Feb. 23-27 Weekend Review

From Arizona to Virginia the Big Ten took its lumps in the second weekend of action. The docket was littered with showdowns against ranked teams, but the Big Ten heads to March with only two victories on the season against a ranked club in 18 opportunities.

But it wasn’t all bad.

Michigan swept through northern California while Minnesota held a ring ceremony before the defending Big Ten champions opened its home slate with three wins. Here’s the Feb. 24-27 weekend review.

Marquee Series: Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge

The marquee matchups of the weekend occurred in Surprise, Ariz. as Surprise Stadium, the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, played host to the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge. Nebraska and Ohio State played two games each against Oregon State and Utah. Feauting three 2016 NCAA Tournament teams and a top-five club in Oregon State, it was a strong quartet of teams, but the Pac-12 had the upper-hand.

The Big Ten suffered a pair of  blowout defeats on day one, outscored 22-1 on a forgettable day for the conference’s participants.

On Friday, Ohio State rebounded to knock off Oregon State and Nebraska showed better fight against Utah, as the Huskers play improved with each game over weekend.

After the weekend-opening 10-1 defeat, Nebraska played Oregon State closer on Saturday but was unable to overcome an early deficit, falling 5-2. On a day where Surprise Stadium played three games, the Rangers and Royals meeting before the Huskers and Beavers squared off, Ohio State and Utah played late into the night. With eight errors and 22 hits between the teams, Utah outlasted Ohio State in a 6-4 victory.

Finishing the game with the Utes near 11 p.m., the Buckeyes had a quick turnaround, playing a 9 a.m. local time on Sunday against Oregon State. A sleepy Sunday affair saw neither team score until a three-run fourth for Oregon State. The 2006 and 2007 national champions upped their advantage to 4-0 in the sixth. Ohio State junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt hit his first career home run in the eighth to put the Buckeyes on the board, a two-out solo shot, but Oregon State responded in the bottom of the inning to conclude the weekend with a 5-1 victory.

Oregon State was matched by Utah with a 3-1 showing as Nebraska ended the weekend with a victory, turning back the Utes 3-4. Pitching for the first time since May 15, 2015, missing the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, sophomore right-handed pitcher Jake Hohensee pitched 4.1 innings, holding Utah to three runs, one earned, off two hits.

For the first time all weekend Nebraska supported its starting pitcher with a run in the first. Junior DH Scott Schreiber stroked a two-out single up the middle to score Mojo Hagge, who started the game with a single. The teams traded three-run innings in the fourth to cap the scoring. A walk by Schreiber in front of back-to-back walks loaded the bases, before a single, fielder’s choice and a Hagge RBI-single made it 4-0.

In the bottom of the fourth, with three runs in and Utah having runners at second and third, Nebraska turned to Chad Luensmann. The right-handed sophomore picked up a strikeout and fly out to end the threat. Luensmann pitched 3.2 hitless innings before two-way junior Luis Alvarado went to the mound from left field to toss a scoreless ninth, closing the game with his first career save.

Both teams with new faces  throughout the lineup, Ohio State (3-5) and Nebraska (2-4) each showed flashes of being quality teams at times, but too often self-inflicted wounds prevented the clubs from mounting much of a threat or aided the opposition. More will come on the weekend in the desert in this week’s 10 Innings Extra.

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Rough go against the ranked

A grand opportunity was at hand for the Big Ten to make a statement with 11 games on the weekend against ranked teams. But the conference went a combined 1-10 in the games against Houston, LSU, Oregon State and Virginia.

Two big innings saw Illinois lose a 5-0 lead over Houston. Jumping out to a 5-0 lead, Illinois allowed seven runs in the fourth and four in the eighth for an 11-5 defeat.

In Baton Rogue, the third-ranked Tigers had their way against the Terps. LSU grabbed the weekend opener, 6-1, before rolling over Maryland 14-0 on Saturday. In the shutout, LSU left-handed pitcher Jared Poche carried a no-hitter into the ninth before Zach Jancarski picked up a leadoff single in the eighth.

