa Western. When seeing playing time, Eustace batted .248 with a .746 OPS, steal six bases over 40 games as a sophomore. Eustace had a big summer in the Northwoods League, batting .320 over 63 with the wood bat for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.

Nebraska

Nebraska is right there in touting the Big Ten’s top outfield. Junior Scott Schreiber has All-American potential, slugging a Big Ten-best 16 home runs and posting a 1.020 OPS will do that. Schreiber, a former high school quarterback, was Nebraska’s primary first baseman in 2016, but will slide to right field, with Nebraska expecting Schreiber’s athleticism able to handle the change. Schreiber’s .325 average was bested by junior center fielder Jake Meyer’s .326 mark. Meyers, Nebraska’s Sunday starting pitcher, showed a good blend of speed and pop, recording 12 doubles, six triples and two home runs, with 10 stolen bases. Spending a little time in the infield in 2016, junior Luis Alvarado is back to calling left field is home. Alvarado finished his sophomore season witha  .251 average over 53 games.

Rutgers

Rutgers outfield deep enough that senior Mike Carter can move to first base, after batting .367 over 28 games, without head coach Joe Litterio worrying about a production drop off from his outfield. All eyes will be on sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris to see what the two-sport standout does in year two. After leading Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, no returning player in NCAA baseball stolen more bases than Harris last season. Leading the Big Ten with 37 swipes, batting .273, Harris providing an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights. To Harris’ right, senior Tom Marcinczyk led Rutgers with a .446 slugging percentage in 2016, picking up 12 doubles with six triples and four home runs, batting .270, adding 18 stolen bases for good measure. Left field will be manned by sophomore Luke Bowerbank, who comes off a quality rookie season where he batted .301 in 34 games.

Honorable Mention: Minnesota

While sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga is primed for a breakout season, the two Gophers around him look to pick up where 2016 left off, when they experienced breakthrough seasons. Junior right fielder Alex Boxwell put together a nice .327/.379/.464 season as he stepped into an everyday role. Boxwell’s 10 doubles were matched by senior Jordan Smith, who carried a .296 average throughout his junior season, adding a pair of triples and three home runs.

The Prospect Junkie: Who I’m watching

There’s no denying that the Big Ten Conference is gaining respect in the collegiate baseball world. From 2010-2014, the conference earned no more than two bids into the NCAA Tournament each season before peaking with a whopping five bids in 2015 followed by three more in 2016.

The Big Ten has deeper program talent and more parity from top to bottom than it has for years, as the eight bids notched by the conference over the past two seasons were earned by eight different teams.

Whether that program depth within the conference translates into individual prospect talent is another question.  While there doesn’t appear to be a Kyle Schwarber or Tyler Jay in the Big Ten this season, both of whom were drafted in the top 10 overall picks in 2014 and 2015 respectively, there are still noteworthy players.

We’re taking the opportunity to highlight a few of the top prospects in the Big Ten that I’ll be watching closely this spring in preparation for June’s MLB Draft.

Kevin Smith, SS, Maryland

Not only did Smith go undrafted out of Columbia High School in East Greenbush, New York, he was barely recruited, with Maryland being his one and only DI scholarship offer.

If he was unknown prior to stepping onto campus, Smith made people take notice by starting 65 games in his freshman season for a Maryland team that would eventually make it’s second consecutive trip to the Super Regional round. A glove-first shortstop, Smith also produced a serviceable .259/.308/.407 slash line, with eight home runs as a sophomore before taking a step forward in the Cape Cod League.

Using wood bats last summer, Smith hit .301/.348/.427 with five home runs including the playoffs. Decorated with several preseason All-American accolades, Smith offers the best chance at a first round selection for the Big Ten due to his likelihood to stick at shortstop paired with an above-average power profile.

Brian Shaffer, RHP, Maryland

Shaffer has some pretty large shoes to fill as the ace of the Maryland staff. Mike Shawaryn started 48 games over three seasons for the Terrapins, winning 30 games and logging over 300 innings before the Red Sox him in the 5th round of the MLB Draft last summer.

