Fall Notes: Nebraska

Program at a glance

Head Coach: Darin Erstad, eighth year

2018 Record: 24-28 overall, 8-14 Big Ten (10th)

Key departures: 1B/DH Scott Schreiber (.369 AVG/.446 OBP/.692 SLG, 18 HR), C Jesse Wilkening (.372/.445/.588, 56 RBI), RHP Luis Alvarado (70 IP, 4.89 ERA, 65 SO) RHP Jake Hohensee (25.2 IP, 1.05 ERA, 28 SO, 13 SV)

Key returners: Sr. SS Angelo Altavilla (.228/.354/.352), Jr. OF Mojo Hagge (.275/.369/.376), Jr. RHP Chad Luensmann (DNP, Tommy John), Jr. RHP Robbie Palkert (4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 SV), Jr. 3B/1B/C Luke Roskam (.269/.373/.425, 13 2B), Sr. RHP Matt Waldron (69.2 IP, 4.26 ERA, 61 SO, 12)

Notable newcomers: Fr. RHP Bo Blessie, Fr. INF/RHP Colby Gomes, Soph. OF Aaron Planesky, Fr. RHP/INF Spencer Schwellenbach

2018 in review

No matter the adjective, unlucky, unbelievable, crestfallen, or downright weird, it’s hard to find the appropriate word to describe the Huskers’ 2018 campaign. Coming off of the program’s first Big Ten championship, the first conference team title a Nebraska men’s program has won as a member of the Big Ten, 2018 was to be the season Nebraska took the next step forward. Although the 2017 season ended with a third regional in four years, the program is only 1-6 over the trio of 64-team tournaments, including back-to-back 0-2 showings. With one monkey off of the back, it was time to eviscerate another.

That monkey postseason unfortunately still is there, as a black cloud seemingly formed over Lincoln and never left.

Before the season started, junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann was lost for the season, needing Tommy John surgery.  That created a void in the Huskers’ weekend rotation as the third-year player was expected to move from standout reliever to starter. Luensmann was lost for the year after sophomore southpaw Connor Curry also needed offseason surgery. Junior righty Robbie Palkert joined the mash unit, going under the knife after showing flashes of brilliance, limited to 4.2 innings. And Junior left-hander Jake McSteen encountered arm trouble as well, limited to two starts and 12.2 innings over five outings.

With pitchers recovering from injuries, a handful being lost to injury, and continuous shuffling of roles, Nebraska used 19 pitchers last season, eight receiving a start. The lack of consistency and players put in roles out of necessity, less merit, resulted in a team ERA of 5.70, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Led by senior first baseman Scott Schreiber and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska’s offence batted at a .274 clip, sixth in the conference. But after the two all-conference performances who combined for 27 doubles and home runs, no other Husker regular batted over .275, and only two reach double digits in extra-base hits. While Wilkening made a big leap forward following a sophomore campaign of .247/.330/.312, shortstop Angelo Altavilla took a step back in his draft year, going from .316/.407/.406 for the Big Ten champions to .228/.354/.352 for the conference’s 10th-place club. Sophomores Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam showed they can be solid players, complimentary of Nebraska’s two big bats, but there wasn’t the lineup depth of years past, where 1-9 Nebraska wore down opposing pitchers.

But Nebraska still managed to score 6.48 runs per game. The bug-a-boo for the Huskers was the ravaged pitching staff. Nebraska lost five conference games where they scored at least four runs, as its in-conference ERA of 6.35 was the Big Ten’s worst. Offensively, the batted .288 and slugged .457 against conference foes, both makes good for second.

The 24-28 overall record, 8-14 Big Ten record and 10th place finish were the worst for an Erstad-led team. 

Fall notes

With the snake-bitten, disappointing year behind them, Erstad said every player returned to Lincoln motivated this fall. The eighth-year head coach added there was no need to speak of last year to his players, the players know their season wasn’t up to par, not even close. As such, compared to years past, Erstad says that a different feeling throughout the team was present this fall, noting it’s easy to coach a team who had their butt kicked.

Regarding the Curry, Luensmann and Palkert, Erstad said each are progressing fine in their recovery, no set backs have occurred and each are in line to return in 2019 at various points.

