Weekend preview April 7-9

As college baseball starts the second half of the season, this weekend’s Big Ten action is headline by a rivalry been a recent power and budding rebuilding program, a top-flight home run chase, two hot teams squaring off and conference teams trying to navigate everything Mother Nature throws its way.

Ahead of rivalry weekend, a culture is changing in West Lafayette

There’s no way around it, it was an ugly game.

Purdue’s 13-2 loss to Ohio State on March 31 featured eight walks, six wild pitches and five errors, in addition to several misplayed balls lost, on an evening where the gloomy weather conditions mirror the play of the Boilermakers. On the road for the seventh consecutive season, what changes Purdue enjoyed in winning 13 games over the first six weeks, after winning all of 10 in 2016, wasn’t evident to one watching in the stands. It was the same old Purdue team, the one that went 20-75 in Big Ten play over the prior four seasons.

But in how the Boilermakers responded the rest of the weekend showed times are changing in West Lafayette. Purdue rebounded to walk only two batters and commit just two errors over the final two games, collecting victories of 6-1 and 2-1 over the Buckeyes, giving the Boilermakers three wins in their first six Big Ten games, best their 2-22 conference mark of a year ago.

“I would have liked to have done it in a different way,” joked first-year head coach Mark Wasikowski on signs of a different clubhouse culture in the team’s ability to rebound from such a bad game. “Friday night we quit, we were soft, we were scared, we were timid, we got overwhelmed by bad elements. Anything you can say on a negative side is who we were and that was our identity that day. And that wasn’t the players, it was the coaching staff, the players, it was the bus driver, it was everybody involved. That’s who we were and we had to own it.

“I guess the culture part of it, is that we can all hang out heads and mope around for the rest of the year because we played a bad game or we can shake it off. When we left the dugout that night, the encouragement was can we get passed the day today? And don’t get off this bus, literally, when we got to the hotel, don’t get off this bus until you can get to tomorrow.”

Purdue was able to get to tomorrow, pick up a win, and now they stand 15-31 on the year, set to host in-state rival Indiana (15-11-2) for the first time since 2011.

In 2011, it was Purdue that appeared to be the state of Indiana’s top Big Ten program. The Hoosiers did have the 2009 NCAA Tournament appearance, but Purdue showed more consistency, appearing in four straight Big Ten Tournaments at the season’s end. A year later, the Boilermakers would go on to win the Big Ten for the first time since 1909, win the Big Ten Tournament, defeating Indiana in the tournament championship game, and host the Big Ten’s first regional in four years.

That was the last time Purdue had a winning season.

In the meantime, Indiana has appeared in the NCAA Tournament three times, captured two Big Ten championships and were the Big Ten’s first College World Series participant in 30 years, breaking through in 1983. As Indiana flourish Purdue bottomed out, leaving Wasikowski to pick up the pieces in hope of returning the Boilermakers to past promise.

“On day one, we couldn’t take an infield-outfield (practice), said Wasikowski, who was hired after serving on staffs at Oregon, Arizona, Florida and Southeast Missouri State. “We couldn’t do that. We didn’t have the ability to take an infield-outfield or literally play catch without the ball flying all over the park.”

Needing to completely revamp the Purdue program, Wasikowski started with the absolute basics, and it wasn’t on-field instruction.

“We started with locker room, how are we going to keep our lockers here at Purdue. How are we going to maintain our shoes, make sure that things are clean. Make sure that this is how screens go. We started from the beginning.”

With an emphasis on educating, in an effort to have players in positions for greater chances of success by having an understanding the why behind every actions, both on and off the field, Wasikowski set out in rebounding of the program. There wasn’t any expectation on what Purdue would do on the field, Wasikowski’s sole goal was to make sure his culture was in place by the end of the season.

As they showed at Ohio State, Purdue is working towards that, laying the foundation to once again reign supreme in the Hoosier State. Now, this weekend’s rivalry series against Indiana is another opportunity.

“I think we’re all fighting for the same thing and I think this weekend is going to be another fight in that battle of who is in charge of this state. I know it’s not us yet. But this is an opportunity for us to kind of chip away at getting at that point. That’s what we’re trying to do, start chipping away at whoever is the best team in the state, and eventually that’s going to be us is our mindset.”

Adams and McInerney evoke memories of Sosa and McGwire

It’s been nearly 20 years since Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captured the nation’s attention with their pursuit, and eventual passing, of the 61-home run, 1961 season of Roger Maris. Resetting Major League Baseball’s record book, the home runs Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, and McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals, racked up during the 1998 season had fans on the edge of their seat, holding their breath with each at-bat and continually checking newspaper box scores to see who was still on pace for the record, who hit the latest home run and had the leg on.

Now, two sluggers who were just learning to swing a bat during that unforgettable summer are locked in a home run chase of their own.

Iowa junior first baseman Jake Adams and Illinois first baseman Pat McInerney each have 11 home runs heading into the weekend’s action. Both are on pace to produce the Big Ten’s first 20-home run season since Indiana DH Alex Dickerson hit 24 in 2011, giving the conference a genuine, headline-grabbing home race.

“I’ve surprised myself a little bit,” said McInerney, who has a .727 slugging percentage on the strength of six home runs in Illinois’ last eight games. “It is a result of getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it, but I wouldn’t have guessed I would have 11 at this point, especially with the home run totals I’ve had in the past, and through the summers when you’re thinking it’s going really well.”

McInerney, batting .333 with a .427 on-base percentage, contributes his stellar senior season to a few offseason changes to his swing, where, as simple as it sounds, he hoped to hit the ball harder and in the air. The native of Glen Elyn, Ill. is also taking note of current conversation and dialogue throughout baseball on launch angles, and the results of balls hit higher in the air. But even before McInerney steps to the plate for a high, towering hit, the continued exposure over his career of seeing some of college baseball’s best pitchers in practice is paying off in a big way.

“When you have the experience of practicing against the guys we have faced on a daily basis in guys that have pitched at Illinois, between Cody (Sedlock), Tyler (Jay),  (Kevin) Duchene, where our pitching staff has been so good the last couple of years, we got to see that every day at practice. You’re obviously going to get better when you face those guys.”

Adams, who is batting .340 with a .417 on-base percentage and .698 slugging percentage, hasn’t had the same fortune as McInerney when it comes to standing in the batter’s box against a pair of first-round pitchers. A transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, Adams is in his first season with the Hawkeyes, but came with quite the legacy. After hitting 25 home runs in 2016, leaving DMACC as the career home run leader with 41, the Iowa coaching staff knew Adams had power unlike they’ve ever seen, it was just a matter of how much would it translate to the Division I level. So far Adams has had no issues continuing his home run-hitting ways.

“Baseball is baseball,” said Adams, who hit his 11th home run of the season on Tuesday, helping Iowa 4-3 win over South Dakota State running their record to 18-9 on the season. “Going from a JUCO to the DI level, the pitchers have about the same velocity, but at the DI level they have a bit better off-speed pitches. Coming into Iowa I had to train a lot harder in the weight room, get stronger. I knew I could come in at this level and still put up some pretty big numbers.”

Where McInerney has paid attention to launch angles and noticing his home runs, outside of a time early at DMACC where he accepted he can’t hit a home run in every at-bat, Adams hasn’t changed a thing about his approach or plan of attack at the plate.

“I got into the flow of having to step up to the plate and look for the base hit. When the guys leave it over the plate, that’s when I have to hammer it,” said Adams, who has a three-home run game under his belt, doing so March 26 against Kansas State. “There will be occasions where, if there’s someone in scoring positions and I have two strikes, I’ll move up to the plate a little bit because I stand off the plate, and I just have to get the ball in play. But otherwise I don’t change up if I have two strikes.”