Shaffer was no slouch last season, even stepping in for a struggling Shawaryn in the Friday night role for a brief period in route to an 8-3, 2.60 ERA 0.88 WHIP season. Shaffer has excellent control, walking just 1.13 batters per nine innings last season and 1.20 for his career.

Like Smith, Shaffer went undrafted out of high school but that will change in June. Standing 6’5” and 200 pounds, Shaffer worked at 92-94 mph last season at his best. The prototypical pitcher’s frame, velocity, and low walk rate make Shaffer an intriguing prospect to follow for this draft season.

Logan Sowers, OF, Indiana

Sowers has the most distinguished pedigree in this bunch. As a prep standout at McCutcheon HS in Lafayettte, Sowers earned Indiana Mr. Baseball honors in 2014 before being drafted by the Padres in the 31st round that summer.  Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six

Following through on his commitment to Indiana, Sowers started all 59 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman, finishing with a slash line of .257/.329/.427 and six homeruns which earned him All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. Sowers improved on his sophomore campaign, and he was named team MVP while hitting .273/.377/.466 and leading the team with eight home runs despite missing three weeks with a shoulder injury.

Perhaps what’s most encouraging sign is that Sowers was able to tap into his plus raw power while improving his strikeout to walk ratio from 3.19 to 1.64 year over year. The last live look I got of Sowers was early in his collegiate career as Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman made him look like the raw teenager he was. Eshelman had a tendency to do that. I’m looking forward seeing the continued maturation this season to determine of my eyes corroborate what the numbers are indicating.

 

Five more to watch

Luke Miller, 3B, Indiana*

Scott Schreiber, OF, Nebraska

Drew Lugbauer, C/INF, Michigan

Alex Troop, LHP, Michigan State**

Lucas Gilbreth, LHP, Minnesota

 

*Draft-eligible sophomore

**Redshirt sophomore

Preseason unit ranks: Pitchers and up the middle

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the mound and up the middle, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Starting pitchers

Maryland

The Terrapins lost all-everything ace Mike Shawaryn to the MLB Draft, a pitcher whose name is littered throughout the program’s record book. But the latter two-thirds of the Maryland rotation returns, providing as enviable and durable of a 1-2 punch as the Big Ten has seen in recent years. Junior right-hander pitcher Brian Shaffer led Maryland with an 8-3 record, tossing a team-best 103.2 innings. Shaffer’s 2.60 ERA only trailed classmate right-handed pitcher Taylor Bloom’s 2.43 mark over 102.1 innings. The two combined for 135 strikeouts and just 22 walks. Regardless of what Maryland gets in relief pitching and run production, Shaffer and Bloom will have Maryland in a position to win every weekend series.

Michigan State

All but three Big Ten teams will need to replace their Friday starter, but none have a candidate ready to step in who put up as impressive numbers in 2016 Michigan State redshirt sophomore Alex Troop, albeit in a short stint. Troop will take over the #1 spot in the MSU rotation after going 3-0 a year ago, sporting a 1.64 ERA. But a broken bone in the southpaw’s left thumb ended his season after 14 strikeouts in 11 innings. Junior right-handed pitcher Ethan Landon will resume his Saturday role, where he put together a very quiet but very strong season. In his first action with the Spartans, the transfer from Kansas State went 8-3 in 15 starts, pitching 85 innings with a 2.75 ERA. Michigan State will round its rotation with junior right-handed pitcher Andrew Gonzalez, he too had a sub-3.00 ERA at 2.84 in 54 innings over 17 appearances.

Michigan

The Wolverines have six viable starting pitchers at their disposal, lead by junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie. Jaskie shined as a sophomore, going 7-3 with a team-best 3.19 ERA. Though Michigan lost Brett Adcock to the draft and Evan Hill to graduation, two pitchers who combined for 26 starts and 141.2 innings, junior righty Ryan Nutof is an experienced arm who has been in the rotation. Nutof pitched 54 innings in 2016, to the tune of a 3.67 ERA. Michigan’s big junior class continues with Michael Hendrickson who returns from a season-ending injury, after striking out 16 in 10.2 innings.

