Trending Topics: Week 1

It was quite the weekend for Big Ten baseball teams, as action spanned the country from Miami, Fla., to Riverside, Calif. There were outstanding individual honors, like pitchers Grant Judkins of Iowa and Ohio State’s Garrett Burhenn, respectively logging a no-hit outing and flirting with perfection. A handful of teams sport spotless records: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And there were also a few surprises on the not as pleasant side, such as Minnesota losing to New Mexico and Oregon State by a combined score of 24-2 and Purdue and Rutgers concluding the opening weekend without a win.

Going beyond the scoreboard and box scores, the first of a weekly staple, Trending Topics, looks at five observations from the weekend that are either sending a team to success or holding them back.

Seniors stepping up

It’s hard to quantify, but ask any coach and there is something to draftitis affecting players over their junior year. Players who aren’t slam dunk draft picks, players with premium tools whose stock depends on production, time and time again press and scuffle, ultimately playing their way out of the draft. Then, when seniors, and facing the possibility of playing baseball competitively for the last time, no longer worrying about the draft just embracing the moment, an all-conference season unfolds.

The opening weekend showed there may be a few players who have strong senior seasons after watching their draft stock come and go, relaxed and just having the game come to them. Here’s a look at a few of those players, players who may end up having a significant say in how their team fares with them in the heart of the order.

Illinois OF Zac Taylor: 6-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5-5 SB-ATT

Indiana OF Logan Kaletha: 4-for-11, 2B

Maryland 3B Taylor Wright: 4-for-11

Michigan 1B Jimmy Kerr: 4-for-13, 2B, HR, 4 RBI

Ohio State LF Brady Cherry: 7-for-14, 2 2B, 2 HR

Buckeyes limit freebies

Although Ohio State went 36-24 and participated in the Greenville Regional last year, the Buckeyes were far from a well-oiled machine.

In 60 games, Ohio State’s defense committed 94 errors, more than 1.5 per contest and a whopping 20 more than the next closet team, leading to a Big Ten-worst .959 fielding percentage. The extra outs the Buckeyes gave the opposition were in addition to Ohio State hurlers hitting 77 batters, the most in the Big Ten, stood alongside surrendering 590 hits, also the most in the conference. A team that gives up a lot of hits, hits a lot of batters and routinely falls to play a clean game is far from the way Greg Beals wants his team to perform, regional or not.

Through the first weekend of the 2019 season, the Buckeyes have cleaned up their act.

Opening 4-0 for just the third time since 2010, Ohio State’s defense committed just two errors, for a .986 fielding percentage. Ohio State pitchers plunked only two batters, while walking just five hitters. As Ohio State breaks in an entirely new rotation, eliminating free passes, extra bases, and forced to record extra outs will go a long way in helping the Bucks reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03.

Huskers on the attack

Although Nebraska batted .274 in 2018, good for sixth in the conference, and scored 6.48 runs per contest, there was notable chatter on social media around the Huskers revolved around the offense. It is true Nebraska will no longer have the services of Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening, the team’s two leading batters who combined for 56 extra-base hits and 27 of the team’s 47 home runs. So on paper there is a noticeable void in power, but when looking back at Nebraska’s best teams under Erstad, they were never ones to so much power.

Take 2014, when Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten and participated in a regional. The Huskers batted .293 with only 19 homers. By comparison, Schreiber hit 18 by himself last year.

In 2016, another year in a regional, Nebraska batted .281 with 43 home runs.

Then, in 2017, when the Huskers won the Big Ten, the team held its .281 average but this time with just 25 home runs.

With Erstad leading the way, when Nebraska’s offense is at its best, it’s when every batter, 1-9, has a methodical approach of fouling balls off until one can be barreled, puts consistent pressure on the opponent, are aggressive with dirt ball reads, takes the extra 90 feet and squeezes the life out of the opposition.

In taking three of four games from UC Riverside, it appears Nebraska’s offense is getting back to that.

While it’s unlikely the team will bat .347 for the course of the season, there were 27 walks drawn in four games, 10 doubles, nine stolen bases and the team was able to generate 47 runs without needing to drop a sacrifice bunt, relying on three sac flies.

The key to Nebraska in 2019 isn’t necessarily who replaces the thump of Schreiber and Wilkening, it’s more who becomes the next Chad Christensen, Pat Kelly, Jake Meyers or Michael Pritchard, guys who did all of the little things that added up to a potent offense.

Did Minnesota’s superb defense graduate, too?

Picked by conference coaches to defend their Big Ten title, a lot of Minnesota’s expected success stems from their pitching staff. Last year, Minnesota pitched to a 3.20 ERA, a mark lowered to a conference-best 2.64 in Big Ten games. With the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson back in his Saturday role for his sophomore season, fellow all-american and classmate Max Meyer resuming his closing duties, and many capable high-ceiling arms back, such as Joshua Culliver, Jeff Fasching, Bubba Horton and Brett Schultz, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Gophers on the mound.

But the expected strength of the team falling on the pitching staff was also in part due to the graduation of multiple starters with at least three years of starting under their belt: Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and arguably the Big Ten’s best two-way player in Terrin Varva. Any concern regarding Minnesota would be on how John Anderson and staff would replace the key contributors at the plate,

After a rocky opening weekend, the real concern may be how does Minnesota replace the quintet in the field.

In addition to the second-best ERA, Minnesota had the second-best fielding percentage among Big Ten teams. With a .977 fielding percentage, Minnesota committed just 52 errors over 59 games. In 2017 Minnesota had a .978 fielding percentage, committing 47 errors in 57 games, and in 2016 the Gophers fielded at a .980 mark, with 43 errors in 56 games.

In four games in Arizona, Minnesota committed six errors, including four in Saturday’s 11-1 defeat to New Mexico. Each error in Saturday’s game came from a position where Minnesota last a starter, with the weekend’s six errors leading to nine unearned runs.

Now, it was opening weekend. It was Minnesota’s first time being outside on a baseball field since the fall, and young players need time to adjust to the speed of the game. But Minnesota’s pitchers are only as good as the defense behind them, and if too many extra bases and extra outs are provided to the opponents, it won’t matter what the Gophers do or don’t do at the plate.

Hawkkkkkeyes ring them up

When your former pitching coach is hired away by the Yankees for a position called Director of Pitch Development, a position created exclusively for him, chances are your pitchers were working with one of the best in the business as they perfected their craft. The results from Iowa’s three games over opening weekend would support that.

Although Iowa’s former pitcher coach Desi Druschel was behind the plate, taking in Saturday’s games as a bystander and not participant, his work with the Hawkeye pitchers was on display.

Against George Mason, Pitt and Marshall, Hawkeye pitchers were on the mound for 26 innings. In that time, Iowa struck out 41 batters. Jack Dreyer started the parade of eye-popping numbers with a 10-strikeout showing in 5.1 innings on Saturday against the Panthers. Less than 24 hours later, Grant Judkins grabbed the Big Ten lead in punch outs with 11, in six innings against the Thundering Herd. With relievers in tow, Iowa’s game totals for strikeouts were: 10, 15 and 16.

The 41 strikeouts helped Iowa hold the opposition to a .114 batting average, 10 hits in 88 at-bats. The 20 walks are an issue to address, but Iowa’s 14.19 K/9 showing through one weekend is impressive. In case you’re wondering, that would be 795 over a 56-game schedule. The Big Ten record is 549, set by Maryland in 2015.

Season Preview: Penn State

After two years of building up the program, Rob Cooper guided Penn State to a 28-27 record in 2016, a winning season which included a 12-12 mark in the Big Ten. The postseason eluded the Nittany Lions as the tiebreaker to break a three-team tie for eighth place between Illinois, Iowa and Penn State went to the Hawkeyes. But as Penn State’s NCAA Tournament drought approached driving age, there was reason to look to the future with optimism. Since then, Penn State has finished last in the Big Ten in consecutive seasons, winning just 33 games in the process. Outsiders may look to Cooper’s team in State College and, based on recent history, not expect the Nittany Lions to make much noise. But the displeasure experienced in 2018 may yield positive results, as PSU heads into 2019 with a sizable sophomore class looking to lessons learned during struggles into foundations of success and take a step forward.

Program facts

Head coach: Rob Cooper, sixth season, 97-190

Last conference championship: 1996

Last NCAA Tournament: 2000 Austin Super Regional

2018 in review

Record: 15-34 overall, 3-21 in the Big Ten; 13th

At the plate: .233 AVG, .332 OBP, .342 SLG, 79 2B, 17 3B, 21 HR, 47-60 SB-ATT

On the mound: 5.53 ERA, 421.2 IP, 231 BB, 339 SO, .272 BAA

In the field: .960  FLD, 26 double plays, 20 passed balls, 48 SBA, 19 CS

 

Roster rundown

Key losses: OF Braxton Giavedoni (.247 AVG/.292 OBP/.382 SLG), RHP Justin Hagenman (3-7, 4.60, 78.1 IP), LHP Taylor Lehman (2-7, 5.36, 47.0)

Key returners: Soph. LHP Dante Biasi (3-6, 5.20, 62.1), Soph. RHP Bailey Dees (1-2, 5.14, 28.0), Soph. DH Parker Hendershot (.283/.379/.363), Jr. 3B Connor Klemann (.234/.343/.345, 10 XBH) Soph. RHP Mason Mellott (0-1, 4 saves, 3.18, 34.0), Sr. C Ryan Sloniger (.303/.404/.494, 13 2B)

Key newcomers: Fr. LHP Hutch Gagnon, Fr. OF/INF Ryan Ford, Jr. INF Gavin Homer, Jr. C Jacob Padilla, Fr. LHP Kyle Shingledecker, Fr. INF Justin Williams

Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (8), Sophomores (15), Juniors (6), Seniors (6)

 

What to expect in 2019

There are two ways to view the state of the Penn State program entering 2019. The first, seeing the glass as half-empty, would be that every team but Northwestern won as many Big Ten games in 2018 as Penn State has combined between the 2017-2018 seasons, seven. A 4-20 conference season followed by a 3-21 campaign makes for the lowest two-year Big Ten win total since Indiana won seven conference games between the 1981-2 seasons. But even then, the Hoosiers played only 30 Big Ten games, opposed to Penn State’s 48. But enough of the negative. Viewing a three-win season in lens of the glass being half-full would reveals the only team of the last 40 years with a worst winning percentage in Big Ten games than Penn State’s .125 clip in 2018 was Purdue in 2016. Just three years ago, Purdue went 2-22 in Big Ten play for an .083 winning percentage. Where many outside West Lafayette wrote off Purdue for the near future following the 2016 season, first-year head coach Mark Wasikowski guided Purdue to a 29-27 season. Breaking even in Big Ten play at 12-12 Purdue shocked all by finishing eighth and earning a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.

