Spartans unable to crack Crowe

After Michigan State outhit South Carolina, 9-3, on Friday night, leaving eight runners on base and wasting a complete game from Alex Troop, Michigan State head coach Jake Boss said his team needed to do a better job of taking advantage of the opportunities provided to them.

With a flame-throwing pitcher on the mound, Saturday’s contest between the Spartans and Gamecocks didn’t provide as many opportunities for Michigan State, but the team aided the offensive efforts of the South Carolina with five walks, two hit batters a passed ball and an error.

A combination of South Carolina taking advantage of Michigan State miscues and a dominant performance from right-handed pitcher Wil Crowe was too much for Michigan State to overcome, the Spartans dropping the second game of their three-game set, 5-2.

“The last two nights, those are two of the better arms in the country,” head coach Jake Boss said. “We missed out on some opportunities, again tonight. Credit their guy, he made pitches when he needed to make pitches and seemed to get better as the game went on.”

On an overcast and blustery day in Columbia, with the temperature settled into the mid-50s by the seventh-inning stretch, the dispirited game conditions were matched by a downfallen first inning for the Spartans.

Freshman left fielder Brandon Gleaves opened the game with a grounder through the left side, scored as a fielding error with the ball skidding under the glover of Gamecock third baseman Jonah Bride. The ball dying in shallow left field, Gleaves’ hustle out of the box allowed him to reach second base. One batter into the game and the Spartans had a runner in scoring position.

It wouldn’t happen again until the fifth.

A sharp groundout to first held Gleaves at second, before the Spartan attempted to take third on a ball that escaped Gamecock catcher Hunter Taylor. Taylor recovered in time to throw out Gleaves and the Spartan at-bat soon ended with a strikeout.

Where MSU was unable to take advantage of the USC misplay, South Carolina pounced on mistakes Michigan State made.

Retiring the first batter he faced on a fly out, Michigan State starter Ethan Landon walked Jacob Olson and surrendered a single up the middle to Matt Williams. Olson advanced to third when center fielder Brandon Hughes was unable to cleanly pick up the ball. Two runners on base turned into two runners in scoring position after a wild pitch moved Williams up 90 feet. Landon bounded back to strikeout DH Chris Cullen, but a first-pitch fastball to Alex Destino was sent back up the middle for a two-run single, staking USC to the early lead.

With eight innings left to play, the 2-0 hole wasn’t insurmountable, and Michigan State quickly responded.

Stepping to the plate after Crowe quickly retired the inning’s first two batters, Troop sent the first pitch he saw from Crowe over the right field wall for his first home run of the season. Right fielder Dan Chmielewski followed Troop’s round-tripper with a single to center. But with Crowe running his fastball between 93 and 97 MPH, it would be the last time MSU recorded a hit off the right-handed until the seventh.

A day after Troop pitched a complete game, the Spartans were unable to have Landon make it through two innings.

Consecutive one-out walks ended Landon’s afternoon after 40 pitches in 1.1 innings of work. Senior left-handed pitcher Joe Mockbee escaped the jam and recorded shutout innings in the third and fourth innings. But the fifth inning for Mockbee and Michigan State was the difference.

Michigan State was unable to take advantage of a leadoff walk issued to Troop and a one-out walk drawn by catcher Matt Byars. A fielder’s choice, flyout and strikeout to close the inning stranded two of the game’s six runners on base.

Their turn at the plate, South Carolina did what Michigan State sought to in turning walks to runs.

Williams helped USC regain its two-run lead with a leadoff home run to right, before back-to-back walks to the following batters chased Mockbee from the game. Following a sacrifice bunt, facing LT Tolbert, an offering from right-handed reliever Jake Lowery, hit first base and caromed into right field to score both runners, making it a 5-1 game.

A hit batter and infield single loaded the bases with one out, forcing Boss match-up pitcher against batters and use the third, freshman left-hander Mitchell Tyranski, and fourth, senior right-hander Walter Borkovich, pitchers of the inning to record the final two outs.

“I left Joe in longer than I should have,” Boss said. “I didn’t pull the trigger when I should have, that’s on me…I thought Joe threw well. I wanted to stay with him for the matchup against Destino and shouldn’t have.”

Borkovich pitched Michigan State through the end of the game, tossing the final 3.1 innings without yielding a run, scattering only two hits. But the strong closing effort was too little too late as Michigan State could only muster one run over the final seven innings.

The scoring closed in the eighth when senior second baseman Dan Durkin singled through the left side and moved to third base on an errant pickoff attempt by USC pitcher Josh Reagan. A grounder to second base by Bechina plated Durkin, bringing the game to its final run 5-2 score.

