Minnesota to host NCAA Tournament regional

Hours after winning their Big Ten-leading 10th Big Ten Tournament, securing a place in the NCAA Tournament for the 31st time via the conference’s automatic bid, Minnesota was selected as one of 16 hosting institutions for next weekend’s regional round of the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA announced Sunday evening.

Improving to 41-13 on the season with their 6-4 win over Purdue, the Big Ten regular season champions are set to host their second regional in program history, first doing so in 2000. This year’s Minneapolis Regional will be the first time the Gophers are the top seed in a regional, as the 2000 regional saw Nebraska, then a member of the Big XII, head to Siebert Field as the regional’s top seed, while the Gophers entered the postseason holding a No. 2 seed. The Huskers went on to win the regional, topping Wichita State in the championship game.

In the program’s 37th season under the guidance of head coach John Anderson’s, Minnesota has already accomplished much to garner attention on the national stage. The Gophers entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 11 team in the nation, ranked by the National College Baseball Writers Association. Their 41 wins are the most since their 41-18 campaign in 2017, and, next to their second conference championship in three years, the Big Ten title was their first since 2010.

The tournament’s top 16 seeds, 33 at-large teams, and the three other teams set to join Minnesota in the Minneapolis Regional will be announced on Monday at 12:30 p.m. ET, on ESPNU, when the tournament’s entire 64-team field is unveiled. Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, and Purdue, are conference peers expected to be considered for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. If five teams are selected to play in a regional, it will tie the Big Ten’s high-water mark, set in 2015, when Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan and made the tournament, and tied last season, when Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, and Nebraska all saw regional action.

The last Big Ten team to host a regional was Illinois in 2015. On the heels of a 21-1 Big Ten season, the Illini entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 6 overall seed. Illinois won the Champaign Regional, before falling two wins shy of reaching the College World Series, as Vanderbilt, national runners-up, won both games of the Champaign Super Regional.

As Minnesota left Omaha as conference tournament champions Sunday afternoon, the team’s road back to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, and a bid for the program’s fourth national championship, first since 1964, is set to start at home in Minneapolis.

Appreciating John Anderson’s legacy

I think Nick Dalesandro has the brightest future of any Big Ten catcher since Kevin Plawecki. The Purdue backstop can catch, throw, run, and I believe he has more pop than his home run output would suggest. Watching Dalesandro on Saturday, I wondered how good Illinois would be with him behind the plate. For those unaware, Dalesandro’s father, Mark, was the 1990 Big Ten Player of the Year at Illinois.

Mark played 79 games in the big leagues, after being drafted in the 18th round of the 1990 MLB Draft. Nick will surely be drafted higher, with it yet to be seen if he will eclipse his dad’s big league service time. Surely a topic of discussion at some point in the Dalesandro household, it could be fun to debate who was the better player in college. Unfortunately, 28 years will separate the end of the two collegiate careers, leaving a void in impartial opinions.

But wait, there isn’t just one person who has seen the two Dalesandros. In fact, he would has also seen the father-son tandem of Darrin and Casey Fletcher of Illinois, and even Cal and C.J. Eldred at Iowa.

That’s Minnesota head coach John Anderson.

Anderson was named the head coach at his alma mater in the fall of 1981. As evident by coaching against the sons of players he previously faced in competition a generation ago, Anderson has seen a bit of baseball. In his time in Minneapolis, the conference has added four schools, saw one drop baseball. He’s witnessed an infusion of cash into the sport which has ballooned salaries, enhanced facilities, and brought college baseball closer to the money-generating sports of college basketball and football. In short, there’s been a bit of change in college baseball since Anderson’s first.

But what hasn’t changed is Minnesota being conference champions. In his 37th season, Minnesota’s two wins at Rutgers netted the program its 11th Big Ten title under Anderson, a tally which started in his first season in 1982.