Even without the three pitchers on the mend, Erstad said the team he saw this fall has more depth than any team he’s had thus far in Lincoln. With the depth, and true to his M.O. nothing is in pen heading into the 2019 season, according to Erstad. It’ll be a battle for starts throughout the lineup and on the pitching staff. 

A key factor in the depth are the eleven freshman that make up the 2019 Nebraska roster. Right-handed pitchers Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes, and Spencer Schwellenbach drew praise and high attention during the prep and showcase circuit, each spurning the opportunity to play professional baseball. Gomes and Schwellenbach were also standout two-way players in high school, both possessing the bat and fielding prowess to make impacts all over the diamond. But, Erstad says the college game is a whole different ball game than what those and the other freshman have faced to date.

Another key newcomer is outfielder Aaron Palensky, who Erstad says is just a fun player to coach. A sophomore after spending one year at Southeast Community College, Palensky looks to be the part of a key bat in the Husker lineup, as they need a bat to emerge to fill the void of Schreiber and Wilkening. At the JUCO, last year Palensky batted .417 with 18 home runs, 77 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 24 stolen bases, while posting a .850 slugging percentage and .515 on-base percentage.

But for all of the accolades, the positive energy and determination present throughout the fall, Erstad knows none of it matters if the players don’t show up game after game.

And in 2019 the Huskers will need to be ready to bring it from day one. Nebraska’s schedule is as tough as it’s ever been, with Erstad saying, “We want to challenge our guys…we want to find out how good we are, and we will know right away.” Following a four-game series at UC Riverside to open the season, a four-game series against defending national champion Oregon State awaits. Nebraska opens March plays in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, alongside Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech. Non-conference series against Baylor and Arizona State are also on the schedule.

You’ll have to go to the bottom of Nebraska’s roster to find his name, but Curtis Ledbetter transitioning from Director of Operations to volunteer coach has been a boon for Erstad. Like he is, Erstad says Ledbetter being a Husker alum, adds an extra element to the staff. The head coach notes his volunteer assistant was on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, and knows what it takes to get there, determined to get the team, showing in turning away a paying job to be the volunteer coach.

Huskers claim first Big Ten championship

Behind a first inning blitz and a standout performance on the mound by Jake Meyers, Nebraska rolled past Penn State Saturday afternoon, 21-3, to claim its first Big Ten championship.

Nebraska jumped on the Nittany Lions for seven runs in the first and scored three more, tacking on two more crooked numbers on the scoreboard with a two-run fifth and five-run sixth, before an eighth-inning grand glam by Jake Schleppenbach put the exclamation point on the Husker victory. While the Huskers racked up 18 hits, led by Mojo Hagge and Ben Miller each picking up four hits in three-RBI afternoons, Meyers held Penn State to one hit on the afternoon, tossing six innings of scoreless baseball en route to setting a career-high for strikeouts with seven.

Since joining the Big Ten Conference in July 2011, Nebraska has finished in second place in baseball three times, 2013, 2014 and 2016. Breaking through this season with a 16-7-1 showing in Big Ten play, Nebraska claimed its first conference championship since winning the Big XII in 2005. In taking two of three games from Penn State, Nebraska won seven of eight conference series, only falling in a weekend set to Iowa, April 14-17.

The Huskers stellar play in conference action came after a rocky start to the season. Coming off of a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, Nebraska opened the season 2-6. But two of those losses were to the country’s #1 team, Oregon State, with another against a reigning College World Series participant in Oklahoma State, and one to Utah, the defending Pac-12 champions. The tough start against stout competition has paid dividends as the regular season comes to an end. Since the 2-6 start, Nebraska has won 32 of 45 games, finishing the regular season with a 34-18-1 mark.

The Big Ten championship is the first conference title head coach Darin Erstad has won as a collegiate head coach. Taking over the reigns of the program he once starred at, Erstad has compiled an 88-54-1 mark in Big Ten play, posting a winning conference season in every year except 2015.

Nebraska will now enter next week’s Big Ten Tournament as the top seed, looking to continue its seasons of first with a first Big Ten Tournament title. The Huskers have twice finished runners-up in the conference tournament, in 2013 and 2014, both times to Indiana.