That 2017 Boilermaker team wasn’t all that unlike what the 2019 Nittany Lions may be. Where Purdue had a strong sophomore class, led by Nick Dalesandro, Jackson McGowan and Gareth Stroh, so too does Penn State, with the likes of Bailey Dees, Parker Hendershot and Mason Mellott. A third-year pitcher, Tanner Andrews spearheaded the rotation. Can Penn State’s Dante Biasi be that guy for them? A few transfers from junior college helped set the mentality while providing much needed production, with freshmen sprinkled up the middle. The 2019 PSU team can check those boxes, too.

Yes, times have been tough in State College. But history has shown things can change in a hurry in the Big Ten. Penn State will need to hit better, throw more strikes and field better. But with the shear volume of innings pitched, trips to the plate, balls fielded and thrown by a freshman last year, there’s the opportunity for Penn State to take a big step forward. It’s too be seen just how big that step is, and if it gets the program back on track and trending up in the same way Cooper’s first three years unfolded.

At the plate and in the field

There’s no where to go but up for the Penn State bats. A .233 team batting average ranked last in the Big Ten, .010 points behind the closest team, Maryland. Only Indiana struck out more times than the Nittany Lions’ 451 punchouts, but Indiana’s 463 total came in 10 more games. PSU finished next to last in on-base percentage and slugging, with 10 teams hitting more than the 21 home runs the clubs produced. Through it all, one player had a banner year, and forced his name into being considered one of the Big Ten’s best.

Serving as Penn State’s primary catcher, Ryan Sloniger led Penn State with a .306 average, the line Nittany Lion regular to bat at least .300, with 13 doubles, two triples an five home runs. Adding a .404 on-base percentage and .494 slugging mark, Sloniger looked little like the player he was the prior season. As a sophomore, the Punxsutawney, Penn., native batted .215 with four doubles, two triples and one home run, posting a .613 OPS. Heading into his senior season, Sloniger will be looked upon as Penn State’s offensive leader. Although there might be a position change.

With the addition of transfer Jacob Padilla, from Murray State College, and Penn State coaches seeing growth in Shea Sbranti, multiple players will take their spot behind the plate. When Sloniger is not suited up behind the plate, he will be at first base, looking to provide PSU with the necessary offense at a position which is expected to provide a little thump in the middle of a Big Ten lineup. Like Padilla, transferring from a junior college, Gavin Homer from Kellogg Community College, will be asked to provide a good glove and capable bat, as he takes on second base for Cooper.

The left side of the infield will have familiar faces with senior Conlin Hughes and redshirt-junior Connor Klemann returning to shortstop and third base respectively. Where Sloniger took a step forward in 2018, it was a step backward for Hughes. In 2017, Hughes batted .255 with nine doubles, three triples and four home runs, adding seven stolen bases. Hughes’ average dipped to .189 in 2018, recording six doubles, one triple and no home runs. Rebounding from an injury which limited him to 10 games in 2017, Klemann batted .234 with 10 extra-base hits. As a freshman, Klemann batted .260 over 28 games, lending belief there’s more in the third baseman a full year removed from a season-ending injury.

The first of several important sophomores, Parker Hendershot looks to build off of a strong debut season and fortify the DH spot in the PSU lineup. Appearing in 35 games, Hendershot batted .283 with six doubles and a home run, and drew 16 walks to sport a .379 on-base percentage. Those numbers would be good for classmate Curtis Robison to match, as he fills out a corner outfield spot in year two for the Nittany Lions. Although he batted .179 over 42 games, Robison collected eight doubles, a triple and two home runs as a freshman.

Penn State’s most consistent offensive force over the last two years, Bowersox used nine doubles and four triples to bat .276 last year. In 2017, over 33 games the right-handed hitter batted .333 with seven doubles and three home runs. Junior outfielder Mason Nadeau rounds out he returning players who saw the bulk of their time in the outfield last year. Like Bowersox, Nadeau’s 2017 season was better than his 2018 go. Last year, Nadeau’s average plunged to .202, after beginning his career in State College with a .308 average. Sbranti may see time in the outfield, as well as freshmen Ryan Ford and Justin Williams, with the veteran of the group being senior Jordan Bowersox.

Throughout the lineup, there are players who have shown they can be solid contributors for Penn State. What’s held the team back is rarely have those good years aligned. Where Sloniger stepped forward in 2018, several players regressed. Now, if Solinger maintains the high level of play he established last year, Bowersox, Hughes and Nadeau hit at their 2017 clip, Klemann shows the ability he did as a freshman before injuries set him back in 2017 and Hendershot and Robison show growth in their second year as DI athletes, last year’s .233 team average will fill look a distant memory. That may seem like a lot of ifs, but to even be an if the possibility has to be there, and past performances have indicated they are there for Cooper and Penn State.

On the mound

The outlook isn’t as clear on the mound for Penn State where youth is found in abundance. The Nittany Lions will need to replace Friday starter Justin Hagenman and the 76 strikeouts he recorded over 78.1 innings. Also gone are Taylor Lehman and Marko Borichich, two pitchers who flashed signs of promise but never put it all together, but still combined to pitch 75.1 innings, as Lehman made 10 starts and Borichich appeared in 21 games out of the bullpen.

With 15 sophomores on the team, second-year players will have a big say in Penn State’s success in 2018. They will especially do so on the mound. Sophomores Dante Biasi and Bailey Dees will lead the rotation, with Dees making a significant jump according to Cooper, as he gets ready for a bigger role. Biasi logged 62.1 innings over 13 starts and struck out 51 batters to 36 walks. He may not have the mid-to-upper-90s fastball his older brother Sal Biasi brought to the Penn State rotation two years ago, when he struck out 88 batters in 72.1 innings, but Biasi was serviceable in his first year on the mound after Tommy John surgery. As he made four starts and appeared in 12 games, it was Dees who wowed with strikeouts, punching out 36 in 28 innings. Dees did walk 16 and surrender 31 hits, but the stuff is there to be a big time arm, it’s a matter of control and developing a greater sense of pitchability.

A third sophomore, Conor Larkin, looks to be a key contributor in the bullpen, following 18 relief appearances last year, compiling a 5.79 ERA. In 37.1 innings, Larkin was tagged for 43 hits, but did record 38 strikeouts to 17 walks. Classmate Mason Mellott recorded four saves as his 3.18 ERA led all pitchers, contributing 34 innings over 24 relief outings. Kyle Virbitsky, yet another sophomore, pitched to a 5.40 ERA in 21.2 innings, with 14 of his 15 appearances coming as a reliever. Fourth-year junior Eric Mock started the season at the back of the Penn State bullpen, and finished with three saves over 31.2 innings and a 5.97 ERA.

For newcomers, Cooper likes the promise left-handed freshmen Tyler Shingledecker and Hutch Gagnon have shown leading up to the season and expect the ball to be in their hands early and often.

There are a few key innings that need filled and throughout the pitching staff there isn’t a lot of history for the players Penn State will rely on on the mound. But there are a lot of players that were thrown to the fire early, players that arrived on campus together and look to turn the tide together, who figure to be battle tested, with little that can come there way in 2018 to throw them off. If a few players take a step forward in their second season, there may be enough in the rotation and in relief for the pitchers to do their part, and take some pressure off the bats so the best of their abilities come out and get the ship turned for Penn State.

Five things to watch

Sloniger building off of last year and becoming one of the Big Ten’s top bats.

Do Hughes, Bowersox and Nadeau return to 2017 form.

Can Mellott and Mock form to 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen.

Which sophomore in the rotation takes a step forward.

Does Cooper rotate catchers or does someone make the position theirs through production.

One weekend to circle

March 1-3 vs. Duke. After playing in a super regional and ending the season with a top 10 ranking, picked to be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best teams, Penn State’s neutral site series against the Blue Devils will be a great barometer of progress. The first two series of the season, three games against Monmouth and four games against Fairfield, all played in Cary, N.C, should give Penn State the ability to head into March with a winning record. For a young team, success in the opening weekends are critical, creating confidence by seeing the offseason efforts pay dividends is a must. In taking on Duke, Penn State will see first hand what a regional club looks like and where they have to go to become one themselves. If Biasi, Mellott, Mock and Dees can put together quality outings against a potential top 25 team, or Hendershot, Sloniger or Ford run into one as Duke features one of the country’s best pitchers in left-hander Graeme Stinson. A strong showing against Duke can quickly parlay into bigger things, as another good non-conference series at Central Florida follows, before a series against UMass-Lowell concludes the pre-Big Ten slate where date with Minnesota starts Big Ten play.

For Vaughn, 2018’s obstacles to lead the way in 2019

When the final out was recorded in Maryland’s 4-0, Feb. 16, 2018 win over Tennessee, it was the period on the perfect script.

Terrapin ace Taylor Bloom pitched seven dominant innings, scattering six hits while striking out nine batters without issuing a walk. Second baseman Nick Dunn, entering the season as one of the Big Ten’s top draft prospects, showed his star power, going 2-for-3 with two walks and two home runs. Junior all-conference outfielder Marty Costes recorded a pair of hits in five at-bats.

And first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, after spending five years on the staff of former coach John Szefc, led the team to victory in his first game at the helm.

Everything was there. Pitching, offense, an errorless contest, and the new coach grabbing a road win at an Southeastern Conference school.

The feel good story didn’t last long, as Maryland’s 2018 went every which way except what was to be expected on paper.

Heading into the 2018 season, Maryland was a consensus pick to finish among the Big Ten’s top three, ticketed for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Alongside Bloom, sophomore left-hander Tyler Blohm, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, spearheaded the rotation. Dunn and Costes were to make up the heart of a deep lineup, surrounded by the likes of shortstop A.J. Lee and outfielder Zach Jancarski. Lee was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection in 2017, while Jancarski batted .325 with 17 home runs.

