Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

The Weekend 10

It’s starting to be crunch time in the Big Ten, with teams entering the back-half of their conference schedule and the postseason picture becoming clearer. The weekend saw many stout performances, so strong in fact that the Big Ten’s top sluggers, Bren Spillane and Scott Schreiber, didn’t make the cut, even though both connected on two home runs this weekend.

Here’s the standouts who did.

Northwestern Jr. 1B Willie Bourbon

Bourbon collected five hits in 10 at-bats, in additional to drawing three walks in Northwestern’s weekend series against Michigan State. The Wildcat picked scored a pair of runs and drove in teammates.

Iowa Sr. C Tyler Cropley

Cropley continued his strong season in the heart of the Hawkeye order, going 6-for-12 over three games in Minneapolis. Against the nationally-ranked Gophers, Cropley roped two doubles, and picked up a home run, driving in three runs.

Michigan Fr. 1B Jesse Franklin

A leading force in Michigan’s now 20-game winning streak, Franklin scored seven runs and drove in another seven, as the Wolverines defended their home turf with a weekend sweep over Penn State. In 13 at-bats, Franklin picked up two singles, a double, and two home runs.

Minnesota Fr. RHP Patrick Fredrickson

The race for Big Ten Freshman of the Year continues to be a tight one, with Fredrickson, this week’s 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week, continuing a stout season in the Gopher rotation. On Saturday, Fredrickson held Iowa to six hits and two walks over 7.2 innings, striking out a pair of Hawkeyes, en route to improving to 5-0 on the year in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory.

Ohio State Sr. RHP Seth Kinker

Ohio State head coach Greg Beals relied on Kinker to keep the Buckeyes in tight contests this weekend against Indiana, and did not take the ball out of the hand of his best reliever. On Saturday, Kinker, this week’s Pitcher of the Week, pitched two innings of scoreless baseball, holding the Hoosiers without a grab his ninth save in securing a 5-4 victory. In Sunday’s rubber match, Kinker pitched the final 5.1 innings, scattering two hits, and again kept the Hoosiers off the scoreboard, as the Buckeyes grabbed another upset victory with a 6-5 win in 12 innings.

Purdue Jr. 1B Jacson McGowan

In a weekend critical to the team’s postseason hopes, Purdue went on the road and swept their weekend series at Maryland, improving to 7-4 in conference play. Guiding the Boilermakers to three wins, McGowan, this week’s Player of the Week, recorded a multi-hit game in each contest. The slugger’s 6-for-12 weekend was highlighted by a game-tying, ninth-inning home run on Saturday, before connecting on the game-winning shot in the 11th.

Ohio State Sr. 3B Noah McGowan

Ohio State’s athletic communications department was unable to find the last time the Buckeyes won a weekend set against a top 10 team. Leading the Bucks to the big weekend win was McGowan, responsible for the game-winning hits in both of OSU’s victories. Going 6-for-12 with three RBI, McGowan connected on a solo home run on Saturday, before hitting an opposite-field double to drive in Ohio State’s sixth and final run on Sunday in the 12-inning thriller.

Michigan State Sr. 1B Zach McGuire

A second-half surge continued for Michigan State, with the Spartans sweeping Northwestern. Running their conference winning streak to six games, MSU got a big weekend from first baseman Zach McGuire, who picked up two home runs on the weekend, half of his four hits in 11 at-bats, as he scored four runs and drove in five.

Michigan Jr. 3B Blake Nelson

No player drove in more runs over the weekend than Nelson, responsible for driving in nine of the 41 runs the Wolverines scored. Over 13 at-bats, the junior third baseman grabbed six hits, half of which were doubles on Saturday. Nelson reached base twice more by way or walk and scored two runs.

Indiana Jr. RHP Jonathan Stiever

Starting Indiana’s weekend off on the right foot, Stiever held a high-powered Ohio State offense off of the scoreboard on Friday. In seven innings of work, the righty surrendered only five hits, walked four Buckeyes and struck out six batters, improving to 5-1 on the year with a 2.53 ERA.