Oregon State’s 3-1 showing in Surprise against Nebraska and Ohio State wasn’t the lone stout effort by a team in orange against the Big Ten. Virginia picked up a three-game sweep over Rutgers, outscoring the Scarlet Knights 37-9.

Wolverines picking up steam in California

The Wolverines opened the season in a tepid way, splitting four games against Seton Hall. But heading to the Golden State for spring break, Michigan has gotten hot. Playing in the Jack Gifford Memorial Tournament, Michigan went 3-0, and added a victory on Monday to leave northern California with a 4-0 showing.

On Friday, Michigan cruised to a 6-1 victory in the tournament opener against Saint Louis University. Junior left-handed pitcher Oliver Jaskie pitched six scoreless innings, allowing three hits while striking out six batters and classmate Nick Poirier added a two-run home run in support. U-M was the benefactor of control issues by Billiken pitchers, drawing eight walks in the game, including three out of the gate in a two-run first inning.

Michigan picked up a 7-6, 10-inning win on Saturday, scoring the winning run on a wild pitching during an intentional walk. Jake Bivens, Miles Lewis, Harrison Wenson and Poirier each picked up two hits, to push Michigan to victory, withstanding a three-run ninth from SLU which sent the game to extras.

Michigan scored a run in the first for a third consecutive game en rotue to a 10-3 win over Santa Clara on Sunday. Drew Lugbauer and Wenson connected on their first home run of the year, and the Wolverines scored seven runs over their final three at-bats to take home the tournament title. But Michigan wasn’t done in NorCal yet.  On Monday, against San Jose State, Wenson picked up his second home run in as many games, joined by shortstop Michael Brdar dialing up a home run in a four-run second inning as Michigan picked up a 6-2 win to improve to 6-2 on the season. Junior right-handed pitcher Alec Rennard picked up the victory, tossing six innings of two-run baseball, striking out nine batters.

Hot corner hot shots

The Big Ten was expected to be deep at third base this season. Through two weeks it appears the conference may be exceptionally deep. After several third basemen enjoyed strong weekends, here’s a rundown of the impressive seasons the conference is seeing from the hot corner handlers.

Indiana Soph. Luke Miller: 5-for-14, .357 AVG; 2 HR

Iowa Jr. Matt Hoeg: 6-for-18, .333; 3 2B, 1 3B

Michigan State Soph. Marty Bechina: 12-for-28, .429; 4 HR

Minnesota Jr. Micah Coffey: 9-for-22, .409; 2 2B, 1 3B

Nebraska Soph. Angelo Altavilla: 8-for-15, .533; 3 2B

Ohio State Soph. Brady Cherry: 8-for-26, .308; 2 HR

Rutgers Jr. Milo Freeman: 8-for-20, .400

Quick hits

Spartans continue offensive onslaught

Michigan State entered the weekend batting .401 with 51 runs scored in four games. The Spartans saw their team average dip below .400, as well as suffered their first loss of the season, but Jake Boss’ crew continued to punish the baseball, taking two of three games at UNC-Greensboro. In a 5-4 win on Friday, six of MSU’s nine hits were for extra-bases. The team erupted for 20 hits in a series clinching 22-16 win on Saturday, highlighted by the Spartans sending 17 batters to the plate in a 13-run fourth inning. UNC-G salvaged the weekend with a 4-1 win on Sunday. After seven games, Michigan State has a .368 average, scoring 11.28 runs per game.

Splits earned against quality clubs

A split in a three-game set is unusual, but that’s what Indiana earned in their weekend matchup against Florida Atlantic. The Hoosiers grabbed the first game of the weekend, knocking off the Owls, 8-4, behind home runs from Austin Cangelosi, Craig Dedelow and Ryan Fineman. Sophomore Jonathan Stiever struck out seven betters in six innings to earn the victory. It would be the lone win on the weekend as Indiana fell 6-2 on Saturday, squandering a three-hit day for Miller and a travel curfew ended Sunday’s rubber match, squared at 6-6 when the action was called after 11 innings. Dedelow and Miller connected on home runs for the second time in the series, as IU pounded out 14 hits in the weekend finale.