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.

10 Innings Extra: Huskers need “screw it” moment

Nebraska exceeded expectations in 2016. The Big Ten’s western-most program was not expected to be among the top three contenders for the Big Ten championship in the preseason, the favorites being Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. But the team finished a half-game behind champion Minnesota and reached the NCAA Tournament. For head coach Darin Erstad and the Huskers, it was a second regional appearance in three years, after claiming their third second-place finish in four seasons.

A program with great tradition, Nebraska seeks consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2007-08. Through two weekends of play, the team has an uphill battle in their quest to be a part of the field of 64. The Huskers sit 2-4 on the season after a rain-shortened opening weekend resulted in a two-game split versus UC Riverside and a 1-3 showing in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge. Through the half-dozen games, Nebraska is batting .243 and the Huskers have crossed home plate only 20 times, averaging 3.3 runs per game.

A six-game start isn’t doom to a team’s postseason odds. But a year after exceeding expectations, the weight of what’s expected this season has Erstad waiting for his team to just play baseball.

Nebraska’s returned its top three hitters from its 37-22 club, a .281-hitting outfit a year ago. With juniors Jake Meyers and Scott Schreiber and senior Ben Miller, the top of the Husker order was expected to be potent. Meyers led the team with a .326 average, barely eclipsing Schreiber’s .325 mark, while Miller hit to the tune of .317. Schreiber’s 16 home runs were a Big Ten-best with Meyers and Schreiber combining for 28 doubles. Add junior left fielder Luis Alvarado and sophomore catcher Jesse Wilkening, a strong offensive core was expected to lead the Huskers.

But through six games, the abilities shown prior have yet to come through.

Alvarado is batting .308 with three doubles, a nice start to his third season in Lincoln. But he is the lone returning starter performing at an expected level. Schreiber is batting .250 without an extra-base hit, with Meyers and Miller a combined 8-for-48 on the season, a .166 average. Wilkening showed well as a freshman, batting .270 in 111 at-bats, but has only recorded two hits in 11 at-bats.

The sample sizes are small, it’s not unusual for a player to have a slump over the course of a half-dozen games, but when many key contributors are in a rut it’s hard for a team to get going.

What’s causing the funk? Did the returning players suddenly lose skill? Not to Erstad. Following Friday’s 7-5 loss to Utah, where the team left the bases loaded to end three of the first four innings, Erstad mentioned the slow starts may be a result of the players attempting too much to build off of the strong 2016 seasons.

“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”

For Meyers and Schreiber, as juniors, it is a draft year, while Miller opted to return to Nebraska after being a 32nd-round pick in last June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But while the offensive output yet to come from the heart of the lineup, the players stepping into the spotlight for the first time have had no such problems. Nebraska closed out the weekend with a 4-3 win over Utah, spurred by a new-look 1-2 punch.

Batting leadoff, freshman outfielder Mojo Hagge went 3-for-5 while sophomore infielder Angelo Altavilla added two hits in five at-bats in the two-hole. On the young season, the two have combined for 16 hits in 33 at-bats. Altavilla and Hagge can’t be expected to continue to hit at their respective .444 and .533 clips for the rest of the season, but their emergence and shown ability against very good pitching gives Nebraska seven capable bats in the lineup, welcomed contributions as Erstad says  “we’re going to need it from all different parts.”

Now it’s time for the veterans to do their part.

“The guys that have a track record haven’t started to hit yet,” Erstad said. “It’s one of those things where we’ll keep throwing them out there and they’ll do their thing. We just need to get back to the basics with a lot of those guys and quit trying to do too much.”

The parts are there for Nebraska to have a season which ends in the NCAA Tournament. Knocking off the defending Pac-12 champions shows what the Huskers are capable of. It’s just a matter of time for it all to come together, newcomers and returners alike to contribute up and down the lineup.

“Our returners are putting so much stinking pressure on themselves right now to have big years, and sometimes that happens. At some point, they’re going to hit the tilt button and it’s going to be ‘screw it, let’s just play baseball.'”