Wasting little time to establish himself as one of the Big Ten’s premier power threats, Adams is aware of how teams are trying to pitch to him and know it is on him to adjust. McInerney looks to continue to be as aggressive as possible in hitting the ball as hard as he can. With the two tied at 11 home runs, with no end in sight of their slugging ways, it’s shaping up to be a second half to remember in the Big Ten.

“It’s kind of cool because growing up in Chicago, I would always remember the home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire,” McInerney said.  It’s not like we’re at five or six home runs, we’re putting up one every other game so it’s cool to go back and forth.

“We host Iowa the last weekend of the season and we’ll see if it comes down to that.”

Get ready for another great home run race, Midwest.

Rising teams square off in Lincoln

Maryland and Nebraska have one conference loss in the nine games played between them and both have racked up wins at a feverish pace over the last month. Victors in 18 of their last 21 games, the Terrapins head to Lincoln for a showdown against a Cornhusker team that has gone 15-4-1 in their last 20 games.

Last weekend, Maryland (19-8, 5-1) swept a road series at Rutgers while Nebraska (17-10-1) almost matched the feat in Bloomington, winning the first two games against Indiana before a travel curfew ended the series finale in a 1-1 ties after 11 innings. With the season’s midpoint here, Maryland is a projected NCAA Tournament team by D1Baseball.com and Baseball America, with the Cornhuskers among the first teams left outside of the field of 64. Both seeking their first Big Ten championship, and with Minnesota’s series against Rutgers cancelled, the weekend provides a prime opportunity for both to take a big step toward their goals.

The two teams enter the weekend with almost identical batting averages, Nebraska’s .267 clip just edges Maryland’s .266 average, but the Terrapins who a decisive advantage in power, a 26 home runs to nine, and stolen bases, 58 swipes against 24. On the other side of the ball is where Nebraska hold the advantage. The Cornhuskers have pitched to a 3.18 ERA, second in the Big Ten. Maryland pitchers have a cumulative 3.68 ERA.

Game two of the series will be broadcast live on BTN, providing a national audience for this key series.

Elsewhere around the conference

A series moved, another cancelled

Inclement weather and scrambled Big Ten baseball schedules are expected this time of year. But what occurred this week is beyond the normal unexpectedness.

Heavy rains throughout mid-Michigan caused flooding and made Michigan State’s Kobs Field unplayable this weekend for the Spartans non-conference series against Fresno State. As a result, the two teams will square off in Grand Rapids, an hour-drive west of East Lansing, playing a doubleheader on Saturday before concluding the series with a finale on Sunday.

But at least the two are schedule for three games, that’s not the case for Minnesota at Rutgers.

After starting the Big Ten season with consecutive road sweeps, the Gophers were set to begin the home conference season with a game tonight against Rutgers. But the weather system that left Michigan State’s home field underway, caused flight cancellations throughout the east coast on Thursday night, leaving the Scarlet Knights without a flight into Minneapolis. Friday’s game was cancelled with Rutgers, before the teams announced the entire weekend series has been called off with Rutgers unable to find a viable travel option. Minnesota’s 6-0 conference record, 19-8 overall, will remain intact while the Scarlet Knights must wait another weekend to seek for their first Big Ten victory, remaining 0-3, 10-18 overall.

Nittany Lions host Buckeyes in critical series

Penn State (10-17) is set to host Ohio State (12-16) for the first time since 2012. Ohio State’s first trip to State College to take on a Rob Cooper-led team, Penn State welcomes their border rivals for a big series. As the calendar has not yet hit Tax Day, it’s too early to panic, and the Buckeyes did overcome a 2-5 conference start to have a chance at the title in the last weekend, on their way to an NCAA Tournament appearance. But with Ohio State’s 1-5 conference record and Penn State’s 0-3 Big Ten mark, it’s important for each team to start getting wins soon, and with the two potentially fighting for one of the final tournament spots, the weekend winner getting a tiebreaking advantage can go a long way.

In spacious Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, hits may be at a premium. Ohio State’s .238 team batting average is 12th in the conference, only Penn State’s .230 clip is worse.

Required reading

Terrapins’ aggressive style heightens Huskers’ intensity entering weekend series -Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald

Penn State baseball to host Ohio State, five games in five days -Kara Duriez, The Daily Collegian

Purdue’s Hunter proving his worth -Sam King, Lafayette Journal & Courier

Lugbauer’s surge powers Michigan’s offense -Jacob Shames, The Michigan Daily

Wildcats seek first conference win in weekend series against Iowa -Joseph Wilkinson, The Daily Northwestern

The 10 Spot: First half moments

This week’s 10 Spot is a look back on the top 10 moments of the first half of the season around Big Ten baseball. From the continued run of facility enhancement, pitching duels, home run heroics and honoring the spirit of two courageous men, here’s the best of the first eight weeks.

Fred Hill Training Complex opens

Three weeks before the first pitch of the season was thrown, a milestone moment occurred. On Jan. 31, a ribbon ceremony was held to formally introduce the new, and much-needed, indoor home for Rutgers baseball and softball, the Fred Hill Training Complex. The state-of-the-art facility features a fully turfed indoor diamond, over an indoor space big enough to feature six drop down batting tunnels and pitching mounds. The Fred Hill Training Complex is the first new athletic facility on Rutgers’ campus in a generation and allows the diamond teams to escape the gymnasium’s cramped conditions of the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Glowicki closes the door in Irvine

Torrential rains and once-a-decade flooding in southern California postponed Minnesota’s season opener at UC-Irvine a day. When Minnesota was able to take the field on Feb. 18, in hopes of reaching a second consecutive regional, the Gophers unleashed a weapon. Looking to close out a 9-8 win, senior right-handed pitcher Brian Glowicki was called upon to shut down the heart of the Anteater order which featured DH Keston Hiura, a potential top-10 overall draft pick. Glowicki handled the task with ease. Two strikeouts, including one on a fastball by Hiura, and a pop up closed the victory. It was the first of already 11 saves for Glowicki, who has a .52 ERA in 17.1 innings.

Ohio State beats Oregon State

At 25-1, Oregon State is the consensus #1 team in the country. The Beavers have won 20 in a roll to take a solid perch atop the polls. But the Beavers aren’t invincible, as the Buckeyes of Ohio State know. On the second day of the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, Ohio State defeated Oregon State, 6-1. Junior right-handed pitcher Yianni Pavlopoulos pitched six innings of shutout baseball with sophomore third baseman Brady Cherry picking up a two-run home run to power the Buckeyes to victory.

Jaskie vs. Canning

On March 3, in Michigan’s first game of the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic, Wolverine junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie went toe-to-toe against UCLA’s Griffin Canning, a potential first-round draft pick, producing a top notch pitching duel. Over six innings, Jaskie held the Bruins to three hits, allowing no runs, while striking out six batters against four walks. Canning equally stymied Michigan, holding the Wolverines to three hits in eight innings, striking out 12 batters while walking three. UCLA won, 1-0, in the bottom of the ninth on a throwing error.

Nebraska blanks Arizona, jump starts seasons

On March 4, a 15-5 loss to Arkansas dropped Nebraska to 2-6. A year after reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, the Huskers looked dead in the water with a date against last year’s national runners-up, Arizona, awaiting. Behind junior left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers, Nebraska blanked the Wildcats, 1-0. In the 20 games since the lost to Arkansas, Nebraska is 15-4-1.

Heller wins #800

Iowa’s 15-7 win over Lehigh, on March 12, gave Hawkeye head coach Rick Heller his 800th career win. In his 30th season as a head coach, Heller has guided four programs to the NCAA Tournament: Iowa, Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Upper Iowa. Iowa is 119-76 under Heller, who’s in his fourth season leading the Hawkeyes..