After going 0-3 at #1 TCU, Penn State rebounded with a split against a Xavier team. Penn State used a solid showing by junior right-handed pitcher Sal Biasi to open the weekend with a 7-5 win. Biasi held Xavier to three runs in five innings, striking out five without a walk, keeping XU in check until PSU scored five runs between the third and fifth innings. The Musketeers rebounded to sweep a Saturday doubleheader, taking the first game 10-4 before winning a 7-5 game of their own. In the weekend capper, after both teams were held scoreless through seven innings, Penn State broke through with six runs in the eighth to level the weekend’s series with a 6-1 win. A two-run single by Willie Burger and two-run double by Jordan Bowersox were the big hits in PSU’s last at-bat victory.

Gophers sweep in U.S. Bank Stadium debut

Minnesota opened baseball in U.S. Bank Stadium with a boom and a broom. The Gophers swept visiting Seattle University, concluding the team’s first indoor action since 2013 with victories of 13-4, 6-3 and 11-7.  A weekend attendance of 4,609 saw the Gophers pick up 42 hits to bump their team batting average to .371 on the young season.

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.

Buckeyes bounce back to top Beavers

SURPRISE, Ariz. – The difference between Ohio State’s first two games in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge was night and day. Literally and figuratively.

Falling to Utah on Thursday night, 12-0, Ohio State (3-3) bounced back to knock off #5 Oregon State (5-1), 6-1, on Friday afternoon, giving the Buckeyes a signature early season victory and the Beavers their first loss of the season.

“The same team. It’s unbelievable isn’t it?” said seventh-year head coach Greg Beals. “As frustrated as I was last night in not being able to be productive offensively, not being able to make plays on defense, just all of the little things, today was the flip side of that.”

From their first at-bat a different Ohio State showed up in Surprise.

Junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt worked a 10-pitch at-bat before doubling to right field. Moving to third on a single by second baseman Noah McGowan, Gantt scored on an errant pickoff attempt by Oregon State starter Bryce Fehmel. Less than 16 hours after being blanked by the Utes, in a game where Ohio State was twice picked off in the first inning, the Buckeyes grabbed the lead in the opening inning against the Beavers.

“Tre’ Gantt set the tempo of the ballgame with that at-bat in the first inning,” Beals said. “A 10-pitch double, he came and showed us what we wanted to do, the toughness, the competitiveness.”

For most of the game, it appeared Gantt’s run would be enough for the Buckeyes.

Senior right-handed pitcher Yianni Pavlopoulos was dialed in, shutting down an Oregon State offense which averaged 6.4 runs in their first five games.

With Oregon State looking to quickly counter and atone for the early unearned run, Pavlopoulos worked around a one-out double in the first inning by Christian Donahue, stranding the Oregon State right fielder at third base. Oregon State would advance another runner to third with two outs in the third inning, but again the Buckeye starter escaped the inning unscathed. Leaving the two runners 90 feet away would be the closest Oregon State would come to pushing a run across on Pavlopoulos.

“Just getting ahead with the fastball,” Pavlopoulos said on what was key to his strong start. “The changeup for the middle innings was pretty good, I’ve been working on that a lot. Just getting timely groundballs and timely outs when I needed to was the big thing.”

“He pounded the strike zone, got ahead in counts,” Beals said on Pavlopoulos’ second career start. “He was able to use his breaking ball and mixed enough changeups to keep guys honest. The thing I liked was the action on his fastball, he was able to roll a lot of groundballs not necessarily with velocity, but with action. Then mix in the tilt of his breaking ball, it was a great outing for us.”