Troop added a single in the ninth, to lead Michigan State with a 2-for-2 game, scoring and driving in a run on his home run.

Crowe held the Spartans to three hits in 6.2 innings, allowing one run, striking out nine batters with three walks. Receiving the loss, Landon allowed two runs, both earned, off two hits in 1.1 innings, issuing three walks.

Playing the Gamecocks tough over the first two games, but without a result to show for it, the series finale is set for a 1:05 p.m. first pitch on Sunday. Inclement weather is in the forecast as Michigan State looks to try to salvage the series and leave Columbia with a win, not just lessons learned or memories made.

“We got behind early, it was disappointing, but I’m proud of our guys for continuing to fight…At the end of the day we need to get better. We didn’t come down here for the experience. The experience isn’t the reason we’re here, hopefully we get one more chance tomorrow.”

Spartans strong, but not sharp enough

Michigan State head coach Jake Boss didn’t schedule South Carolina in a pursuit of moral victories.  A top-25 team, playing in front of more than 6,500 fans, a competitive showing against the Southeastern Conference club would be good enough for a lot of teams. But the Spartans have the same goal as the Gamecocks, to reach the College World Series, and only victories which stand in the win-loss record matter in that pursuit. For as well as Michigan State played against the 2010 and 2011 national champions in Friday night’s 3-2 loss, the loss is just that, a loss, and close isn’t good enough when you’re striving to be the best.

“I thought we had a couple opportunities that we weren’t able to take advantage of and we made a couple mistakes that they did take advantage of and that’s what good teams do, they take advantage of the opportunities that you give them,” Boss said.

Against the eighth-ranked team in the country, Michigan State’s opportunities outnumbered South Carolina’s, and the team capitalized early to score first in Founders Park.

With one out in the top of the third, freshman left fielder Danny Gleaves singled to the left field, advancing to second on a fielder’s choice one batter later. The first runner in scoring position against South Carolina pitcher Clarke Schmidt, Gleaves was batted in by sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina on a liner up the middle, putting the Spartans in front 1-0.

With Schmidt and Michigan State left-handed pitcher Alex Troop locked in a pitcher’s duel, for the first half of the game the lone run stood tall.

Picking up five strikeouts in the first two innings, after Gleaves’ run, Schmidt was back to racking up the punchouts, with two strikeouts in the fourth and another in a three-batter fifth inning.

The K-count wasn’t as gaudy, but Troop was equally dialed in.

The sophomore southpaw sat the Gamecocks down in order in the first two innings and worked around a hit batter in the third and walk on in the fourth. At the game’s midpoint, South Carolina had yet to strike Troop for a hit.

“Alex was lights out, he was one of the best guys in the country tonight,” said Boss, Michigan State’s ninth-year head coach.

But in the blink of an eye, Troop’s no-hitter, shutout and Michigan State’s lead was gone.

A lengthy umpire meeting ended the top of the fifth on a reversal of a safe call that saw Spartan second baseman Dan Durkin reach first on a fielder’s choice, changed to a 3-6-1 double play. With the aid of the umpires to end the Michigan State at-bat, the Gamecocks were spurred by the aid of the Spartans in their trip to the plate.

USC third baseman Alex Destino skied a ball to shallow right field, misplayed by MSU right fielder Dan Chmielewski. The ball dropping beyond Chmielewski’s glove, Destino reached second base on the error. South Carolina second baseman LT Tolbert was unable to successfully sacrifice Destino over, striking out after two failed bunt attempts, giving Michigan State a brief reprieve.

But the quality team they are, South Carolina made the most of the extra opportunity. USC shortstop Madison Stokes stroked the first offering from Troop over the left field wall for a two-run home run, giving the Gamecocks their first hit, run and lead.

The home run would be just one of three hits Troop surrendered in a 99-pitch complete game. A leadoff single in the sixth was erased by next at-bat double play, but the third USC hit led their third run, with the team again taking advantage on an opportunity provided.

With one down in the bottom of the seventh, Bride turned on a 2-1 offering from Troop for a line drive to left center. The ball escaped the outstretched glove of diving center fielder Bandon Hughes, leading to a standup triple. Tolbert again was unable to advance Bride, but striking out on a ball in the dirt, Tolbert forced a throw to first. After MSU catcher Matt Byars threw down to putout Tolbert, Bride broke for home, beating the throw from Zack McGuire to push USC’s lead to 3-1.

MSU responded in their next at-bat, but were unable to fully seize their opportunity.