On paper, there was a lot to like about Maryland, the rotation, the veterans in the field, the power potential and enough speed to keep opposing pitchers on their toes. It all appeared to be there. And with Vaughn’s knowledge of the programs and players, having recruited them and serving as their hitting coach, the high expectations didn’t seem out of hand, even for a first-year coach. But in hindsight, that familiarity, as well as it served him to take over the Terrapin program as one of Division I baseball’s youngest head coaches, may have ultimately hindered the team’s on-field success.

“I think as a coaching staff, that’s where I really dropped the ball, and I wish like anything I could take it back for that group of seniors and juniors that left,” Vaughn said, as a 24-30 season saw Maryland fall well shy of preseason expectations. “I think you had such a group that you look on paper and think, you know what, they have been through the ringer, I’ve busted those guys up for three years, I can be a little lighter on them, I can kind of pull the reigns back a bit because they’ve got it…and then when we got punched in the mouth in March, we had no idea how to respond to adversity, no idea how to pick ourselves up and grind through something.”

Instead of participating in a regional for the fourth time in five seasons, Maryland’s season ended before the Big Ten Tournament started. A 9-14 record in conference play produced way to a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten table. In an up-and-down year, which never saw Maryland garner any traction, there wasn’t a guide for Vaughn to fall back on. As the team took their lumps, it was Maryland’s first losing season since 2011, when current Michigan head coach Erik Bakich oversaw a 21-35 season, so too did he, learning the nuances of being a head coach and how to lead an entire program on and away from the diamond.

“As a young coach, one of the biggest things I had to learn was balancing different things,” said Vaughn, who at age 30 was named the eighth head coach in program history. “Me and Coach Szfec aren’t the same person, we manage people differently, we lead a bit differently.

“I was kind of caught in this place last year, where it was like, I worked with the hitters for five years, that’s all I’ve ever coached, those are my guys, to trying to figure out what does my role actually look like. Am I the CEO type? Am I the still the guy that coaches the hitters? What exactly does that role look like, and there’s honestly some growing pains with that because I felt like I was trying to find myself.”

Heading into a second offseason leading the program, to go forward Vaughn realized he needed to take a step back.

“I kind of got back to what I’m super passionate about and the reason I got into this in the first place. It’s not to be a CEO, it’s not to sit at the top and watch other people coach; I love recruiting, I love coaching hitters, I like being on the field every day.

“I think I listened to a lot of people last year where it’s like man, as a head coach you have so many responsibilities, you’re just not going to have time, this and that. Frankly, you find time for what you really care about. For me, a big piece of it is getting back to the stuff I love.”

Although the team may not have reached its full potential, a .243 average bettered only Penn State’s .233 clip and the team pitched to a 5.28 ERA, Dunn did bat .330 with 17 doubles and 10 home runs, Jancarski and fellow senior Kevin Boindic batted .279, Costes reached base at a .382 mark with six home runs, and Bloom logged 79.1 innings.

All of those players, each a three or four-year starter, are gone. With a roster off 22 underclassmen and seven transfers, Vaughn’s hand was almost forced for him to get back to being more hands on.

Sometimes the obstacles in front of us provide the way forward.

“The first week, we didn’t even get on a baseball field, we spent it in the classroom,” Vaughn said. “We actually took them down to D.C. one day, did some stuff in D.C. one morning from a conditioning standpoint. Just really try to get them to understand that we’re not a program that’s going to compare our success based on going to Omaha or not going to Omaha, it’s about developing people. At the heart of it, that’s what we want to be about. I think the byproduct of that is you’ll get guys that will run through a wall for you, at this level you end up winning a ton of games.”

With a better understanding of how to lead a program of young men and finding a balance with hitting coach Justin Swope, Vaughn feels everything he and the team went through last year will only make them tougher, closer and ready to rebound in a big way.

“I think I learned a ton, I had a ton of growing pains last year. But it’s been really good with this group of freshmen, combined with our sophomores, our freshmen last year, sophomores this year. (Justin) Vought, (Randy) Bednar and those guys, that left them with a really sour taste in their mouths. They weren’t the guys that said screw it, I’m going to go transfer somewhere else, we gotta make this thing right. So those guys have seen how it’s been done when we weren’t firing on all cylinders, when we weren’t going about our business the right and those guys have been bound and determined to not let it happen again. Between those classes and having a few really, really impact seniors back this year, it’s been really fun to get back to coaching those guys up the way we want to do.”

The way they want to. Now it’s time to get back to that script.

Season Preview: Maryland

Maryland appeared in three NCAA Tournaments between 2014 and 2017. In the first two regional appearances, 2014 and 2015, the Terps advanced through the opening weekend, en route to participating in the Charlottesville Super Regionals. Falling just shy of reaching the College World Series on two occasions, the run of postseason success saw Maryland tabbed as D1Baseball.com’s preseason Big Ten favorite during each of the program’s first three Big Ten seasons. The Terps were not D1Baseball.com’s favorite last year, that was Indiana, but the Terps were still predicted to be an NCAA Tournament-bound club. A season many expected to see Maryland continue its winning ways finished anything but. Under first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, Maryland not only missed the NCAA Tournament, but failed to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, finishing ninth in the conference. Now, with lesser external expectations, the hope in College Park is that Vaughn’s first year leading the Terps was as invaluable of a learning tool as the reps gave to many underclassmen. But any postseason showing will come down to the showings of a quartet of seniors, a class looking to lead Maryland back to its winning ways and achieve the same highs they entered the program on.

Program facts

Head coach: Rob Vaughn, second season, 24-30 at Maryland

Last conference championship: 1971 (Atlantic Coast Conference)

Last NCAA Tournament: 2017 Winston-Salem Regional

2018 in review

Record: 24-30 overall, 9-14 in Big Ten; ninth place

At the plate: .243 AVG, .358 OBP, .384 SLG, 92 2B, nine 3B, 48 HR, 63-87 SB-ATT

On the mound: 5.28 ERA, 477.1 IP, 234 BB, 368 SO, .271 BAA

In the field: .972 FLD, 34 double plays, 16 passed balls, 54 SBA, 17 CS

Roster rundown

Key losses: 1B/RHP Kevin Biondic .279/.369/.463, 21 XBH, 1-1, 2.59 ERA, 24.1 IP), RHP Taylor Bloom (3-8, 4.99, 79.1 IP), 2B Nick Dunn (.330/.419/.561, 17 2B, 10 HR), OF Zach Jancarski (.279/.378/.453. 20 XBH), RHP, OF Will Watson (.254/.369/.431, 6 HR)

Key returners: Soph. OF Randy Bednar (.208/.272/.376, 6 HR), Jr. LHP Tyler Blohm (5-2, 4.10, 59.1), Sr. SS AJ Lee (.232/.375/.296 12 2B), Sr. John Murphy (1-3, 4.26, 25.1), Sr. RHP Hunter Parsons (5-2, 3.44, 89.0), Sr. 3B Taylor Wright (.230/.319/.333)

Key newcomers: INF/OF Maxwell Costes, Jr. OF Ben Irvine, 1B Kody Milton, Jr. Tuck Tucker, Jr. OF Caleb Walls

Composition by class (eligbility-wise): Freshman (11), Sophomores (11), Juniors (9), Seniors (4)

 

What to expect in 2019

Forcing their way into the national discussion on Szefc, it was supposed to be more of the same as Vaughn was promoted from his associate head coach role. On paper, there were more than enough reasons to justify any expectation of Maryland finishing among the Big Ten leaders. In Taylor Bloom and Tyler Blohm, the former a three-year starter and the latter the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a stout 1-2 punch was to lead the rotation. Between Nick Dunn at second and Marty Costes and Zach Jancarski in the outfield, a trio of proven veterans were to anchor the lineup, with Kevin Biondic, AJ Lee and Will Watson providing key contributions in supporting roles. There seemed to be enough fire power atop the pitching staff and throughout the lineup to take aim at a 40-win season. Not only did the expected not come to pass, injuries and bad luck contributed to a forgetful season. While Blohm did ok as a sophomore, though limited due to injury, and there were bright spots in Biondic’s performance as a two-way player and Hunter Parsons emerging as the staff ace, the brightest spot, Nick Dunn’s offensive performance, was the one expectation that was met, but can’t be brought into 2019. The St. Louis Cardinals picked the second baseman in the fifth round of last June’s draft.

One would believe a second time through for Vaughn will be easier and more navigable. And on a team with 22 underclassmen, players who were thrown to the fire early and often should take a step forward. But, and perhaps this is a positive in light of last season, there is little that can be counted on to create any external expectations. The Terps feature just four seniors, a number less than the seven juniors transferring into the program. With key departures, plenty of newcomers, some upperclassmen with a track record of success and others still waiting for the breakout season, a wide range of outcomes are in front of the Terps in 2019.

At the plate and in the field

Only one player, Dunn, batted above .300 for the Terps last year. With the second baseman leaving a year of eligibility on the table to pursue professional baseball, a new offensive threat would need to emerge. But it wasn’t only Dunn’s departure that will force the need for someone to step up at the plate for Maryland. Last year’s top five hitters are no longer with team either due to graduation, Biondic, Jancarski and Watson, or to the draft, Costes and Dunn. The leading returning hitter from last year is Lee, who bated .232 over 203 at-bats. Right behind him is Wright, who recorded 38 hits in 165 at-bats for a .230 average.

With what Maryland returns, or the lack of, there may not be a duo in the conference that mean more to their team’s success than Lee and Wright, as they return to lock down Maryland’s respective shortstop and third base positions. To Vaughn and staff, and to anyone who’s sene Maryland over the last two years, there is more to Lee than what he showed last year. Just in 2017, when he was at third base while Kevin Smith, on of Baseball America’s top 100 pro prospects, manned shortstop. As a sophomore, Lee batted .307 with eight doubles and eight home runs, producing a .474 slugging percentage. While Lee did hit another eight doubles in 2018, he managed just one home run, as his slugging percentage dipped to .296. Even Lee’s stolen bases, which led the team, went in reverse from 2017, down to 12 from 15, when he was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection. While Wright doesn’t have the DI history that Lee has, Wright did hit .333 with an 1.007 OPS for Colorado Northwestern Community College in 2017, and arrived at Maryland to rave reviews from the staff. Though he didn’t match the numbers he put up as a sophomore, Wright can’t be wrote off. It’s not uncommon for a highly touted Juco transfer to have a lukewarm first year in the Big Ten only to explode as a senior. Iowa’s Joe Booker and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are two examples of transfers who finished as all-conference selections following a tepid first Division I season.