Troop twirls a gem, hits a homer

Michigan State redshirt-sophomore Alex Troop showed why he is one of the country’s best two-way players in two games against South Carolina. On the road, against the top-10 Gamecocks, Troop, a left-handed pitcher, tossed a three-hitter, allowing three runs, two earned, in receiving a tough luck loss, as Michigan State fell 3-2. The next day, as MSU’s DH, Troop hit a home run off USC’s Wil Crowe, a projected first-round pick.

Weber’s near no-no

A day after Troop’s strong outing in Columbia, S.C, Illinois freshman left-hander Ty Weber cooked up a quality starter of his own. In Conway, S.C., against the reigning national champions, Coastal Carolina, Weber carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning, losing it just six outs from history. Unfortunately the Illini lost 3-2, on back-to-back home runs, but in the no decision Weber was special. The southpaw allowed one run off one hit in 7.2 innings, walking four with six punchouts.

Three-homer mania

In an eight-day span, five Big Ten players hit three home runs in a game. Yes, three homer runs. Yes, five different players. Starting with Iowa’s Jake Adams and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan on March 19, respectively at Kansas State and Xavier, the trifecta continued the following weekend, starting on March 24 with Indiana’s Matt Lloyd in game one of a doubleheader against Northwestern, before Rutgers Jawuan Harris matched the feat the next day at USC-Upstate. And one week after Adams and McGowan’s three round-trippers, Michigan State’s Brandon Hughes did it at Illinois.

Zach Farmer Memorial Game

On March 25, in the first game of a doubleheader against Minnesota, Ohio State played the Zach Farmer Memorial Game. In August 2015, Farmer, a would-be junior left-handed pitcher, passed away after a fight with acute myeloid leukemia. It was the same battle fought by longtime Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes, who passed away last May. The game was a reminder that nobody fights alone, and continued to bring awareness to Be the Match, the national bone marrow donor program.

Midseason roundtable

Big Ten teams are heading into the eighth weekend of play, reaching the halfway point of the college baseball season. With the race for the conference crown shaping up and teams putting together resumes in hopes of a return to the NCAA Tournament, 10 Innings’ Blake Dowson, Burke Granger and Chris Webb share their thoughts on the first half of the season across the Big Ten.

What’s the top storyline of the first half of the season?

BD:  Minnesota. The Gophers leaned heavily on upperclassmen during last year’s Big Ten championship run. Austin Athmann, Matt Fiedler, Dan Motl, and Connor Schaefbauer are no longer in the Gopher lineup. Those four combined for 303 hits, 149 RBI, and 159 runs last year. Without them, Minnesota is undefeated in the Big Ten and 19-8 overall, with sweeps over Michigan State and Ohio State after being picked to finish sixth in the preseason. The Gophers land in the top half of the conference in team batting average, on-base percentage, team earned run average, opposing batting average, and team fielding percentage.

BG: Maryland’s hot streak. After a 1-5 start through the season’s first two weekends, all they’ve done is go 18-3 since, take two of three against a very good Michigan team, and they’re back in the national rankings.

CW: The little attention the Big Ten is garnering. What Michigan and Minnesota are doing shouldn’t be a surprise with who each team returned. But neither team loaded up on summer league all-stars or filled up prospect lists to enter the season with little fanfare. While Michigan was ranked for most of March, most are just now noticing what Minnesota is doing. Both have legitimate chances of hosting a regional. Add those two with Maryland, the season Iowa is putting together, Nebraska getting it turned around, and while stumbling of late, Michigan State’s pitching and power ability, this is an extremely deep Big Ten season. I guess there hasn’t been a “wow” series the Big Ten can hang its hat on, but something feels off with just how few headlines the conference has made so far. NCAA Tournament projections from Baseball America and D1Baseball do have Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota appearing in an regional, so people are aware there’s good teams, but it doesn’t quite feel like there’s an appreciation for the quality season thus far and the depth of the conference.

 

Which team has most exceeded expectations in your eyes?

BD: Purdue. The Boilermakers’ 15-13, 3-3 record isn’t flashy enough to get people talking about them outside of the conference, but considering where the team came from last year, a record above .500 is no small feat. Purdue has already eclipsed its win total from a year ago (10), as well as conference wins (2). With weekend series against Rutgers, Illinois, and Northwestern left on the schedule, Purdue could be on its way to its best season since it qualified for the NCAA Tournament back in 2012.

BG: Minnesota. Though they took home the Big Ten championship last season, they lost four players to the draft and I thought Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska would all finish above Minnesota in the standings.  They still might, but the Gophers stand at 19-8 overall and 6-0 in the conference so they can’t be ignored.

CW: Iowa. I’ll one day learn to not to doubt a team coached by Rick Heller. I thought going into the season the losses of Joel Booker, Tyler Peyton and Nick Roscetti would be be tough to overcome, and while safely in the Big Ten Tournament mix, a shot at a regional berth would be a year away. Midway through the year the Hawkeyes are in a position to chase down a second NCAA Tournament trip in three years.

 

Which team has not lived up to your preseason expectations?

BD: Ohio State. The Buckeyes weren’t expected to contend for a Big Ten title this season. In the conference’s preseason rankings, Ohio State didn’t land in the top-6. But there is an expectation in Columbus to take care of business against in-state teams like Xavier, who the Buckeyes got swept by in mid-March. Two losses to a mediocre Purdue team and another sweep at the hands of Minnesota has Ohio State in a bad spot and in danger of finishing below .500 for the first time in six years.

BG: Ohio State.  Perhaps I should have seen it coming after losing six players to the MLB Draft, but I thought the Buckeyes, having won the conference tournament last season, would be more competitive.  

CW: Michigan State. The Spartans were not only my preseason Big Ten champion, but for the last 13 months I viewed this year as a regional hosting season for Michigan State. With series still to come against Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska, they certainly can fight their way back and achieve both. But the manner in which Minnesota swept Michigan State, was the same in South Carolina’s two victories over Jake Boss’ team and it’s a cause for concern. MSU is right there, they can go toe-to-toe with anyone, but there’s an inability to get over that hump. MSU now has a five-game skid going into their conference bye week and need to figure out who’s the player that’s going to be their Ronnie Dawson, David Kerian or Sam Travis.

 

Looking back, which weekend result did you not see coming?

BD: Minnesota’s sweep of Michigan State. The Gophers officially announced themselves as a threat in the Big Ten after sweeping the Spartans to get to 6-0 in the conference. Both teams came into the weekend at 3-0 in Big Ten play, but the Spartans left the weekend with their tails between their legs. Minnesota won a pair of one-run contests on Saturday before tagging Michigan State with 9 runs on Sunday, touching all four Spartan pitchers for at least one run.

BG: Michigan taking two of three in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic.  Their only loss came in a 1-0 duel to UCLA where Oliver Jaskie nearly matched Griffin Canning, a potential day-one MLB Draft selection, blow for blow. This was a statement weekend for Michigan and it’s refreshing to see a cold weather teams play well in an early season invitational.

CW: LSU’s sweep of Maryland. It’s not that LSU isn’t a good team, the Tigers are, but Maryland wasn’t all that competitive in the series. I expected a better showing by the Terps in the Bayou, with Brian Shaffer and Taylor Bloom leading the way to a big weekend victory, putting a bullet on Maryland’s regional résumé.

Of note, strictly on looking back with no consideration of preseason expectations, that a scuffling Ohio State team is the lone loss on #1 Oregon State’s record is noteworthy.

 

Who is your first half Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Pitcher?

BD:  Most Valuable Player: Jake Adams, Iowa. Adams, who was targeted by Iowa out of Des Moines Area Community College to replace Tyler Peyton in the lineup and at first base, has been better than anyone expected. The South Dakota native has hit for power and average. Adams is tied for first in home runs (11), is first in RBI (37) and total bases (74), second in slugging (.698), fifth in hits (36), and tied for tenth in average (.340). You can live with his 24 strikeouts compared to 12 walks with the amount of power he brings to the table.