One month to go

One month from today, on May 20, the  regular season will be over for Big Ten clubs. The eight-team field that will make up the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha will be set, players will have put forth all evidence to merit all-conference honors, and a clearer picture of who will be in the NCAA Tournament in two weeks time will be set.

What can we expect to unfold over the final five weekends of the season? Here’s some of the most intriguing questions we’re looking forward to seeing answered.

How many teams make the NCAA Tournament?

Long gone are the days of wondering if the Big Ten will place multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament. The question now becomes, how many teams less or greater than four will make the field. Currently, six teams are in position to receive strong consideration to be in the field of 64 if the season ended today. National outlets have between four and six clubs participating in a regional. The final tally of teams will likely depend on who much teams beat up on each other, if there are a few sweeps or if series are tight. The next three weeks will provide a bit of clarity as the schedule has:

April 20-22

Indiana @ Ohio State

Iowa @ Minnesota

April 27-29

Illinois @ Indiana

Michigan @ Iowa

Minnesota @ Ohio State

May 4-6

Indiana @ Minnesota

Ohio State @ Illinois

The weekend of May 4-6 also sees Iowa welcome Oklahoma State to town for a big series during their bye week. With all but Michigan having multiple weeks against opponents in the RPIs top 50, the next three weeks could punch a team’s ticket to a regional, or hang a cloud of a thus far strong season.

Does anyone challenge Spillane as Player of the Year?

So far, the only thing that has slowed down Illinois junior first baseman Bren Spillane is an injury which has forced the slugger to miss the Illini’s last three games and render his status as day-to-day. Prior to the injury, Spillane was punishing pitchers to the tune of .457/.540/1.038, cranking out 15 doubles and 14 home runs, and adding 12 stolen bases for good measure. But if Spillane is out for an extended period, or his numbers aren’t as video game-esque, will he cruise to being the third Illini in six years to be name Big Ten Player of the Year? There’s a handful of players that suggest no.

A pair of Gophers, Ben Mezzenga and Terrin Vara, check in with averages north of .400, .411 and .406, respectively. Right behind them are a pair of first basemen, who, like Spillane, are compiling all-america campaigns. Nebraska senior Scott Schreiber is batting .399 with 11 doubles and 11 home runs. Ohio State senior Noah McGowan is batting .396 with 16 doubles, seven home runs, and a Big Ten-best 43 RBI.

Spillane should enter the final month as the even-odds favorite to be named the Big Ten’s top player, but there are a few players putting together seasons which otherwise would have the competition well behind.

Will any records go down?

With Spillane missing a few games, as well as the Illini losing contests to weather, the single-season home run record of 29, set by Iowa’s Jake Adams last year appears to be safe, for now. But what other records may be in jeopardy?

Illinois closer Joey Gerber already has racked up 11 saves, just seven shy of the record set by Ohio State’s Jake Hale in 2009.

Spillane could threat the slugging percentage mark of .869, set by Michigan’s Casey Close in 1986.

With four series down and four to go, Schreiber is on pace to tie the record for most home runs in a Big Ten season at 14. And if Schreiber matches his efforts during Nebraska’s back-half of the Big Ten slate, the record for total bases of 92 will fall, he currently has 49, as will the slugging (1.022) and on-base (.568) percentages, as he currently leads the Big Ten with respective marks of 1.195 and .625.

Can Michigan State make a second-half run?

After a 3-10 start to the season, Michigan State is showing signs of playing better baseball, winning five of their last seven games, including three straight in Big Ten play. Although the Spartans are 11-21 overall, a .344 winning percentage which would be the worse regular season in Jake Boss’ 10-year tenure, MSU is only one half-game behind eight-place Rutgers and a game behind seventh-place Purdue, a spot in the Big Ten Tournament is still within sight for the Spartans.

Coming off of their bye week against Valparaiso, Michigan State’s next three weekends will have them host Maryland, in between traveling to Northwestern and Penn State. Maryland has the same 3-5 record in Big Ten play, while the Wildcats and Nittany Lions have only won one of 12 conference games. The opportunity is there for Michigan State to pick up wins against teams struggling in league play, before finishing against Minnesota and Ohio State.

Is this the year for Rutgers?

