Spartans unable to crack Crowe

After Michigan State outhit South Carolina, 9-3, on Friday night, leaving eight runners on base and wasting a complete game from Alex Troop, Michigan State head coach Jake Boss said his team needed to do a better job of taking advantage of the opportunities provided to them.

With a flame-throwing pitcher on the mound, Saturday’s contest between the Spartans and Gamecocks didn’t provide as many opportunities for Michigan State, but the team aided the offensive efforts of the South Carolina with five walks, two hit batters a passed ball and an error.

A combination of South Carolina taking advantage of Michigan State miscues and a dominant performance from right-handed pitcher Wil Crowe was too much for Michigan State to overcome, the Spartans dropping the second game of their three-game set, 5-2.

“The last two nights, those are two of the better arms in the country,” head coach Jake Boss said. “We missed out on some opportunities, again tonight. Credit their guy, he made pitches when he needed to make pitches and seemed to get better as the game went on.”

On an overcast and blustery day in Columbia, with the temperature settled into the mid-50s by the seventh-inning stretch, the dispirited game conditions were matched by a downfallen first inning for the Spartans.

Freshman left fielder Brandon Gleaves opened the game with a grounder through the left side, scored as a fielding error with the ball skidding under the glover of Gamecock third baseman Jonah Bride. The ball dying in shallow left field, Gleaves’ hustle out of the box allowed him to reach second base. One batter into the game and the Spartans had a runner in scoring position.

It wouldn’t happen again until the fifth.

A sharp groundout to first held Gleaves at second, before the Spartan attempted to take third on a ball that escaped Gamecock catcher Hunter Taylor. Taylor recovered in time to throw out Gleaves and the Spartan at-bat soon ended with a strikeout.

Where MSU was unable to take advantage of the USC misplay, South Carolina pounced on mistakes Michigan State made.

Retiring the first batter he faced on a fly out, Michigan State starter Ethan Landon walked Jacob Olson and surrendered a single up the middle to Matt Williams. Olson advanced to third when center fielder Brandon Hughes was unable to cleanly pick up the ball. Two runners on base turned into two runners in scoring position after a wild pitch moved Williams up 90 feet. Landon bounded back to strikeout DH Chris Cullen, but a first-pitch fastball to Alex Destino was sent back up the middle for a two-run single, staking USC to the early lead.

With eight innings left to play, the 2-0 hole wasn’t insurmountable, and Michigan State quickly responded.

Stepping to the plate after Crowe quickly retired the inning’s first two batters, Troop sent the first pitch he saw from Crowe over the right field wall for his first home run of the season. Right fielder Dan Chmielewski followed Troop’s round-tripper with a single to center. But with Crowe running his fastball between 93 and 97 MPH, it would be the last time MSU recorded a hit off the right-handed until the seventh.

A day after Troop pitched a complete game, the Spartans were unable to have Landon make it through two innings.

Consecutive one-out walks ended Landon’s afternoon after 40 pitches in 1.1 innings of work. Senior left-handed pitcher Joe Mockbee escaped the jam and recorded shutout innings in the third and fourth innings. But the fifth inning for Mockbee and Michigan State was the difference.

Michigan State was unable to take advantage of a leadoff walk issued to Troop and a one-out walk drawn by catcher Matt Byars. A fielder’s choice, flyout and strikeout to close the inning stranded two of the game’s six runners on base.

Their turn at the plate, South Carolina did what Michigan State sought to in turning walks to runs.

Williams helped USC regain its two-run lead with a leadoff home run to right, before back-to-back walks to the following batters chased Mockbee from the game. Following a sacrifice bunt, facing LT Tolbert, an offering from right-handed reliever Jake Lowery, hit first base and caromed into right field to score both runners, making it a 5-1 game.

A hit batter and infield single loaded the bases with one out, forcing Boss match-up pitcher against batters and use the third, freshman left-hander Mitchell Tyranski, and fourth, senior right-hander Walter Borkovich, pitchers of the inning to record the final two outs.

“I left Joe in longer than I should have,” Boss said. “I didn’t pull the trigger when I should have, that’s on me…I thought Joe threw well. I wanted to stay with him for the matchup against Destino and shouldn’t have.”

Borkovich pitched Michigan State through the end of the game, tossing the final 3.1 innings without yielding a run, scattering only two hits. But the strong closing effort was too little too late as Michigan State could only muster one run over the final seven innings.

The scoring closed in the eighth when senior second baseman Dan Durkin singled through the left side and moved to third base on an errant pickoff attempt by USC pitcher Josh Reagan. A grounder to second base by Bechina plated Durkin, bringing the game to its final run 5-2 score.

