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.

March 10-13 Weekend Review

 

The fourth weekend of the season saw action on multiple Big Ten diamonds for the first time this season as the non-conference slate winds down. From Lincoln to College Park, teams are starting to settle in around the conference, and look to round into form with the conference season approaching.

In Columbia over the weekend as Michigan State fell to South Carolina, 3-2 and 5-2, here’s a look back at the weekend that was for the rest of the Big Ten.

Maryland, Michigan stay hot with sweeps

The Big Ten’s lone ranked team, Michigan, and the only team to begin the season with a ranking, Maryland, are powering through March, living up to the high expectations.

Wolverines continue tear

After eight games in California, Michigan returned closer to home with three games at Lipscomb. Snow and unseasonably cold temperatures for Nashville moved Saturday’s game into a Friday doubleheader. The Wolverines did a bit of everything in taking both games, knocking off the Bisons 11-2 and 4-3.

In the first game, Michigan received an outstanding start from junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie. Racking up a career-high 11 strikeouts, Jaskie held Lipscomb to one run off three hits in six innings, improving to 2-0 on the season. The bottom of the U-M lineup carried the day in support of Jaskie. Drew Lugbauer, Jonathan Engelmann and Johnny Slater, the 7-8-9 batters, combined to go 4-for-10 with four runs and seven RBI, Lugbauer and Slater each connecting on a home run. Lugbauer’s two-run home run in the top of the seventh followed Lipscomb scoring in the bottom of the sixth to cut Michigan’s lead if half, 2-1.

Michigan grabbed the initial lead in the nightcap, but needed a last at-bat rally to sweep the day. A 1-0 lead in the top of the third was matched by a Bison run in the home-half. Lipscomb added a run in the fourth and one in the eighth to take a 3-1 lead to the ninth inning. Sophomore Miles Lewis opened the inning with a single, followed by Harrison Wenson drawing a walk. Michael Brdar reached on a fielding error that allowed Lewis, cutting the deficit in half. Pinch-hitting, Engelmann’s big day continued in sending game-winner through the left side, scoring Brdar and Wenson and giving Michigan a 4-3 lead. Senior right-handed pitcher Jackson Lamb tossed a scoreless ninth to close the game.

Pitching was the story on Sunday as Michigan shutout Lipscomb, 5-0. In five innings of work, junior left-handed pitcher Michael Hendrickson held Lipscomb to two hits, their only hits on the day. The Lipscomb hitting effort was doubled by Brdar himself, the senior shortstop going 4-for-4 with two runs and two RBI, on a day he hit his second home run of the season. Wenson connected for his fourth longball of the year and leadoff batter Ako Thomas went 2-for-3 with two walks.

The three-game sweep pushes Michigan’s record to 12-3 on the season, winning for the 10th time in 11 games.

Maryland handles Bryant

Before falling to North Carolina Tuesday night, Maryland rebounded from a rocky first two weekends, where the team sat 1-5, with a lengthy winning streak. Taking on Bryant for three games at home at Bob Smith Stadium, the Terrapins swept the weekend to run their winning streak to eight games.

In the series opener, junior right-handed pitcher Brian Shaffer struck out eight batters while allowing one run off five hits over seven innings as Maryland rallied late for a 7-1 victory. Bryant scored first, picking up doubles and singles in consecutive at-bats with two outs in the top of the fourth. Bryant starter Steve Theetge held the Terps in check for five innings, but a Will Watson RBI-single in the sixth tied the game, before Madison Nickens lifted a sacrifice fly to put Maryland in front. John Szefc’s team scored three runs in the seventh behind a two-RBI hit from Watson and tacked on two more in the eighth to close the scoring.

Weather also forced Maryland to sit out of action on Saturday, the Terrapins opting to double-up and play two on Sunday.

With temperatures in the low-30s, Maryland pitchers made sure the Bulldog bats stayed cold. Five pitchers combined to hold Bryant to eight hits in 18 innings, Maryland winning both games on Sunday, 9-2 and 4-0.

Winning the first game decisively, three runs in the bottom of the first would be all junior right-handed pitcher Taylor Bloom needed. Evening his record to 2-2 on the season, Bloom scattered four hits in seven innings, allowed two unearned runs in a 104-pitch effort. Sophomore right-hander John Murphy needed 18 pitches over the final two innings to cap the victory. Starting with an RBI-double in the bottom of the first, sophomore outfielder Marty Costes led the Maryland attack, going 3-for-3 with three runs. In the cleanup spot, first baseman Brandom Gum went 2-for-4 with a home run, two RBI and three runs, as Maryland scored two runs in each of the third, fifth and sixth innings.

Gum provided Maryland with the first run of the night cap, a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the first scoring center fielder Zach Jancarski who drew a leadoff walk. A three-run outburst in the bottom of the fourth ended the scoring on the day, spurred by shortstop Kevin Smith driving a two-run double to right field. As Maryland improved to 9-5 on the season, freshman left-hander Tyler Blohm earned his third win in four decision, tossing six scoreless innings, surrendering only three hits and one walk, striking out six batters.