The feel-good story of the first two months has been Rutgers. Yet to finish above 11th in their three-season Big Ten history, a winning season is possible with a 19-14 record, and, as mentioned, the Scarlet Knights are above the cut, holding onto eight place in the standings. Will Rutgers be able to continue their winning ways over the final five weeks? The schedule is a bit tough, with trips to Maryland and Purdue, two teams also fighting for a spot in the conference tournament, while Nebraska, Michigan, and Minnesota head to Piscataway. But Rutgers has shown an ability to go head-to-head against quality teams and come out on top, taking five of six over consecutive weekends playing Army and Florida Gulf Coast. Head coach Joe Literrio has raved about the new culture that exists in the program and there seems to be a greater sense of resiliency with this year’s outfit.

Who is the prospect that shoots up draft broads?

It’s been a muted spring in terms of prospect buzz in the Big Ten. There isn’t a Tyler Jay or Cody Sedlock on the mound, nor a Ryan Boldt, Ronnie Dawson, or Kevin Smith in the field. But there still are a few prospects worth keeping tabs on as the temperatures, hopefully, rises.

Joey Gerber is drawing scouting attention at the back of the Illini bullpen as he shows a power arm with a feel for a slider. Ohio State’s Ryan Feltner is starting to turn potential into promise, showing a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by an upper-90s fastball with improving command. Hoosier right-hander Johnathan Stiever has the best blend of production and potential, the most pro-ready pitcher in the conference. Indiana outfielder Logan Kaletha and Iowa right fielder Robert Neustrom have solid tools across the board. Purdue right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are proving to be potential high round senior signs.

Does Ohio State win a marquee series?

The Buckeyes enter the final month of the season in position to mark the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. At 25-10, Greg Beals’ club is enjoying a turnaround season after winning 22 games last year. But prior to the 2017 season, Ohio State entered the final month of the season each of the last four years in a position to participate in a regional, only to run out of steam. Will this year have the Buckeyes turn into a pumpkin again? We’ll soon find out, as Ohio State takes on Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois over back-to-back-to-back weekends. If Ohio State can win two of three weekends, the Bucks may be in a position to host NCAA play for the first time since 2003. But the Buckeyes have struggled against each of those three teams in recent years. Dating back to 2012, Ohio State’s series record and overall record against the three are:

Illinois: 1-3, 4-8

Indiana: 0-5, 2-15

Minnesota: 2-2, 6-6

The last time Ohio State grabbed a series from a team that finished in the top two of the conference was 2013, taking two of three from Nebraska, who they finished in a tie for second with.

Two months into the season

The first weekend of the season came to an end on Feb. 18. And, after eight more weekends of play, the calendar rests on April 18. Before looking ahead to what the final month of the regular season has in store for Big Ten teams, we take a look back at the first two months, and note the ten players, teams, trends, and stories which have put the conference in a position to have a frantic fight to finish as the conference tournament’s return to Omaha comes into view.

The new normal

In 2015, the Big Ten set a conference-record with five teams in the NCAA Tournament. That total was one less than the combined total of the prior three seasons. The following year produced three regional teams, a slight step backward, but noteworthy in that neither Minnesota, Nebraska, or Ohio State were a part of the quintet of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan which reached a regional in 2015, giving the conference eight different teams to have a reached a regional over a two-year window. Last year, the conference all but squashed any doubt of its status as a premier conference, again placing five teams in a regional. Now  the Big Ten may yet again take a step further with six potential NCAA Tournament clubs.

According to the NCAA’s latest RPI figures, through games played on April 17, the Big Ten has six teams in the top 55 of the RPI.

Indiana- 24

Illinois- 36

Minnesota- 38

Ohio State- 40

Iowa- 44

Michigan- 52

It may still be a few weeks before the RPI has enough data to truly represent the quality of teams throughout the country, but that’s not stopping national outlets D1Baseball and Baseball America from taking stock of where teams standing in the ratings, and publish projected NCAA Tournament fields. Bot where the conference has five teams that make the cut in D1’s projections (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota) and four teams in Baseball America’s version (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State) those not in the field among each outlet’s first teams out of the field, making it an even half-dozen clubs with realistic regional odds.