The only other returning Terrapin who made at least 35 starts in the field is sophomore Randy Bednar. Picked by Baseball America to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Bednar scuffled as a freshman, too often going down on strikes, striking out 46 times in 149 at-bats, but did show a little pop, recording seven doubles and six triples. Be it Chris Alleyne, who recorded 25 at-bats last year as a freshman, or transfers like Ben Irvine and Caleb Walls, new faces will join Bednar in the outfield, and he will be called upon to play up to the potential that saw him drafted in the 27th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

Taking his turn as the ballyhooed freshman is Kody Milton. Son of former Terp and 11-year MLB veteran Eric Milton, Kody participated in the Under Armour All-America Game, an exhibition played at Wrigely Field bringing together the best prep players in the country, and joins Big Ten baseball with the physical stature and ability to be an impact player from the start. At 6’3, 205, Milton already looks the part of Division I first baseman, and will be asked to step into the role of a standout one. Around the game his whole life, lofty expectations are nothing new to Milton, which may ease his ability to be the force Maryland needs to support the returning starters.

Behind the plate, Justin Vought returns after appearing in 22 games. Though he batted .174 in limited action, half of Vought’s 12 hits went for extra bases, with three doubles and three homes. Vought can put on the most impressive batting practice show, but it’s his ability behind the plate which has Vaughn and staff believing he’s a future star. Of the catchers Maryland has had during Vaughn’s time as an assistant and now head coach, the catch-and-throw ability of Vought trumps them all. The numbers support that. Although a small sample size, Vought threw out six of 16 runners on the bases.

Marty Costes’ younger brother, Maxwell, is a player to keep an eye on. Wright at third base may move Costes to the outfield in 2019, but he has the ability and agility to be a long-term option at the hot corner. After redshirting last year, Michael Pineiro will have an opportunity to force his way into the lineup and is a player Vaughn foresees contributing to the offense.

With Marty Costes, Dunn and Jancarski moving on, there is an obvious void in power that needs to be fill. According to Vaughn, one of the problems that plagued Maryland last year was the inability to generate offense in a variety of manners. Overall, there figures to be more speed in this Maryland outfit, an aspect the Terps rely more heavily on as newcomers get up to the speed of the college game and returning players take the next step or revert to their previous levels of success.

On the mound

More certainty resides on the mound for Maryland, with the Terps set to have an ace, star-power and stopper.

With injuries and ineffectiveness derailing the plan of Blohm and Bloom to carry the day, Maryland’s #3 starter, Hunter Parsons, ended the season as the team’s top arm. One of three players with a sub-4.00 ERA, the only to do so pitching more than 25 innings, Parsons pitched to a 5-2 record thanks to a 3.44 ERA. Not overpowering, Parsons struck out 62 batters, only eight more than Blohm did in 29.2 more innings, but with an ability to avoid hard contact, Parsons held the opposition to a .225 average and surrendered only four home runs in 324 at-bats. Able to give Maryland a solid six innings or more, he did log two complete games, Parsons will step into the Friday role for Vaughn.

That leaves the Saturday role to Blohm. The numbers might not have been quite as strong as 2017 when he held a 3.48 ERA over 75 innings, with 71 strikeouts and a .227 batting average, but a year after being the Big Ten’s top freshman, Blohm was more than solid in the Terps’ rotation. Just as he did the year before, Blohm struck out nearly a batter per inning pitched, 54 in 59.1, while doubling up on the numbers of walks issued: 27. Blohm did yield seven home runs in 11 starts, and saw the opposition bat increase there average against him by .021, but there aren’t many coaches who wouldn’t take Blohm as one of their first two weekend starters.

It may not be until conference play that Maryland’s third starter solidifies his role, but more important than rounding out the weekend staff after Parsons and Blohm is finding relievers to take the ball after they exit their respective starts.

Last year, eight pitchers saw action as relievers in 10 games. All but Biondic and senior right-handed pitcher John Murphy carried an ERA over 6. The good is that Biondic shows a prior year’s success, or lack of, means little. He emerged as a two-way player for his senior season and notched two saves next two a 2.59 ERA in 24.1 innings. The bad is that Biondic is now in the Red Sox system, leaving only Murphy as a reliever with a history of getting outs when needed. Fortunately for Vaughn, Murphy has the ability to be a lights out closer. In 25.1 innings, Murphy struck out 37 batters. The control needs tightened, Murphy’s 13.14 K/9 was paired with a 7.46 BB/9, but there is stuff and a tenacious bulldog mentality to enter the game in high-leverage situations.

After that, Vaughn inherited a team thin on the mound and in year two appears to be more of the same. Many underclassmen saw significant time on the mound last year. That can be good in getting a crop of arms a taste of what’s needed to succeed at this level. But Maryland would certainly like a little more proven track record in support of Blohm, Murphy and Parsons who have the ability to band together and help guide the club towards a winning record. The key for Maryland’s relief corp: throw more strikes. Grant Burleson, Sean Fisher, Billy Phillips, Mike Vasturia and Elliott Zoellner all return after combining to pitch 108 innings. But 66 strikeouts among the five were countered by 74 walks.

Five things to watch

  • Who emerges as a reliable arm to bridge the gap to Murphy
  • Is there a next-in-line after Lowe-Smith-Dunn
  • How quick does Milton adapt to the college game
  • If Vought become’s the Big Ten’s premier catcher
  • Consistency in midweek games

One weekend to circle

April 19-21 vs. Ohio State. It probably doesn’t jump out on the calendar. It isn’t the non-conference home series against East Carolina, a team entering the season with a top 20 ranking, nor is it a series against the media’s Big Ten favorite, Michigan. And it’s not the May roadtrip to Minnesota. But here’s what the series against Ohio State is:

-The lone home series in April’s four Big Ten series.

-Three games in a span of 11 games in 14 days.

-A weekend against a team with an entire new weekend rotation, uncertain of their own pitching depth.

The series against the Buckeyes will test Maryland’s two areas of greatest concern: pitching depth and youth. If Maryland can have success on the mound in the midst of a busy April, it will be a good sign, especially so with a young team. And it’s always important to take care of conference games at home. But this would be the time of year where fatigue can creep in, where players who are going to make that jump as freshman make it, and a series where Maryland’s postseason fate can swing from one end to another.

Culture established, Rutgers looks to change the conversation

He gets it. He may disagree, it may provide an edge and down right pisses him off, but he gets it.

To Joe Litterio, entering his sixth season leading the Rutgers baseball program, preseason predictions pegging the Scarlet Knights to the bottom of the Big Ten is something he understands.

“We have to win, you can’t blame them,” Litterio said of D1Baseball.com and Perfect Game respectively projecting the Scarlet Knights to finish next-to-last and last in the Big Ten. “We have to get our butts to the tournament. That’s the bottom line.”

As is their nature, preseason predication are often predicated on what has occurred. Predicting the future is tough enough as is, before adding the variable of 18-23-year-olds maturing, both mentally and physically, at various points. What has been is a safe way to assume what is to come.

And for the Scarlet Knights what has been hasn’t been much.

Since the 2015 season, Rutgers’ first as a Big Ten member, the Scarlet Knights are 30-59 in conference play, with respective final placings of 11th, 11th, 12th and 11th. Absent from NCAA Tournament play since 2007 and void of a winning record since 2014, past results have fostered little external expectation.

But as the 2019 season is less than two weeks away, to Litterio, what has been and what is history, will remain history;  relegated to record books, scorecards and web archives. Now is the time for Rutgers, look, think and step forward.

Before the Polar Vortex of 2019 engulfed and froze the Midwest and East Coast during the last week January, Rutgers was able to take to Bainton Field and scrimmage on Sunday, afforded a luxury of having intra-squad competition during the first weekend of team spring practice. The enjoying of being back on the field was short-lived. With the players having fielding woes and making more errors than acceptable, Litterio didn’t hold back his displeasure at practice’s end.

“One of my conversations was about what’s this inferior attitude that we have,” said Litterio, 120-142-1 through five seasons at Rutgers. “Rutgers was a top-of-the-league program, it had always been that. Then, we go into the Big Ten and, I think, when you’re an underdog all of the time, you start to think you’re an underdog. And I think that’s something we have to shed.”

The foundation to shedding that mentality started last year. Working with two new assistants, Phil Cundari, previously the pitching coach at Seton Hall, and Jim Duffy, stepping away from his role as the head coach at Manhattan, along with a newly introduced Director of Player Development, Peter Barron, Litterio and alongside a retooled staff worked hard to change the mindset of the players and the program’s overall culture, in hopes to restoring the past glory which saw Rutgers appear in six NCAA Tournaments between 1998-2007.

And for the first eight weeks the results were promising. After an April 11, 4-2 win over Lafayette, Rutgers was 18-11 on the season, and had four victories in six Big Ten games. Entering the ninth weekend of the season, Rutgers had already claimed weekend series against Old Dominion, Army, Florida Gulf Coast, LaSalle, Penn State and Michigan State. With six weekend wins, already the team doubled the number of weekend series captured in 2017.

It appeared the Scarlet Knights were on their way to reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history. But the midweek win over Lafayette was followed by a weekend sweep at the hands of Illinois. Rutgers did rebound to claim four of their next five contests, including a weekend victory over Nebraska, but from April 27 through the end of the season, a 3-10 showing, including 1-10 in the Big Ten, saw RU conclude another year without postseason participation.

Finishing Big Ten play at 7-16, the third time in four springs RU has finished with exactly seven wins, it would be easy to chalk the 2018 season as another season that’s expected to come to pass for Rutgers. But at 25-25, Rutgers did not have a losing campaign. Under Cundari’s guidance, Rutgers pitched to a 4.82 ERA, a full run lower than 2017’s 6.11 mark. The team’s fielding percentage improved from .952 to .969. Offensively, a .270 team batting average was squarely in the middle of the Big Ten at seventh, ahead of Illinois and Iowa, both NCAA Tournament bubble teams.

And to Literrio what occurred off the field may was immeasurable and worth more than any win or can be defined by a statistical improvement.