Troop added a single in the ninth, to lead Michigan State with a 2-for-2 game, scoring and driving in a run on his home run.

Crowe held the Spartans to three hits in 6.2 innings, allowing one run, striking out nine batters with three walks. Receiving the loss, Landon allowed two runs, both earned, off two hits in 1.1 innings, issuing three walks.

Playing the Gamecocks tough over the first two games, but without a result to show for it, the series finale is set for a 1:05 p.m. first pitch on Sunday. Inclement weather is in the forecast as Michigan State looks to try to salvage the series and leave Columbia with a win, not just lessons learned or memories made.

“We got behind early, it was disappointing, but I’m proud of our guys for continuing to fight…At the end of the day we need to get better. We didn’t come down here for the experience. The experience isn’t the reason we’re here, hopefully we get one more chance tomorrow.”

Spartans strong, but not sharp enough

Michigan State head coach Jake Boss didn’t schedule South Carolina in a pursuit of moral victories.  A top-25 team, playing in front of more than 6,500 fans, a competitive showing against the Southeastern Conference club would be good enough for a lot of teams. But the Spartans have the same goal as the Gamecocks, to reach the College World Series, and only victories which stand in the win-loss record matter in that pursuit. For as well as Michigan State played against the 2010 and 2011 national champions in Friday night’s 3-2 loss, the loss is just that, a loss, and close isn’t good enough when you’re striving to be the best.

“I thought we had a couple opportunities that we weren’t able to take advantage of and we made a couple mistakes that they did take advantage of and that’s what good teams do, they take advantage of the opportunities that you give them,” Boss said.

Against the eighth-ranked team in the country, Michigan State’s opportunities outnumbered South Carolina’s, and the team capitalized early to score first in Founders Park.

With one out in the top of the third, freshman left fielder Danny Gleaves singled to the left field, advancing to second on a fielder’s choice one batter later. The first runner in scoring position against South Carolina pitcher Clarke Schmidt, Gleaves was batted in by sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina on a liner up the middle, putting the Spartans in front 1-0.

With Schmidt and Michigan State left-handed pitcher Alex Troop locked in a pitcher’s duel, for the first half of the game the lone run stood tall.

Picking up five strikeouts in the first two innings, after Gleaves’ run, Schmidt was back to racking up the punchouts, with two strikeouts in the fourth and another in a three-batter fifth inning.

The K-count wasn’t as gaudy, but Troop was equally dialed in.

The sophomore southpaw sat the Gamecocks down in order in the first two innings and worked around a hit batter in the third and walk on in the fourth. At the game’s midpoint, South Carolina had yet to strike Troop for a hit.

“Alex was lights out, he was one of the best guys in the country tonight,” said Boss, Michigan State’s ninth-year head coach.

But in the blink of an eye, Troop’s no-hitter, shutout and Michigan State’s lead was gone.

A lengthy umpire meeting ended the top of the fifth on a reversal of a safe call that saw Spartan second baseman Dan Durkin reach first on a fielder’s choice, changed to a 3-6-1 double play. With the aid of the umpires to end the Michigan State at-bat, the Gamecocks were spurred by the aid of the Spartans in their trip to the plate.

USC third baseman Alex Destino skied a ball to shallow right field, misplayed by MSU right fielder Dan Chmielewski. The ball dropping beyond Chmielewski’s glove, Destino reached second base on the error. South Carolina second baseman LT Tolbert was unable to successfully sacrifice Destino over, striking out after two failed bunt attempts, giving Michigan State a brief reprieve.

But the quality team they are, South Carolina made the most of the extra opportunity. USC shortstop Madison Stokes stroked the first offering from Troop over the left field wall for a two-run home run, giving the Gamecocks their first hit, run and lead.

The home run would be just one of three hits Troop surrendered in a 99-pitch complete game. A leadoff single in the sixth was erased by next at-bat double play, but the third USC hit led their third run, with the team again taking advantage on an opportunity provided.

With one down in the bottom of the seventh, Bride turned on a 2-1 offering from Troop for a line drive to left center. The ball escaped the outstretched glove of diving center fielder Bandon Hughes, leading to a standup triple. Tolbert again was unable to advance Bride, but striking out on a ball in the dirt, Tolbert forced a throw to first. After MSU catcher Matt Byars threw down to putout Tolbert, Bride broke for home, beating the throw from Zack McGuire to push USC’s lead to 3-1.

MSU responded in their next at-bat, but were unable to fully seize their opportunity.