 

IU and RU show resilency in weekend wins

Two clubs looking to right the ship, the crimson and cream of Indiana and the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers were red-hot at the plate in winning weekends.

For Indiana, the Hoosiers bounced back in a big way after falling to Middle Tennessee State, 5-3 on Friday. In their home opener, a 3-0 deficit after two innings was too big for the Hoosiers to battle back from. But it would be the last time the team trailed against the Lightning. IU erupted for 23 hits en route to a 12-1 win on Saturday. Every

But it would be the last time the team trailed against the Lightning. IU erupted for 23 hits en route to a 12-1 win on Saturday. Every

IU erupted for 23 hits en route to a 12-1 win on Saturday. Every starter recorded a hit, with Matt Gorski, Jake Matheny and Luke Miller picking up three hits, Craig Dedelow led the offense with a 4-for-5 game, picking up two doubles. Indiana scored a run in the second, before erupting for seven in the third, adding a tally in the fourth and three in the fifth. Brian Hobbie pitched six innings of one-run baseball to record his first victory of the season.

Indiana’s offensive output was cut in half in the rubber match, but the third Big Ten team to toss a shutout allowed IU to cruise to a 6-0 victory. Andrew Saalfrank pitched six innings, striking out six batters, allowing just three hit. Matt Lloyd and BJ Sabol allowed one hit each, respectively over two and one innings to clinch the shutout. Leadoff batter Alex Krupa picked up his second home run in as many games, opening the game with a leadoff home run to provide the Hoosiers with all the offense they would need on the day. Ryan Fineman and Jeremy Houston each picked up a pair of hits.

Rutgers followed the Indiana script, dropping the opening game before picking up two straight victories to end the weekend with a series win.

Against North Florida, the Ospreys were too much to hand on Friday night, the Atlantic Sun program rolling to a 15-1 victory.

But the Scarlet Knights showed their mettle, rebounding with a 2-1 victory on Saturday. Making his first start since May 10, 2015, senior right-handed pitcher Gaby Rosa pitched seven innings of one-run baseball, holding North Florida to three hits. The sterling start from Rosa allowed Rutgers to make the most of two runs. In the top of the second, third baseman Milo Freeman was hit by a pitch and scored on a double to right center by Chris Folinusz. The two would be back at it in the fourth, giving RU the winning run. Freeman and Christian Campbell picked up back-to-back singles before Folinusz sent a liner to center field, plating Freeman for the go-ahead run. Freeman and Folinusz each went 2-for-3 to pace Rutgers at the plate. Two scoreless innings of relief from Max Hermann closed the game.

RU carried its momentum into Sunday, where an 18-hit attack powered the team to victory. Rutgers scored in all but the second, sixth and eighth innings, as all nine batters reached base safely. First baseman Mike Carter picked up four hits in five at-bats, driving in five runs, to lead a 3-4-5 heart of the order that went 11-for-17. On the mound, Campbell was the benefactor of the offensive onslaught, moving to 2-0 on the year with five innings of work, allowing four runs, three earned, while holding North Florida to five hits.

 

Opportunities squandered versus ranked foes

The Big Ten has had a rough go against ranked teams this season, and this past weekend was no different. Games against Coastal Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast and South Carolina provided the conference with opportunities to take down the number 21, 24 and nine teams in this week’s NCBWA poll. While Michigan State wasn’t sharp enough to take a game in two tries against South Carolina, Illinois and Ohio State did finish the weekend with a win over a ranked foe. But both were left to stomach ninth-inning collapses that cost each a weekend victory.

Against FGCU, Ohio State carried a 9-4 lead into the ninth inning of Friday’s weekend opener, before several miscues put an end to the Buckeyes upset bid. Ohio State pitchers issued two walks and hit a batter, with two errors, the latter on would-be inning-ending double play, leading to a 10-9 walk-off defeat. Florida Gulf Coast enjoyed a 13-1 victory on Saturday to take the series from Ohio State before Greg Beals’ team bounced back on Sunday. But again having to sweat out a ninth inning. Ohio State scored three runs in the first, and responded to a FGCU run in the third with one in the fifth. An insurance run in the seventh would prove vital as FGCU scored three times in the ninth, but this time OSU left the tying run on base, escaping with a 5-4 win.

The Illini started their weekend with a win over Coastal Carolina, 7-6, giving the Illini its first win over a defending national champion since 1965. The see-saw affair saw CCU score three runs in the second, but Illinois responded with four in the fourth, powered by Anthony Drago hitting a three-run home run in the inning. The Chanticleers regained the lead with two runs in the fifth, adding a run in the sixth, but Illinois crossed home twice in the seventh and score the winning run in the eighth. Four pitchers worked the final three innings to shore up the marquee victory.

With weather moving up Sunday’s game to Saturday, the start of a long day at the park was shaping up to be a special one. Freshman right-handed pitcher Ty Weber carried a no-hitter into the eighth, ending the day after 7.2 innings of one-hit and one-run baseball. Illinois holding a 2-1 lead since the first inning, was unable to clinch a weekend win when back-to-back one-out home runs lead to a walk-off victory for Coastal Carolina, 3-2. Illinois did receive a no-hit start from sophomore pitcher Luke Shilling, the right-hander pitched five hitless innings but also walked seven batters. Two runs in the sixth and four in the seventh gave CCU a 6-0 victory, with Illinois held to five hits and committing four errors in the rubber match.