“The thing I liked was the action on his fastball, he was able to roll a lot of groundballs not necessarily with velocity, but with action. Then mix in the tilt of his breaking ball, it was a great outing for us.”

Keeping Oregon State off the scoreboard for six innings, Pavlopoulos induced eight ground outs, with the Buckeyes playing strong defense behind him. A game after committing four errors in the loss to Utah, Beals noted the support his errorless fielding unit gave their pitchers.

“It started on the mound, we got a great start but we made plays,” Beals said.

The Buckeyes’ standout pitching performance and clean defensive showing was complimented by an offense which received contributions up and down the lineup.

After Ohio State scored the game’s first run, Fehmel retired the next seven batters, keeping the score 1-0 through the fourth inning. But in a matter of two pitches, that changed.

Working a full count, Buckeye senior DH Zach Ratcliff reached first on an infield single which deflected off Fehmel. In the next at-bat, Ratcliff moved to second on a failed pickoff attempt. On Fehmel’s first pitch home to third baseman Brady Cherry, the sophomore sent a hanging breaking ball to the left-field bullpen, putting the Buckeyes up 3-0.

“There’s a man on second, nobody out, he’s trying to drive the ball to right field,” Beals said. “He gets a hung breaking ball and drives it out of the park to left field. That’s the product of a good approach.”

An RBI-single in the seventh scored right fielder Shea Murray, making it a 4-0 game, but the Buckeyes weren’t safely out of danger.

Pavlopulous was relieved at the start of the seventh inning by junior right-handed Seth Kinker. Forcing a pop-up in his first at-bat, Kinker surrendered a single up the middle to Elliott Cary and a double to deep right field to Michael Gretler, as Oregon State made it a 4-1 game. A walk in the next at-bat put runners on first and second, with the tying run at the plate, But Kinker buckled down,  inducing a 6-4-3 double play end the inning.

“We got some double play balls. We didn’t help Adam last night with our defense, we helped out pitcher today with our defense,” Beals said. “It was really good Ohio State baseball today.”

Ohio State scored two more runs in the ninth to close the scoring in the 6-1 victory. Eight of Ohio State’s nine batters reached base, seven via a hit, with six multi-hit efforts in the 13-hit Buckeye attack. Cherry and Ratcliff combined to go 4-for-8 with two runs and two RBI.

In an 85-pitch start, Pavlopolous scattered three hits and struck out four batters with three walks. Kinker pitched the final three innings to receive the save, allowing one run off two hits and a walk, with one strikeout. Fehmel received the loss, conceding three runs on seven hits over five innings.

On a team with 14 newcomers, Ohio State’s ability to not only bounce back from a top defeat but to knock off one of the best team’s in the country is something Pavlopoulos hopes resonated with the club.

“It just shows the guys anyone can beat anyone, no matter the situation, on any give day. It was a big confidence booster for the younger guys to just know what we’re capable of when we play a clean game.”

Weekend preview Feb. 23-26

And just like that, we’re already at the second weekend of the college baseball season. Another big weekend is on hand for the Big Ten. From a big time showdown in the Bayou, to the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, Rutgers looking to slay another Goliath, there’s opportunities abound for the Big Ten to make noise. The Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, where the Big Ten got off to a woeful start, will be covered on-location by 10 Innings. For more of what’s happening elsewhere, here’s a weekend preview.

Big weekend in the bayou for Terrapins

Maryland opened the season ranked #25 by the NCBWA, tabbed as Big Ten favorites by Big Ten coaches, D1Baseball.com and Baseball America. The Terps welcome back right-handed juniors Taylor Bloom and Brian Shaffer, while touting a middle infield duo of sophomore second baseman Nick Dunn and junior shortstop Kevin Smith, two Cape Cod League all-stars. Expected  to return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years, a quality season-opening tournament in Clearwater, Fla., joined by Alabama State, Ball State and Louisville was to show Maryland has what it takes to make it through a regional-like field.