Between this past weekend and the upcoming weekend, the college baseball world will celebrate the end of the decorated and storied careers of Mike Gillespie, Wayne Graham, and Jim Morris. Each of those three coaches have left a lasting impression on college baseball, respectively transforming Miami, Rice, and UC Irvine into blueblood programs. May has also seen Florida State’s Mike Martin pass the late and legendary head coach Augie Garrido as the winningest coach in college baseball history. With the celebrations, grand sendoffs, and reflections, it’s been great to hear the stories of college baseball’s leading coaches, how they have been a vital part in the growth of the sport, and how many are indebted to their service.

Not to take away from the very deserved rounds of celebration, but I think we would do well to take a step back and do a better good of appreciating sustained success before it unfortunately wanes. While Gillespie, Graham, and Morris have reach some of college baseball’s highest highs, their respective programs are not as strong in the current as the past, and the thank yous are a bit bittersweet, yearning for once was that is so far away.

Fortunately for Anderson and Minnesota, the current is as bright as the past, if not brighter, with the program is knocking on the door of a top 10 ranking. There isn’t a decline in sight.

Minnesota’s forthcoming, Big Ten-leading, 32nd NCAA Tournament appearance, 19th under Anderson, should bring the program its first regional at home in the tournament’s since 2000. In additional to bringing NCAA Tournament play back to a Big Ten campus for the first time since 2015, the Gophers have claimed two of the last three Big Ten championships, and are one 2017 win away from having a three-peat. The Big Ten, by the way, is a conference that has sent 13 teams to the NCAA Tournament over the prior three seasons.

The Big Ten in 2018 isn’t the Big Ten of 1988, or even 2008, when Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois passed around the conference championship. The Big Ten is deeper than ever, the stakes are higher than ever, and yet Minnesota is right there.

It would be silly, and it was not a call worth attempting to make, to try to have Anderson pat himself on the back, raving about the job he’s and his staff has done over the last three years. That’s not who he is. There would be deflection, humility, and words expressed of how his players and staffs have allowed his teams to enjoy the success they have. And, for him, his staff, and players, there is no time to reflect on what’s been accomplished when there is still work to be done; this Minnesota team is not content with just a conference championship, they want to reach the College World Series for the first time since 1977, a Minnesota team Anderson was on.

But, as his win-loss record now stands at 1,281-858-3, as a third hand is needed to display all of the conference championship rings, as Big Ten foes, father and son alike, look up at Minnesota in the standings, it is just, fair, and necessary for those outside of the Minnesota program to congratulate, appreciate, and draw attention to what Anderson, the presumptive seven-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has done.

As Gillespie, Graham, and Morris leave the game, there aren’t many left around like Anderson, let’s appreciate that before its too late and make sure his name is be echoed right alongside those legends of the sport.

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.

Around the Horn: Minnesota

This fall, 10 Innings will supplement its fall updates with a question-and-answer series: Around the Horn. Around the Horn will present four questions to a coach, player or local media, getting an inside perspective on the team heading into the offseason.

Winning 36 games for a second consecutive season, Minnesota led the Big Ten in hitting for a second straight year, doing so with the fewest strikeouts in the conference. Overseeing Minnesota’s .306 team average since the start of the 2016 season is assistant coach Pat Casey. Casey was Minnesota’s volunteer assistant from 2014-2016 before being elevated to a full-time assistant position in September 2016. In addition to being the Minnesota’s primary hitting coach, Casey oversees Gopher catchers, a group which has produced the last two All-Big Ten first-team selections at that position, Austin Athmann and Cole McDevitt.

Here’s Casey on the team’s 2017 success, how they define success, the Gophers’ ability to excel with two strikes, touching home with what the Gophers are currently working on to get better.

10 Innings: The team batted .297 last year, with a .370 on-base percentage and .412 slugging mark, scoring 5.8 runs a game. How do you view last season’s offensive production in terms of it being a successful season or not at the plate for the Gophers?