Honorable Mention: Nebraska

The Cornhuskers return their entire rotation from their 2016 NCAA Regional team, with senior right-hander Derek Burkamper, sophomore right-hander Matt Waldron and junior left-handed Jake Meyers. The trio combined to pitch 196 innings, each with ERAs below 3.10. None of the three have overpowering stuff, respectively K/9 inning totals of 7.07, 6.69 and 4.62, relying on command and inducing weak contact. Due to minor forearm matter, Burkamper will enter the season in the bullpen.

 

Relief pitchers

Michigan State

The loss of an All-American, especially one as dominant as Dakota Mekkes, would normally be a setback to a perceived team strength. While Jake Boss would love another year with Mekkes, Michigan State should be fine. The Spartans likely won’t have a reliever capable of striking out 96 batters in 57 innings, pitch to a 1.74 ERA, they have five returners with sub-3.65 ERAs who were significant contributors. Junior Jake Lowery will be MSU’s swingman, an arm capable of shutting down an opponent or going multiple innings. Lowery had a 2.73 ERA in 26.1 innings in his return from Tommy John surgery. Senior left-hander Joe Mockbee and classmate right-hander Walter Borkovich can be situational arms, 120.1 innings were tossed between them in 2016. All Keegan Baar did as a sophomore was stymie batters to a .212 average in 42.1 innings. While sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to take over the closer’s role for the Spartans, a year after pitching 17 innings with a 1.59 ERA.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes had a high octane offense in 2016, leading the Big Ten in doubles and home runs en route to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years. Gone are the extra-base machines Jacob Bosiokovic, Ronnie Dawson, Troy Kuhn, Troy Montgomery and Nick Sergakis, as good as Ohio State will rely on its pitching staff in 2017. Junior right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker has the ability to close a game or pitch in extended relief, turned to 38 times out of the bullpen, logging 54.2 innings while holding a 1.65. Closer Yianni Pavlopoulos returns after a 15-save, 3.03-ERA season, though he may be a starting option. If that is the case, Ohio State welcomes the return of senior Jake Post, a right-handed pitcher who missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, a capable closer. Another quality arm the Buckeyes relied heavily on who returns is senior Kyle Michalik. The submariner who tossed 32 innings of 1.69 ERA baseball as a key middle relief option.

Iowa

Rick Heller believes his 2017 Hawkeye team has the deepest pitching corp in his four seasons. Looking at his roster, he has good reason to believe so. Six of Iowa’s top seven relievers return from a team that carried a collective 3.54 ERA. Sophomore Sam Lizarraga is ready for a big time role after holding a .79 ERA in eight outings, pitching 11.1 innings. Another potential super sophomore, Zach Daniels led the Hawkeyes with five saves, toeing the rubber for 18 innings, finishing his freshman year with a 1.50 ERA. Between Daniels and Lizaragga, only seven walks were issued while 27 batters were struck out. Right-handed pitcher Josh Martsching returns for his senior season, ready to build on a strong 2016 where he finished the year with a 2.41 ERA in 18.2 innings. Nick Allgeyer, Ryan Erickson and midweek starter Cole McDonald are three more dependable relief arms, capable of helping the Hawkeyes hold a lead and secure a win.

Honorable Mention: Michigan

As mentioned, Michigan has nearly half-dozen potential options to round out its rotation after Oliver Jaskie takes the Friday role. Those on the outside of the rotation will be a top bullpen option to go with senior right-hander Jackson Lamb and junior right-handed closer Bryan Pall. Pall returns after saving four games in 2016, using a fastball-slider combination to strikeout 33 batters in 32 innings and finish the season with a 2.81 ERA.

