The final weekend of action before Big Ten play begins is here. Action will take place on six Big Ten campuses, from College Park to Lincoln, as baseball slowly makes its way back from points south and west and into the Midwest.
Here’s a look at premier series of the week and storylines from around the conference.
Buckeyes look to find stride after tough road run
Ohio State has shown it can play with anyone in the country. The Buckeyes are responsible for the lone loss on the 14-1 record of the second-ranked team in the country, Oregon State.
But Ohio State has also showed when it gets ugly, it’s ugly. The night before they beat the Beavers, Ohio State was blanked 12-0 by Utah. This past weekend, after blowing a five-run, ninth-inning lead Friday night at Florida Gulf Coast, Ohio State was whipped 13-1 by the Osprey on Saturday.
The Jekyll-Hyde nature of the Ohio State season turned again, on Sunday. The 2016 Big Ten Tournament champions salvaged the weekend at FGCU with a 5-4 victory over the #24 team in the country. The victory was the start of a three-game winning streak to bring the Buckeyes level on the season at 8-8. Heading into the final weekend before the start of Big Ten play, for head coach Greg Beals, the hope is a tough non-conference slate allowed the Scarlet and Gray to show its true colors and be the team they’re capable of over the final 40 games.
“We’re on a three-game winning streak, so we feel good about that, but we’re certainly not happy being 8-8,” the seventh-year head coach said. “We’ve had opportunities to get a couple of games we didn’t get, but we did win a couple of big games and beaten some strong opponents.”
Ohio State’s strength of schedule is rated as the 20th-toughest in the country as of March 16 by Warren Nolan. With two games each against Oregon State and Utah, the latter the 2016 Pac-12 champions, plus three at Florida Gulf Coast, albeit early, Ohio State has a top 40 RPI on the strength of playing seven top-50 teams. Looking to reach consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03, Beals hopes the experience of playing a tough schedule starts to reap benefits come May with a conference title and NCAA regional in sight.
“Our strength of schedule at this point in the season is really really strong. I think that bodes well for our preparation entering conference play,” Beals said. “I think it’s critical these guys get that top-level experience. Playing the teams we have played will help us be ready to go come conference time.”
There are signs Ohio State is rounding into form. At the end of the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, the Buckeyes were 3-5 on the year, now the team has won five of its last eight. Through two weekends the team had a .230 batting average and .947 fielding percentage. With twice as many games under its belt, Ohio State sports a .250 hitting clip and the fielding percentage has improved to .954.
For a green team, Ohio State lost six regulars from its Louisville Regional team, Beals has seen a maturation throughout March.
“They’ve struggled a bit, but it’s a natural thing for them to go through as they get their feet wet at this level,” Beals said of the five first-time starters which include three JUCO transfers, a freshman and a sophomore. “We definitely have matured through this season.
“We still have to get better, no question about it, but we’re finding our way. We’re learning how this year’s Buckeye team is going to do it.”
One player who the Buckeyes have been able to rely on from the start is junior Tre’ Gantt. Moving to his natural position of center field, after playing right field for his first two seasons, Gantt is blossoming into a standout all-around player. Leading Ohio State with a .345 average, .451 on-base percentage and .552 slugging mark, the fleet-footed left-handed hitter has been the consistency force Ohio State has needed to tread water as players around him round into form.
“It’s as simple as he’s coming into himself,” Beals said, while also alluding to Gantt having a full year of health and preparation going into the season. “He’s just comfortable with where he is and who he is, which is allowing him to go out and compete and allowing his athleticism and skill to come out for us.”
And for the rest of the team, after four weeks on the road, the comforts of home may be what the team needs to take off.
A look at the opponent
Xavier is set to take on the second of three Big Ten opponents they will see this season. In week two, the Musketeers split a four-game set against Penn State, in Cary N.C., and Scott Googins’ team will be the bye week opponent for Indiana when they step outside of conference play, May 5-7.
Through 17 games, XU’s 7-10 record comes with a .225 team average and 4.93 ERA. Xavier does not boast a batter with an average of .300 or better, but junior Rylan Bannon is a player to keep an eye on. The third baseman leads Xavier with a .284 average, his five doubles and four home runs also team highs. As a team, the Nashville Regional runners-up have stolen 22 bases in 26 attempts, and have a .972 fielding percentage, besting the Buckeyes in both areas.
On the mound, junior left-handed pitcher Zac Lowther entered the season as the top draft prospect in Ohio, according to Baseball America. The southpaw led the Cape Cod League in strikeouts last summer, and so far has been racking up the punchouts. Lowther enters the weekend with a 2-2 record, 2.61 ERA and .171 opponent’s batting average, dialing up 25 strikeouts against 10 walks in 20.2 innings.
Last year, Ohio State defeated Xavier, 11-6, on a March 22 meeting in Columbus. This year’s two-site series has been adjusted with the potential of snow moving through Columbus on Friday. The two will play one game in Ohio’s capital city on Saturday, before wrapping up the weekend with a Sunday doubleheader in the Queen City.
Home sweet home
Along with Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan are set to open their home slate. Being March in the Midwest, weather forced changes throughout the weekend, with teams scrambling to fill the final weekend before Big Ten play begins. One scramble resulted in Penn State canceling the first two games of a four-game split-site set against Delaware. Postponing their home opener, the Nittany Lions will now play three games at Delaware.