Durkin led off the eighth with a single to left and moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch with Bechina at the plate. Bechina was hit by a pitch to put the first two runners on base, giving the Spartans two in scoring position a batter later after a successful sacrifice bunt by McGuire. Hughes grounded out to Tolbert at second base, but the ball to the right side was enough to bring in Durkin. Representing the tying run, Bechina was stranded at third base, keeping the game 3-2, the score holding until the end.

Bechina and Hughes each picked up two hits as Michigan State out-hit South Carolina 9-3, but the Spartans left eight runners on base to the Gamecocks’ two.

“We scattered nine hits, and I thought we came in with a good approach, but we struck out 14 times and so when you can’t move the baseball with runners in scoring position, it’s hard to score,” Boss said. “Every time Schmidt needed a big strikeout he got it. Nine hits is fine but when you don’t score off those hits, it doesn’t really matter.”

Schmidt, exiting after the Bechina free base, scattered eight hits in 7.1 innings, but seven were singles, a sixth-inning double by Hughes the lone extra-base hit. Going toe-to-toe with one of the best pitchers in the country, Troop struck out six batters against one walk.

““He made one mistake and the guy got the barrel out on the home run,” Boss said.

“That was a tough loss for Alex, but he was as good as anybody, anywhere in the country tonight and Alex can beat anybody. I’m very proud of the way he pitched tonight, but unfortunately it was kind of a hard-luck loss situation for him.”

Falling to 9-3 on the season, Michigan State looks to receive the same quality start when Ethan Landon takes the ball for Saturday’s game. But also, to better support their pitcher by capitalizing on opportunities when at the plate and not giving extra opportunities to the Gamecocks in the field. Doing so will show that they’re not just close to South Carolina’s level, they are there and with a tally to the win column.

“We’ll need to be better tomorrow, we need to be cleaner tomorrow and we need to take advantage of the opportunities that we get.”

Pitching leads Michigan to Dodger Stadium victory

 

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

Michigan finishes strong in California

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

Michigan’s streak snapped in pitcher’s duel

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

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

At home at shortstop, McCoy starts strong at home

There’s no place like home…, home is where the heart isTake your choice of cliche, there is a distinct feeling of comfort, peace and being at ease when at home. If cliches aren’t one’s cup of tea, Iowa’s Mason McCoy can provide a first-hand testimony on what it means to be at home.

Back at his natural position, shortstop, McCoy is at home for the Hawkeyes. Playing relaxed and free, the senior is also off to a sizzling start at home plate.

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, McCoy has a .407 average, through seven games, picking up 11 hits in 27 at-bats. Iowa’s two-hole hitter is slugging .704 on the strength of three doubles a triple and a home run. Leading the Hawkeyes into the Dairy Queen Classic, McCoy’s prowess at the plate is a benefit of being comfortable all around, starting with the change in defensive position.

“I know Mason, and that’s what he is, that’s what he wants to play, that’s his favorite spot,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said on McCoy moving from third base to shortstop. “Once we came back in the fall I could just tell how much more happy he was to be over there.”

“I agree with Coach Heller,” McCoy said. “The move to shortstop did comfort me in a lot of ways, not only in the field but at the plate as well.”

With Iowa fielding All-Big Ten shortstop Nick Roscetti, McCoy, a transfer from Illinois Central Community College, manned the hot corner in his first year with the Hawkeyes.

“Unselfishly, last year, he embraced third base and did the best he could,” Heller said. “We had talked and, obviously, he still wanted to play shortstop, but with as well as Roscetti was playing it just wasn’t going to happen. Then this year he stepped in and so far, we’re still pretty early in the season, but he’s playing an outstanding shortstop for us.”

By Heller’s watch, McCoy played an elite-level third base last year for the Hawkeyes. What didn’t occur, at least for the first half of the season, was McCoy performing at the plate at a level he and Heller knew he was capable of.

McCoy arrived in Iowa City with much fanfare. An All-American at ICCC, McCoy received interest from professional teams in the summer of 2015. Playing in the Northwoods League, McCoy set a league record with 112 hits, 80 runs and 168 total bases. Not drafted out of ICC, and spending two years at a JUCO, McCoy was free to sign with any professional club. But McCoy rebuffered all overtures and enrolled at Iowa. With the Hawkeyes coming off of a 40-win, NCAA Tournament season, the expectation was for McCoy to step in and lead Iowa back to a regional.

“I think last year he really pressed, he really wanted to get off to a good start with the accolades he came in with,” Heller said. “Kind of put a little pressure on himself.”