 

Up the middle (Catcher, second base, shortstop)

Maryland

Maryland is home to the Big Ten’s top professional prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft in junior shortstop Kevin Smith. Though his spring numbers weren’t eye-popping, a .259 average with eight home runs, Smith went to the Cape and batted .301, being named an All-Star while showing scouts the ability to stick defensively at shortstop at the next level, and a belief that better days are ahead with the bat. Smith’s double play partner, sophomore Nick Dunn, needed only one college season to show he has a capable bat. Dunn led the Terrapins with a .300 average and 16 doubles in 2016, before he too was named a Cape Cod All-Star. Maryland struggled to receive consistency behind the plate a year ago, but both players who saw time, senior Nick Cieri and junior Justin Morris are back, looking to build upon a season where they allowed 56 stolen bases in 68 attempts, while respectively batting .256 and .194.

Michigan

The depth of Michigan’s pitching staff is complimented with the return of catcher Harrison Wenson. A 39th-round flier by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June’s draft, Wenson opted to return for his senior year. In Wenson, Michigan has a durable catcher, a tough-nosed player as Wenson battled wrist and thumb injury throughout the 2016 season, still starting all 57 games. Wenson batted .289 on the year but did allow 16 passed balls. Behind the Michigan starter on the mound, both middle infielders return. Senior shortstop Michael Brdar is a steady glove, making the routine plays while sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas is a superb athlete, capable of making the spectacular play. Brdar a JUCO transfer, Thomas a freshman, both were serviceable with the bat in their first season of Big Ten play, respective .250 and .258 average, but will be asked of a bit more as Michigan looks to win its first Big Ten championship since 2008.

Michigan State

Like Michigan, Michigan State saw its catcher turn down a professional opportunity to return to school. Senior Matt Byars blossomed in 2016, becoming a premier two-way catcher. At the plate, Byars, a 24th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, batted .284 with 16 doubles and four home runs. Behind the dish, the Spartan committed only two errors with six passed balls. Throwing out a runner 12 times, Byars has senior Dan Durkin on the receiving end of throws at second base. Durkin batted .324 while starting all 56 games for MSU, posting a .963 fielding percentage. Michigan State will potentially platoon at shortstop until either Kory Young or Royce Ando asserts himself over the other. Young’s .224 average bettered Ando’s .197 clip, but Ando did collect three triples and is a player capable of making the WOW play look routine.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

Ryan Fineman turned in a strong debut season for a freshman catcher. Starting 50 games, Fineman batted .268 with eight doubles and three home runs. A good debut season at the plate, Fineman was better with the glove and arm. Committing just four errors with six passed balls, Fineman also showed an ability to control the opposition’s running game, throwing out 41% of would-be base stealers. Senior second baseman Tony Butler did not commit an error in 203 chances, though his .221 average made him one-dimensional. IU struggled to find either a bat or defensive wizard at shortstop, opening the door for highly-touted freshman Jeremy Houston to make an impact from the start.

 

Five primed for breakout seasons

The Big Ten has produced a first-round pick each of the last three seasons, with Kyle Schwarber, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock emerging as one of the country’s top talents. Again, the Big Ten is not short of standout individual talent with Maryland’s Kevin Smith and Nebraska’s Jake Meyers receiving preseason All-American honors.

But beyond those two, there are several players ready to step into greater roles, capable of putting together noteworthy seasons. Here’s a look at five players primed for breakout seasons.

Maryland Soph. OF Marty Costes

It might not be fair to list Maryland sophomore outfielder Marty Costes as a player primed for a breakout season, he did lead Maryland with nine home runs, the most by a Big Ten freshman, after all. But if even gradual improvements are seen across the board, Costes has a chance to be the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and an All-American. Costes batted .260 in his freshman year, collecting 10 doubles with a pair of doubles, to reach 21 extra-base hits. The power, a .216 isolated slugging percentage, wasn’t terribly compromised with outrageous strikeouts, 21% of at-bats ended in strikeouts, while 28 walks spurred Costes to a .363 on-base percentage. During the Big Ten Tournament, Costes said he didn’t have the best approach as a freshman, there were times he’d chase bad pitches. With a year under his belt and better knowledge of the game, a banner year may be on deck.