Most Valuable Pitcher: Brian Shaffer, Maryland. Shaffer has filled the void that Shawaryn left and then some. He holds a 4-1 record with a league-leading 1.70 ERA, while throwing five more innings than anyone else in the Big Ten. His 52 strikeouts are second only to Oliver Jaskie in the conference, and his .187 batting average/against is third among qualified pitchers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Shaffer is dominating in his junior season — in his sophomore season he finished with 8 wins, 103 innings, and a 2.60 ERA, along with a complete game shutout against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.

BG:  Most Valuable Player: Pat McInerney, Illinois.  Most Valuable Pitcher: Shaffer.

CW: Most Valuable Player: Adams. Even with Robert Neustrom blossoming into a top flight outfielder and Mason McCoy being the Big Ten’s top all around shortstop, the offense is at a different level due to Adams. He’s been an anchor in the lineup, producing big hits and giving the Hawkeyes a power threat they’ve yet to have in the Heller Era.

Most Valuable Pitcher: Shaffer. As Blake laid out, Shaffer is doing Shaffer things. He’s doing exactly what was expected in the preseason.

*But, if there is only one MVP, it’d be Michigan State’s Alex Troop for what he has done as the Spartans’ ace and providing a big bat in the lineup, becoming the conference’s premier two-way player.

Midweek wrap

Nebraska takes two from in-state rivals

Nebraska picked up two midweek victories to record their eighth victory in 10 games, with a tie included. Darin Erstad’s team now stands at 17-10-1 on the season.

On Tuesday, the Huskers used 19 hits to defeat Creighton, 14-6. Leading Nebraska to season-high totals in hits and runs, four Huskers recorded three-hit games: shortstop Angelo Altavilla (3-for-5), left fielder Luis Alvarado (3-for-3), third baseman Luke Roskam (3-for-4) and catcher Jesse Wilkening (3-for-4). Altavilla, Roskam and Wilkening each drove in two runs with Alvarado crossing home twice.

Much of Nebraska’s offensive output occurred in a 10-run second inning. The eight-hit inning started with Alvarado recording a one-out single, and included a three-run home run by pitcher Ben Miller, who batted for himself. Nebraska sent 14 batters to the plate in the team’s first 10-run inning since April 2014.

Leading 10-1, Nebraska’s second home run of the game came in the sixth when first baseman Scott Schreiber matched Miller with three home runs on the year, a part of a three-run inning. Creighton scored five times in the eighth, before NU countered with a run in their at-bat to conclude Tuesday’s scoring.

Nebraska’s victory over Omaha on Wednesday didn’t quite have the offensive punch, but three runs were good enough for a victory in a game where the Huskers held the Mavericks to one run. Ethan Fraizer and Nate Fisher held Omaha to five hits over 5.2 innings, before Jake McSteen worked a scoreless inning and Chad Luensmann closed the game with a seven-out save.

Nebraska struck first with a Schreiber RBI-single in the top of the first inning. Omaha tied the game with a run in the bottom of the second, and the game remained 1-1 through six innings. With Omaha’s help, Nebraska grabbed the lead, a wild pitch scoring a pinch runner, Alex Henwood, who went 1st-to-3rd on a single by Jake Schleppenbach and Roskam opened the inning with a single. Schleppenbach added another RBI in the ninth, driving in a run on a fielder’s choice, to give the game its final 3-1 score.

Michigan rallies to turn back Notre Dame

In a Tuesday night affair between longtime rivals, Michigan fell behind 3-0 after one Notre Dame at-bat in the top of the first inning. But the Wolverines did not allow the Irish to score any more runs the rest of the game, and clawed back to pick up a 4-3 victory.

Junior right-handed pitcher Alex Rennard settled in after the shaky start, finishing with a 4.1-inning outing, where he scattered seven hits and allowed the three early runs. With Rennard holding Notre Dame at bay, Michigan found it’s mojo at the plate. Michigan scratched out a run in third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings to start, sustain and cap the comeback.

From there, freshman left-handed pitcher Tommy Henry tossed 3.2 innings of two-hit baseball before senior right-handed pitcher Jackson Lamb closed the door with a scoreless ninth, recording his seventh save of the season. DH Nick Porier and right fielder Jonathan Engelmann both went 3-for-3, with Michigan’s respective seven-hole hitter scoring twice in front of the eight-hold batter driving in two runs. With a bases loaded walk and sacrifice fly, senior center fielder Johnny Slater drove in a pair of wins as Michigan improved to 23-9 on the season, dropping Notre Dame to 11-17.

Gophers streak hits 10

Minnesota’s first game at Siebert Field got off to an inauspicious start with North Dakota State scoring a run in the top of the first. But the early deficit was no problem for the Gophers as Minnesota rallied for a 7-1 victory over NDSU (11-15), winning its tenth consecutive game.

Now 19-8 on the season, Minnesota used a three-run third inning to march towards victory. After an RBI on a bases loaded fielder’s choice by Micah Coffey, Toby Anderson sent a two-run single through the left side to put Minnesota out in front. Hanson gave Minnesota its fourth run of the game with an RBI-grounder in the fifth, before Minnesota scored twice in the sixth to put the game away. The scoring closed with a run in the eighth with Coffey lifting a sacrifice fly to right, driving in the seventh Gopher of the game.

Freshman right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill pitched 5.1 innings, allowing just the one run off four hits. Coffey picked up a pair of hits in his other two at-bats to for 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI, and Eli Wilson and Ben Mezzenga each collected two hits over three at-bats, combining for five runs scored.

Iowa stays hot at home, perfect in midweek

A 17-game midweek-winning streak was in danger with Iowa trailing 3-2 to South Dakota State at the stretch of Tuesday night’s game. But in moving to 10-1 at home, the Hawkeyes found a way to eek out another victory, coming back to win 4-3, winning a seventh straight contest.

South Dakota State (13-11) scored first with a run in the top of the first. Iowa (18-9) got on board, and grabbed the lead, in the third inning, with a two-run home run by first baseman Jake Adams, connecting on his 11 home run of the season, tied for the most in the Big Ten. South Dakota State knotted the game in their next at-bat, before moving in front 3-2 with a run in the fifth.

But the Hawkeyes rebounded after the stretch, using a two-run seventh to continue a midweek unbeaten streak which dates back to 2015. Third baseman Mitchell Boe drew a leadoff walk, before  shortstop Mason McCoy doubled to right field, two batters later, to two in scoring position. Adams hit a soft grounder back to SDSU pitcher to drive in McCoy to tie the game. The next batter, right fielder Robert Neustrom, doubled down the left field led to score McCoy and lift the Hawkeyes to victory.

Ratcliff’s grand slam powers Buckeye rally

Before the skies opened over Central Ohio and forced Ohio State’s Wendesday night contest against Kent State to be called after seven innings, senior DH Zach Ratcliff proved the Buckeyes with some thunder.

Three runs in the first, three more in the second and one in the third allowed the visiting Golden Flashes to quickly jump out of the gate and enjoy a 7-0 lead. The Buckeyes closed the gap with a bases loaded-double by freshman right fielder Dominic Canzone, producing a three-run inning in the bottom of the third. Kent State(17-10) added a run in the top of the fourth, before Ratcliff and the Buckeyes reset the game.

Four walks in the inning, the latter three coming with two outs, plated Ohio State’s fourth run and bring the game back to a four-run margin. With the bases loaded, Ratcliff hit a liner over the left center wall, making his fifth home run of the season his first career grand slam, tying the game 8-8. In Ohio State’s next at-bat, after working a one-out walk and advancing to third on a single by Tre’ Gantt, Bo Coolen crossed home with Gantt in a rundown, the first baseman’s steal of home put the Buckeyes in front 9-8.

The teams played two scoreless innings before lightning and heavy rains came, giving Ohio State the seven-inning victory to improve to 12-16.