If there are any lingering skeptics of Big Ten baseball, it’s time to let go of past perceptions and expect a handful or more of teams to be among the best in the country.

Hoosiers continue to roll

At 27-6, Indiana has its best record through 33 games since 1987. Indiana’s ability to run over nearly everything in sight is propelled by a 2.27 team ERA, the best in the country. Entering the season as the Big Ten favorite in the eyes of conference coaches, viewed by head coach Chris Lemonis as his deepest team in four-year tenure, so far Indiana has lived up to every expectation and billing. In additional to leading the country in pitching, Indiana is batting .300, the third-best clip; has slugged 38 home runs, second to Illinois; while posting a .970 fielding percentage, good for fourth in the conference. Indiana’s core of returning veterans like Luke Miller, Pauly Milto, Logan Sowers, and Johnathan Stiever, have produced as expected, with newcomers like Elijah Dunham, Logan Kaletha, Connor Maous, and Tommy Sommer stepping into supporting roles and flourishing. Yet to drop a weekend series, only once losing consecutive games, Indiana is showing a completeness and ability to take care of business that merits its current position as one of the 10 best teams in the country.

Michigan fights to buck recent trend

Over the last decade, there’s been a familiar life cycle to Big Ten programs. Any sustain period of success, capped with a superb season, usually is followed by a large roster turnover, either due to graduation or Major League organizations plucking away the talent that was at the core of a team’s success.

Following their 2012 Big Ten championship, Purdue saw seven players drafted from a team that hosted the Gary Regional. Purdue went 6-18 the following year to finish 10th in the Big Ten. After earning a national seed and hosting regional and super regional play, Illinois has nine players drafted from its 2015 50-win team. The Illini finished in a three-way tie for eighth in 2016. In 2016, Ohio State ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, finishing third in the Big Ten before winning the conference tournament. Six Buckeyes were grabbed in the MLB Draft, players who were not a part of last year’s 11th-place finish for the Buckeyes.

So what would happen when Michigan lost nation-leading 11 players to last years draft, after winning 42 games? Through the teams first 15 games, it appeared the Wolverines would go down the same path as those before them. At 4-11, including a midweek loss to NAIA Lawrence Tech, a long spring appeared in store for Michigan. Michigan hasn’t lost since that March 14 loss to Lawrence Tech, currently owning a 17-game winning streak. Prior to this weekend, each win was against a team with an RPI lower than 200, making pollsters hesitant to buy into Erik Bakich’s team. But give a young U-M credit for taking care of business against lesser teams, before taking both games in a weather-shortened series against Maryland to lend more validity to Michigan’s run.

Spillane draws a national spotlight

The lone Big Ten player on the midseason Golden Spike Watch List is Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane. While a few other Big Ten first baseman are having seasons which would stack up to any player in any conference, see Ohio State’s Noah McGowan, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, Spillane’s production over the first two months would have caused a riot in Champaign if he was not included among the list of 40 amateur players. Here’s Spillane’s numbers without much comment, because there isn’t many words that are proper to describe how eye-popping they are.

Games- 29 Avg.- .457, Doubles- 15, Triples- 2, Home Runs- 14, RBI- 43, Runs- 34, Total Bases- 109, Slugging- 1.038, On-Base- .540, Stolen Bases- 12.

Spillane became the first player in Big Ten history to earn three consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week honors. An undisclosed injury, which Illinois reports has his status day-to-day, has kept Spillane out of the Illini’s last three games. That may be the only thing that can contain Spillane this spring.

Inconsistency dooms Maryland and Purdue

It’s been a head-scratching season for the two newest Big Ten coaches.

After guiding Purdue to a surprising eighth-place finish in his first season leading the Boilermarkers, Mark Wasikowski has seen his club play very well for extended stretches, then not so well. Here’s Purdue’s season:

Start 8-1, lose nine of ten, win five straight, lose five consecutive contests. All told, Purdue is 16-15, an even 4-4 in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers did grab a game in Bloomington before the series’ rubber match was decided in extras, showing when they’re on, they’re a tough out. Currently Purdue is one game ahead of ninth place in the conference, which is where Maryland sits.