Ohio State Jr. OF Tre’ Gantt

Tre’ Gantt emerged as a dynamic player for Ohio State in the second-half of the 2015 season. Arriving on campus in time for the winter semester, Gantt wasted no time getting up to speed and making an impact for the Buckeyes, batting .311 as a freshman over 74 at-bats. But Gantt had labrum surgery following the 2015 season and a slow start to his sophomore campaign led to a step backward offensive. Gantt did show a little more pop in year two, after collecting just one double and one triple in 2015, the outfielder picked up eight doubles, but he was unable to consistently reach base, finishing the season with a .255 average and .311 on-base percentage. More than a year removed from the surgery, the Buckeyes expect Gantt to excel in 2017, as a switch from right field to his natural center field position to help. Slated to start on opening day for the first time, with the departures of Ronnie Dawson and Trom Montgomery, the opportunity is there for Gantt to assert himself as the leader of the Buckeye outfield.

Indiana Jr. RHP Brian Hobbie

Since he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana junior right-handed pitcher Brian Hobbie has looked the part of a big-time college pitcher. Standing six-foot-seven, weighing 227 pounds, Hobbie is a physical presence on the mound. Long-limbed, the ball seemingly crosses home plate in no time. Hobbie does possess a low-90s fastball, a heavy offering that can continually induce weak contact, so his pitches have enough giddy-up. Hobbie has shown flashes of brilliance but the Hoosiers are waiting for everything to come together. Sporting a 6.27 ERA over 18.2 innings as a freshman, Hobbie took a step in the right direction as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 2.08 in 8.2 innings. But after striking out 19 batters against six walks in 2015, Hobbie walked five and struck out three in 2016, contributing to a decrease in usage. Hobbie’s best 2016 effort came in the summer, earning Prospect League Pitcher of the Year honors after holding an 0.82 ERA over 54.2 innings. As Indiana needs to replace its entire rotation, the innings will be there for Hobbie to make an impact.

Minnesota Soph. OF Ben Mezzenga

With Dan Motl batting .336, dialing up 19 doubles and playing superb defense, the opportunities for Ben Mezzenga to make an impact for Minnesota were limited. Making four starts, Mezzenga picked up three hits in 21 at-bats. But don’t think Mezzenga didn’t try his best to leave his mark. Mezzenga stole three bases in three opportunities, to help him score seven runs. In the summer, with a full season of reps, Mezzenga showed why the Gophers are high on him heading into the new season. In 34 games with the Eau Claire Express, Mezzenga batted .321, scored 39 runs, and continued his base stealing prowess, swiping 22 bags. Able to run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds, Mezzenga is viewed as one of the best Minnesota athletes since two-sport standout Eric Decker, with a chance to be an impact the game with the bat, his glove and on the bases.

Illinois Soph. 3B Bren Spillane

Those who cover Midwestern high school baseball saw Illinois’ Bren Spillane as one of the most college-ready players in the high school class of 2015. With an advanced feel for hitting and the ability to hit with power, Spillane was viewed as a player capable of stepping in and contributing from day one for an Illini tweet hit hard that June by the draft. But Spillane suffered a concussion towards the end of his final prep season, and the effects lingered throughout his freshman year. Limited to just two starts and five total games, Spillane went hitless in nine at-bats before Illinois opted to hold him out for the rest of the season. With no symptoms, Spillane looks to have a big second season, this past fall proof of what he’s capable of. In Illinois’ intra-squad Blue and Orange series, Spillane had a three-home run game, a second multi-hit contest and capped the week with two RBI. Dan Hartleb and staff expects Spillane to be a force in the heart of the Illini lineup as the team seeks a fourth regional appearance in seven seasons.

 

Five more to watch

Northwestern Jr. RHP Tommy Bordignon

Penn State Soph. INF Connor Klemann

Purdue Soph. C Nick Dalesandro

Michigan State Jr. FHP Andrew Gonzalez

Michigan Jr. RHP Jayce Vance

10 series that will shape the season

The 2017 season is littered with big series, week after week in the Big Ten. Here is a look at 10 series which will shape the season.