Elsewhere

Three runs over the first three innings by Indiana State (13-12) were too much for Purdue (15-13) to overcome Tuesday night, falling 5-2. The Sycamores won their fourth straight game in West Lafayette behind a four-inning, one-hit effort from starter Triston Pompey. Skylar Hunter and Jacson McGowan each picked up two hits as Purdue was held to five for the game.

Four of Michigan State’s last five games have been decided by a run. Unfortunately for the Spartans, each game has resulted in a loss. Traveling to Eastern Michigan (10-18) on Tuesday, Michigan State (15-10)was again close, but not good enough,  falling 4-3. Spartan pitchers held the Eagles to four hits, but five walks and an error aided EMU’s effort.  Sophomore shortstop Royce Ando went 2-for-3 with a triple, a run scored and RBI to lead MSU.

Penn State received back-to-back home runs by Jordan Bowersox and Christian Helsel in the top of the fifth inning, but the solo shots were the lone runs PSU scored on the evening, falling to Pittsburgh, 3-2, Tuesday night. The loss snapped a 15-game winning streak against in-state competition for Penn State, now 10-17 on the year, including a four-game run against Pitt who improved to 14-12 with the victory.

Maryland rallied from a 9-4 deficit, heading into the bottom of the second inning, for 12-11 win over Richmond (11-16). Improving to 11-1 at home, 19-8 overall, Maryland used a three-run home run by Nick Cieri in the bottom of the seventh to tie the game, 11-11, before Zach Jancarski used an RBI-single to left for Tuesday afternoon’s game-winning hit.

Freshman second baseman Michael Massey recorded four RBI in a two-home run game to lead Illinois (10-16) past Missouri (21-8), 5-3, Tuesday night in a neutral site contest in Sauget, Illinois. Sophomore outfielder Jack Yalowitz also dialed up a long ball to give Illinois 30 for the year, leading the Big Ten, and help power the Illini to a fourth straight win. Massey and Yalowitz, Illinois’ 1-2 hitters, each went 3-for-4.

It was a home run that capped Indiana’s 3-2 victory over Ball State on Tuesday night. In the bottom of the 11th, sophomore DH Matt Lloyd lifted his sixth homer of the year over the right field wall to give IU (15-11-2) the walk-off win over Ball State (11-18). Lloyd with 3-for-4 with two RBI, and also pitched 1.2 scoreless innings of relief to power the Hoosiers to victory.

Rutgers was on the wrong side of a 3-2 game, falling on the road to Villanova, Wednesday afternoon. After Villanova (4-16) scored a run in the bottom of the first, RU leveled the score in their next at-bat. But the see-saw affair went the way of the Wildcats, as Villanova scored twice in the sixth after Rutgers grabbed a 2-1 lead in their sixth-inning at-bat. Both teams were held to seven hits, with five for Rutgers (10-18) coming between Mike Carter and Mike Martinez.

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.

The Big Ten’s power surge

Whether it’s been in attending a Big Ten game this season, scanning a team’s stats or checking out a game’s box score, an observer of Big Ten baseball has been a a witness to a season dominated by the home run. From the conference seeing more home runs per game as a whole, multiple teams on pace to eclipse 2016 long ball totals and the multitude of players projected to finish the season with double digit home runs, it’s been a power hitters season as 10 Innings digs into the numbers.

Power is up across the board

Last year, Big Ten teams combined to hit 410 home runs in 732 games. Collectively, the conference produced .56 home runs per game. With 50 home runs in 57 games, Minnesota, the Big Ten champions, led the conference in hitting .8771 home runs per game. Right on the heels of the Gophers were the Buckeyes, the Big Ten Tournament champions, with Ohio State swatting 57 home runs over the course of 65 games, generating .8769 home runs per game. Minnesota and Ohio State were the lone Big Ten teams to dial up 50 or more home runs.

At the bottom of the conference’s power output was Penn State, the Nittany Lions collected only 16 homers in 55 games, a rate of .2909 home runs per game. Penn State was one of three teams to finish with less than 20 home runs, joined by Northwestern (18) and Rutgers (19).

In seeing how many home runs conference teams have hit as a whole, already the power surge is clear.

After seven weekends of play, with all numbers through April 3, Big Ten teams have hit 245 home runs in 341 games. With teams just hitting the midpoint of the 15-week regular season, the Big Ten has already accumulated 60% of last year’s home run total. If the 13 Big Ten teams combined to play another 732 games this season, the current season’s .718 home runs per game rate would yield 525 home runs, 115 more than last season.

Where no team managed to hit at least .9 home runs per game last year, three have done just that. Leading the Big Ten with 1.166 home runs per game is Michigan State. The Spartans’ produced an NCAA single-game high of eight home runs in a 17-6 win over Illinois on March 26. That Illini team is also hitting more than one home run per game, producing 27 homers in 25 games, a rate of 1.08 home runs per game. Indiana has also hit more home runs than games played, racking up 28 round-trippers in 27 contests.

Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State are joined by Maryland as a team of pace to hit at least 50 home runs, doubling last year’s total. Another jump comes in teams on pace to hit at least 35 home runs, the aforementioned quartet is joined by Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers, for a total of eight, last year only had five teams.

Even the bottom of the Big Ten is projected to have more home run power, with only two teams on pace to hit for less than 20 home runs.

As a whole, here’s the Big Ten’s home runs per game rate over the last ten years.

2017- .718

2016- .56

2015- .545

2014- .35

2013- .349

2012- .467

2011- .42

2010- .815

2009-. 831

2008- .629

After the 2010 season, the NCAA entered the BBCOR era. BBCOR bats were created to reduce the trampoline effect of balls off bats, have the aluminum bats behave more like wood, which significantly decreased power throughout college baseball. Another change occurred after the 2014 season when the NCAA introduced baseballs with lower seams. This change was to counter the severe decline in power as balls in flight with lower seams have lower resistance and travel further. It’s hard to compared the 2017 season to the 2011-14 period and just as hard to do so pre-2010, but in the current era of bats and balls, the 2017 season decisvely stands out in home run production over the past two years.

 

Who’s leading the charge

If the collective showing of the Big Ten doesn’t paint the picture of the power surge, looking at the team level may. And projection isn’t needed in some instances.

Michigan State’s 28 home runs are already more than last year’s 26, when the Spartans hit .464 home runs per game. The next home run for Illinois will allow the Illini to match the Spartans’ feat. Illinois’ 27 home runs match their 2016 total. Rutgers, too, has matched their 2016 home run output, already touching home 19 times of big flies.

Knocking on the doorstep of eclipsing last year’s output include Michigan, who need five more for 28, Iowa needed four more home runs to match last year’s total and Penn State is just three shy of their total of 16 in 2016.

If every team plays a full 56-game schedule, here’s who will increase their home run total and be how much.

Michigan State +39 (26 in 2016, projected 65 in 2017)

Illinois +33 (27, p. 60)

Indiana +22 (36, p. 58)

Iowa + 21 (26, p. 47)

Rutgers +20 (19, p. 39)

Michigan + 18 (28, p. 46)

Penn State +15 (13, p. 28) 

Maryland +10 (41, p. 51)

 

Individual production up, too

Of course team totals are collections of individuals, and looking at the individual numbers opens more eyes.

Illinois senior first baseman Pat McInerney leads the Big Ten with 11 home runs through 25 games. If McInerney plays 56 games, he is on pace to hit 24 home runs, a 50% increase over last year’s home run champion, 16 hit by Nebraska DH Scott Schreiber.

Even so, McInerney is not running away with the home run lead, Iowa junior first baseman Jake Adams is right on his heels with 10.

Michigan junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer is solidly in third with eight home runs, one more than Rutgers center fielder Jawuan Harris. After those four, four more have six home runs, Indiana’s Craig Dedelow, Maryland’s Marty Costest and Kevin Smith and Michigan State’s Marty Bechina. Michigan catcher Harrison Wenson and Ohio State outfielder Noah McGowan each have five home runs, to give the conference 10 players on pace to hit at least 10 home runs over a 56-game schedule. That would eclipse last year’s total by four.