Durkin led off the eighth with a single to left and moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch with Bechina at the plate. Bechina was hit by a pitch to put the first two runners on base, giving the Spartans two in scoring position a batter later after a successful sacrifice bunt by McGuire. Hughes grounded out to Tolbert at second base, but the ball to the right side was enough to bring in Durkin. Representing the tying run, Bechina was stranded at third base, keeping the game 3-2, the score holding until the end.

Bechina and Hughes each picked up two hits as Michigan State out-hit South Carolina 9-3, but the Spartans left eight runners on base to the Gamecocks’ two.

“We scattered nine hits, and I thought we came in with a good approach, but we struck out 14 times and so when you can’t move the baseball with runners in scoring position, it’s hard to score,” Boss said. “Every time Schmidt needed a big strikeout he got it. Nine hits is fine but when you don’t score off those hits, it doesn’t really matter.”

Schmidt, exiting after the Bechina free base, scattered eight hits in 7.1 innings, but seven were singles, a sixth-inning double by Hughes the lone extra-base hit. Going toe-to-toe with one of the best pitchers in the country, Troop struck out six batters against one walk.

““He made one mistake and the guy got the barrel out on the home run,” Boss said.

“That was a tough loss for Alex, but he was as good as anybody, anywhere in the country tonight and Alex can beat anybody. I’m very proud of the way he pitched tonight, but unfortunately it was kind of a hard-luck loss situation for him.”

Falling to 9-3 on the season, Michigan State looks to receive the same quality start when Ethan Landon takes the ball for Saturday’s game. But also, to better support their pitcher by capitalizing on opportunities when at the plate and not giving extra opportunities to the Gamecocks in the field. Doing so will show that they’re not just close to South Carolina’s level, they are there and with a tally to the win column.

“We’ll need to be better tomorrow, we need to be cleaner tomorrow and we need to take advantage of the opportunities that we get.”

Feb. 17-20 Weekend Review

10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

College baseball is back. From coast to coast, Big Ten teams took the diamond opening weekend, looking to keep the conference’s upward momentum going. Here’s a roundup of the weekend that was.

Marquee Series: Minnesota at Irvine

The defending Big Ten champions opened their season at UC Irvine. But due to some of the heaviest rains Southern California has seen in recent year, the three-game series was shortened to a two-game matchup, as Friday’s game was washed away.

“It didn’t look like we would be able to get any games in, then to get two in a short time,” said Minnesota head coach John Anderson. “We saw a lot of positives.”

The delayed start didn’t set back the hot-hitting Gophers, who, after leading the Big Ten with a .323 average a year ago, quickly jumped out of the gates.

Before the first out was recorded, three Gophers crossed home. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey hit a bases loaded, two-run single to right field, by junior first baseman Toby Hanson singled up the middle. Irvine countered with two two-out runs in the home-half of the first, but a Coffey two-run double was the big hit in Minnesota’s three-run second. The wild affair saw Irvine cut the deficit to 6-3 after two innings, but another big inning was in store for Minnesota in the third.

Sophomore DH Eduardo Estrada hit a two-run home run to right field, with sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga adding a run-scoring single to center field, giving Minnesota a 9-3 lead after three plate appearances. In the first three innings, Coffey had four RBI, junior right fielder Alex Boxwell had two walks and a hit by pitch, with junior second baseman Luke Pettersen recording a pair of single.

Minnesota needed every run of its early offensive onslaught.

Irvine right fielder Adam Alcantara picked up an RBI-triple in a two-run third inning, helping the Anteaters close the gap to 9-5. Minnesota starting left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath was relieved after three innings, giving way to Tyler Hanson. Hanson kept Irvine at bay for two innings, before a walk with two outs loaded the bases in the sixth innings.

A preseason All-American, Irvine DH Keston Hirua stepped to the plate in the big situation and delivered, hitting a bases-clearing double to center field on Gopher side-armer Tim Shannon. But Shannon induced a fly out in the next at-bat and held Irvine to three at-bats in each of the next two innings, before closer Brian Glowicki closed the door on the 9-8 win with two strikeouts in the ninth inning, including one of Hiura.

Minnesota picked up 15 hits, with Pettersen’s four, and three from senior left fielder Jordan Smith, who finished a home run shy of the cycle, as every starter recorded a hit.

The Gophers offensive momentum continued on Sunday, recording 12 hits. But it wasn’t enough to head back to Minnesota with a weekend sweep.