Penn State at TCU, Feb. 17-19

Penn State has improved upon the previous season in each of Rob Cooper’s first three seasons in State College. The Nittany Lions finished the 2016 season with a 28-27 record, above .500 for the first time since 2012, going 12-12 in Big Ten play. Penn State finished in a tie for eighth in the conference, with Illinois and Iowa, but due to tiebreakers was on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament field. Penn State will have an opportunity right out of the gate to put to rest any lingering wishes of last season, opening the 2017 season at consensus #1 TCU. Penn State returns its entire weekend rotation from 2016 and the talent base and depth continues to build for the Nittany Lions. There is no greater opportunity to see how far the program than facing a program which has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Penn State played TCU tough in a three-game set last year in State College, ultimately being swept. If Penn State can leave Fort Worth with a win, Coop’s crew may be in line for a breakout year.

Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26

Maryland’s series at LSU has been circled from the day the respective schedules were put out. Tabbed the Big Ten’s favorite by national media, Maryland’s mettle will be tested early. There is no environment in college baseball like LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, but this is a Maryland team used to unwelcoming settings. It wasn’t long ago the Terrapins were coming off of back-to-back super regional appearances, in fact, that was just last year. With across the board preseason rankings, expectations are again high for Maryland. The meeting with the Tigers will not provide an opportunity to build a strong RPI, but if Maryland performs as many expect, they could be in line for a regional host at year’s end, and an early season win on the road against a top 10 team would be quite the bullet on a resume. The series will also likely have the best pitching matchup of any game involving a Big Ten team this season when Terrapin Brian Shaffer toes the mound opposite LSU’s Alex Lange, both strong draft prospects, to kick the weekend off.

Rutgers at Virginia, Feb. 24-26

Rutgers opens the season at Miami, and 2016 College World Series participant, providing a tough opponent from the start. But it is Rutgers’ second weekend, still against a very good opponent, at Virginia that figures to be a better gauge on what’s in front of the Scarlet Knights in 2017. Joe Litterio’s team now calls the glistening Fred Hill Training Complex home, a fully turfed indoor infield, which allows Rutgers to do everything on a diamond indoor it seeks to do outside. This is quite critical in the preparation for the New Jersey program. Expected to be as game-ready as ever to enter the season, it’s still hard to duplicate the outdoor nature of baseball. With a weekend under their belt, how Rutgers battles Virginia, the 2015 national champions, should show if the team is on an upward trend. Can Rutgers pull the upset and leave Charlottesville with a weekend win? Even grabbing one win will show Rutgers will have a say in how the Big Ten table shakes out.

Michigan at Lipscomb, March 10-12

Michigan’s depth on the mound paired with a few questions in the gives the Wolverines an opportunity to bring the Big Ten championship, and a NCAA regional, to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2008. The Wolverines open March in the four-team Dodgertown Classic field alongside San Diego and hosts UCLA and USC, putting Michigan against top competition early in the season. But the following weekend is one to keep an eye on. In Nashville, Michigan will meet Lipscomb for a three-game series, its first weekend set against a team expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not only is Lipscomb viewed by national media as regional-bound, in some corners they’re seen as a College World Series darkhorse. Led by preseason All-American outfielder Michael Gigliotti, Lipscomb swept preseason Atlantic Sun coaches honors. Tabbed as conference favorites, Gigliotti is the ASUN Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while Brady Puckett earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year.