Focusing on McInerney and Adams, who is on pace for a 56-game total of 21 home runs, the two first baseman would reach rare air if their projections turn to production.

Since 2008, here’s the total of homers by the Big Ten’s leader and the number of players with 10 or more in parenthesis.

2016- 16 (6)

2015- 16 (4)

2014- 14 (2)

2013- 18 (2)

2012- 12 (4)

2011- 12 (1)

2010- 24 (8)

2009- 18 (14)

2008- 23 (7)

Only the 2010, 24-home run year of Indiana DH Alex Dickerson, with 19 from Penn State catcher Ben Heath, is comparable to what McInerney and Adams are set to slug their way to. But again, there’s is a drastic difference in today’s college baseball landscape and that of the pre-BBCOR era.

 

Why the increase?

That a great questions which probably has an answer of a confluence of reasons.

Weather

The weekend Michigan State hit eight in a game against Illinois, they hit 13 total, in warm and gusty conditions. While you never know what you’ll get in the Midwest during the spring months, power numbers usually climb up as the season progresses into warmer temperatures, Maybe Mother Nature has allowed that climb to start earlier.

Better players

As the Big Ten has emerged on the national scene, producing eight different regional teams over the last two years, maybe the team-level success has been spurred by better players and teams with more depth? Where teams in the past maybe had one or two sluggers,three if they were really good,  it’s not surprising to see four, five, even six players with enough pop to drive one out.

Philosophical change

In recent years, there’s been more of an acceptance of strikeouts than prior generations, resulting in a aggressive, feast or famine approach. No longer run production built around slapping the ball around and get on base, players are being instructed to lift the ball. Going back just to 2013, Big Ten at-bats finished in a strikeout 17.6% of the time. So far in 2017? 22.3%.

Randomness

Baseball is a game of random occurrences. Maybe the 2017 season is just one of those years where there’s no particular reason. It’s not weather, the quality of players, an approach, the opposition, it’s just baseball and we should sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

Weekend walk-off

With the calendar turning to April, every Big Ten team has now stepped into conference action. It was another sweep-heavy weekend with five teams picking up three-game sweeps, led by the defending champions showing little regard for relinquishing their crown.

Before Monday’s deeper weekend review, he’s a quick look at the weekend’s action.

Defending champs reign supreme

Michigan State entered the weekend as the Big Ten’s top hitting team, highest scoring team and the team with the conference’s best RPI. With a 3-0 record after a road sweep of Illinois, the Spartans were also at the top of the Big Ten standings.

But so too was Minnesota. The Gophers picked up three Big Ten road victories of their own, sweeping Ohio State in Columbus.

With someone forced to take their first lost of conference play, what can’t be found on paper between stats and standings was the difference between the two undefeateds.

As impressive as MSU’s season to date has been, there’s something about knowing first-hand what it takes to win a conference championship and continually play at a high level. What Michigan State was missing, showcased earlier this season in a tight but winless series at South Carolina, and what Minnesota has, is the ability to find the big hit and have a constant approach throughout the entire batting order, for all nine innings.

Excelling in those two areas allowed Minnesota to pick up a pair of one-run victories in a Saturday doubleheader, 3-2 and 4-3, before capping the sweep with a solid 9-4 victory on Sunday. With the three victories, a part of nine in a row, Minnesota’s Big Ten championship defense is off to a roaring start, picking up sweeps in the first two weekends of Big Ten play for the first time since 2003.

For Michigan State, an 0-4 week, including a 3-2 midweek loss to Western Michigan, has the Spartans looking to regroup after a 15-5 start.

 

The cream is starting to rise

Maryland continued a strong start to conference play with a weekend road sweep of Rutgers. After picking up a series victory in a competitive series against Michigan, the Terrapins, the coaches’ preseason favorite, provided the Scarlet Knights with a rude welcoming to Big Ten play and continued to show its muscle.

With weather postponing the start of the series a day, and forcing a Sunday doubleheader, Maryland picked up a 5-1 victory on Saturday, and grabbed Sunday wins of 6-1 and 9-1 to sweep Rutgers. Maryland’s bullpen pitched 10.1 innings of scoreless relief, as the Terps, who after starting the season 1-5, have won 17 of 20 games.

Michigan was just as hot in March as they broke into the polls. Following a three-game home sweep of Penn State, at 22-6, Michigan has no concern of falling out of the rankings. More important;y for Erik Bakich’s team, the three wins allowed Michigan to not lose ground to Minnesota and Maryland in the conference standings. Michigan’s trio of victories were powered by a slugging offense. In the sweep of the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines scored 39 runs on 38 hits and had five innings of at least four runs over the weekend.

 

Out of conference, in control

For a second weekend in a row, three Big Ten teams enjoyed a conference bye week. And enjoy did that. Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa each welcomed a non-conference foe to town and each captured a weekend victory.

Behind senior first baseman Pat McInerney homering in each game, Illinois picked up three victories over Indiana State, winning 6-4, 2-1 and 5-2. The weekend sweep saw McInerney take sole possession of the Big Ten’s home run lead with 11, one more than Iowa first baseman Jake Adams. In the weekend clincher, freshman right-handed pitcher Ty Weber tossed a four-hitter, a game won on a McInerney walk-off home run.

Iowa, too, enjoyed a sweep. The Hawkeyes turned back UNLV over three games, grabbing victories by scores of 3-0, 6-5 and 7-6. Junior right-handed pitcher Nick Gallagher pitched seven scoreless innings in the opener, combining with junior righty Josh Martsching to three-hit the Rebels. A Saturday doubleheader saw the Hawkeyes grind out a pair of one-run victories, Iowa needing a pair of three-run last-at-bat innings to take the weekend.

Walk-offs were in vogue this weekend and Northwestern made sure they were in on the fun. After splitting a Saturday doubleheader with Air Force, falling 11-3 in the series opener before rebounding with a 7-6 victory, a second one-run win gave Northwestern its first winning home weekend. In the bottom of the 11th in Sunday’s finale, junior DH Connor Lind picked up his first home run of the season with a solo shot to left, leading the ‘Cats to victory.

 

Elsewhere

Only a travel curfew could keep a pitching-dominant Nebraska team from a weekend sweep. The Cornhuskers picked up wins of 7-3 and 3-1 over Indiana, before a series finale ended in a 1-1 draw after 11 innings due to Nebraska’s travel curfew. NU starters pitched 17.2 innings and allowed five runs.

Purdue played as bad as a team can on Friday in a 13-2 loss to Ohio State. The Boilermakers committed five errors, tossed six wild pitches and walked eight batters. Mark Wasikowski’s team apparently got an entire weekend’s worth of bad play out in one game as Purdue bounced back for 6-1 and 2-1 victories to continue a rebound season.

 

Top performances

Illinois Sr. 1B Pat McInerney 4-for-9, 3 BB, 3 HR, 4 RBI, 4 R

Illinois Fr. RHP Ty Weber 9 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 SO

Indiana Soph. RHP Pauly Milto 6.1 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 SO

Iowa Jr. RHP Nick Gallagher 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 SO

Iowa Soph. 2B Mitchell Boe 5-for-10, 3 2B, 3B, 4 R, 5 RBI

Michigan Jr. 3B Drew Lugbauer 6-for-10, 2 HR, 2 2B, 7 RBI, 6 R

Ohio State Jr. RHP Yianni Pavlopolous 5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 SO

Purdue Soph. LHP Gareth Stroh 7.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 SO

 

Standings

Minnesota 6-0, 18-8

Maryland 5-1, 18-8

Nebraska 2-0-1, 15-10-1

Michigan 4-2, 22-6

Iowa 2-1, 17-9

Indiana 3-2-1, 14-11-2

Michigan State 3-3, 15-9

Purdue 3-3, 15-12

Ohio State 1-5, 11-16

Penn State 0-13, 10-16

Rutgers 0-3, 10-17

Illinois 0-3, 9-16

Northwestern 0-3 8-18

The 10 Spot: Top freshmen

 

A week after the 10 Spot looked at the top breakout performances thus far, it’s time to put a spotlight on the top freshman around the Big Ten. With six weekends of play under their belt, their freshman season is nearly half-way through. With it, players are starting to emerge who look to be stalwarts in the lineup for years to come or positioning themselves as potential weekend aces.