It was Alex Boxwell’s turn to pick up an extra-base hit, pulling a triple down the right-field line in the top of the first to give Minnesota the initial 1-0 line. A batter later, Pettersen punched a single up the middle to bring home Boxwell.

Unable to get more than three innings from Gilbreath on Saturday, starting pitcher Toby Anderson was unable to escape the second inning. Irvine loaded the bases with nobody out, before Hirua drew a walk to bring home a run. After an RBI-single, Alcantara hit a two-run double to left center. Another run-scoring hit would chase Anderson, bringing in freshman right-hander Brett Schulze in his collegiate debut. Schulze worked around the two-on, nobody-out situation to only concede one run, but Irvine’s big inning left them in front 6-2 after three innings.

“We have to throw more strikes, we have to pitch better,” Anderson said. “We knew it would take some time to get out pitching staff up to speed, but we’re confident they will be.”

Irvine’s lead grew to 7-2 in the fourth, before Minnesota was able to chip away. Coffey led off the sixth with a triple to right field, scoring on a Hanson single. Down, 7-3, Minnesota scored a pair of runs in the eighth, Boxwell and Pettersen recording RBI, to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But with two outs, sophomore shortstop Terrin Vavra flew out to right field. Minnesota had one more chance in the ninth, as Coffey doubled to open the inning, allowing Minnesota to bring the tying run to the plate. But a fly out, strike out and grounder ended the game.

Pettersen finished the contest 4-for-5 with Coffey going 3-for-5 from the cleanup spot. Pettersen finished the weekend 8-for-9, with Coffey added five hits in 10 at-bats, four for extra-bases as Minnesota picked up 27 hits on the weekend.

“We didn’t have a lot of bad at-bats, they were all competitive at-bats,” Anderson said. “We got deep in counts, we made them work hard to get us out, fouled off a lot of pitchers and just had really competitive at-bats.”

Schulze pitched four innings of one-run baseball, holding Irvine to three hits. Relievers Reggie Meyer and Nick Lackney pitched the final two innings as the Gopher bullpen tossed 13 innings on the weekend, allowing four runs.

On the weekend, Anderson was glad to take a split from a tough opponent in a jumbled weekend. But knows there are things his teams needs to improve on as they seek a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.

“I was encouraged by our offense. We’ll have plenty of offense, we’ll be able to play defense, just have to clean it up a bit, but more importantly we have to throw strikes.”

Minnesota will see another Big West foe later in the year when Long Beach State heads to Siebert Field in May. For now, the Gophers return home where they will play this weekend against Seattle University, the first baseball games played at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Trending topics

Big O leads to two Ws for Wasikowski

The Mark Wasikowski era in West Lafayette is off to a swinging start.

Named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, the first Boilermaker to win the honor since 2012, junior right-handed Tanner Andrews pitched seven innings of one-run baseball, holding Texas State to two hits with nine strikeouts. The stellar pitching performance was more than enough for a lineup locked in, leading Purdue to its first season-opening victory in four years.

Purdue pushed three runs across in their first at-bat of the season, tacking on five more by the end of the fourth. In a four-RBI day, sophomore first baseman Jacson McGowan picked up run-scoring doubles in the first and fourth innings, around an RBI-single in the third. The Bobcats scratched out a run in the fourth, but Purdue never lost control of the game.

It was another three-run first inning that saw Purdue make it 2-for-2 on the weekend in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader.

Alongside McGowan, freshman Mike Madej and junior Logan Poisall each hit a home run in the first inning for Purdue to start the twinbill in a big way. After scoring a run in the second, Purdue’s four-run first was matched by a four-run third, to have a 9-0 lead. Texas State struck for six runs in the third, but were unable to get any closer than the three-run deficit. Purdue added a run in the sixth, and two in the ninth, with Texas State also scoring a pair in the final inning to make it a 12-9 win.

The high-scoring continued in third game of the weekend, with Texas State being able to climb back and grab a victory. Purdue enjoyed leads of 8-3 and 10-5, before back-to-back four-run innings gave the Bobcats a 13-11 victory. The teams fought to a weekend split with Texas State grabbing the finale 14-5.

Weather wrecks havoc

Before the season’s first pitch was tossed, forecasted inclement weather saw a handful of Big Ten teams adjust their schedules. But even the precautions and changes weren’t enough to steer clear of Mother Nature.

The torrential rains that hit California Friday, leading to mudslides and flooring, shortening the Irvine-Minnesota series, made its way into Arizona on Saturday and Sunday. Nebraska saw the final two games of its neutral site series against UC Riverside washed away. Northwestern’s series at Arizona State needed the final two days of the weekend to play the finale.