2017 was a good year for us. I wouldn’t call it a ‘great year’ based on the way we performed in March and certain spots throughout the year, but our goal at the beginning of last season was to lead the Big Ten in hitting and that group of guys accomplished it and they deserve all the credit for their hard work, dedication and commitment they’ve put into being a strong offensive unit. We had our up’s and down’s, but ultimately whenever you finish atop of the Big Ten in hitting you’ve got to be pleased. I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that those hitters aren’t satisfied with the way things ended in the Big Ten Tournament (regardless of how well they hit), they feel like they have more to show and more to prove going forward into 2018.

Looking back at the season as a whole, you’ve got to be impressed with how they responded after March and losing Micah Coffey and Alex Boxwell to injury. That group put together a pretty incredible run in April and May while finishing first in the league in least amount of strikeouts and leading the league in average — you can’t not be impressed with the accomplishments of that group.

10 Innings: What benchmarks, or what are the standards established to determine a successful at-bat, a successful game at the plate and ultimately a strong offensive season?

The benchmark for success lies within the tradition of the program itself. Minnesota has always had very potent offensive lineups, going back to the 2000’s, 1990’s and 1980’s, John (Anderson) and Rob (Fornasiere) have always had teams that could hit and execute fundamentally. Our hitters today take a lot of pride in the players who came before them, wore the uniform before them and what those teams accomplished, we (all) have something to live up to in this program with the rich tradition and history of excellence that Golden Gopher Baseball has.

In terms of our own personal ‘benchmarks’ that we use for success — we do a lot of work with analytics, metrics and sabermetrics but our standards ultimately come down to quality at-bats, well-hits and execution in two-strike counts. There’s a lot that goes into our ‘offensive approach’ and gameday planning, but what it all really gets down to is focusing on “are you having quality at-bats and hitting the ball hard”. Baseball is the ultimate game of failure and the only certainty that you can count on is that your going to fail more times than not, especially as a hitter — so how can we go about managing that. You focus on the controllables.

Quality at-bats and hitting the ball hard aren’t failing in our eyes. We try to reward that and focus on the positives, when a hitter moves a runner, executes a pro play, battles in two-strike counts; those are not seen or taken as failures in our offense. We track everything and at the end of every week we go through it and look at ways we can improve and get better as a unit, the mindset is to never be satisfied, always try to grow, learn and develop. If we do those things and stay connected to our values, our approach and our philosophy we’ll have a good year.

10 Innings: Last season, every batter, one through nine, seemed to possess an uncanny ability to foul off pitches until there was a pitch that could be barreled up. What is the foundation of a good two-strike approach?

In my opinion there are three parts to a good two-strike approach: mentality, emotional state and physical adjustments.

Mentally you have to be prepared, and that comes from constant repetition in practice with our pitch recognition training, velocity sequencing, mechanical and video analysis while putting in the work to study your opponent and yourself (you’ve got to know how he’s trying to get you out and understand your own limitations as a hitter).

Emotionally you’ve got to change your thinking to “I don’t want to strikeout” to “I have one more pitch to accomplish my goal,” you’ve got to let go of the fear and welcome the challenge of hitting behind in the count.

And finally, physically, you must make physical adjustments with your body –move up or off on the plate, choke up, more upper-body spine bend to get your eyes closer to the plane of the pitch, restrict lower/upper body movement. Young hitters need to understand that with two strikes a lot is going against you and the numbers (at any level) in those counts are brutal.

I’ve long said that a strikeout isn’t just like any other out, it’s momentum changing, kills rallies and feeds the confidence of a pitcher — how can the best thing for a pitcher not be the worst thing for a hitter? Don’t get me wrong, we’re still trying to hit the ball hard with two strikes but we’ve got to make sure we fine tune that approach and be ready for the challenges.

10 Innings: With eight returning starters back, has there been an overall area of focus this fall with the hitters, where there may not be a lot to teach, but perhaps fine tune things so the team takes the next offensive step?

Stay healthy and look for ways to continually improve, they all need to have a ‘never be satisfied mindset’ and continue to hold each other accountable every single day, on and off the field.