“My staff was all brand new last year, we made improvements in a lot of categories and stats, but just changing the whole culture of the program, that was one of the major things last year we sought to do and we were able to accomplish that,” Litterio said. “Last year was about how are we going about doing all of this as a staff, how are going to implement it and see how the guys take to it. Now going in, it’s old hat now. The kids know what to expect.”

In addition to players knowing what to expect, having a greater sense of accountability and a deeper report with coaches, there is talent throughout Rutgers’ roster. From seniors like third baseman Carmen Sclafani and right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito, players in their last go who want to taste the postseason for the first time, along with players like left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski and outfielder Mike Nyisztor, two sophomores who showed provided key production as freshmen, down to newcomers in first baseman Chris Brito, right-handed pitcher Garrett French, catcher Peter Serruto and shortstop David Soto, four players of arguably the best recruiting class Rutgers has had in a decade, Rutgers is expected to field its most talented team as a Big Ten member. Litterio says the depth on the mound has doubled from last year, and there are guys in numbers they can run out. The potential is there for Rutgers to make noise and turn heads.

But potential is just a prospect of opportunities, what might come, nothing is promised nor guaranteed. And potential cannot mend the perception of the Scarlet Knights. Only what does come over the next three months will ultimately change the conversation and force the Scarlet Knights to garner greater respect.

“Our recruiting is better, our younger guys are good, and we’re gonna be good…We’re on our way. But I don’t blame anybody else for the predictions, we have to win baseball games and get to the tournament, make some noise there and it’ll all cure.”

Season Preview: Rutgers

Set to embark on a fifth season in the Big Ten, Rutgers is still in search of its first Big Ten Tournament appearance. Before fizzling out, 2018 showed promise and ultimately the Scarlet Knights finished 25-25. There are a handful of three or four-year starters no longer with the program, but as Rutgers continues to recruit better and better, last year saw freshman step into the spotlight and deliver, and more of the same is expected from a highly touted recruiting class. With 15 players having freshman eligibility it will be critical that rookies play behind their age. External expectations are low, but the internal culture is stronger. Now, will potential turn into production and club reaches its first Big Ten Tournament?

Program facts

Head coach: Joe Litterio, sixth season, 120-142-1 at Rutgers.

Last conference championship: 2007 (Big East)

Last NCAA Tournament: 2007 Charlottesville Regional

2018 in review

Record: 25-25 overall, 7-16 in Big Ten; 11th place

At the plate: .270 AVG, .356 OBP, .358 SLG, 66 2B, 15 3B, 18 HR, 82-104 SB-ATT

On the mound: 4.82 ERA, 435.1 IP, 226 BB, 333 SO, .272 BAA

In the field: .969 FLD, 50 double plays, 14 passed balls, 61 SBA, 19 CS

 

Roster rundown

Key losses: 1B Chris Folinusz (.284 AVG/.313 OBP/.398 SLG), OF Jawuan Harris (.246/.375/.387, 22 SB), Eric Heatter (1-2 W-L, 4.40 ERA, 30.2 IP) C Nick Matera (.254/.346/.409, 13 2B) RHP John O’Reilly (5-4, 5.32, 86.1) DH Kyle Walker (.286/.407/.384)

Key returners: Sr. OF Luke Bowerbank (.303/.363/.313), Sr. RHP Serafino Brito (1-2, 3.57, 45.1), Soph. SS Dan DeGeorgio (.277/.338/.362, 17 SB), Jr. RHP Kyle Gerace (1-0, 3.60, 30.0), Soph. OF Mike Nyisztor (.249/.326/.291, 11 SB), Soph. LHP Harry Rutkowski (4-6, 5.34, 64.0), Sr. 3B Carmen Sclafani (.287/.385/.427) Jr. 2B Kevin Welsh (.243/.332/.289)

Key newcomers: 1B Chris Brito, LHP Garrett French, C Peter Serruto, SS David Soto, RHP Victor Valderrama

Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (15), Sophomores (7), Juniors (9), Seniors (4)

 

What to expect in 2019

Taken as a whole, the 2018 season was a step in the right direction for Rutgers. At 25-25, the Scarlet Knights enjoyed their first non-losing season since 2014, spurred by the team’s ERA was its lowest since 2014’s 30-25 season. The club picked up seven weekend wins, including at a ranked Florida Gulf Coast and took two of three against the defending Big Ten champions, Nebraska. But more importantly, Litterio like the way his new staff came together and worked to change the culture in the program. But a 1-10 finish in conference play saw Rutgers finish with seven Big Ten wins for the third time in four years and miss the conference tournament yet again.

Through the ups and downs, several underclassmen saw significant time and a handful of juniors experienced breakout seasons. Those performances have created a foundation for Rutgers to build around. A highly touted, deep freshman class will see even more young blood immersed throughout the diamond. There are questions marks, but there is potential. The 2019 Rutgers outfit figures to be its deepest yet in the Big Ten. Now, will it be enough to participate in the Big Ten Tournament? That figures to be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the Big Ten this season.

At the plate and in the field

Around the horn, Rutgers returns three of four starters, though they will be without one returning starter for most, if not all, of the season. Expected to lead the offense, senior third baseman Carmen Scalfani should be an all-conference candidate after a strong 2018, where he collected 12 extra-base hits and carried a .812 OPS. Scalfani will be asked to lead the way on the left side of the infield, as All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection, shortstop Dan DeGeorgio suffered an ACL tear during the first week of fall practices. DeGeorgio brought a strong all-around game to Litterio’s club last year, showing a little pop, a good feel for hitting and a lot of pop. As he recovers, there is a chance he returns during the second-half of the season, freshman David Soto will be called on at short. Soto’s double play partner will be junior Kevin Welsh. For two years Welsh has flashed promise, he has 50 walks and 50 strikeouts in two years, with Litterio and staff having the belief he can have a breakout year, not unlike Scalfani last year. At first base will be the second freshman in the diamond, Chris Brito. Litterio believes Brito, listed at 6’2, 215, has the physicality that’s needed to compete in the Big Ten. This is important as Rutgers’ 18 home runs were last in the Big Ten and the team’s isolated slugging (slugging minus average) of .88, was only better than Michigan State’s .82.

One of the Big Ten’s premier recruits will suit up for Rutgers and set up shop behind the plate. Freshman catcher Peter Serruto heads into the season with high expectations after the Cincinnati Reds selected the Short Hills, N.J. in the 22nd round of last June’s MLB Draft. His father a college baseball player at Virginia, Serruto has been around sports his entire life and Litterio says it’s easy to see with the presence and way he carries himself. Litterio says it’s a lot to ask of a freshman, but Serruto has the arm and defensive ability to control the running game. Able to spill Serruto or help give the Scarlet Knights versatility, senior catcher Tyler McNamara is available. McNamara made 14 starts last year and batted .260 over 50 at-bats.

In the outfield, familiar faces will roam. Though Rutgers must replace the speed and dynamic ability of Jawuan Harris, Kevin Blum, Luke Bowerbank and Mike Nyisztor all return, three outfielders who made a combined 109 starts last year. In limited time, Blum batted .310, Bowerbank struck out only 11 times in 152 at-bats, and as a freshman Nyisztor logged 219 plate appearances.

There is experience in the field and at the plate for Rutgers, as well as some key positions being filled by freshman. There should be enough throughout the lineup to keep opposing staff’s honest, and enough veterans with skill in the field for the defense to not be a liability. Crucial to sustain success will be developing a bit of power. Of Rutgers’ 18 home runs in 2018, only four return, three from Scalfani and one from DeGeorgio. The need to develop power is especially critical as DeGeorgio and Harris combined for 39 stolen bases, their absences figuring to hamper Rutgers’ ability to generate offense through speed.

On the mound

A big hole resides in the Rutgers rotation with the graduation of John O’Reilly. After making 14 starts and logging 86.1 innings, O’Reilly left the Rutgers program ranked second in starts (49), fourth in innings (300.2) and seventh in strikeouts (174). Starting every series opener, O’Reilly was the definition of a workhorse. Where O’Reilly’s production as a starter is lost, the potential of his replacement is near equally high. After shining in a relief role, Rutgers’ go-to closer, senior right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito is making a return to the rotation. Brito logged 45.1 innings over 26 appearances in 2018, pitching to a 3.57 ERA. With 41 strikeouts to 14 walks, Brito recorded five saves and held opponents to a .235 average. All of Brito’s 13 appearances were starts in 2017, as he logged a 4.84 ERA over 74.1. If at worst Brito splits the difference, Rutgers will have a viable Friday starter. Of course Litterio thinks he can do more than just split the difference.

After Brito, sophomore southpaw Harry Rutkowski looks to build off of a promising debut season. Rutkowski was right there with O’Reilly, pitching to a 5.34 ERA whereas the senior held a 5.32 mark. Rutowski was a weekend staple, all 13 of his appearances were starts as he pitched 64 innings. With a bulldog mentality, Rutkowski possesses enough swing-and-miss stuff to take a step forward. Like Serruto, he was a draft pick by the Reds out of high school, tabbed in the 28th round, where much is expected as his career progresses.

For the third spot in the rotation, another reliever is going to be tabbed to start the season stretched out. Junior Tevin Murray, a 6’6 left-handed pitcher from Rington, Penn., will look to carry the momentum started in the summer in the Alaskan League and carried into the fall. With an arm Litterio calls electric, Murray went to the Alaskan League and struck out 46 over 33.2 innings. That followed a spring season for the Scarlet Knights where Murray punched out 21 in 17.2 innings, but also walked 17.

Litterio sees three freshman that can contribute significant innings on the mound in lefty Jared Bellissimo and righties Garrett French and Victor Valderrama, the latter a potential replacement for Brito at the back of the bullpen. The trio of rookies will be able to look upon a few proven veteran relievers as Rutgers has junior right-handers Tommy Genuario and Kyle Gerace back. The two respectively held 3.20 and 3.60 ERAs, and combined to strike out 60 batters in 69.1 innings. Lefty Eric Reardon is another experienced arm capable of coming in during a key situation.

The pitching staff isn’t too different from the position players. There are some unknowns, some players with promise and potential, and players like Brito and Rutkowski you’re confident in that can form a strong foundation. But there are key holes to fill. Does Brito become that ace? Can freshmen be the third and midweek options? Of course last year’s Big Ten champion relied heavily on freshmen to fill out the rotation and at the back of the rotation, so it’s not impossible and that may inspire the Scarlet Knight staff. Litterio believes the depth of quality relievers has doubled from last year, saying “there’s a slew of guys that can help us out,” and feels confident going into the year with this collection of pitchers.