It wasn’t just out west where weather impacted or interrupted games. In Texas, Illinois’ opener versus Wisconsin-Milwaukee was delayed nearly six hours, while Penn State’s weekend capper at TCU was moved up to beat the rain. Rain put a halt in Iowa’s first victory of the year, the Hawkeyes waited out a two-hour and forty-one-minute rain in a 4-2 win over South Florida.

Offensive explosions

Nine of the 13 Big Ten programs scored at least nine runs in one game this weekend, going 13-1 in such games. Here’s a rundown of the gaudy offensive performance.

Illinois- 10-2 win vs. Milwaukee, Friday

Indiana- 12-3 win vs. Gonzaga, Friday

Maryland- 9-7 win vs. Alabama State, Sunday

Michigan- 10-7 win vs. Seton Hall, Sunday

Michigan State- 9-2, 9-7, 19-7, 14-5 victories over Abilene Christian

Minnesota- 9-8 win vs. UC Irvine, Friday

Ohio State- 15-10 win vs. Delaware, Saturday

Purdue- 9-3, 12-8 wins vs. Texas State, 13-11 loss vs. Texas State

Rutgers- 17-6 win vs. Miami, Sunday

Of note

Michigan State finished the weekend with a .401 team average. Senior second baseman Dan Durkin was named the Big Ten Player of the Week after an 11-RBI weekend.

Michigan sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas stole six bases in six attempts, as Michigan stole a conference-best 12 on the weekend.

Ohio State hit two grand slams in their wild win over the Blue Hens. The Buckeyes used a seven-run seventh inning to capture the victory.

Michigan State’s Marty Bechina and Ohio State’s Zach Ratcliff, on Saturday, were joined by Rutgers’ Jawuan Harris and Penn State’s Willie Burger, on Sunday, as players to hit two home runs in one game this weekend.

Quick hits

Terps scuffle, fall from polls

Maryland entered the season as the lone Big Ten team in the NCBWA poll. After a 1-2 weekend in Clearwater, Fla. the Terps’ ranked status was short-lived and the Big Ten now without a ranked team. A five-run sixth inning doomed No. 22 Maryland in their opening, falling 8-3 to Ball State. In a battle of ranked clubs, Maryland was unable to keep pace with No. 8 Louisville, outslugged 10-7. The Terrapins salvaged the weekend with a 9-7 win over Alabama State.

Indiana’s see-saw weekend

Indiana went 2-2 in Surprise, taking two games against Gonzaga between dropping a pair of contests to #7 Oregon State. The first game of a Friday doubleheader, nine hits were collected between the Hoosiers and Beavers in a 1-0 Oregon State win. IU’s bats rebounded for a 12-3 against the Zags, led by freshman Jake Matheny connecting on a pair of home runs. On Sunday, Indiana made it 2-for-2 against Gonzaga with a 5-1 victory. But, the weekend ended on a sour note, unable to top Oregon State again, falling in the weekend finale 4-1. The Hoosiers finished the weekend with a 1.59 ERA, but were held to 10 hits against Oregon State in their two defeats.

Illini freshmen arms show promise

Illinois opened the weekend 1-3, splitting a pair of games against Milwaukee, falling twice to host Lamar. After opening the year with a 10-2 win over the Panthers, three straight defeats sent the club back to Champaign looking for answers. As Dan Hartleb’s club gets back to work, they do so with a trio of freshmen pitchers coming off of strong debuts. Right-hander Ty Weber started the weekend finale for the Illini and pitched 4.2 innings of scoreless baseball. Cyrillo Watson pitched in relief twice, with the right-hander tossing four innings, allowing one run, matching Weber with three strikeouts. Southpaw Zack Jones was also used twice out of the bullpen, pitching a total of 3.1 innings, conceding one run off two hits while racking up five punchouts.

Pitching has U-M, Michigan State on collision course

With a 13-1 start, on March 14, 2016, Michigan State cracked Baseball America’s top 25 poll for the first time since April 11, 1988. The Spartans joined Big Ten peer and in-state rival Michigan in the rankings. The Wolverines’ 11-3 record had them ranked 18th in the poll the started the season in.

Michigan State would flirt with the rankings over the next six weeks, falling out and creeping back in, as the team embarked on the best start after 30 games in program history.

When Michigan and Michigan State met for a three-game series, April 29-May 1, Michigan State was unranked, but reflected a record identical to that of 16th ranked Michigan at 28-10. The Spartans had an 8-4 Big Ten record, one-half game behind the Wolverines’ 8-3 clip. Both appearing to be Big Ten championship contenders and in line for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the home and home series drew national attention.