It might sound cliche’ but Boxwell said it best a few days ago, “you never really figure it out” — your always constantly learning and growing as a hitter. Nobody has all the answers and there’s no one way to teach hitting, we all have to be open to learning and challenging our way of thinking. You look at the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball, they’re all still working and searching for ways to improve mentally, emotionally and physically on a daily basis, nobody says “I want to stay the same today.”

Our motto in Gopher Baseball is take every day to get 1% better, step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. As far as the lineup goes, we don’t just need to be strong one-through-nine, we need to be strong one-through-17 (with how many hitters we have), we’re only as strong as our weakest link and that’s the expectation among every hitter in our program.

Last year we had a lot of players have great individual years, this year we need to expand on that and take the next step to improve as a unit. With that being said I’m very excited for this years group (both hitters and pitchers alike), we’ve got a lot of experience coming back and a very talented offensive team on hand for the 2018 season.

This is a special group of men capable of great things but rest assured it won’t come easy, the Big Ten is going to very, very good this year and our non-conference schedule will be even more challenging. I’m excited to watch these guys take the next step and accomplish special things as a team next spring.

The Prospect Junkie: Scouting Minnesota

The University of Minnesota has a storied baseball tradition. They’ve won the Big Ten 23 times, trailing only Michigan (35) and Illinois (30) for historical conference supremacy. They’ve won the College World Series a conference best three times, albeit their last national championship was in 1964. They also have qualified for the NCAA Tournament 31 times, building a sizable lead on Michigan, who has 22 bids respectively.

But, from 2011 to 2015, Minnesota never finished higher than fourth, hitting a low point in 2015 when they finished 21-30 overall, 9-15 in conference, for a ninth-place finish.

Perhaps that’s why it was surprising when the Gopher’s followed up that low point to win the Big Ten in 2016. Conference Player of the Year Matt Fielder slashed .366/.411/.525, leading Minnesota to a 16-7 conference record.

Despite last year’s success, I didn’t see Minnesota named on any preseason Regional Watch lists or as a potential candidate to repeat as champion. Yet as we approach the midway point of the season, they stand at 18-8 overall with a perfect 6-0 conference record. Minnesota is riding a nine game winning streak, off of which have come on the road, that included series sweeps at Ohio State and Michigan State.

I recently had the opportunity to check out Minnesota when they traveled to Columbus to open up conference play against Ohio State. Minnesota left an impression as the Gophers swept the Buckeyes behind some strong performances from some of their 2017 MLB Draft prospects.

Jr. LHP Lucas Gilbreath

After a strong sophomore season in which he posted a 1.36 ERA while allowing a meager .200 batting average against out of the Gopher bullpen, Gilbreath was slow to get things going in a transition to the rotation this season as I wrote about here. He’s been great since that point however, allowing just four earned runs over his past five starts.

In the series opener against the Buckeyes, Gilbreath scattered four hits and one earned over 6.2 innings, while striking out seven and walking none. Gilbreth does his best to leverage his 6’2 frame with a high-three quarter delivery to generate some downward plane. Gilbreth consistently worked all four quadrants of the plate with a fastball that sat 89-91, while showing confidence and some feel for spin in his breaking ball.

Staying hot, Gilbreath went blow for blow with Michigan State’s Alex Troop last weekend, striking out eight Spartans over six innings in route to his third win of the season.

Sr. RHP Brian Glowicki

Glowicki pitched in the Gopher bullpen alongside Gilbreath last season and performed well, finishing second on the team in ERA (3.29) while also finishing second on the team with 20 appearances. Now entrenched as the closer, Glowicki picked up two saves against Ohio State including one of the two inning variety in the series finale on Saturday to complete the sweep, and two more against Michigan State last weekend. Glowecki has been fantastic thus far this season.

With a 1-0 record, 0.52 ERA, and a .125 batting average against, Glowecki has already saved 11 of Minnesota’s 18 wins. Though he’s just 5’11, Glowecki has a quick arm and he stays closed on his delivery offering good deception on a 92-93 mph fastball that gets on hitters in a hurry.