Five things to watch

  • Brito’s ability to go from stopper to ace
  • Rutkowski building off of 2018
  • The team’s ability to hit the longball
  • If Welsh can step up and be a strong two-way play
  • Serruto’s charge at Big Ten Freshman of the Year

 

One the weekend to circle

April 26-28, vs. Michigan. It may seem obvious to pick the weekend against national media’s expected Big Ten favorite and a team ranked in preseason polls, but the series against the Wolverines is big for other less obvious reasons. The series in Ann Arbor will be Rutgers fifth of eight Big Ten series, it figures to be one that shapes the final three and goes a long way in determining if the Scarlet Knights end up in Omaha. It’ll pit them against the team that cemented their 2018 fate, Rutgers grabbed the series opener last year, before falling 9-4 and 6-1 to start an end-of-season seven-game Big Ten losing streak. It’ll pit a team filled with promising freshman, in Rutgers, against a team that has seen significant contributions over the last few years from freshmen, in Michigan. And of course, if Michigan’s season plays out as many expect, it’ll give Rutgers a chance to grab a road victory against a ranked team. That type of result can change the course of a season, a season pretty critical to the growth of the program.

How the Big Ten can keep moving baseball forward

In the coming days, a few articles will recall the 2009 and how that season can be looked back as the dawn of the current Big Ten baseball landscape.

A predetermined site for the conference tournament, three teams in the NCAA Tournament, the awakening of the Indiana baseball program, a snubbing of a potential fourth regional team, a signature moment for BTN, the 2009 season helped bring Big Ten baseball into the national conversation.

Now, 10 years later, from top to bottom, Big Ten baseball can be viewed as being as as strong as its ever been. It certainly is in the current NCAA Tournament format, and comparing the prior regional-centric structure is apples to oranges. With facilities still in their infancy, renowned coaches, rosters littered with some of the country’s top prospects, there are many signs to show baseball in the Big Ten is thriving.

But as great as recent times have been, there can be ever better times on the horizon, now isn’t the time to rest.

Here’s a rundown of potential ways Big Ten baseball can get even better.

Protect the rivalries

I understand the thought of having a scheduling philosophy that’s consistent to all 13 teams. With no disrespect intended, a schedule that would have had a team face Minnesota over the last three years, with all else equal, isn’t as favorable of a schedule where a series with Rutgers was guaranteed. There will always be some teams that are stronger than others, but by having a format where every school has a home series, an away series, and a season where they don’t play each other over a three-year cycle, it prevents any systemic advantages or disadvantage.

To the heck with that.

In a sport where a game played in front of 2,000 is a superb showing, every potential avenue that can increase the attendance, gets the community behind a team, and makes for a more enjoyable experience should be pursued. People may not know who Tommy Henry and Seth Lonsway are, even though that’s one dynamite lefty-on-lefty pairing to watch, but they know Michigan and Ohio State, and whether in Ann Arbor or Columbus, it’s a draw.

With the growth of the Big Ten over the last decade and the introduction of three new programs, worthwhile series on the diamond that previously might not have drawn too much attention are now popping up throughout the conference. Iowa and Nebraska should play every year, no doubt about it. There isn’t any love lost between Indiana and Purdue and there shouldn’t be a year where three-games are played between the Hoosier State programs. Penn State deserves to fight for East Coast supremacy between Maryland or Rutgers. Or both. There is an understanding that with an odd number of programs, anchoring a rival for every school wouldn’t make for the easiest of scheduling, thanks Wisconsin, and some schools like Michigan may be torn on designating a rival between Michigan State and Ohio State, but it’s something that should be considered for the betterment of the fan, which leads to long-term interest and support.

Or schools take it into your own hands. Recently Indiana and Purdue have gone the route of scheduling non-conference series if they schools don’t play, as Michigan and Michigan State have done. There should also be the Missouri River battle, Michigan-Ohio State, Northwestern-Illinois, as well. From a spectator interest, and RPI wise, it would surely beat those Wednesday afternoon meetings against Mid-American Conference schools.

Expand the conference season

One way of getting that rivalry contest in is to expand the conference season.  I know it would change the current scheduling format, forcing the cycle to change from a three-year rotation to four, if you play nine of 12 opponents, but I think it’s worth it.

First, more and more Big Ten teams are having RPIs within the top 100. I know it takes away a weekend to work out a potential home-and-home series, and this year the finally non-conference weekend does have good series like Minnesota at Long Beach, MSU vs. Connecticut, and Maryland vs. East Carolina, but there’s an increasing chance an additional in-conference series will be a strong one, and it would help the conference’s collective RPI.

Second, it helps identify a truer conference champion. I know teams start the season wanting to get to Omaha, in mid-June, not late-May, but winning the Big Ten should and I believe is still a highly sought goal. I don’t think anyone would question the quality of champions over the last six seasons, but it’s hard to without doubt state feel a champion is a champion when they don’t play one-third of the teams. And perhaps more importantly, more conference games would help to have a standings where the eight best teams are reflected and get a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.

As a potential hindrance, weather certainly would be brought up. But looking at the 2019 schedules, in the last weekend before the conference season, March 15-17, hosting home series are: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State. Northwestern has a road series to Kent State. Nine of 13 programs are playing at home or in the region, not deterred by weather. Also, more in-conference games can provide BTN with more opportunities to showcase the conference.

Get creative in exposing the Big Ten baseball

With that, be it the Big Ten or BTN, it would be awesome to see an all-in approach to social media and media platforms. A look back into time, during the 2009 season, the Big Ten had a pretty great, conference-ran Big Ten baseball blog. Unfortunately media contacts come and go, some are more passionate about the sport than others, duties and responsibilities change, but there is much more that the conference can do from its communication post to bring greater awareness and exposure to the sport.

But blogs are just the start of it. From utilizing Instagram stories with pre-created content, or allowing schools and players to take over and do live videos, coordinating weekly conference calls and coaches chats on Twitter, to a way out there possibility of working out a rights deal with Twitter to stream conference games (and other Olympic sports), or figuring out a model to work with someone as wrestling has with FloSports, down to just showing more personality, there are many ways a little life and color can be brought to Big Ten baseball through social media at the conference’s directive.

It’s 2019. It’s a social world. Our attention spans suck. Lets’s figure out a way to promote a good product, engage with an audience and find ways to continue to push the brand of Big Ten baseball forward.

And, please, let’s pay attention to the details on the website. Even though the stats are current, last year’s stats are under a 2017 header, and it’s really difficult to pull up prior year stats. Also, the record book still shows Iowa, not Nebraska as 2017 conference champions. Yikes.

Rotate the conference tournament…or make it spectacular in Omaha

I hope this doesn’t get me banned from Omaha, but after the current run is up in Omaha, I’d look into rotating the tournament, with having it in Omaha at least every third year, if not every other.

In the tournament’s first year in Omaha, everything came together to form the perfect storm. Nebraska was fighting for a regional berth and had the support of a revived fanbase. The Huskers and opened the tournament with a thrilling win to move into the primetime spot on Thursday. They won again, to be able to play on Saturday and had quite the showing. While the Huskers were doing there thing, Indiana, a team that played in TD Ameritrade Park the year prior as the first Big Ten team in 30 years to reach the College World Series, were on a tear and en route to a national seed in the NCAA Tournament. The two teams met for a championship game played in front of 19,965. It was spectacular and the Big Ten was justly left with a lasting impression.

Even in 2016, Iowa’s run to the title game helped the title game draw more than 10,000. Another great thing for Big Ten baseball.

But this past year, with an 0-2 showing by Iowa and a tournament field without Nebraska there would not be any great spectacle. The Wednesday and Thursday games played under the blazing a scorching, near-100 degree sun barely drew a crowd, and those that did were all huddle on the concourse out of the sun. With such sparse of a crowd in such a big stadium, the optics were the same, if not worse than the tournament’s run in 2009-2012 in Columbus at Huntington Park.

Nebraska will be in the tournament field more times than not, but the conference shouldn’t make decisions going forward knowing that’s a near pre-requisite for an outstanding showing. Is 2500 in a stadium of 20,000 better on TV than 600 in a stadium of 4,000? If the typical Big Ten Tournament for the next three years will be somewhere between the 2016 and 2018 tournaments, one shouldn’t be too upset with that, but it shouldn’t stop other cities or campuses from throwing their hat in the ring.

Indiana was a fine host in 2017. And, at least from a media standpoint, the operations were a bit more efficient. Could and would the Twin Cities do a better job if it was played in the home of the St. Paul Saints, not the Yellowstone-esque facility of Target Field? Would any of the seemingly dozen minor league parks throughout Iowa embrace it, with how Hawkeye Baseball Fever has swept the state? Could points in Fort Wayne, Lansing, Chicago, get crazy and say Brooklyn, do ok? Perhaps. Or maybe not. But the possibilities and discussions should be kept open as the conference looks to make in-road throughout the Midwest, continues to enhance the awareness of the product and work to create interested fans.

Now, if it is to permanently be at home in Omaha, it really needs to take on the Omaha experience. The MAC does a great job with having an awards banquet, fireworks show and celebration the night before. The Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, for every team up to this point, has been a team’s lone trip to the home of the College World Series. The conference tournament shouldn’t be trumpeted as college baseball’s ultimate destination, but do more to set up shop, keep doing the on-location studio set, have more in the parking lots and surrounding areas to engage fans. If there’s a decision made to bypass other potential host to go with Omaha, then really go with Omaha.

Avoid complacency

The Big Ten has produced 17 NCAA Tournament teams since 2015, a number few would have dared to thought possible a decade ago. The conference is deeper than ever, just realizing it’s going on 10 years since either Michigan or Ohio State won a conference championship is a testament to that. More Big Ten teams are entering seasons with rankings, more are in the conversation for hosting a regional, and playing in the College World Series is no longer merely a fairy tale or a trip through the archives.

That’s awesome. Now keep getting better.

College baseball will soon approach 10 years of having a common state date, a movement championed by Minnesota’s John Anderson and former Ohio State head coach Bob Todd. With their success on the field, the words of Anderson and Todd were paid attention to by many as that fought and advocated for a more equitable college baseball experience for teams and players in the conference. The success that the conference has had cannot stop voices from speaking on changes that still need to occur for a better college baseball experience for all.