By the end of the tournament, there were questions on whether Maryland can be in a position to be considered for a regional.

Maryland dropped an 8-3 game to Ball State to open the season, Maryland’s bullpen woes of 2016 rearing their head in a five-run sixth for the Cardinals. On Saturday, Maryland showed it’s offensive capability, but, still, the pitching wasn’t good enough, falling to #8 Louisville, 10-7. The story held true on Sunday, a potent group at the plate but concerns on the mound, however, Maryland finished the weekend with a 9-7 win over Alabama State. Going 1-2 with a 7.27 ERA isn’t the start anyone in College Park envisioned. But that can quickly be erased this season.

The Terrapins will play #3 LSU this weekend for three games, going toe-to-toe with a blueblood of college baseball. A yearly contender to reach the College World Series, expectations are high as always in Baton Rogue and the Tigers have a team capable of winning it all.

LSU opened the season with three victories, sweeping a doubleheader against Army, 9-0 and 6-0, before turning back Air Force 10-3. LSU dropped a Tuesday game against New Orleans, 11-8, but rebounded to beat Hofstra on Wednesday, 8-1.

Circled in the offseason as a series that could be a potential super regional matchup, a measuring stick for both clubs, the series now has a different feel. Another rough weekend, while it’s too early to dismay their NCAA Tournament chances, back-to-back potential resume-building weekends will have come and gone without Maryland working to build a case for inclusion in the field of 64. But, with a weekend victory, Maryland throws their name right back in the mix as a team to keep an eye on, worth of being preseason conference favorites.

A look at the opponent: LSU

LSU is led by preseason All-American, potential first-round pick, junior right-handed pitcher Alex Lange. Entering the weekend with a 21-4 career record, Lange has everything you want in an ace. Last year, Lange struck out 125 batters in 111.2 innings, going 8-4 with a 3.79 ERA. If there’s a dropoff between ace and LSU’s number two, it isn’t much of one. Left-handed Jared Poche’ returned to school for head coach Paul Mainieri, turning down an opportunity to sign with the Dodgers, who drafted him in the 14th round of last June’s draft. All Poche’ did to start his senior season was toss a 79-pitch, seven-inning no-hitter against Army. At the plate, LSU has a .340 team average with 13 doubles and home runs. Junior right fielder Greg Deichmann is LSU’s top power threat, already with three home runs on the year next to a .375 average. Senior shortstop Kramer

At the plate, LSU has a .340 team average with 13 doubles and home runs. Junior right fielder Greg Deichmann is LSU’s top power threat, already with three home runs on the year next to a .375 average. Senior shortstop Kramer Robertston is pacing the club with a .500 clip through 18 at-bats, with three doubles, a triple and a home run. Mainieri is in his 10th season as LSU’s head coach, leading the Tigers to three Southeastern Conference titles, four College World Series appearances and the 2009 National Championship.

Mainieri is in his 10th season as LSU’s head coach, leading the Tigers to three Southeastern Conference titles, four College World Series appearances and the 2009 National Championship.

Rutgers looks to make noise

Rutgers garnered headlines and made people around the country take note of the Scarlet Knights after their last game. On Sunday, concluding a weekend series at Miami, Rutgers salvaged the weekend in Coral Gables with a 17-6 romp over the Hurricanes. The victory over #17 Miami came six years to the day of their last triumph over the Atlantic Coast Conference power.

Now Rutgers has a chance to do it all over again.

A tough start to the season doesn’t relent for Joe Litterio’s team this weekend as Rutgers travels to #13 Virginia for three games. Meeting on the diamond for the first time since 1962, Virginia provides another test to see how far Rutgers has come in year three under Litterio. With the new Fred Hill Training Complex, Rutgers expects to open seasons here on out, better prepared than ever before. The showing at Miami may be a testament to that.

Rutgers batted .275 against the Hurricanes, while commenting four errors in the field, tied for the fourth-fewest among Big Ten teams on opening weekend. Rutgers will need to keep the bats rolling and play solid defense to keep pace with a Cavalier team that enters 4-0, with a .358 average.