Early offense eludes Huskers

Nebraska played it’s best game of the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge on Saturday evening, but it wasn’t enough to take down the fifth-ranked team in the country. Nebraska (1-4) suffered a third consecutive loss, falling to the Oregon State (6-1), 5-2, in a game where the Huskers, fell behind early, again, and were unable to muster offense of their own early in the game or early in their plate appearances.

“Just have to keep grinding,” said Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad. “This game is going to throw a lot at you. We’re playing quality teams and every little mistake that you make is going to get exposed. We’re not making huge mistakes, we’re making little ones that can cost us.”

The first Husker mistake put Nebraska in a deficit before they could step to the plate for their second at-bat, for the third time this weekend.

With two outs and a runner on first, Nebraska left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers tossed an offering into the wheelhouse of Oregon State first baseman KJ Harrison, a 1-0 pitch that went out of the ballpark to left field for a quick 2-0 Oregon State lead.

“First inning, two outs, they get a home run. Right there, (if we) get out of that, we have a chance to get rolling,” said Erstad. “But that wasn’t the case.”

Oregon State’s 2-0 lead after the first inning comes two days after the Beavers seized a 4-0 advantage in their first at-bat against the Huskers. It took Oregon State two innings this time to jump to a 4-0 lead, doing so on a bases loaded hit batter and sacrifice fly in the second. While Oregon State jumped on early opportunities, Nebraska was unable to respond in kind.

Nebraska matched Oregon State in having nine at-bats with a runner in scoring position, bettering their one hit with two, but when the runners reached second and third base was the difference in the game.

Junior right fielder Scott Schreiber singled to lead off the second, but two strikeouts kept him at first before Jesse Wilkening singled to left field to put two on. But with two outs, senior second baseman Jake Schleppenbach skied out to center to end the inning. In the third, left fielder Mojo Hagge doubled to right center, but it was with two outs, the inning coming to an end one batter later. Wilkening doubled in the fourth, one batter after sophomore third baseman Angelo Altavilla singled to left, but both of those hits were with two outs. Nebraska again left a runner in scoring position with Schleppenbach grounding out after the sophomore catcher’s two-bagger ending the Husker threat. When Nebraska put Oregon State in a danger zone, it often came with two outs, limiting their chances of capitalizing on the opportunity.

“We didn’t generate anything with zero outs and getting anything started where you have an opportunity to build on something,” Erstad said as Nebraska went 4-for-22 batting with less than two outs. “When you have to always get two-out hits, that makes it even harder. That’s where we put ourselves in a tough position offensively today.”

Struggling to find a way to strike early in their trips to the plate against Oregon State pitchers, the Huskers received a stout relief effort to keep the game in striking distance. After Meyers exited with one out in the fourth, sophomore left-handed pitcher Jake McSteen pitched into the seventh, putting zeros on the board in the process.

“Unfortunately when those guys come in we’re playing from behind,” Erstad said on McSteen’s strong relief effort. “They are doing a nice job with that. We are seeing them way too often in those situations.”

With McSteen holding the Beavers at bay, Nebraska finally broke through in the sixth. And it occurred with offense generated with less than two outs.

Singles from Schreiber and center fielder Luis Alvarado put the first two Huskers on base before a run-scoring knock from Altavilla plated the Nebraska’s first run. The prospect of a big inning dimmed with a Wilkening strikeout and Schleppenbach fly out, but junior shortstop Brison Cronenbold doubled down the left field line to bring home Alvarado and make it a 4-2 game. A four-pitch walk to Meyers loaded the bases, but a line out to left by Hagge ended the rally.

“That’s kind of been the story of our season so far. With two outs (and nobody on), we get two hits, because they’re not trying to walk you. Then we get guys in scoring position and they go to work on you. We haven’t done as good of a job of staying aggressive when we have those runners in scoring position.”

The lone batter to reach base for Nebraska over the final three innings was Schleppenbach, drawing a two-out walk in the eighth, a batter before the inning ended on a fielder’s choice. Oregon State tacked on a run in their half of the eighth to give the game its final 5-2 score.

Knocked around for four runs off four hits in the first two innings, Nebraska pitchers held Oregon State to one run and six hits over the final six at-bats. But the early deficit was too much to overcome for an offense still in search for a consistent approach, from the first inning through the ninth, with no outs or two.