Maryland  LHP Tyler Blohm

Picking up back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors will assure a spot on this list. Maryland leftt-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm has anchored the Terrapin rotation and has shown no signs of his youth, providing consistent outing after consistent outing for head coach John Szefc. Making six starts through six weekends, Blohm has logged 28.1 innings, sporting a 2.86 ERA. Next to a .204 batting average against, Blohm has struck out a batter for every full inning pitched with 28.

Northwestern 2B Alex Erro

Wildcat second baseman Alex Erro did not record a hit in any of Northwestern’s three opening-weekend games against Arizona State. The weekend against the Sun Devils may be the only time in his career he goes 0-for-9. Since Northwestern’s trip to the desert, Erro has recorded a hit in all but one game, having an 18-game hitting streak snapped in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader against Indiana. With 30 hits in 85 at-bats, Erro is pacing the Wildcat attack with a .353 average, collecting three doubles and a pair of triples along the way. Erro has struck out only four times so far.

Michigan State  OF Danny Gleaves

Michigan State is the top offensive team in the Big Ten, and freshman outfielder Danny Gleaves is doing his part in providing the Spartans with a deep lineup. With 15 games under his belt, all starts, Gleaves is carrying a .324 average through his debut season. With five doubles a home run and seven stolen bases, Gleaves is fitting in perfectly with an offense that has a desirable blend of power and speed.

Indiana 1B Matt Gorski

Gorski has provided Indiana with a strong bat at a position the Hoosiers have had sub-par production from since Sam Travis moved to the professional ranks. Through 19 games, Gorski has a Hoosier-best .354 average, adding a bit of pop with a pair of doubles and two home runs. For good measure, the product of Hamilton Southeastern has added four steals in six attempts, looking to be a lineup staple from here out.

Nebraska OF Mojo Hagge

At 5’7, Husker outfielder Mojo Hagge is by all accounts undersized. But through 21 games, there is nothing short or insufficient in his playing abilities. Hagge has hit from the first time Darin Erstad penciled him into the Husker lineup, running up a .338 average over 77 at-bats. While veteran outfielders Scott Schreiber and Jake Meyers needed time to return to their previous levels of production, Hagge’s hitting out of the gate helped the Huskers weather a rocky 3-6 start.

Michigan LHP Tommy Henry

A 3.40 team ERA has powered Michigan to a 17-6 start and spot in national polls. One of the most consistent Michigan men on the mound has been southpaw rookie Tommy Henry. For pitchers with at least 12 innings of work, Henry’s 1.08 ERA is the best, running up 19 strikeouts against five walks in 16.2 innings. Appearing in eight games, Henry provides Michigan with a polished reliever capable of going multiple innings.

Indiana SS Jeremy Houston

A second rookie has broke through and grabbed a starting spot in the IU infield alongside Gorksi. Houston has been a rock at the toughest position in the infield, providing Chris Lemonis with a reliable glove at shortstop, committing only three errors in 85 chances. Houston has also gave the Hoosiers a pretty solid bat. Sixteen games into his career, Houston is batting .306 with three doubles and a pair of triples. What may be most impressive is the eight walks against eight strikeouts.

Purdue RHP Skylar Hunter

A year after batting .246 en route to 10 wins, Purdue holds a .277 team average through 22 games, already besting last year’s win total with 12 victories. Leading Purdue’s improved hitting attack is center fielder Syklar Hunter. With 25 hits in 65 at-bats, Hunter’s .385 average is tops among Boilermakers and ranks fourth in the Big Ten.

Iowa OF Ben Norman

Outfielder Ben Norman started his career in Iowa City with one hit in 12 at-bats, going hitless in four of five games. Since then, Norman has four games of at least three hits to counter. Going 25-for-71 on the year, with seven doubles and a home run, Norman is one of six Hawkeyes with a .300 or better average, hitting .352 on the season, next to a .418 on-base percentage and .493 slugging percentage, forcing his way into become the everyday Hawkeye center fielder.

Purdue RHP Dalton Parker

Established veterans can struggle when taking on the pressure-filled position of closer. So far, as Purdue enjoys a program revival, Boilermaker Dalton Parker has had little difficulty taking on the role at the back of the bullpen, excelling as just a freshman. Appearing in seven games, Parker is 2-1 with a team-best four saves. Over 19.2 innings, the right-handed pitchers holds a 1.83 ERA, on the strength of 18 strikeouts and a .143 opponent’s batting average.

Weekend preview March 23-26

After five weekends of college baseball action, Big Ten play begins this weekend with five series. There isn’t a lull in the opening weekend of conference games, with a stout weekend on deck. The Big Ten year starts in a big way with the preseason favorite, Maryland, hosting the current favorite, Michigan, as well as last year’s two championships, Minnesota and Ohio State, squaring off in Columbus. Fireworks can be expected in Iowa City, while two series in Illinois look to dodge raindrops.

The road to the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington begins this weekend, here’s a rundown of what’s happening around the conference.

Depth leads Michigan into showdown of contenders

Before the season, one theme prevailed when Michigan head coach Erik Bakich spoke of his team in looking ahead to the 2017 season: depth.

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

There was disappointment in Michigan’s 2016 end. After winning the Big Ten Tournament and playing in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, expectations were high for Michigan. But the Wolverines lost nine of their last 11 games, finished 36-21 and did not play in a regional. Though outside expectations were temped, they went internally, many familiar faces returned in the locker room, players who knew what was needed to take the next step.

“It’s not often you get an entire infield unit of returning starters back, but that’s what we have with Jake Bivens, Drew Lugbauer, Michael Brdar, Ako Thomas and Harrison Wenson,” Bakich said a week before the season, as Michigan returned eight of nine starters. “I like the experience of the outfield, the experience of the infield. It looks like it’s projected to be one of those (special) lineups with returning players.”

With the experience around the diamond and the Wolverines needing to replace only left fielder Matt Ramsay, Bakich noted there was optimism for the team looking to claim its first Big Ten championship since 2008. But only in the second week of February, Bakich cautioned Michigan had yet to do anything on the field.

Fast forward to the start of Big Ten play and the Wolverines have done quite a bit on the field.

Opening Big Ten play with a showdown on the road against the coaches’ preseason favorite, Maryland, at 16-4, Michigan owns the Big Ten’s best record and is the conference’s lone nationally-ranked team, penciled as the 21st-best team in this week’s NCBWA poll. The Wolverines have garnered quality wins against San Diego, USC and swept a three-game series at Atlantic Sun favorite Lipscomb. Michigan’s success has come thanks to the depth, both in run prevention and finding ways to score, a prognostication that has turned into reality.

On the mound, 18 pitchers have seen action. The multitude of pitchers with innings under their belt isn’t a reflection of Bakich and pitching coach Sean Kenny trying to figure out roles, in search for quality innings, it’s state of having capable guys, left and right. The Wolverines leads the Big Ten with a 3.22 ERA, and Michigan pitchers also top the conference charts in strikeouts (170) and opponent’s batting average (.233).