McCoy, who never hit below .300 in his time at ICCC or in the Northwoods, was batting below .250 as Iowa entered May. But as the Hawkeyes rallied in the final month of the season, going from outside of the Big Ten Tournament field to finishing tournament runners-up as the eighth-seed, McCoy caught fire. Finishing the year with a 13-game hitting streak, McCoy picked up 28 hits in last 60 at-bats, a stout .466 average.

“Late in the year he started to figure some things out, closing some stuff up before the conference tournament,” Heller said. “He was going pretty well that last month.”

Though he didn’t have a bad year, batting .291 with 12 doubles, two triples and a pair of home runs, the McCoy Iowa saw in the final month is who the team has seen from the start of the 2017 season. Taking a vested interest in his swing mechanics, the mental side of the game and understanding what opponents are trying to do, McCoy has dedicated himself to being a complete player.

“This fall I really worked with Pete (Lauritson), who was our hitting coached, before getting a job with the Indians,” McCoy, the MVP of the 2016 Northwoods League All-Star game said. “I really worked a lot with him on my swing mechanics. Just seeing the ball and hitting it, just trying to simplify everything.

“Then, Coach Moore, Sean Moore, stepped in in his place and really picked up where he left off. I think that’s been a big thing with me offensively this year, just having those sit-down talks with Pete, talking philosophy with Sean a lot, that kind of cleared my head and helped me offensively.”

Heller echoes McCoy’s change in mechanics and ability to have a better mental understanding.

“He’s really tightened his swing up, he’s cleaned it up. He shortened it up but increased his powered. Closed up holes to both sides of the plate, now he’s driving balls to the opposite field gap off the wall. He’s driving balls pull-side to the gap off the wall. Guys are having a hard time figuring out where to pitch him right now.

“His mental game is much much better, He has a really good plan on how to deal with failure. That’s what I see, he’s able to deal with that in a much more positive way and just move on to the next pitch.”

The maturity McCoy steps to the plate with extends into the locker room. One of four co-captains, McCoy’s comfort allows him to step up and speak when necessary.

“I’ve always kind of been, and I told Coach Heller this, I don’t lead by voice,” McCoy said. “I’ll say what I have to say, when it needs said, but I’m more of a lead by example. I think that’s what those guys were last year, especially Nick Rossetti, he was a big lead by example guy.

“I’m not going to be the guy that’s going to get in your ear all year, but there’s a couple of young guys this year, freshmen, where I’ll have to pull them aside to talk to them, and when I do they know this is important. That’s just the kind of relationship I wanted to be on this year with the younger guys, just to get them to learn.”

Heller oversees the infield during practices and with infielder Corbin Woods, the other non-pitching co-captain, nursing an off-season injury, McCoy is Heller conduit whenever a matter needs resolved or addressed on the field.

“He’s stepped up and done a really nice job with that communication and working with our other captains to make sure that all of the things are getting done that we expect from our guys both on and off the field. He’s done a super job with that since the beginning of the fall.”

A captain, off to a great start with gaudy numbers, it would be easy for McCoy to get ahead of himself, look for more accolades and even take a look at the draft. But from his upbringing to the guys he leads in the locker room, McCoy surrounds himself with people that won’t let that happen.

“I was raised that way by my parents, just to keep my feet on the mound, not to get too high and mighty with myself.

“But also my teammates. I walk into the locker room and they’re all ‘player of the week’, giving me a hard time about it.”

That sounds like a player right at home.

Weekend preview March 3-5

The calendar has turned over to March which means the college baseball season is starting to pick up steam. The Big Ten didn’t have the best showing in February, seeing its lone ranked team, Maryland, stumble to a 1-5 start,  as the conference went 2-16 against ranked teams. But it’s a new month and there’s a new leaf to turn over as teams hit the mid-way point of pre-Big Ten play.

From California to the Carolinas, up to Minnesota and down the Texas, there’s noteworthy tournaments throughout the country with a Big Ten team in the fold, spotlighted in this week’s weekend preview.

Aggressive, clean play leads to Michigan’s hot start

Michigan’s 2017 season is off to a strong start, sporting a 7-2 record heading into the third weekend of play. Set to take part in a strong Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic field, joined by San Diego (4-2) and co-hosts UCLA (4-3) and USC (6-2), the Wolverines will take to the diamond in Los Angeles riding a five-game winning streak.

So far it’s been a complete effort for Michigan. Behind seniors Michael Brdar and Harrison Wenson both batting .371, the team boasts a .282 average, third-best in the Big Ten. Wolverine pitching also ranks third in the conference with a  4.22 ERA. Committing only four errors, the team’s .988 fielding percentage trails only Minnesota, with their 26 stolen bases in 27 attempts 10 clear of the conference’s second-best effort.