Jr. RF Alex Boxwell

Boxwell started 29 games as a sophomore and produced a slash line of .327/.379/.464 while hitting .392 in conference play, and not making an error all season. Serving as the three-hole hitter for the Gophers this season, the left-handed hitting Boxwell put together an impressive weekend at the plate against Ohio State, hitting two home runs, stealing two bases, and scoring seven runs. Though he cooled off some against the Spartans the following weekend, the toolsy Boxwell, long and lean at 6’3, 195-pound, is hitting .277/.345/.455 with three home runs, four triples, stealing nine bases with an above-average run tool..

Jr. 3B Micah Coffey

Along with Boxwell, Coffey was a key contributor for Minnesota last season, earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors after slashing .333/.408/.524 with seven home runs and tying for the team high in RBIs with 42. At 6’1 and 200 pounds, Coffey backs up his athletic build. A three-sport star out of Batavia (Ill.) H.S., he was an honorable mention all-state quarterback in football and all-conference performer in basketball. Coffey missed the Ohio State series, but here’s what 10 Innings’ Chris Webb said after seeing the Gophers open the season at Irvine.

Coffey stands tall and has a quiet approach at the plate. Quick hands through the zone allows Coffey to get to inside pitches, and he does not lose balance on balls on the outer-half. An ability to manipulate the barrel, with at least 50 raw power, Coffey is a prospect to watch this spring, possessing the tools to potentially to crack into the top six rounds. At the hot corner, Coffey’s arm is enough, there is carry, and he showed good agility and quickness charging a soft roller on Saturday. Coffey looks to be a 55 runner, with enough lateral ability to stick at third.

Jr. 2B Luke Pettersen

While Pettersen may not have the tools of Boxwell or the athleticism of Coffey, he’s a spark plug for this Golden Gopher offense and a major factor in their success. Following a sophomore campaign in which he struck out just six times in 105 plate appearances, Pettersen continues to consistently put the bat on the ball. This season, Petersen has struck out eight times in 99 plate appearances, while also leading the conference with a .389 batting average and playing a reliable second base.

10 Innings Extra: Gophers’ approach leads title defense

John Anderson is halfway through his 36th season leading Minnesota’s baseball team. Amassing more than 1,200 wins, Anderson has seen his share of baseball and knows what it takes to win, evident by his 10 Big Ten championships. Though the Gophers lost the Big Ten Player of the Year, their three-year catcher, four-year second baseman and center fielder, Anderson believed the reigning Big Ten champions had more than enough punch to compete for another conference crown.

With two weekend road sweeps in the first two weekends of Big Ten play, Anderson’s preseason belief is turning into a reality.

Minnesota led the Big Ten with a .323 overall batting average in 2016, while leading the conference with a .304 in-conference hitting clip. Behind 50 home runs, yielding a conference best .877 home runs per game, the Gophers slugged their way to the conference championship, the Big Ten leaders in slugging percentage at .467 overall and .440 in Big Ten games.

But the aforementioned losses, respectively Matt Fiedler, Austin Athmann, Connor Schaefbauer and Dan Motl, combined for 303 hits, 54 doubles, five doubles and 27 home runs, collective batting .342 over 885 at-bats, with a .506 slugging percentage. One wouldn’t have been foolish to predict a step backwards for Minnesota with the offensive firepower lost, Big Ten coaches picked five teams to finish higher than the Gophers who finished in a tie for sixth.

So what’s allowed Minnesota to weather such losses to be 6-0 in conference play, batting .314 in the process?

A steady approach, yielding consistency one through nine in the lineup.

In watching Minnesota, the Gophers show an uncanny ability to stay within themselves at the plate, the moment never seems too big, players aren’t overly anxious to produce a big hit. Minnesota will spit on balls outside of the zone, flip away foul balls that aren’t quite good enough, before squaring up on a pitch that can be put in play through a hole or with authority into a gap.

Starting with a 27-hit effort in two games in opening the season against UC-Irvine, Minnesota has had little difficulty replacing the big bats that carried the team to its first conference championship, watching new starters and players emerge.