For the Illini, Dan Hartleb’s team is set to host Southern Illinois (9-7) and Toledo (2-14) for two games against each. Illinois (3-9) has shown flashes of promise, taking down the defending national champions, Coastal Carolina, last weekend, but the Illini’s youth leads to up-and-down play. Illinois is best in the Big Ten with 15 home runs while batting a respectable .268 average. But on the mound, 85 walks issued by Illini pitchers in 111 innings have contributed to a 7.14 ERA, the second-worst mark in the conference. With underclassmen accounting for 88.3% of Illinois innings on the mound, 98, Illinois lists sophomore Cole Bellar (1-1, 9.24) and freshman Ty Weber (1-0, 2.82), as the weekend’s 1-2, the latter two starts to be determined. Weber carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Saturday’s first game against CCU, a doubleheader opener the Illini lost on back-to-back home runs. A year ago, Illinois averaged 1,310 fans per home game, the second-highest season total in Illinois Field’s 29-year history.
The Big Ten’s top team after four weekends will look to continue their winning ways back home. Michigan (12-3) welcomes Northern Illinois (3-12) to Ann Arbor for four games, set to play a single game each day, Thursday through Sunday. Ranked in this week’s NCBWA poll, checking in as the #22 team in the country, the Wolverines have won 10 of their last 11 games. The Maize and Blue have stymied the opposition by way of a deep pitching staff. With 17 pitchers already seeing action on the mound this year, Erik Bakich has a deep pitching staff. And a good one, too. Pitching to a Big Ten-best 2.96 ERA, Michigan leads the conference with 138 strikeouts and in opponent’s batting average at .230. When they are at the plate, Michigan’s .258 batting average rests in the middle of the conference, but their 35 stolen bases in 39 attempts are second to none, with nine errors in the field the fewest committed by a conference team. Michigan has a 109-78 record at the Wilson Baseball Complex, the home of Ray Fisher Stadium since 2008.
Ohio State isn’t the only team to take on an opponent which has already had a series against a Big Ten team. The weekend series between the Buckeyes and Musketeers is one of four such matchups.
Ohio State’s most recent weekend opponent, Florida Gulf Coast, is set to host Rutgers for three games in Fort Myers. FGCU, ranked #24 in this week’s NCBWA poll, is one of the country’s hottest teams, going 11-2 over its last 13 contests, all games against teams which played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, including taking two of three games at home against the Buckeyes. But Rutgers enters the weekend with a little momentum of its own. Though the team lost a midweek contest at Florida Atlantic, Rutgers took two of three games on the road last week at North Florida.
It will be the first meeting between Purdue (6-8) and Santa Clara (4-12), with the four-game series an opportunity for the Boilermakers to return home with a .500 or better record. Purdue is looking to rebound from a 1-3 start to their California swing, only able to take Monday’s contest against Cal State-Northridge in the extended weekend set. Purdue will be the third Big Ten team Santa Clara squares off against. On Feb. 26, Michigan defeated Santa Clara, 10-3 in the Jack Gifford Tournament, a week before the Broncos split a four-game set at home against Northwestern. Catcher/outfielder Nick Dalesandro looks to continue a strong run, the sophomore is batting .400 over his last 10 games, picking up four doubles and two home runs to slug .650 alongside a .442 on-base percentage.
Purdue will be joined in northern California by Minnesota, who has a three-game set at Sacramento State. The Gophers are looking to follow the ways of Penn State, as the Nittany Lions took two of three games against the Hornets, two of the teams three losses in 10 games at home. Sacramento State’s 9-6 record is spurred by a pitching staff which has a 3.19 ERA and tossed two shutouts against Northern Kentucky, after opening the season with a weekend victory of Washington State. Minnesota (9-7) will look to right the ways of its pitching staff. Holding a 4.81 ERA, Minnesota has allowed at least seven runs in each of the last three games.
Around the conference
The Big Ten is 15-11 in games played in California this year, with seven more on the docket. But even further west, Indiana has a four-game series at Hawaii. Six hours behind their home Eastern Time Zone, IU opened the series with a Wednesday night victory, used two runs in the third and sixth innings, with three in the seventh enough to fend off the Rainbow Warriors., 7-6. The Hoosiers enter Thursday action at 7-7-1 on the season, hoping 25 runs in their last three games are enough to jump start an offense with a .352 on-base percentage, tied for 10th in the conference.
Iowa (9-6) heads into a weekend at Kansas State (12-5) on the heels of bad news. On Friday, the team announced junior right-handed pitcher C.J. Eldred will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery on Wednesday to repair a partial tear of his UCL. Limited to one six-inning start, Eldred allowed two runs in the season-opening series at South Florida. As Iowa reached 30 wins for a third consecutive season, Eldred tossed a team-high 94.1 innings in 2016. Eldred’s absence is compounded by Iowa missing Friday start Nick Gallagher for the weekend due to arm discomfort. Rick Heller will rely more on an offense which is second in the Big Ten in batting (.289) and slugging (.429).
At 6-8, Nebraska is still looking to get in gear following a season which ended in the NCAA Tournament. Not playing a midweek game, the last time out for the Huskers ended in a 10-0 victory. Junior left-handed pitcher Jake Meyers pitched a shutout against Western Carolina, with every batter recording a hit. Darin Erstad hopes the latter is a sign of the team turning the corner, with Big Red holding a .246 batting average on the season. This weekend, Nebraska continues an eight-game homestand with a three-game set against the College of Charleston (8-9). The two teams met last year to open the season, with the Husker starting the new campaign with a 4-0 win. But the Cougars bounced back to capture the series with victories of 13-5 and 7-3. For the first time this season, Nebraska’s weekend rotation is the same as the last time out, Jake Hohensee, Derek Burkamper and Jake Meyers to toe the rubber in that order.
Hartleb, Illinois baseball happy to be home– Thomas Polcyn, The Daily Illini
Brdar, Thomas spark Wolverines as potent infield combo– Jacob Shames, The Michigan Daily
Luis Alvarado holds off on pros to pitch in for the Huskers– Evan Bland, The Omaha World-Herald