First-year head coach Rob Vaughn hasn’t had the sustained highs and lows that Wasikowski has, his team’s ebb and flow has been rockier, changing course from game to game. Within a 16-20 record, and  3-5 mark in the Big Ten, are four wins against the teams in the RPI’s top 50. But they also have six losses to teams with an RPI worse than 150. A microcosm of Maryland’s season is their 3-7 record in midweek games, and back-to-back weekend series where they were swept in convincing fashion at East Carolina, before taking two of three against Stetson. A year after participating in the Wake Forest Regional, with two returning weekend starters and six positional players, Maryland is 11th in the conference in hitting (.229) and ERA (5.27).

Winter’s grip remains tight

This will be brief, certainly everyone in the Midwest is tired of. But their is no denying the affect snow, sleet, ice, and cold weather has had on Big Ten baseball this spring. It’s become nearly as common to see doubleheaders, as a scheduled Friday-Saturday-Sunday series. With series held to two games in Ann Arbor, Lincoln, and West Lafayette last weekend, five conference games have been lost due to weather this year, the most since 10 were cancelled in the 2007 season, a team when there were only 10 Big Ten programs, none with an outfield artificial field.

Freshmen pitchers show polish and poise

When Ohio State head coach Greg Beals announced freshman left-handed Seth Lonsway was ineligible this season, due to a matter from high school and the NCAA Clearinghouse, the 2018 season would come and go without the Big Ten’s top recruit participating. Two months into the season, Lonsway has been an afterthought, not only due to the success of Ohio State, but also with the impressive showings around the conference by fellow freshmen pitchers.

Michigan LHP Ben Dragani, (1.38) and Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson (1.96), respectively rank first and third in the Big Ten in ERA. Rutgers has two freshman LHPs, Eric Heatter (4.40) and Harry Rutkowski (3.38) rounding out the weekend rotation. Gopher RHP Max Meyer has racked up eight saves next to a 2.61 ERA, southpaw Quinn Lavelle has emerged as the ace of Northwestern’s staff, and right-hander Trent Johnson has emerged as a stout Sunday starter for Purdue, boasting a 1.88 ERA over 24 innings. With the performances of these rookies, many coaches throughout the Big Ten have multiple aces in the awaiting.

Huskers in danger of postseason absence

One of the lasting memories of Big Ten baseball in recent years is the spectacle of 19,965 in attendance for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game between Indiana and Nebraska. The top two finishers in the conference, and two would-be NCAA Tournament participants, a sea of red filled TD Ameritrade Park as the Huskers fought for the crown. Indiana is on track to potentially have another regional-bound season, but to match their part in reliving history, Nebraska has a mighty uphill battle. With Big Ten series down and four to go, Nebraska is 3-7 in the conference, in 11th place. Injuries have depleted the Husker pitching staff, while the offense has had little to support the all-america campaign senior first baseman Scott Schreiber is having. The Huskers have shown they can beat good teams, only Iowa’s five wins against the RPI top 50 are more than Nebraska’s four, but the depth hasn’t been there for Nebraska to win a weekend against a quality team. Darin Erstad has led Nebraska baseball to highs only seen in the early 2000s, earning a conference title, three runners-up finishes and three NCAA Tournament appearances, but at 16-18, this may be the inevitable one step back that befalls all conference teams.

Rutgers makes its move

Even though Rutgers was swept in a three-game series last weekend at Illinois, it’s worth highlighint the turnaround season the Scarlet Knights are enjoying, spurred in part by the first-year success of Heatter and Rutkowski. Prior to their trip to Champaign, Rutgers had won five consecutive weekend series, including taking two of three at 25-9 Florida Gulf Coast. At the mid-way mark of the conference season, Rutgers is above the fold to make the eight-team Big Ten Tournament for the first time. At 19-14, with a 7-7 mark against teams in the RPI’s top 100, the on-field product for Rutgers is reflecting the change in culture head coach Joe Literrio focused on in the offseason, which included revamping his coaching staff with new assistants and a dedicated director of player development. With five series to go, Rutgers is only five wins away from tying the program’s best showing in conference play, a 9-15 season in 2016.