This isn’t Jim Delany popping off about guaranteeing two spots in the College World Series to northern programs, but it’s about being proactive, creative and often needing to counter the discussion and conversations that tend to be driven by those in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences.

For example, the big-time DIs want a third paid-assistant to create a better coach-to-player ratio and enhance their experience. Great, how about with that we move the common start date to March 1? Where the current calendar forces many schools to be on the road for the first four to five weeks of the season, if that could be trimmed to two or three, doesn’t alleviating a hectic Thursday-Sunday schedule also create a better experience for the student-athlete? (Seriously it’s nuts to force a player to abandon Thursday and Friday classes to travel, and often not get back into their beds after midnight Sunday night… and do it for four or five straight weeks.) Also, today’s media landscape is becoming so reliant on sports and live events for advertising dollars, there has to be an opportunity to air college baseball games and the live event it is, on conference networks, regional networks, throughout June.

Be it the schedule, the days the conference permits players to miss school, to guaranteed four-year scholarships, so on and so forth, Big Ten administrators shouldn’t view the last five years as a stamp of success and that all is well and done. Instead, the last five years should open the imagination to what more can be done over the next five years.

Big Ten baseball’s 19 things to look forward to in ’19

The next time the calendar reads the 15th, it will be opening day for the Division I college baseball season.

Although teams are still a little more than a week for holding spring practice, the upcoming season is getting closer and closer, it’s time to focus on the 2019 version of the Road to Omaha.

Kicking off preseason coverage, what is 10 Innings looking forward to most this season? Here’s 19 things to look forward to over the 2019 campaign.

1) Does Minnesota cement its dynasty?

The reigning Big Ten champions had a season for the ages in 2018, appearing in a super regional for the first time in program history. (Minnesota had reached the College World Series before the current NCAA Tournament format.) Going 44-15, the Gophers claimed a second Big Ten title in three years. Every five years or so, the Big Ten sees a program jump to the front of the pack and run off with multiple titles in a short window. Before Indiana went back-to-back in 2013-14, Michigan claimed three straight from 2006-08. At the turn of the millennium, Minnesota were Big Ten champs from 2002-04. And going on 25 years now, Ohio State finished atop the Big Ten standings for five straight seasons, starting in 1991. With a deeper returning lineup than many may believe, and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the conference, and a challenging pre-conference schedule to lead the Gophers into the Big Ten battle-tested, is another title in store, cementing Minnesota as the dominant program of the 2000’s second decade?

 

2) Will there be another 20-home run star?

Etching his name into the Big Ten record book, Jake Adams’ lone season at Iowa was historic, grabbing the nation’s attention with a 29-home run season in 2017. The record appeared to be in danger less than a year later as Illinois’ Bren Spillane opened the 2018 season on a historic tear. An ankle injury saw the Illini first basemen miss a few games in the middle of the season, slowing his momentum, forcing Spillane to finish with only 23 home runs. Will the 2019 season have another slugger emerge and rewrite school records in the process? Michigan’s Jesse Franklin is the conference’s returning home run leader with 10, but’s worth nothing he was able to reach double digits as a freshman.

 

3) Mercer’s homecoming

On their third coach in five years, Indiana will see if the highs over the last decade can be carried over into next one. And if that’s the case, it’s likely first-year head coach Jeff Mercer will be the lone Hoosier head coach for a long, long time. Mercer, an Indiana native, is now in charge of steering the baseball program he’s always dreamed of leading. After two strong years at Wright State, leading the program current Penn State coach Rob Cooper built up, Mercer brings leads an All-Indiana staff to a program he’s determined to make Indiana’s signature college baseball team. Indiana returns a strong roster from last year’s Austin Regional runners-up team, and are now lead by a coach viewed as one of college baseball’s top young coaches. Putting it all together, does 2019 become a very special season in Mercer’s homecoming?

 

4) March 6-8 tournaments

If you’re looking to get a pretty big bang for your buck with a jam-packed Big Ten weekend, March 6-8 is a weekend to circle. On opposite coasts, a pair of tournaments have two Big Ten teams participating, and a third tournament features some bluebloods of college baseball. Circle this weekend and watch the fun unfold, especially in the Pacific Northwest where two of the Big Ten’s expected top teams can go a long way in show they’re also two of the country’s top teams.

Dodgertown College Baseball Classic

Michigan @ UCLA, @ USC, vs. Oklahoma State

Greenville Drive 1st Pitch Invitational

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, Ohio State, Furman, Appalachian State

Ohio State vs. Furman, Michigan State, Western Carolina

Seattle Baseball Showcase

Indiana vs. Washington, Oregon State, San Diego

Minnesota vs. Oregon State, San Diego, Washington

 

5) Who bounces back?

Five key players I want to see if there is a bounceback season in 2019, players team will ask a lot of, after struggling in 2018:

Nebraska senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla

Penn State junior left-handed pitcher Dante Biasi

Maryland senior shortstop AJ Lee

Michigan senior second baseman Ako Thomas

Illinois senior outfielder Jack Yalowitz

 

6) Seeing if Rutgers takes the next step

The 2019 season will be Rutgers fifth as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights are 0-for-4 in participating in a Big Ten Tournament. But after a staff shakeup, 2018 saw progress for Joe Literrio’s club. Rutgers went 25-25 on the season, a seven and one-half game improvement over the 2017 season, and finished at least .500 for the first time since 2014. Now the onus is for Rutgers to avoid unraveling in the Big Ten. On April 11, Rutgers was 18-11 overall and claimed Big Ten wins over Penn State and Michigan State before finishing 7-14. Literrio has worked to increase the talent level in Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights should have one of its better rosters going back to Todd Fraizer’s days. Now it’s time to see if potential meets production and Rutgers takes the next step and shows they are ready to meet the Big Ten’s upward trend.

 

7) Max Meyer at the plate

Armed with a weapon of a wipeout slider, Minnesota closer Max Meyer pitched his way to All-America honors and onto USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018. It doesn’t hurt Meyer’s fastball can comfortably sit in the mid-90s, too. But for everything he did and can do on the mound, Meyer arrived in Minnesota as a two-way player. The dominance Meyer exhibited on the mound as a freshman took the bat out of his hands after 30 at-bats,. But the Gophers are set to unleash the two-way Meyer this spring. Either in left field or at DH, Meyer was a high school shortstop but he will not see the infield to keep his arm fresh, Minnesota plans to insert Meyer in the heart of their lineup. With Meyer focusing just on hitting and baserunning this fall, reports out of Minneapolis were glowing. The Gopher staff believes Meyer has just as much potential at the plate as Matt Fieller showed in 2016, when that two-way Gopher batted .366 and slugged .525 en route to honor Big Ten Player of the Year honors. If that’s the case, the most dynamic player in the country may be Meyer.

 

8) Purdue as a hunted

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski has garnered national attention for the job he has done in West Lafayette. And it’s certainly just praise. It took only two years to take Purdue from the Big Ten’s basement and into a regional. The Boilermakers did not hide that they used preseason predictions of finishing outside of the Big Ten’s top six for motivation. But now, after finishing second in the conference and drawing slaps on the back and repeated praise, is the same hunger there? How Purdue fares this year, and if there is sustained success now and in the years to come, may be more indicative of Wasikowski’s coaching ability than last season. With high expectations, does Purdue keep moving along?

 

9) Is this the year Michigan finishes strong?

Michigan enters the season as Big Ten favorites by national outlets, and ranked in some polls. The Wolverines are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and many predict them to do so. But is this the year that Erik Bakich’s team finishes May with a head of momentum? A 2-9 finish to the 2016 cost U-M a potential NCAA Tournament berth, as did last year’s 2-7 swoon to conclude the season. And in the year Michigan did play in a regional, the Wolverines went 0-2, that on the heels of an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has won 111 games over the last three seasons, nothing at all to sneeze at, the how each season has finished has left more to be desired out of Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are set to have a number beside their name to open the season, will they have one with the final out is recorded?

 

10) Seth Lonsway’s debut

Before Patrick Fredrickson and Meyer helped guided Minnesota to a top 10 finish, the freshman pitcher expected to turn heads was Ohio State southpaw Seth Lonsway. Able to run it into the mid-90s, and turning down a six-figure offer from the Cincinnati Reds to head to Columbus, Lonsway was the Big Ten’s top recruit according to Baseball America. But how a high school course was registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse prevented Lonsway to being eligible as a freshman, unable to contribute to Ohio State’s regional-bound club. Now, with the Buckeyes needing to replace their entire rotation, the time couldn’t be better for Lonsway to debut and hopefully be the impact, blue-chip prospect Greg Beals needs as the Bucks seek a third regional in four years.

 

11) A dynamic freshman class

More and more, freshman are making a big impact in the Big Ten, and this year figures to be no different. Ohio State is set to rely on a quartet of freshman arms, in addition to Lonsway, as they seek to end a 10-year title drought. Illinois has a ballyhooed recruiting class, with high-ceiling rookies at catcher (Jacob Campbell), shortstop (Branden Comia), and on the mound (Aidan Maldonando). Nebraska shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach may by the most dynamic freshman Nebraska’s had as a Big Ten member, while teammates Bo Blessie and Colby Gomes headed to Lincoln after esteemed prep careers. Maryland sees a bright future in Maxwell Costes, the younger brother of former standout Marty. Minnesota likes their freshman haul, Michigan has another banner coast-to-coast class, as do in-state peer Michigan State. Gone are the days of seeing teams rely on upperclassmen to lead them to titles and into the postseason. Freshman are continually being expected to contributor in key roles and this year’s crop should have plenty that step up and do just that.

 

12) Will ninth innings being a collective roller coaster?

Last year, five Big Ten closers recorded at least 13 saves:

Minnesota’s Max Meyer- 16

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker- 15

Purdue’s Ross Learnard- 15

Illinois’ Joey Gerber- 14

Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee- 13.

Only Meyer returns. Iowa and Michigan will also be without their saves leader in 2018, forcing at least half of the Big Ten’s ninth-inning duties up for grabs around the conference. As Meyer, Kinker and Learnard were on teams playing the in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly helps Omaha-aspiring teams to have a stopped at the end of the bullpen. Who will step up in those roles this year, or will everyone but John Anderson be on edge as the last few outs are attempted to be recorded?