From the outside, it appears everything has come together for Michigan to be playing good baseball, ready to take on a weekend with quality competition. But, according to MLB’s once long-time home run king, what Michigan has done means little.

“We’re very fortunate with some of the speakers we’ve had in the fall, but Hank Aaron came and spoke to our team,” said Michigan head coach Erik Bakich. “One of the quotes he told our team is that ‘what you did yesterday is only good for wrapping a dead fish.’ That’s something that stuck with our guys. They know the games we’ve already played out here have no impact on the next game.”

What has made an impact on the game is Michigan’s ability to throw strikes, hit with power, run the bases and play clean defense, Bakich speaking to the completeness Michigan has shown thus far.

“We’ve gotten good performances, good efforts from our starting pitchers since we’ve been in California…The lineup is balanced, there’s speed at the top and bottom, there’s power in the middle, really the area that I would say as a coaching staff we’re most impressed with is the defense.”

For Bakich, the defensive showing is due to the team fielding a veteran lineup. Michigan returned its entire starting infield and two of three outfielders. The lone newcomers being junior DH Nick Poirier, a transfer from San Joaquin Delta College and outfielder Miles Lewis, a redshirt-sophomore transfer who was the Western Atheltic Conference Freshman of the Year at North Dakota last year.

“To come out and play on natural grass and dirt surfaces, you don’t always know how it’s going to go in the early part of the year in terms of securing the ball. The position players have shown their experience. They’ve done a nice job of not only making routine plays but making the web gem plays as well. That’s been a good sign.”

Michigan’s ability to field the ball, limit the opposition to chance, pairs nicely with an aggressive style of offense, continually putting the opposition in pressure situations. The Wolverines’ 26 stolen bases are tied for the most in the country, the fruits of an everyday-labor in the fall.

“The investment in the running game was made in the fall,” Bakich said. “We worked a lot on it. The running game isn’t something you can put in in the spring, that was something that we trained for every day in the fall. There wasn’t one day where we didn’t work on baserunning.

“I would say very rarely do I give the steal sign. The guys that have earned the green light, they knew who they are. They’ve become savy baserunners where they look for opportunities to run, they know the situations they should run and shouldn’t.”

The stolen base tally catches the eye, but to the fifth-year head coach, it is just a byproduct of how his team is playing.

“I just like the aggression with which our guys are running. It’s aggressive but it’s also smart,” Bakich said. “They’re taking good chances, they’re taking the extra 90, they’re moving up, they’re looking for any opportunity to advance, it’s put some pressure on teams where we’ve had big innings because of it.”

With each of Michigan’s three weekend opponents having winning records through three weekends, big innings may be hard to come by. But the way the Wolverines play will not change throughout the season, regardless of facing a college blueblood or mid-week regional opponent.

“Whatever the other jersey name says on the front of their chest really doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to fight, it doesn’t matter who you play. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day so we’re going to have to play well, compete, fight, execute. It’s a great tournament, we’re looking forward to it but it’s going to come down to our ability to execute.”

DQ Classic returns to Minneapolis

Get ready for free dilly bars as the Dairy Queen Classic is back. After a four-year hiatus, the Dairy Queen Classic, which started in 1987, returned to Minneapolis as the host Gophers welcome Hawaii, Oral Roberts and Big Ten brethren Iowa to U.S. Bank Stadium. Since it’s inception, the Dairy Queen Classic has had 145 Major League players participate in the tournament, and it was one of the first televised regular-season college baseball games on ESPN in 1989.

Minnesota entered the classic 4-2 after suffering a midweek loss to North Dakota State on Tuesday. The Gophers boast the second-best offense in the Big Ten, batting .339, led by Luke Pettersen’s .667 average through 21 at-bats. Four other Gophers are batting .300 or better as Minnesota sports a .463 slugging percentage behind 11 doubles, five triples and two home runs. Minnesota has yet to receive a quality start from a pitching staff that has a collective 5.26 ERA. As starts Lucas Gilbreath and Toby Anderson look to return to their 2016 form, as Minnesota weekend opening and closing tandem, young Minnesota pitchers have shined. Freshmen Nolan Burchill and Brett Schulze have combined to pitch 13.1 innings, allowing four runs.

Not scheduled to meet in the conference season, Iowa will take on their neighbors to the north on Sunday. The Hawkeyes enter the weekend 4-3 on the season, winning three of their last four games after going 1-2 at South Florida to start the season. Senior shortstop Mason McCoy, the Big Ten Player of the Week, leads Iowa with a .407 average, using three doubles, a triple and a home run to carry a 1.204 OPS through two weekends. The Hawkeyes .245 team average is in the middle of the Big Ten, but their 3.84 team ERA ranks second. Junior right-handed pitcher Nick Gallagher is Rick Heller’s ace and is performing at that level. In two starts Gallagher has a 1.93 ERA over 14 innings.