More than 7,500 fans came out to watch the two schools do battle between two games in Ann Arbor and a Saturday game in East Lansing, where Michigan State grabbed the weekend series by winning the last two games. Unfortunately, that rubber match on the first day in May represented the high point in the college season for both clubs.

Sporting a 30-11 record after the weekend victory, Michigan State won only six of their last 15 games to finish 36-20. Similarly, Michigan finished the season in a tailspin. From 29-12, Erik Bakich’s club concluded the season with a near identical 36-21 record.

In a season where at the half-way point fans in two Michigan college towns were wondering if they were capable of hosting a regional, May misery left both on the outside of the NCAA Tournament.

Let’s consider 2016 a warmup because the 2017 Big Ten champion will be decided in the final weekend of the season when Michigan and Michigan State meet.

The two enter the season almost splitting images of each other. Both return veterans throughout the lineup, returning starters with a nice blend of speed and pop. But both clubs will be buoyed by exceptionally deep pitching staffs.

“We’re extremely deep on the mound, probably deeper than we’ve ever been,” said ninth-year Michigan State head coach Jake Boss Jr. “We’re excited about that depth.”

The depth of Michigan State speaks to the recruiting and development of assistants Graham Sykes and Skylar Meade. The Spartans are coming off of a year where two pitchers were selected in the first 10 rounds of the draft, two-year Friday starter Cam Vieaux and All-American relieve Dakota Mekkes. Michigan State would absolutely love to have both back for another year, but there is an embarrassment of riches on the mound in East Lansing.

Seniors Walter Borkovich and Joe Mockbee are seasoned veterans, respective right-handed and left-handed pitchers who have started, pitched in middle relief and closed out games. The duo will almost exclusively be bullpen arms. Junior right-handed pitcher Jake Lowery is a year removed from Tommy John surgery capable of closing an inning in a high-leverage situation or being extended for multiple innings. Sophomore right-hander Riley McCauley is set to be MSU’s closer and an arm Boss calls one of the best in the country.

And that doesn’t hit on the starters. Two-way standout Alex Troop will lead the rotation before Ethan Landon and Andrew Gonzalez resume their Saturday and Sunday roles.

“We feel very good about Troop and Ethan Landon being two number ones for us,” Boss said. “Ethan was our number two last year, had a very good year for us. The decision to throw Alex on Friday night is essentially because he is a two-way player, I’d like to have him on the mound with a fresh arm on Friday.”

For good measure, Michigan State has one of the most explosive freshmen arms in right-hander Mason Erla, who can run it up into the mid-90s.

“As a freshman, he’s a big, strong athletic kid who has been up to 94-95 miles per hour, he could come out of the pen, he could start for us,” Boss said on Erla.

“We lost two very, very talented guys, we bring in four really good players that are freshmen, combine that with the returning guys and I really like where we are on mound.”

The script is the same for Bakich and the Wolverines.

Like Boss, Bakich must replace his Friday starter with the draft departure of junior left-handed pitcher Brett Adcock. But, also like his counterpart, Bakich has plenty of options to turn to, starting with junior Oliver Jaskie stepping into the Friday role, after going 7-3 with a 3.19 ERA as a sophomore.

“He was a kid we recruited not really sure what type of impact he would have with the program. He was a pitcher that was more low-80s, high-70s, changeup guy,” Bakich said. “But he had command and a feel for a changeup. The commitment he made to the weight room and developing himself as a pitcher and as athlete is as good as anyone I’ve seen or coached in 16 years.”

Along with Adcock, Michigan must also replace senior left-handed pitcher Evan Hill and key reliever left-handed pitcher Carmen Benedetti from a staff that carried a 3.86 ERA with 490 strikeouts in 492 innings. But there isn’t a shortage of arms in Ann Arbor waiting to step into bigger roles.

Junior right-handed pitchers Michael Hendrickson and Ryan Nutof appear in line to start after Jaskie. But from there, Jayce Vancena, another junior right-handed pitcher, JUCO transfer junior right-handed pitcher Alec Rennard, sophomore southpaw Will Tribucher and freshmen lefty Tommy Henry, the Wolverines expect to matchup with any on the mound.

“You’re never going to hear any coach complain about having depth on the mound,” Bakich said. “That’s one area you never want to be thin in. We’re lucky that not only do we have depth, it’s older depth, juniors, seniors.

“Four games opening weekend, or eight games in 10 days, that’s where the depth is really going to be a benefit, Bakich said. “It’ll give us a good look to give everyone a lot of opportunities where we go through this first four weeks, and get ready for the thick of a good conference race.”