Altavilla, Schreiber and Wilkening each picked up two hits for a club which has totaled 20 over the last two games, but only seven runs to show for it. Meyers received the loss in allowing four runs off six hits in 3.1 innings. Harrison went 2-for-4 with two RBI and a run scored to paced the Beavers. Oregon State starting pitcher Sam Tweedt went five innings, allowing the two Nebraska runs while scattering seven hits, striking out four batters without issuing a walk.

Nebraska closes the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, set to play Utah at 1 p.m. on Sunday, looking the salvage the weekend with a victory.

“I do like where our energy is, I do like where our effort level, or focus, all of those type of things I think are fine,” Erstad said. “We talked early and I said we’re going to be good, it’s just how quickly we can get there. We’re not quite there yet.”

Huskers still in search for winning ways

Not possessing a killer instinct, timidness or a lack of competitiveness, there are options for how one may describe Nebraska’s inability to come through with a big hit in a key situation, capitalize on opportunities provided and play winning baseball. And each one was how head coach Darin Erstad described his team’s offensive performance on Friday night, falling to Utah, 7-5. The loss dropped Nebraska to 1-3 on the season while Utah improved to 4-1.

“It was a game we had a chance to win,” Erstad said. “They got the big hits and we didn’t.”

As Nebraska did in Thursday’s 10-1 loss to Oregon State, the Huskers fell behind right off the of bat, but this time the team fought back.

After Utah loaded the bases on back-to-back singles and a walk off Nebraska started Derek Burkamper, the Utes put the first run on the board with the third single of the inning. A strikeout and fly out to center allowed Burkamper to exit the inning with no further damage. When his teammates stepped to the plate, they reset the game for the senior right-hander.

Leadoff batter Jake Meyers singled up the middle on the first pitch of the game by Ute Jayson Rose. A stolen base and fielder’s choice moved Meyers to third with two outs. Junior DH Scott Schreiber drew a walk before Luis Alvarado singled to left field to plate Meyers and tie the game, 1-1. Nebraska had an opportunity to take the lead and put space between them and the Utes when Jake Schleppenbach walked to load the bases, but a pop up to center off the bat of Alex Raburn ended the inning with the bases loaded.

The three runners left on base would be a sign of things to come for the Cornhuskers.

Both teams sent three batters to the plate in the second inning, in a scoreless inning. In the top of the third, three consecutive singles to start the inning led to a pair of Utah runs. Where the Utes made the most of their baserunners, Nebraska did not.

Three consecutive walks to open the home-half of the third loaded the bases for Nebraska. But two strikeouts around a fly out to left field saw the threat evaporate as quickly as it mounted. For a second time in three innings the Huskers left the bases loaded.

“They’re timid. You can tell they weren’t aggressive,” Erstad said. “Those are the parts of the game that swing either way, we weren’t able to do it.”

In their very next at-bat Nebraska had an opportunity to atone for the failed upon opportunity.

Nate Fisher relieved Burkamper and tossed an eight-pitch 1-2-3 inning to quickly bring the Huskers back to the plate. A one-out double to left center field by third baseman Angelo Altavilla put a runner in scoring position. Meyer collected his second single to center field to put the tying run on base, before moving to second on a full count walk drawn by right field Mojo Hagge. With the bases loaded for the third time Nebraska had it’s three-hole and cleanup batters up. But like Houdini, Rose escaped yet another jam, striking out Ben Miller and Schreiber. Again, Rose sat down Nebraska with three runners left on base to the displeasure of Erstad.

“You have to smell blood in those situations. I thought we had a good opportunity, to get to a good pitcher in those situations, we didn’t take advantage of it.”

After respectively batting .325 and .317 in 2016, Schreiber and Miller have struggled in starting out the 2017 season. Schreiber, a top draft prospect after a 16-home run sophomore season and Miller, returning to school after being selected in the 32nd round of June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, are a combined six-for-33 on the season. The season is young, only four games deep, but what’s to come in June may be shaping what has happened in February.

“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”

Though Nebraska left nine runners on through the first four innings, they did find a way to claw back in the fifth.