Oral Roberts is the hottest team entering the tournament, sitting 7-1 on the season. Last weekend, Oral Roberts went on the road and swept Alabama, before returning home to take a midweek contest against Kansas, turning back the Jayhawks, 12-1. Oral Roberts is led offensively by junior outfield Noah Cummings. Cummings has a .469 average with two doubles and four home runs. On the mound, Oral Roberts is pitching to the tune of a 3.32 ERA.

Hawaii heads to the Twin Cities with a 3-4 record. The Rainbow Warriors don an impressive 2.69 ERA on the season, but the opposition has pitched to a 1.69 ERA and .202 batting average against. Hawaii and Minnesota will play a Thursday night game, before the tournament kicks off.

All times Central, the rest of the weekend’s schedule follows.

Friday

  • Iowa vs Hawaii – 12:15 p.m.
  • Minnesota vs Oral Roberts – 6:30 p.m.

Saturday

  • Iowa vs Oral Roberts – 12 p.m.
  • Minnesota vs Hawaii – 6:30 p.m.

Sunday

  • Hawaii vs Oral Roberts – 11 a.m.
  • Minnesota vs Iowa – 3 p.m.

Around the conference

Florida Atlantic (4-3-1) welcomes another Big Ten opponent to Boca Raton as Illinois takes on the Owls a weekend after the Indiana Hoosiers split a three-game set. Illinois enters the weekend 2-5, behind an all-underclassmen weekend rotation. Taking their lumps early in the season, Illini pitchers have a 6.82 ERA spurred by walking 6.97 batters a contest. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Luke Schilling will take the ball on Friday night, to be followed in the rotation by freshmen righties Ty Weber and Ryan Thompson to round out the weekend. At the plate, the Illini are holding their own, batting .277, featuring six batters with a .300 average or better, led by Jack Yalowitz (.393) and Ben Troike (.385). Behind two doubles and a pair of home runs, senior first baseman Pat McInerney is the team’s leading run-producer with 10 RBI.

The Hoosiers are looking for an offensive spark. Falling to 3-4-1 on the season, Indiana dropped a home midweek contest to Cincinnati, 6-1, the third time this season IU has scored one run or less. Sophomore catcher Ryan Fineman is picking up where a solid freshmen season left off, batting a team-leading .333. Junior outfielder Laren Eustace is hitting .320 with four stolen bases, but fellow outfielders Craig Dedelow and Logan Sowers have yet to find their stroke, respectively batting .176 and .129. IU’s .230 team average is curtailing the efforts of the Big Ten’s top pitching staff, Indiana pitchers holding a 3.21 ERA. Indiana travels to Samford for three games, the Bulldogs coming off of a 7-6 win over Auburn on Wednesday to run their record to 4-3. Kevin Williams is the big bat in the Samford lineup, already with four home runs under his belt next to a .409 average.

Michigan State heads to Greenville, S.C, to play in the First Pitch Invitation. With one of the nation’s most potent offenses, the Spartans are batting .368, best in the Big Ten, ranking third in the nation. MSU is led by four players batting .400 or better through seven games, senior second baseman Dan Durkin (.452), sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina (.429), junior DH Zack McGuire (.406) and freshman outfielder Danny Gleaves (.400). The Spartans are slugging a gaudy .588 on the strength of 29 doubles and nine home runs, averaging 7.2 runs a game. Gleaves ranks fourth in the country, scoring 1.86 runs per game. The slugging Spartans will play in a tournament field of four teams, none with a losing record. MSU opens the weekend against Furman (6-2), before taking on Presbyterian (5-5) on Saturday, closing the weekend on Sunday against Tennessee-Martin (5-1).

Nebraska went 1-3 in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, dropping both games against #4 Oregon State while splitting two games against #24. As the Huskers look to get back on track, there is no dropping off in the competition. Nebraska heads to Frisco, Texas to play in the Frisco Classic, alongside #9 Arizona, #20 Arkansas and #30 Oklahoma State. Darin Erstad’s team is looking to get sluggings Ben Miller and Scott Schreiber going, as well as settle down a rotation which had difficulties with command and pitching beyond the fourth inning last week. Nebraska’s weekend rotation will go Derek Burkamper, who made his first start last week and was on a 50-pitch watch after a slight end-of-offseason arm issue, Jake Hohensee, who started Nebraska’s 4-3 win over Utah in his first action since May 2015 following Tommy John surgery, and two-way player Jake Meyers, resumes his Sunday role.