Michigan and Michigan State aren’t all pitch with little bat.

As Bakich enters his fifth season, Michigan returns their enter starting infield, providing few questions in the lineup.

“It’s not often you get an entire infield unit of returning starters back, but that’s what we have with Jake Bivens (first base), Drew Lugbauer (third base), Michael Brdar (shortstop), Ako Thomas  (second base) and Harrison Wenson (catcher),” Bakich said. “Those guys you would fear complacency, but those guys are so driven to improve themselves that that’s not going to happen.”

In the trend of mirroring each other, the Spartans will also have starters back around the horn, looking especially strong up the middle. Catcher Matt Byars turned down a pro opportunity after being selected in the 24th round by the Minnesota Twins, first-team All-Big Ten second baseman Dan Durkin back, as well as junior center fielder Brandon Hughes.

“It goes to the old adage you have to be strong up the middle,” Boss said.

With a deep pitching staff, around infield full of returners leading an attack that can do it all, Michigan State may have its most complete team in the Boss era.

“I think there’s very good balance offensively, with power and some speed. You go back to the mound, the amount of guys we’ll be able to run out of the bullpen, the confidence he have in our starters, four guys that I feel comfortable starting against anyone in the country. It could very well be as talented of a group that we’ve ever had.”

Bakich likes what he and assistants Sean Kenny and Nick Schnable have at their disposal as they seek a second regional appearance in three years. From the experience in the field and at the plate, the athleticism in the outfield, the depth on the mound, the leadership and commitment to get better, Bakich thinks this may be one of those years where it comes together.

And there’s a little extra motivation pushing the Wolverines.

“This team very much has an edge, last year is fresh in our minds,” Bakich said.  ”We had a good team last year, too, we just completely fell off the table at the end. This team is coming out with a hardened edge, a chip, they’re not only wanting to start strong, but stay strong and finish strong. That will be something that’s motivation for us, I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t.

If the Wolverines do finish strong, it’s set to be quite the series when the two rivals meet. Three games, two campuses, one title on the line.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Hello…and hello, again!

In kicking off a new season, it’s only appropriate to say hello and introduce those who are new to the Big Ten. Here’s a look at transfers new to the Big Ten with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the last five years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody

Here’s a look at transfers new to the conference with the potential to have a big impact with their new clubs. The Big Ten has seen transfers pay immediate dividends over the past few years, with the likes of Indiana’s Caleb Baragar, Michigan’s Cody Bruder and Michigan State’s Jordan Zimmerman, who will be next?

Also, as we say hello to a few new guys, we re-introduce a few players returning to competition that look to figure prominently into the success of their team.

Welcome to the Big Ten

Iowa 1B Jake Adams

A two-year standout at Des Moines Area Community College, Adams will step into the first base vacancy created with the graduation of Tyler Peyton. While Peyton was a do-it-all, two-way talent, Adams is your prototypical first baseman, a physical presence with big raw power. Earning All-American honors in 2016, Adams batted .360 with 25 home runs and 75 RBI for DMACC, slugging .860 a year after slugging 17 long balls. If Adams can produce just half of his gaudy JUCO power numbers at the Division I level, the 6-for-2, 250-pound Hawkeye will be a force to reckon with.

Iowa C Tyler Cropley

Heading into his fourth season in Iowa City, Rick Heller has relied heavily on the JUCO ranks to deepen the Hawkeye roster in rebuilding the program. Leading Iowa to three consecutive 30-win seasons, Heller has found the right talent to spearhead Iowa’s charge. Like Adams, junior catcher Tyler Cropley is expected to be another instant performer. Cropley transfers in from Iowa Western, where he hit .403 as a sophomore in 2016. The batting line is impressive, but what the Hawkeye staff most raves about is Cropley’s speed and athleticism. Cropley is expected to be the Hawkeyes leadoff batter and is versatile enough to play center field if needed. He’s viewed as the best catcher Heller and staff have had to date.

Michigan OF Miles Lewis

Lewis arrives in Ann Arbor with previous Division I experience, a standout season to boot. Lewis was named the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2016 but needed a new home when North Dakota cut its baseball program. Receiving interest from across the country, Lewis, a native of Hudson, Wis., opted to return to the Midwest to join the Wolverines. In 45 games for the Fighting Hawks, Lewis batted .360 with five doubles, two triples and three home runs, stealing 20 bases.