With two outs, senior shortstop Alex Raburn singled to his Utah counterpart in front of catcher Brady Childs drawing a walk. This time the inning would not end with multiple Huskers on base as Altavilla hit a towering double to the left field corner, tying the game, 3-3.

The score held until the seventh when a two-out single to right field scored a runner at second and a runner at first. The latter runner crossing home ahead of a throw, a tally none too pleasing for Erstad.

“We had first and second two outs, there’s a single and the guy scores from first. I didn’t think there was much sense of urgency when it came to taking care of the baseball there. Those are things we have to clean up.”

But the Husker showed their mettle in rallying in the seventh, again behind the bat of Altavilla.

Leadoff singles by Alvarado and Schleppenbach put two Huskers on with nobody out. A sacrifice bunt by Raburn put them both in scoring position, where two batters they scored on a two-out double to right field by Altavilla. Seeing action in just 14 games in 2016, the sophomore finished the game 4-for-4 with three doubles and four RBI.

“We’re getting good at playing from behind, which is not a good thing to do,” Erstad said. “You want to go out and set the tone, you can continue to play from behind, it’s impossible to play good baseball that way.”

Nebraska was unable to follow Alatavaill’s seventh base of the game with another hit to take a lead for the first time in the game. Meyers popped out to shortstop to end the innings as the Huskers settled for squaring the game for the third different time. But that would be the final time the score was level. Two Utah singles, a walk and sacrifice bunt led to the winning run scoring for the Utes in the eighth, before they tacked on an insurance run in the ninth for the 7-5 victory.

At the game’s end, 16 hits led to seven Utah runs while 11 hits produced five Nebraska runs. Each team left 11 runners on base, but the multiple bases loaded situations left Erstad wanting his club to get back to one thing: competing.

“I don’t think we’re competing like we can and that’s going to be our focus going into tomorrow.”

On a pitch count in his 2017 debut, Burkamper pitched three innings, allowing three runs off six hits, walking one batter with three strikeouts. Utah starting pitcher Jayson Rose pitched 4.2 innings, allowing three runs off six hits and seven walks, striking out six batters. Nebraska reliever Reece Eddins received the loss, allowing three runs in 1.2 innings, yielding six hits while walking two batters. Utah first baseman Hunter Simmons led the Utes at the plate going 4-for-4 with three RBI.

Nebraska returns to action in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge with a Saturday afternoon contest against #5 Oregon State. The Beavers suffered their first loss of the season on Friday, falling to Ohio State 6-1. First pitch is set for 4:30 p.m. MT.

Big Ten bruised in Surprise on day one

The 2017 Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge features two teams from each conference, three of which are coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016. The lone team to not play in a regional just happens to enter the challenge ranked fifth in the country in the latest NCBWA poll. As Nebraska and Ohio State play two games each against #5 Oregon State and Utah, the eight games over four days at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz., was expected to be a quality tournament with a field of four strong teams.

The quality games may yet come, but on Thursday the Pac-12 duo easily handled their foes from the Big Ten in blowout victories.

Oregon State explosive early in win over Nebraska

Nebraska opened the challenge with an afternoon game against designated hosts Oregon State, looking to knock the Beavers from the ranks of the undefeated. Oregon State entered after a perfect 4-0 opening weekend, which included a pair of victories in Surprise against Indiana, while the Huskers split a two-game rain-shortened weekend against UC Riverside in Tempe, Ariz.

In their first at-bat, two Husker strikeouts were followed by an infield single off the bat of first baseman Ben Miller and double inside the right field line by left fielder Luis Alvarado. With two in scoring position, Oregon State starter Luke Heimlich struck out Nebraska catcher Jesse Wilkening, to strike out the side, all looking.

“We get two quick strikeouts, very passive at the plate, then all of the sudden second and third with two outs, a chance to put some runs on the board and we don’t do it,” Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad said. “Against guys like that, teams like this, when you get opportunities like that you have to take advantage of them.”

The inability to capitalize on the scoring opportunity was quickly punished as Oregon State took command of the game in their first at-bat.

Oregon State sent nine batters to the plate, using six hits and a Nebraska error to score four runs off Husker right-handed pitcher Matt Waldron.  Nebraska responded with a run in the second when third baseman Mike Waldron reached on a single and scored on a two-our single up the middle by second baseman Jake Schleppenbach.