Northwestern and Penn State hopes to match Michigan’s undefeated showing in northern California, with Penn State taking on Pacific for three games with Northwestern travels to Santa Clara for four contests. Penn State’s showdown with Pacific in Stockon, Calif., is the start of a seven-game run in the Golden State for the Nittany Lions, while Northwestern returns home for their home debut on March 7 against Illinois-Chicago before heading out west for a three-game set at Portland. Penn State is looking to build off of a 2-2 showing against Xavier in Cary N.C., Northwestern is looking for their first win of the season, falling in their first six contests. Both teams hope weekend #3 is where the offense turns around, Northwestern enters March with a .167 average with Penn State sporting a .237 clip.

Rutgers was unable to take a road game at a ranked Atlantic Coast Conference foe for the second consecutive weekend, being swept at Virginia, after going 1-2 on opening weekend at Miami. A 9-2 midweek win over Wagner allowed Joe Litterio’s team to get back on track, in advance of returning to Virginia for three games at Old Dominion. Rutgers center fielder Jawuan Harris is stuffing the stat sheet, batting .346 with three doubles, a triple, three home runs and three steals. Milo Freeman and Mike Carter are contributing robust .375 and .370 respective averages. But as a team RU is batting .251 with a 7.14 ERA, hoping a step down in competition leads to better numbers and wins.

Required reading

Youth of Illinois baseball team continues to shine -Thomas Polcyn, The Daily Illini

Freshmen impress as Northwestern drops 3 in Mule Mix Classic -Evan Augeri, The Daily Northwestern

Connor Pohl’s Story All-Too-Familiar -Sonny Fulks, Press Pros Magazine

Penn State baseball’s offense sees significant improvement– Matt Martell, The Daily Collegian

Purdue’s Logan Poisall honors his father -Nathan Baird, Lafayette Journal & Courier

10 Innings Extra: Huskers need “screw it” moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assistants Anonymous: Early-season grind

It’s time to give assistant coaches some love. From compiling scouting reports, sleeping in terrible hotels on the recruiting trail, tossing batting practice and making sure camps with hundreds of kids run without a hitch, the job of the assistant coach never ends. With the duties the job entails and time and effort put in, the insight an assistant coach can provide is second to none, Assistants Anonymous is an opportunity for assistants to bring us closer to the game.

The first assistant to step to the microphone is a pitching coach, who gives insight on what it’s like during the early season with weekend after weekend of travel, limitations on practice and how he prepares a staff to be ready for the season.

Assistants Anonymous #1

We’re two weeks into the season. For Big Ten programs, that means two weeks on the road. What steps are taken to make sure players able to handle the travel, manage their academics with missed class time and still be able to perform at their best?

Before the first week of school has even finished for our guys, we have our academic advisor compile a missed class time sheet for each player to give to their professors. This helps inform them as early as possible about time missed and puts the responsibility of scheduling tests, quizzes, etc. early if need be so they continue to do their job in the classroom.

In the Big Ten and at our school we are only allowed so many missed days, which in turn means that you may be flying out late on Thursday nights so that you do not miss an extra day of class. This is taxing on all parties, but it is part of the gig here in the Big Ten.

Just how tough is it to leave on Thursday, get back late Sunday, then get ready to do it again three days later, for up to five consecutive weeks?

It is definitely tough at times, especially when are flying to the west coast as so many teams in our league have done over the last couple years. If you are a program that is flying private, it certainly helps you get to your destination quicker….however we are not a program with that luxury, so it means that we are getting home many times between 1-3 a.m., but the players are still going to class the next morning at 8 or 9 a.m.

Do you think the overall wellness of the student-athlete is compromised with the current baseball calendar?

I do think that the calendar being so condensed is certainly tough on the student-athlete, especially in our league with all of the travel. But I do think that the more your schedule takes place with students in school, the better for college baseball. I understand that in the Big Ten that can be tough with the weather.

I don’t know the solution at this point in time, or could I give a detailed answer in one paragraph, however, I think some subtle changes could be made improve things overall.

Has the NCAA’s new rule that a travel day cannot be considered a day off change how you practice?

At this point in time, this rule is not going to really affect us, because that is a change that can be managed over the course of a full year. However, I think that some of the rules in terms of adding extra mandated days off and such are something that makes the job of coaches very difficult.

In my opinion, many players are wanting the ability to be coached and assisted all of the time, and when you limit the ability of coaches to be able to “coach”, then I feel that is a problem. Many rules are put in place because of the 2-3% who abuse them.