“I said all along I thought we’d have a good lineup,” said Anderson, whose team picked up a 10th consecutive victory on Tuesday with a 7-1 win over North Dakota State. “The reason we’ve scored some runs, you do that with a lineup, contributions up and down the lineup.”

That has been the case for Minnesota.

There isn’t a the same pop in the lineup as last year, even a year where power is up across the board in the Big Ten, Minnesota only has 13 home runs led by left fielder Jordan Smith’s four. But led by second baseman Luke Pettersen’s Big Ten-leading .376 average, there is constant pressure put on pitchers with nine regulars are batting at least .270. The loss of power is made up with a completeness in putting the ball in play, as a team, Minnesota has only struck out 150 teams, the fewest in the Big Ten, producing a 16.6% strikeout rate. Without an easy out in the lineup, as a team Minnesota is batting .281 overall.

The Gophers did go into a lull, as Anderson calls it, at the beginning of March, scoring only 12 runs over four games between a midweek game against Hawaii and hosting the Dairy Queen Classic. The following week, Missouri State held Minnesota to 10 runs in a three-game set at U.S. Bank Stadium. But as conference play started with a showdown between two 2016 NCAA Tournament clubs, Minnesota returned to form, sweeping Ohio State behind 26 runs and 41 hits.

Following the brooming of the Buckeyes, Anderson noticed his team putting it back together.

“We’ve done a better job of squaring more balls, not chasing and expanding the zone as much as we were and just having better at-bats,” he said.

Minnesota’s approach at the plate was noticed in the opposing dugout, as Ohio State was unable to find the big hit that Minnesota produced time and time again.

“Their approach is solid, they have guys with a feel for hitting,” Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said after Minnesota recorded their first sweep of Ohio State since 1990. “They have a solid two-strike approach where they will scrap and fight you.”

Freshman Jordan Kozicky started all three games against Ohio State, stepping in for Micah Coffey who suffered a sprained ankle two weeks prior. A year after Coffey batted .333 with 23 extra-base hits, Kozicky, who says he’s an aggressive, fastball hitter, easily stepped in and picked up five hits in 12 at-bats. Almost mechanically, one part of the Minnesota machine needed replaced and the replacement part was easily inserted and continued on. That’s finding consistency.

When Coffey returned in Minnesota’s series at Michigan State, the junior picked up a three-run double to send the Gophers to a 3-2 victory, starting the eventual weekend sweep with a big win.

“I think all we need is a little inch, to get a guy on base, get him over, then get him in, Coffey said. “Guys step up in big situations. Guys keep coming to play, but guys keep coming to compete, first and foremost.”

After Minnesota left East Lansing with their perfect conference record in tact, they left another opposing coach singing their praise.

“I think we can learn a lot from what we watched out of the Minnesota dugout,” Michigan State head coach Jake Boss Jr. said after the Spartans became the second consecutive Big Ten team to be swept in a Saturday doubleheader by the Gophers. “They didn’t strike out a whole lot, and I think they really competed at the plate.”

What is allowing the players to have a mentality of being relentless in competing?

“I know it’s cliche, but they know to take it one pitch, one play, one inning at a time,” Anderson said.

The simplicity was echoed by Kozicky after he picked up two RBI to lead Minnesota to a 4-3 in the twinbill nightcap of the Michigan State doubleheader.

“If we just keep what we’re doing I think we can win another conference championship.”

Just like their head coach felt before the season started.

Midweek wrap

Settling into mid-March, the Big Ten has reached the part of the college baseball season with midweek games litter the calendar. For those in the Midwest, cold and wintery weather across Big Ten country cancelled games in Champaign and Iowa City, but for teams on spring break, taking to parts south and west there was action to be found.

Buckeyes take two in Port Charlotte

The second of two pre-Big Ten trips to Florida, Ohio State returns to Columbus riding a three-game winning streak after winning a pair of midweek games in Port Charlotte.