The 4-1 deficit would be as close as Nebraska could get the rest of the game as Oregon State punched back.

Two runs in the bottom of the second stretched the Beavers’ lead to 6-1. After both teams were held scoreless in the third, Oregon State scored a run in the four, tacked on two in the fifth and plated one more in the sixth to make it a 10-1 game. From there, three relievers between the two teams, including Alvarado making his collegiate pitching debut, held the score 10-1, pushing Oregon State to 5-0 on the season, dropping Nebraska to 1-2.

“We were good before the game, I thought everything was fine, they just came in and jumped all over us,” Erstad said.  “It wasn’t a lack of effort or lack of focus, we just got out butts kicked. The way we respond, those are the things that define you as a ballclub.”

Heimlich held Nebraska to one run off seven hits in seven innings in the victory. Miller was the lone Husker to record multiple hits, going 2-for-4, while a pair of Beavers went 3-for-4 in Oregon State’s 12-hit attack, led by first baseman KJ Harrison’s 3-for-4, three-RBI showing. Waldron received the lost, pitching 3.1 innings, allowing seven runs off 10 hits and two walks. Each team committed two errors, Nebraska pitchers also hit two batters.

“It’s a great learning experience for us,” Erstad said. “You can preach it all you want, but until you got out and see it, have it happen to you and have it sting a little bit, that’s when it really sets in. Obviously, Matt’s going to pitch better in the long run, defensively, we have to play well and offensively, we’ll get the bats rolling.”

Ohio State outmatched by Utah

Ohio State didn’t fare any better than their Big Ten brethren in Thursday night’s game against Utah.

Like Nebraska, Ohio State had a chance to strike in the first inning, putting the first two batters on base. But both were wiped away on pick-offs at first by Utah left-handed pitcher Josh Rebar, setting the tone for a forgettable night for the Buckeyes.

“The two pickoffs in my opinion was not letting the game come to ourselves,” said Ohio State head coach Greg Beals. “We’re forcing things.”

Going quietly in the first, Ohio State wasn’t able to match Utah in putting together a clean inning.

A throwing error on a bunt attempt stretched an infield single into two bases for Utah leadoff batter DaShawn Keirsey. A pair of groundouts advanced Keirsey 90 feet each time, giving the Utes a 1-0 lead after one at-bat. The game still in the balance, with eight innings to go, the wheels fell off for Ohio State in the second.

After Rebar needed nine pitches to retire the Buckeyes in order in the second, his teammates broke open the game at the plate. Five hits and an Ohio State error led to five runs for Utah, with second baseman Oliver Dunn providing the big hit, connecting on a bases loaded double to drive in three runs. The Utes added two runs in the fourth, three in the fifth and plated their final run of the game in the sixth to send the Buckeyes to a 12-0 defeat.

“What concerned me the most is our ability to show up and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Beals said. “Our ability to have the proper energy, the proper approach, the proper readiness on gameday. We can out yesterday to take batting practice and had an incredible air, energy and excitement about ourselves. That didn’t happen.”

Shortstop Jalen Washington picked up two of Ohio State’s five hits in the inning, with catcher Jacob Barnwell recording the lone extra-base hit with a double. Utah picked up five doubles and a home run by Josh Rose, in a striking the Buckeyes for 16 hits. Oliver led the Utes with four RBI and Hunter Simmons paced the club with three hits.

On the mound, Rebar, a freshman, stymied the Buckeyes to the tune of 5.2-scoreless innings, holding the Bucks to three hits. Niemeyer received the loss, pitching four innings, allowing eight runs, four earned off nine hits.

“Nemo wasn’t as good as he can be, but none of us were,” Beals said. “We have to support our pitching staff better than we did today.”

The four teams will be back in action on Friday, with Ohio State taking on Oregon State at 1 p.m. MT, and Nebraska tangling with Utah at 5 p.m. MT. For Beals, the quick turnaround is a blessing.

“Tomorrow’s exactly what we need,” the seventh-year head coach said. “We need something that like, something to pique our interest, spark ourselves, try to fire ourselves off. We’re going to play one of the better teams in the country and it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great test, but also a great opportunity.”

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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