When it comes to arm care, do you implement strict guidelines on pitch counts early in the season? What is the process for building up an arm?

The process for building up an arm is not just a start-of-season plan, but rather something that takes place on a 12-month cycle. You have to get these guys into a position where they are ready to roll when the season begins, but one bad move (100 pitches day one, or three straight days of live games early) can set them back over the course of the season.

We progress our guys and pull them early in the year because we want them to be peaking in May and June when everything is on the line. The key to me is to keep daily arm care protocols in place during the season, as well as making sure you monitor how often they hit the mound during each and every week. The more you hit the mound without reason, the higher your chances become for injury during a season.

While you may have a general idea going into the season, at what point in the season do you know what a player is capable of, that he can or cannot succeed in a role on the mound?

The early part of the season for our program is about putting certain guys in a position to purely succeed because we want to build their confidence. Other guys you may put in some circumstances that are difficult and may be more troublesome for simple success.

Although you would like to go into conference knowing exactly what you have in a pitching staff, it is ever-evolving, making it impossible to know how the end of the season will look compared to the beginning. One thing that we really try to continue is to coach the heck out of our arms so that when they are thrust into a new role or position, they are as ready as possible to answer the bell. 

However, when you look at your staff as a whole we would love to have nine guys you fully trust, two wild cards, and one surprise. If you are fortunate to have this collection of arms, then we believe that you have a chance to make a real run in June. 

The Prospect Junkie: Early season review

With two weekends of the young season now in the books, we’re starting to starting to see some early returns on prospects for whom we’ve been patiently waiting through this long, if not mild, Midwest winter.

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based off a few games.  There’s a reason why we associate mid-season form with peak performance.  It takes time for players, much less teams, to round into form.

For those reasons, we’re not going to overreact when a player gets off to a hot or cold start.  However, February games count just as much as the games in May, so we’re not going to ignore them either.  Also, some of these early non-conference matchups provide the best opportunity to size-up prospects against some of the more highly regarded players in the nation.

Strong starts

Luke Miller, Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, the Hoosier third-basemen was an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection in 2016 where he produced a slash line of .284/.352/.368 while finishing second on the team in hits (54).  While power was lacking for Miller last season, he’s already topped his 2016 home run production (one) by hitting two in just 14 at-bats to open the season.

Brian Shaffer, Maryland

The start has been less than ideal for the Terrapins.  Tabbed as a preseason top 25 team by several publications, Maryland stands at just 1-5 after being swept at LSU last weekend. Shaffer has been one of the few bright spots.  Matching up against potential first round pick Alex Lange last Friday, Shaffer held his own by allowing six hits and three runs over 6.2 innings.  He struck out six Tigers and walked three.  Shaffer gets great extension on a three-quarter delivery and pounds the strike-zone with sinking fastballs and has the confidence to throw his tight late-breaking slider in any count.  While Shaffer took the loss in the contest, I came away impressed.

Tre’ Gantt, Ohio State

Gantt teamed with Ronnie Dawson (Astros – 2nd Round) and Troy Montgomery (Angels – 8th Round) in the Buckeye outfield last season and could join them in pro ball next season.  Setting the table as the Ohio State leadoff hitter this season, Gantt is hitting .300/.382/.567 with a pair of stolen bases and three doubles thus far.

 

Looking to turn the corner

Logan Sowers, Indiana

Sowers’ star has dimmed some over the past two seasons but as noted last two weeks ago, I’m intrigued by his power potential.  He’s yet to show much of anything on the young season, hitting just .143/.200/.143 with 13 strikeouts compared to just 2 walks in 30 plate appearances.

Kevin Smith, Maryland

If there was a knock on Smith coming into the year, it was uncertainty about his ability to hit for average, having produced acceptable but unspectacular batting averages of .273 and .259 his freshman and sophomore years respectively.  Through six games this season, Smith is hitting just .130/.200/.174 with 11 strikeouts and just one walk.  The sample size is small, but not insignificant.  Smith had contact issues last year including 33 strikeouts in 143 at-bats in the Cape Cod League.  An encouraging sign is that he went 2-3 with a double against the aforementioned Lange.

Lucas Gilbreth, Minnesota

After a sophomore campaign where he dazzled with a team best 1.36 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 33 innings out of the bullpen, Gilbreth has allowed more earned runs through two starts (eight) than he did all of last season (five). Gilbreth was able to grind out a victory against UC Irvine on opening weekend despite allowing seven hits and five runs in just three innings.  He followed that up with six walks in another three-inning start against a prospect-laden Seattle University team.

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