A good offensive showing in Florida, a tally in the win column with a chance to show Sunday’s win wasn’t a fluke, Rutgers is ready for what’s ahead in Charlottesville.

“Our confidence level is through the roof right now,” outfielder Tom Marcinczyk told the Daily Targum, Rutgers’ student newspaper. “We know UVA is going to be a very strong team, just as Miami was, pitching-wise and hitting-wise so I think we are prepared.”

What to watch for

Minnesota’s US Bank Stadium debut

Minnesota has an indoor home again. The Gophers open their home season with a three-game weekend set against Seattle University, the first baseball games played inside US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Minnesota last had an indoor home in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome through the 2013 season. The home of the Minnesota Vikings, US Bank Stadium allows Minnesota to stay at home and play games in the early part of the season when Minnesota winters prevent baseball from being played at Siebert Field.

The Gophers are the reigning Big Ten champions and opened the season with a two-game split at UC Irvine.

Who stay’s hot

Three Big Ten teams opened the season with a team average of .300 or better, as conference teams combined for 15 games of scoring nine runs or more.

Michigan State leads the way with a .401 average, after scoring 51 runs at Abiliene Christian. Purdue showed well at the plate, in Texas, too, batting .314 over four game. Minnesota left Irvine with an even record, but their offense dialed up 27 hits in 18 innings. Can UNC-Greensboro, Arkansas-Little Rock or Seattle, respectively keep the Spartans, Boilermakers and Gophers in check? Michigan State and Minnesota have their eyes on an NCAA Tournament trip, while Mark Wasikowski looks to rebuild the Purdue program, the week one indication is that all three may possess the offensive punch to reach their goals.

Quality foes

The Big Ten will play a combined 10 games against #3, #5 and #13 teams in this week’s NCBWA poll, but there are several quality opponents without a ranking that the Big Ten will see.

Penn State hosts Xavier for four games at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. The Musketeers are the reigning Big East championships and opened the season with a split at Troy.

Indiana heads to Florida Atlantic for three games in Boca Raton, Fla. FAU is expected to contend for the Conference USA championship and opened the 2017 season with a three-game sweep over Monmouth, scoring 34 runs.

Illinois will take part in the Kleberg Bank College Classic, alongside Houston, Missouri and Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

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.”

Feb. 17-20 Weekend Review

10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

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

Marquee Series: Minnesota at Irvine

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota needed every run of its early offensive onslaught.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trending topics

Big O leads to two Ws for Wasikowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weather wrecks havoc

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

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

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

Offensive explosions

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

Illinois- 10-2 win vs. Milwaukee, Friday

Indiana- 12-3 win vs. Gonzaga, Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rutgers- 17-6 win vs. Miami, Sunday

Of note

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

Terps scuffle, fall from polls

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

Indiana’s see-saw weekend

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

Illini freshmen arms show promise

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

10 Innings Extra: TCU Provides Blueprint for PSU

By Todd Lamb
10innings.com Contributor

FORT WORTH, Texas – There aren’t many teams that genuinely relish the opportunity to face the No. 1 team in the country, let alone open the season against nation’s top team on the road.

When the 2017 baseball schedule was put together, Penn State coach Rob Cooper didn’t know TCU would be unanimously ranked as the country’s best team, but he knew the Horned Frogs would provide the stiffest of tests for his young team, and that was by design.

TCU has been to the College World Series each of the past three seasons, including last season after they swept a three-game series at Penn State in early May. No team in the country has won more games than TCU’s total of 148 the previous three years.

“We could have scheduled a lot of different teams for this weekend and maybe won a couple or had a better outcome winning wise,” said Cooper, who began his fourth season with the Nittany Lions on Friday. “But we have the chance to get a lot better as a program, a lot better as a team and be the type of program we want to be by playing a great team like this.”