Ohio State 2B Noah McGowan

Take a look at Ohio State’s starting second baseman and one may think he belongs on the gridiron, not diamond. A stout six-foot, 210-pound athlete, Noah McGowan’s father did play football at Stanford, but baseball is the choice for the Buckeye. McGowan arrives in Columbus by way of McClennan Community College, one of three Buckeyes from the Texas junior college, along with pitchers Reece Calvert and Dustin Jourdan. Last year, McGowan batted .393 with seven home runs, scoring 43 runs in 43 games for the Highlanders. McGowan looks to be a heart of the lineup threat.

Maryland OF Will Watson

Maryland head coach John Szefc received a good player from LSU-Eunice a year ago in Madison Nickens. Appearing in 56 games, Nickens led Maryland with 40 runs scored, finished second on the team with eight home runs, batting .260 in the process. The Terps hope similar production comes from junior outfielder Will Watson, another product from LSU-Eunice. Watson carried a .312 average next to a .482 on-base percentage and .518 slugging percentage for the junior college in 2016, driving in 40 runs while scoring 57 in 57 games.

Purdue LHP Nick Wojtysiak

An assistant at Oregon, and Arizona before that, Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski knows how to mine the west coast for talent. As he looks to rebuild the Boilermaker program, he brings in Nick Wojtysiak, a native of Arizona, to help bolster Purdue’s bullpen. From Fountain Hills, Ariz., Wojtysiak attended and pitched for Pepperdine in 2015. After totaling four innings in four games, Wojtysiak moved on to pitch Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix for the 2016 season. Now, the southpaw, with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball and slider combination, looks to find a home in West Lafayette.

Welcome back

Michigan LHP Michael Hendrickson

Michael Hendrickson shined bright for Michigan in 2016. But as bright as his season was, it was also short. Starting the season as a long-relief option, before making a March 2 start against San Jose State, Hendrickson pitched 10.2 innings over three games. Scattering three runs for a 2.53 ERA, Hendrickson’s stats continued to stand out with 16 strikeouts next to only two walks. Limiting opponents to a .158 average, Hendrickson’s season ending after his 4.2-inning out against the Trojans, sidelined for the rest of the year with ulnar nerve injury. Reading to return to action, Hendrickson has a chance to emerge from a deep Wolverine pitching staff and take a spot in the Michigan rotation.

Nebraska RHP Jake Hohensee

Jake Hohensee missed all of the 2016 season recovering from offseason Tommy John surgery, but the last time the Husker right-hander saw extended action, he showed what he’s capable of. Making 12 relief appearance in 2015, Hohensee tossed 17.1 innings, conceding just four earned runs for a 2.08 ERA. Hohensee’s team-best ERA stood next to 14 strikeouts and six walks, holding the opposition to a .167 average over 60 at-bats. Hohensee will likely be limited to one outing per weekend, but he can play a big role for the Huskers in being a reliable relieve, capable of shutting down an opponent.

Ohio State RHP Jake Post

Jake Post last saw action for Ohio State in April 2015, providing a strong bullpen option for Greg Beals as the Buckeyes cracked the polls for the first time since 2010. A forearm strain, which ultimately led to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2016 season, sidelined Post for the final month of the season, one where the Buckeyes stumbled and went from potential regional host to outside of the NCAA Tournament. A fifth-year senior whose fastball sits in the low-90s, Post brings leadership and a live arm to the Buckeyes. Carrying a 2.12 ERA over 29.2 innings in 2015, Post holds a career 3.48 ERA in 108.2 innings on the mound, with 89 strikeouts next to 35 walks.

Michigan State LHP/1B Alex Troop

Alex Troop was viewed as a bit of a wunderkind when he arrived in East Lansing, in the fall of 2014. Having speed, power and arm strength, it wasn’t a matter of when Troop would be a force for the Spartans, but where he best fit. Troop pitched in 13 games, making seven starts, while playing 26 games in the field, making 14 starts in the outfield. Overall, the numbers were pedestrian, a 5.27 ERA in 42.2 innings, and a .226 batting average in 53 at-bats, but flashes of promise showed. That promise turned into production in 2016, albeit briefly. In four relief outings, Troop lowered his ERA to 1.64, striking out 14 batters with three walks in 11 innings. At the plate, Troop batted .372 over 12 games, grabbing six doubles and a home run. His season was cut short with a broken scaphoid bone in his left thumb, forcing a cast on his hand until June. No lingering issues, Troop is expected to take the ball on the mound on Friday nights for Michigan State and settle in at first base when not pitching. Troop has the ability to make an impact at the plate, on the mound and in the field, and likely won’t need long to reintroduce himself to college baseball.

 

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