On Tuesday, Ohio State topped Lehigh, 7-3. The Buckeyes wasted little time scoring, crossing home twice in the opening inning, with senior DH Zach Ratcliff providing a big hit with an RBI-double. Lehigh responded with a run in their at-bat, but the Buckeye bats weren’t done, matching Lehigh with a run of their own in the bottom of the second.

OSU plated another run in the third, to take a 4-1 lead, but Lehigh cut the deficit to one run with two runs in their fourth-inning at-bat. But, again, Ohio State answered the bell. Junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt connected on his second home run of the season and Ratcliff added a sacrifice fly to give the Buckeyes breathing room and a 6-3 lead, OSU added an insurance run in the seventh to close the scoring.

Leading the team’s 12-hit attack, second baseman Noah McGowan, first baseman Bo Coolen and right fielder Dominic Canzone each picked up two hits in four at-bats. Left fielder Tyler Cowles matcher Ratcliff with two RBI. After freshman right-handed pitcher Jake Vance pitched 3.2 innings in hist first career start, Austin Woodby, Joe Stoll and Curtiss Irving combined to pitch 5.1 innings of three-hit, scoreless relief, striking out seven batters without issuing a walk.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Buckeyes reached .500 on the year, turning back the Bucknell Bison, 5-2, to even their record at 8-8.

The game was scoreless at its mid-point before the Buckeyes broke through with a two-run bottom of the fifth. With two outs, sophomore catcher Jacob Barnwell singled through the left side and moved up 90 feet when Gantt reached on an infield single up the middle. Senior shortstop Jalen Washington provided Ohio State with the game’s first lead, driving an opposite-field double down the right field line scoring Barnwell and Gantt. An unearned run in the bottom of the sixth provided the Buckeyes with further cushion.

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Connor Curlis twirled a gem in his first career start. Curlis struck out eight batters in 5.1 innings of work, holding Bucknell to four hits and one walk. The Bison did strike for two runs in the top of the seventh, but Ohio State leveled the inning’s scoring with two runs of their own, with Gantt picking up a RBI-single then later scoring on a wild pitch.

Running his batting average to a team-best .345, Gantt led Ohio State with a 2-for-4 afternoon from his leadoff position, scoring a pair of runs. Sophomore third baseman Brady Cherry added two hits in four at-bats.

Terps fall to Tar Heels on the road

Maryland’s eight-game winning streak came to an end Tuesday night, falling at #13 North Carolina, 9-2.

Allowing two runs in the bottom of the first, sophomore Right-handed pitcher Hunter Parson was the victim of two unearned runs in the bottom of the second, before exiting after 1.2 innings of work. The two-inning production would be enough for the Atlantic Coast Conference club in the battle against its former conference peer. Maryland was kept off of the scoreboard save a two-RBI single in the third inning, off of the bat of sophomore second baseman Nick Dunn. Dunn’s hit, Maryland’s lone base hit on the evening, halved the Terrapin deficit, but an UNC four-spot in the fourth put the game away.  Tar Heel pitchers struck out 12 batters on the night, only once allowing a runner to second base after the third inning.

Elsewhere

Winning the final two games of a three-game set at North Florida, Rutgers was unable to carry its momentum as the team headed south. Taking on Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton on Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights were downed by the Owls, 14-2. FAU scored in five of their eight at-bats, crossing home 10 times between the fourth and sixth innings. Rutgers could only muster four hits off Florida Atlantic pitching, two coming from Mike Carter, whose on-base streak stretched to 18 games.

Minnesota was held to one run and three hits in a 7-1 loss to Cal, Tuesday evening. Returning to California, after opening the season in Orange County with a weather-shortened weekend at UC-Irvine, the Gophers were quickly on the board. Right fielder Alex Boxwell tripled to right center and scored one batter later on a sacrifice fly from Luke Pettersen. But Minnesota’s scoring ended two batters in. Cal scored three runs in the bottom of the third to take a lead they would not relinquish, striking Minnesota pitchers for 13 hits on the day.

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.

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.