Penn State came up short in all three games to open the 2017 campaign, falling by scores of 6-3, 12-1 and 9-3 Sunday in the series finale. TCU averaged 5,258 fans for the three-game set.

“Anytime you get swept, it’s never the start you want, that’s for sure,” Cooper said. “You’re playing a great team in TCU and there is a reason why they are ranked No. 1 in the country.”

Penn State, which returned all three of its weekend starters, did not have a single starter reach the fifth inning against TCU and only one made it into the fourth. The entire pitching staff struggled with command, issuing 17 walks to go with 22 strikeouts.

That was no more evident than in the season-opening 6-3 loss, when the Lions limited TCU’s offense to only two hits. PSU pitchers walked six, hit a batter and allowed an eighth batter to reach on a wild pitch strikeout. It’s hard to overcome all of that, but a crucial error and a passed ball led to two unearned runs. It proved to be Penn State’s best opportunity for a victory in this series.

Starter Sal Biasi struck out seven, but walked four, turning the ball over in the fourth inning in a 4-0 hole. TCU added two more in the sixth before Penn State struck back with a three-run seventh inning.

Saturday, Penn State struck first with a single run in the top of the first inning, but starter Taylor Lehman lasted only 1.1 innings after giving up three runs in the bottom of the second inning. TCU scored two more in the third, exploded for six more in the fourth and scored its final run in the fifth. PSU pitchers managed six strikeouts, but walked five and hit two more batters.

Armed with a two-run lead, Sunday starter Justin Hagenman kept TCU off the scoreboard in the first, but gave up five runs over the next two innings before giving way to Dakota Forsyth to start the fourth inning. Penn State used four pitchers in the series finale and they combined for six strikeouts and six walks.

Pitch counts escalated quickly for the three starters. Biasi threw 79 pitches in his 3.2 innings, Lehman threw 50 in his 1.1 innings, while Hagenman threw 69 pitches in three innings of work.

“I know we can pitch better,” Cooper said. “When your three starters – and they’re all three really competitive guys and they’re going to build and get better from this – but when they’re 70 pitches into the game in the third or fourth inning, you have to have longer starts and take it deeper into the game so your bullpen is fresher and stronger.”

Offensively, Penn State was outhit 25-13 despite the two-hitter by the TCU offense on Friday. Only two Nittany Lions had at least three hits in the series. That was second baseman Conlin Hughes, who was 2 for 4 on Saturday and 1 for 3 Sunday. He drove in a run on a fielder’s choice in the season opener. First baseman Willie Burger also went 3 for 10 in the series, including a pair of home runs in the finale, a two-run shot in the first and a solo shot in the eighth. He finished the weekend with four RBI with an RBI-double on Saturday.

“The thing I’m most proud of with Willie is that he’s starting to slow down his internal clock down a little bit and that is because he’s so competitive and wants to do well,” Cooper said. “Sometimes that gets him in trouble because sometimes he wants to hit like a ‘seven-run’ homer, but today he had some great at-bats and this weekend he had some great at -ats.”

Cooper said there were some things he liked from his team against TCU. There were guys who put together some good at-bats even when they weren’t productive. They had guys compete on the mound despite trailing for all but five innings and they got some young guys and true freshmen into the lineup.

Yet there remains plenty to work on, like having their pitchers work ahead in pitch counts as well as their defense taking care of the baseball. They also have to find a way to score against really good pitching.

“The thing I’m more excited about is the stuff we didn’t do well,” Cooper said. “Because that is the stuff we need to attack and move on with.”

“That’s the kind of program we want to be,” Cooper said about TCU. “So we’re going to look at the stuff that we need to do to compete at that level and get better at. Our goal is to try to be in a position at the end of the year to play in this type of environment again.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff that we can take (home) and work on and get better from and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”

Penn State returns to action Friday with four-game series against Xavier at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, N.C.

 

Pitching has U-M, Michigan State on collision course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The script is the same for Bakich and the Wolverines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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