Helping the cause of U-M pitchers is a defense which isn’t giving the opposition anything to work with. Michigan’s .981 fielding percentage is second in the conference, behind Minnesota’s .983 mark. Opponents have had no luck running on Wenson and Michigan pitchers, successful stealing just seven bases in 15 attempts. Bakich says Michigan’s sure-handedness is a reflect of the experience in the field, players knowing how to track and read balls, what plays they can and can’t make.

But neither the pitching depth or fielding prowess speaks to the versatility Michigan is capable as much as its offensive attack.

Michigan’s .270 team average won’t jump off the page, nor will the 6.4 runs they score per game. Both are solid marks, but respectively rank fifth and fourth in the conference. But how Michigan can score runs sets itself apart. The Wolverines are tied for fourth with 18 home runs, second with 111 walks and first with 47 stolen bases. Holding a 4-2 record in games scoring five runs or less, but also having nine games of scoring at least seven runs, Michigan can win the closer game and walk away with in laugher. In hitting the long ball, moving base to base, being aggressive and taking 90 feet at every opportunity, a blend of speed, power and patience has Bakich liking the offensive makeup of the team.

“Doing it in a variety of ways,” Bakich said following Michigan’s doubleheader sweep of Northern Illinois. “Home runs, a couple of stolen bases, bunts, moving runners, sac flies, first-to-thirds, just different ways to manufacture runs.”

What’s behind Michigan’s ability to score runs in multiple ways? Depth.

“It speaks to the depth. For the first time in awhile we got guys pushing each other. There’s good internal competition making everybody better.  You want to see execution from your depth and we have that now. We like the different weapons and the choices we have, the match-ups we can play.”

And so far, Michigan has shown they can play with anyone.

Potent offenses square off in Iowa

The conference’s No. 2 hitting team takes the road to square off against the No. 3 hitting club thus far. With Purdue heading to Iowa City, there’s the potential for high-scoring games. The Boilermakers’ .281 team average is just above the Hawkeyes .278 clip. Already this week both teams have shown their offensive mite.

On Wednesday, Purdue knocked off Ball State, 16-4, hours before Iowa defeated Bradley, 12-1. For Iowa, it was the second straight game scoring 12 runs, the fifth time this year they have crossed home at least a dozen times in a game. Purdue’s 21 hits against the Cardinals was a season-high as the Boilermakers reached double digits in runs for a sixth time this season.

Purdue freshman Skylar Hunter leads the Big Ten with a .426 average over 54 at-bats. Right behind him is Iowa sophomore Robert Neustrom, second in the Big Ten with a .395 clip. With Iowa first baseman Jake Adams leading the Big Ten with eight home runs and 27 RBI, it shouldn’t be a surprise senior shortstop Mason McCoy is tied for the conference lead with 21 runs scored. McCoy is tied with a Purdue player, Harry Shipley.

For the pitchers who are to be tasked with shutting down the potent offenses, Iowa enters the weekend with a team ERA of 5.02, besting the 5.94 mark of Purdue. Opponents are batting .274 off Hawkeye pitchers, with 14 home runs. Boilermaker hurlers have pitched to the tune of a .276 opponents average, conceding 18 home runs.

Purdue is visiting Iowa City for the first time since 2012, Since then, Duane Banks Field has become one of the toughest places for a visitor to win under. Since the start of the 2015 season, Iowa is 36-10 at home.

Around the conference

Champions clash

The 2016 Big Ten champions and 2016 Big Ten Tournament champions will meet to open the 2017 Big Ten season. Both NCAA Tournament teams a year ago, Minnesota (11-8) heads to Columbus to take on Ohio State (9-11) in defense of their conference crown.

With the Gophers playing in a regional for the first time since 2010, Ohio State’s Louisville Regional appearances the Buckeyes first regional showing since 2009, neither team has yet to show last year’s form, both experiencing heavy turnover.

Minnesota lost the Big Ten Player of the Year in Matt Fiedler to the draft, alongside the graduation of top pitcher Dalton Sawyer and closer Jordan Jess. Ohio State is still looking to replace All-American outfielder Ronnie Dawson, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, as well as three other positional players drafter, Jacob Bosiokovic, Troy Montgomery, Nick Sergakis, and the drafting of their Friday starter Tanner Tully.

The lost of six regulars shows in Ohio State’s .247 team average, and the Buckeyes have yet to pitch at last year’s level, sporting a 5.02 ERA, more than a run and a half higher than 2016’s 3.35 showing. Minnesota sports a solid team average, .275, but it isn’t the lofty mark the team used en route to its championship, .323.

The meeting of the two champions will allow one to get a key weekend win and start to build momentum in pursuit of last year’s success.

Final tune-ups

Three teams will still be in non-conference action this weekend, stepping outside of the Big Ten for their bye weeks.

After falling to Cal State-Bakersfield, 8-6 on Tuesday, Nebraska (9-9) continues a California spring break with a four-game set at Cal Poly (7-12), Thursday through Saturday. On the line is a perfect 6-0 all-time record against the Mustangs as the Huskers look to get back over .500 and build upon their 9-9 record. In addition to a clean record against Cal Poly, also noteworthy is the 21.2-inning scoreless streak junior left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers has dating back to Feb. 25 against #1 Oregon State. Meyers’ 1.54 ERA leads the Big Ten, a part of Nebraska’s 3.67 team ERA, good enough for third in the Big Ten.

Penn State opened its home slate with a 4-3, walk-off win over Bucknell, Tuesday night, and look to continue the winning ways inside Medlar Field at Lubrano Park with four games this weekend against Columbia. At 7-11, the Nittany Lions have a chance to reach .500, while Columbia enters the weekend with just one win in 12 games. Both teams have struggled at the plate, Columbia owns a .227 team average with Penn State batting just .219, but if the Nittany Lions can grab a lead by the sixth inning, they look to be in good shape. PSU is 6-0 when leading after six.

Rutgers (6-14) is on the road for a three-game set in Spartanburg, S.C., against South Carolina-Upstate (12-11). The Scarlet Knights are looking to get back on track, hoping to end a four-game losing streak. The Spartans are the third straight Atlantic Sun weekend opponent for Rutgers, following weekends at North Florida, where RU won the final two games to take the series, and Florida Gulf Coast, who swept Rutgers.

Weather shakes up schedules in Illinois

Due to inclement weather rolling through the Midwest, set to hit Illinois on Saturday, both series in Illinois this weekend will feature Friday doubleheaders.

In Champaign, Michigan State (12-5) and Illinois (6-12) will play at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., CT on Friday, before taking Saturday off and resuming their series at 2 p.m. on Sunday, a game scheduled to be aired on BTN.

Up the road in Evanston, the series between Indiana and Northwestern will begin at noon CT, on Friday, with game two set for 3 p.m. For now, Saturday’s game is still on, providing for two days to get the final game of the series in if needed pushed to Sunday.

Injury notes

Iowa junior right-handed pitcher Nick Gallagher is back atop the Hawkeye rotation after missing last week’s series at Kansas State.

Ohio State junior right-handed pitcher Adam Niemeyer will not pitch this weekend due to an elbow injury.

Per the Indiana Daily Student, Indiana freshman shortstop Jeremy Houston is day-to-day with a hamstring injury and sophomore pitcher Jonathan Stiever will see more action this weekend after rehabbing from an upper body injury.

Required reading

An unlikely Hawkeye becoming Big Ten’s top slugger -Chad Leistikow, The Des Moines Register

Iowa baseball set for Big Ten play -Jordan Hansen, The Gazette

Ohio State hosts reigning outright Big Ten champion Minnesota -Edward Sutelan, The Lantern

U.S. Bank Stadium gets mixed reviews for Minnesota baseball -Luke Hanlon, Minnesota Daily

Surprise! Rutgers 2-sport star Jawuan Harris is practicing in spring football camp -Keith Sargeant, NJ.com

After recovering…it’s old fastball, new job for Husker pitcher Jake Hohensee -Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald

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