Elsewhere

Nebraska salvaged a home series against Western Carolina, taking Sunday’s game, 10-0, after dropping the first two games of the weekend. Western Carolina won 5-2 on Friday, and 8-2 on Saturday, but the Catamounts could not crack Jake Meyers, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. The Husker starting pitcher tossed a shutout, scattering five hits, walking one batter with four strikeouts, needing 104 pitches to toss the complete game. Every Nebraska batter recorded a hit in a 13-hit output, lead by right fielder Scott Schreiber going 3-for-5.

 

In back-to-back weekends, Northwestern has played its best baseball on the west coast. The Wildcats split a four-game set at Santa Clara in the first weekend of March, and now have their first weekend victory of the season. NU split a Friday doubleheader against Portland, falling 5-2 before rebounding with a 6-4 victory. In the rubber match, a three-RBI game from Ben Dickey propelled the ‘Cats to a 9-5, seven-inning win.

Mark Penn State as another club who fared well in the Pacific time zone. The Nittany Lions only had four hits in their weekend opener at Sacramento State, but it was enough for four runs in a 4-2 victory. Corner outfielders Jordan Bowersox and Nick Riotto each slugged a home run in support of junior right-hander Sal Biasi. Biasi struck out nine while holding Sacramento State to two runs, in 5.2 innings. Nick Distasio tossed the final 3.1 innings, allowing just one hit, to give PSU the win. An 11-3 loss on Friday evened the series, but Penn State returned to State College with a second consecutive series win, picking up a 6-1 victory. Sophomore first baseman Willie Burger went 3-for-5 with two runs and four RBI, hitting his third home run of the season and added a double from the cleanup spot. A quartet of pitchers held Sacramento State to two hits, led by Cole Bartels pitching 3.2 innings in his first career start.

Against Cal State-Northridge, Purdue ended an extended weekend in Los Angeles County with a win. CSUN won the first game, 16-8, but pitchers ruled the day in game two. Each team limited to scoring in only one inning, CSUN’s four-run second topped Purdue’s one-run ninth in the win. Another four-run inning spelled doom for Purdue on Sunday. The Boilermakers scored twice in the top of the fifth to enjoy a 4-1 lead, but the Matadors struck for four runs in their fifth-inning at-bat, en route to a 5-4 victory. On Monday, Purdue’s bullpen and the big bat of Nick Dalesandro produced a 9-3 win. Four pitchers, Ross Learnard, Kyle Schweiger, Cameron Williams and Nick Wojtysiak combined to pitch 6.2 innings of one-run relief. The Purdue ‘pen held a 2-2 tie from the third inning on, allowing for a six-run eighth to be the decisive inning. Going 4-for-5, Dalesandro picked up two doubles and a pair of singles, scoring twice, his double to right field with a runner on igniting the 10-at-bat eighth.

Minnesota started the weekend strong with a 5-2 victory over Missouri State, but the Bears were a tough out at the plate the rest of the weekend, turning back the Gophers 7-2 and 12-3 to win the weekend in Minneapolis. Lucas Gilbreath struck out six batters in five innings on Friday, earning the victory in allowing three runs, one earned. Sunday’s game was the final contest for the Gophers in U.S. Bank Stadium for the season.

Iowa split its weekend in Port Charlotte, Fla., playing four games in the Snowbird Classic. The Hawkeyes dropped a 10-1 game to Villanova on Friday and were topped by Bucknell, 7-1 on Saturday. But after combining for two runs in the two defeats, Rick Heller’s group crossed home 23 times in taking a Sunday doubleheader against Lehigh. Iowa used an eight-run second inning to win 15-7 in the first game and racked up 18 hits to roll to an 8-3 win in the finale.

Pitching leads Michigan to Dodger Stadium victory

 

Amanda Gonzalez reports from Los Angeles where Michael Hendrickson and Alec Rennard held San Diego to one unearned run off five hits, powering Michigan to a 3-1 victory over San Diego on Sunday. Capping a 7-1, 10-day California spring break, the Wolverines, now 9-3, allowed just three runs, one earned, over three games in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic.

Michigan finishes strong in California

Michigan capped a 7-1 spring break in California with a 3-1 win over San Diego, finishing the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic with a win. Head coach Erik Bakich, a California native, speaks to 10 Innings’ Amanda Gonzalez on the standout starting pitching performances the team received in Los Angeles, the importance of playing and recruiting in California and the fight the Wolverines showed on the weekend.

Michigan’s streak snapped in pitcher’s duel

Spending their spring break in California, Michigan swept through northern California and added a mid-week win at Loyola Marymount to take a five-game winning streak into the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic. Participating in the tournament alongside co-hosts UCLA and USC, and San Diego, Michigan opened the weekend at Jackie Robinson Stadium against the Bruins.

With a pitcher’s duel unfolding between Michigan junior left-handed Oliver Jaskie and UCLA’s Griffin Canning, neither team scored until UCLA walked-off in the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 victory.

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.

 

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