 

13) High how does Matt Gorski’s draft stock rise?

One of the best all-around Big Ten prospects of the last five years, Indiana’s Matt Gorski has shown an ability to play multiple positions, run, get on base and hit with pop. Entering the season as the top positional Big Ten prospect in a quick, by way of a quick informal poll of scouts, just how high can Gorski’s stock rise? In 2016, Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt and Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson were the respective 53rd and 62nd overall picks of the draft, can Gorski go higher? Before those two, other high outfield draft picks include Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre, 62nd in 2010 and Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka, 33rd in 2009.

 

14) More Big Ten/Pac-12 showdowns

The Big Ten and Pac-12 split 28 games last season; a 12-12 draw in the regular season, before Minnesota twice beat UCLA in the Minneapolis Regional, then twice falling to eventual national champion Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Although there is not a Big Ten/Pac-12 / DQ Classic this year, the 2019 schedule is still loaded with contests between the two Rose Bowl-linked conferences that should make for fun viewing. In additional to the March 6-8 tournaments keep an eye on:

Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Feb. 21-24

Michigan State @ Arizona State, March 1-3

Arizona State @ Nebraska, May 10-12

Arizona @ Penn State, May 16-18

 

15) And marquee Big Ten-Big XII series

And it’s not just the Pac-12 that the Big Ten has quite the buffet of contests against. These five series versus Big XII schools have the potential to be resume bullets come NCAA Tournament selection time.

Purdue @ Texas, Feb. 22-24

Iowa @ Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Baylor @ Nebraska, March 8-10

Michigan @ Texas Tech, March 21-23

Oklahoma @ Minnesota, April 19-21

 

16) Illinois’ ability to repeat history

Taking a short trip down memory lane, Illinois should have been in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Going 32-21 overall, and 17-7 in the Big Ten, the Illini put together an NCAA-worthy resume, including a sweep of SEC champion Florida, scoring 11 runs against one in two contests against the Gators. But Dan Hartleb’s team was only good enough to be one of the first teams outside the field of 64 in the eyes of the selection committee. That snub helped fuel the fire of Illinois in 2015, as the Illini blitzed the Big Ten, winning 21 of 22 games, put together a 27-game winning streak, earned the No. 6 national seed and hosted the program’s first super regional. Now, after Illinois was one of the first teams outside of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, returns their entire rotation and six starters, is history set to repeat itself and a pissed off Orange and Blue club leaves no doubt of its regional worthiness?

 

17) Patrick Fredrickson’s encore

In the 25 seasons of the Big Ten naming a Pitcher of the Year, only once has a pitcher earned the honor in two consecutive seasons: Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers, 2009-2010. There has also been another one-time feat, that is of a freshman claiming the title, which happened last year as Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was name the top freshman and pitcher in the conference. With a Big Ten-best 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson turned in a perfect 9-0 season and seemingly turned heads every weekend, brilliant from start to finish. Now that Big Ten batters will have their second go at the lanky righty, can he keep opposing batters to a .209 batting average? Is another All-America season in store? Few will have had the expectations that are being placed on Fredrickson heading into year two, it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to them and resets an already high bar.

 

18) Can the Big Ten host multiple regionals?

For all of the postseason progress the Big Ten has made over the last half-dozen years-a team in Omaha, multiple national seeds, three different regional hosts, multiple years with at least five regional participants and four different super regional participants-one accomplishment has remained outside of the conference’s grasp: multiple regional hosts. Under the NCAA Tournament’s current format, never have two Big Ten programs hosted a regional in the same tournament. With the conference sending at least three teams to the tournament in every year since 2015, it seems it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Will the 20th anniversary of the current format of the 64-team tournament be the year it happens?

 

19) The end of winter

Just kidding, this is the Big Ten, prepare for a mid-April cancellation to due cold temperatures and snow. And just as the Midwest and East Coast is blanketed in a fresh cover of snow, it’s time to welcome to the college baseball season.

10 takes: Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

After checking in with respective head coaches, Rick Heller, John Anderson and Darin Erstad, to share notes on the falls of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, here’s a rundown of thoughts pertaining to the three programs, a trio responsible for the last three Big Ten championships and a combined five regional appearances over that period.

At home at State U.

Anderson and Erstad are alumni of the programs they head and Heller is an Iowa native who knows the Hawkeye State inside and out. In talking to each, what’s foremost apparent is the pride they place in leading their state’s flagship school. It would be silly to suggest they’re coaching harder than coaches who may not have deeply rooted ties to their program, but it is clear that the highs experienced over the lat five years in Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis are extra special to the men at the helm of these Big Ten programs.

Minnesota’s 2018 is a blueprint for Nebraska in 2019

Helping power the Gophers to the program’s first super regional appearance was a strong, pitching-heavy freshman class. While it’s hard to expect a freshman to be named the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year, and have another freshman go on to play for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, it’s not unrealistic to expect freshmen pitchers to player a leading role in a team’s success. It’s too be seen if they can be just as effective as Joshua Culliver, Patrick Fredrickson, Max Meyer and company were for the Gophers, but in Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes and Spencer Schwellenbach, Nebraska has three potential frontline arms with high ceilings and the stuff to lead a powerful rookie class of pitchers themselves. 

Big XII showdowns

A lot has been made on this blog about how the Big Ten is displaying a greater capability of being able to stand up and go toe-to-toe against the Pac 12. And with Nebraska playing four games against Oregon State, Minnesota facing the Beavers twice in the first three weeks of the season, and Nebraska hosting Arizona State for a weekend series in May, there will be more opportunities to size up the two Rose Bowl-bounded conferences. But between these three, there will also be key series against Big XII programs, a conference that poses a significant threat in recruiting, given its geographic makeup. Key an eye on these three series, that figure to have regional implications, but could also help steer conversations on the recruiting trail:

Iowa at Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Nebraska vs. Baylor, March 8-10

Minnesota vs. Oklahoma, April 19-21

Anderson isn’t tinkering with what’s not broken

As Minnesota’s season ended in the Corvallis Super Regional, though painful to be so close to the College World Series, there was reason to look forward to the 2019 season with what Fredrickson and Meyer showed in the final game of their freshman season. A Minnesota rotation with the two right-handed pitchers at the top would draw preseason praise and potentially have the Gophers as conference favorites. Except that’s not going to happen. Anderson and Minnesota’s staff is electing to keep Meyer as the closer and leaning to having Fredrickson resume his Saturday duties. While utilizing Meyer as a two-way player sort of forces their hand in managing his workload, recent years have seen multiple standout closers try to be turned into weekend starters and not have the same success: Scott Effross (Indiana), Colton Howell (Nebraska), Riley McCauley (Michigan State), and Yianni Pavlopoulos (Ohio State) to name a few. Credit Minnesota for realizing it’s really hard for pitchers to step in and do what Meyer did a year ago.

Oh what a Big Ten West could be

In football, the Big Ten’s East Division drives the conversation, with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State leading one of the best divisions in college football. When looking at the recent run of success in Big Ten baseball, an equally strong division could be found in the conference, if there were division.

Since 2012, Big Ten West teams have combined for 11 regional appearances and have claimed five of seven conference championships. And with the continued rise in talent in prep baseball in Wisconsin, the state produced Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, one thinks a would-be Badger program could be competitive. Playing more games regularly against this half of the conference could have pushed Minnesota over the bubble in 2017, Illinois in 2014 and 2018. But, without Wisconsin sponsoring baseball, we have a one-division, 13-team Big Ten conference, and only a hypothetical of what could be a dynamite college baseball division.

Breakout season candidates

Between what was shared from the head coaches and personal observations over the past few years, among these three teams, a player from each I expect to take a step forward and be a key contributor to their respective team:

Iowa- Jr. RHP Grant Judkins

Minnesota- Jr. C Eli Wilson

Nebraska- Soph. OF Keegan Watson

Will tough schedules help or hurt postseason chances?

The non-conference schedules Anderson, Erstad and Heller put together can stack up against any in the country as far as being challenging and unforgiving. And Each coach suggested they wouldn’t change a thing about them, that they’re players want and expect to play against and that’s how championship teams are built. But with turnover in critical players for each, the need for players to step in and grow up fast, will all three clubs be ready to take on some of the country’s best early and often? As Erstad said, it won’t take long to find out what the players of these teams are made of.

Iowa-Nebraska has the makings to be the Big Ten’s best rivalry.

Without Wisconsin, no divisions and an odd-number of teams, the Big Ten operates on a three-year scheduling cycle. As teams have eight conference series a year, not playing four teams, each team will play at home, away and skip every opponent over a three-year period. That last aspect flat out stinks as it means there will be rivalry contests that are skipped. That leaves Michigan and Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue to scheduling mid-week games to ensure they play each other every season. That agreement will hopefully as extend to Iowa and Nebraska.

With Iowa baseball sustaining its most successful period on the diamond in a generation, the fan base and support growing, and Nebraska baseball being Nebraska baseball, these border rivals need to play every year. How the two compete for recruits on either side of the Missouri River, both helping draw more than 10,000 people to TD Ameritrade Park for Big Ten Tournament title games, and Iowa having a good bit of success in Lincoln of late, the ingredients are there for a fun, competitive and passionate rivalry to blossom.

Get ready for them to run

Both Anderson and Heller alluded to their respective teams likely to have more action on the bases this year, with neither team having a big time slugger to anchor the lineup, nor the ability to wait for hits to string together. Iowa worked extensively on hit-and-run situations this fall and Minnesota made it a point of emphasis to steal more bases.

And looking at who left, who returns and the makeup of the players that joined the program, I suspect there will be more aggressive play on the bases for Nebraska, too. Nebraska’s 34 stolen bases were last in the Big Ten in 2018, Iowa’s 39 only one rung better, while Minnesota was in the middle of the pack with 67. It’ll be worth watching to see is those numbers increase and how effective a change in offensive style ends up being.

Recent success isn’t going away

Just a gut feeling here, although one based on how the teams are recruiting, the desire to invest in facilities, the coaches who are leading the programs and the state of the Big Ten, it’s easy to see multiple regional berths for each program over the next three years. In Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis, there is an expectation level that wasn’t there five years ago. All three programs have made headwinds nationally and are viewed as places where players can compete against college baseball’s best and walk away with more than a few wins. There’s reason to be optimistic for the 2019 season for each of these three programs.

Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

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