Michigan State at South Carolina, March 10-12

Michigan State broke a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2012, a year after being conference co-champions with Illinois. For six seasons now, Jake Boss’ team has been a club in the mix for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Unfortunately, Michigan State has yet to duplicate either feat, painstakingly being the first team left out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and one of the first four out in 2015. But every year, Michigan State attempts to put itself a position to be considered for a tournament berth, seeking out tough competition away from home. From Texas A&M to UCLA and Oregon, there is no place MSU won’t go. This year, they take on Southeastern Conference power South Carolina. Like their in-state rivals in Ann Arbor, the team in East Lansing has a roster strong enough to bring a NCAA Regional to town. Grabbing a road win in Columbia will give MSU the credibility it needs to show they are for real, to get over the hump and return to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota at Ohio State, March 24-26

The pre-conference slate is filled with big series from coast to coast, putting teams in position to have a big 2017. The Big Ten season kicks off pitting two teams against each other, looking to continue what was started in 2016. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions welcome the reigning conference champions for a banner series out of the gate. Due to conference expansion and schedule quarks, Ohio State has not played host to Minnesota since 2012. Two tradition-ladened clubs, it’s mind-blogging five years could pass between the Gophers last trip to Columbus. On paper, both teams lost a lot from 2016 regional clubs, for Minnesota, the Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler is now in the pro ranks, the same for Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But enough parts return where a run at another conference crown should not be unexpected, nor a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Which team can start conference play on the right note will get a shot in the arm in turning a one-year rise into sustain success.

Maryland at Nebraska, April 7-9

In each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has yet to see the top two finishers square off in a weekend series. The 2016 season ended in high drama with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State all with a shot at the conference title, with the four teams squaring off in two series, but the season ended with Minnesota at the top, Nebraska second, one half-game separating the two with a game played between them. Illinois’ historic 21-1 season came without playing second-place Iowa. The 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game was a sensational spectacle, in part because Indiana and Nebraska, two ranked teams did not play in the regular season. Will this finally end? On the accord on national media, Nebraska is right there with Maryland as the team to beat in the Big Ten. An early April weekend sees the two square off, and it should be a dandy. Maryland’s dynamic pitching duo of Shaffer and Taylor Bloom will go against Nebraska’s big boopers in Scott Schreiber and Ben Miller. Both clubs have talent and experience, both are led by hard-nosed, no-nonsense coaches. With Hawks Field capable of filling up with thousands upon thousands, this will be a must-see series.

Xavier at Indiana, May 5-7

It’s a sneaky good non-conference series, quite the pickup for Indiana in its bye week. And the Hoosier didn’t have to look far for its opponent. While a mid-major, Xavier has a very capable team in 2017, should not be overlooked for a lack of power conference stature. The Musketeers, who may be home to the best pitching prospect in the Midwest in Zac Lowther, are the Big East preseason favorites return several capable players, from its Nashville Regional runners-up team. The Hoosiers will be the third Big Ten team Xavier faces in a weekend series, following Penn State and Ohio State, and, while the results do no count, have left Bloomington with an exhibition victory in each of the last two Autumns. Indiana returns its entire lineup and by May, the completely new rotation should have settled in. Looking to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, May will be a big month for the Hoosiers hopes, starting with this series against the Queen City club.

Long Beach State at Minnesota, May 12-14

Minnesota will open the season at the Big West’s UC Irvine and will conclude it’s out-of-conference slate by welcoming the Big West’s Long Beach State to Minneapolis in May. Long Beach State enters the season with a national ranking, looking primed to build on its program’s storied history. Minnesota is absent a preseason ranking, but they’ll be looking to do the same, shooting for a Big Ten-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance. By mid-May, RPI fluctuations will have calmed, teams will have a dozen weekends of showing who they are and what they’re capable of. For Minnesota to have a quality opponent come to town this late in the season is a boon. The Gophers will have the ability to make a final statement on the national landscape and potentially propel itself to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2004.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, May 18-20

Oh, what a dandy this could be. When Michigan and Michigan State meet, the two come together for a split-site series, alternating between two home games around one road contest, year after year. Last year, when the teams met in the final weekend of April, more than 7,000 fans came out to watch the rivals square off. That was with overcast skies twice in Ann Arbor and on a gray Saturday in East Lansing, the temperature resting in the upper 40s throughout the weekend. What could the turnout be if the two face off the final weekend of the season, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, as two teams stocked with pitchers and capable bats do battle? The imagination runs wild, what a way to end the season.