Minnesota remains an offensive juggernaut

The Big Ten’s best hitting team once again resides in Minneapolis. Through 33 games, Minnesota’s .311 team batting average leads the Big Ten, as does their 362 hits, 253 runs, 26 sacrifice flies, 25 sacrifice hits, and .416 on-base percentage. Last year, Minnesota’s .297 average paced the Big Ten, as did the team’s .322 clip during their Big Ten championship season in 2016. Junior shortstop Terrin Vavra’s .411 average leads six Gophers batting .300 or better, with each one having an on-base percentage of at least .422. The ability for numerous Gophers to reach base at a stout rate has lead to nine games of scoring at least 10 runs, while scoring less than three runs only five times. Once a program known to be led by pitching, it is worth mentioning Minnesota’s 3.68 ERA is third-best in the conference, the Gophers are once again establishing an identity at the plate as a team that will wear down a pitcher, drawing 179 walks to 215 strikeouts. Minnesota’s attempt to take home the Big Ten’s team batting title for a third consecutive season is on the heels of a three-year period where the team’s seasonal batting averages were .258, .256, .261., from 2013-15.

Weather Wrecks Week 8 Schedule

A part of playing for, coaching, or supporting a Big Ten baseball program is understanding and accepting the climate of the Midwest spring, Midwest being used liberally as the conference’s footprint runs from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Rocky Mountains, can create havoc due to rainouts. What isn’t expected is snow and cold temperatures postponing, moving up and suspending games a week into April.

But here we are.

Last year, the Big Ten implemented a rule that the Real Feel temperature must be 28 degrees for a game to be played. With that, there isn’t one conference series this weekend that will have played out as originally scheduled, a result of freezing temperatures and freezing precipitation.

Already the Big Ten lost the weekend finale between Indiana and Iowa due to snow, a result that may factor into who becomes the conference champion. Hoping to lose no further games, here’s a rundown of what games have been moved up, moved back, or completely moved from campus, from east to west.

La Salle at Rutgers

The one series that has not be altered is the lone non-conference series. The Big Ten’s easternmost program has yet to alter its home series against La Salle.

Illinois at Maryland

With anticipated cold temperatures and precipitation on Saturday, Illinois and Maryland played a doubleheader on Friday, while leaving the series finale for Sunday. The two teams split Friday’s doubleheader, and saw their finale moved up an hour to noon ET.

Nebraska at Michigan State

Falling temperatures throughout the day Friday pushed the series opener between the Huskers and Spartans to Saturday. But Saturday’s forecast high of 32 will make it tough to get two games in. Already Sunday’s game was moved up to 11 a.m. ET to accommodate for Nebraska’s travel. A lost game looks likely between these two.

Purdue at Indiana

The Big Ten’s best weekend weather will grace Bloomington, where all three games of the Hoosier State rivalry should get in. But even southern Indiana wasn’t immune to the cold conditions. Friday’s series opener was moved up to 3 p.m., from the originally set 6 p.m., as temperatures fell in the evening below the 28-degree threshold and also snow.

Michigan at Northwestern

The Wildcats and Wolverines saw their weekend opener push to Saturday due to cold temperatures. Without lights at Berenice and Rocky Miller Park, both games must be played before the sun starts to set, and Saturday’s forecast high of 37 may make it tough for both games to get in if there’s any wind to knock the Real Feel down.

Penn State at Minnesota

As soon as John Anderson saw the weekend forecast, the Gophers made plans to find an alternative site for their series against Penn State with temperatures and precipitation leaving no chance the games could take place at Siebert Field. As a result, the two will meet almost in the middle of their respective campuses, playing at Purdue’s Alexander Field. But even the change of location couldn’t get all games in as re-scheduled, Friday’s contest was halted after five innings due to temperatures falling near the 20-degree mark. Whether one, two, or all three games get in, credit Mark Wasikowski and the Purdue athletic department for finding a way to make this series happen.

Ohio State at Iowa

While not quite at the level of Penn State-Minnesota, the Ohio State-Iowa series set for Iowa City has gone through a few hoops to get as many games in as possible. First, the series was moved to a Saturday-Monday format, with snow and cold temperatures making any play on Friday impossible. But then, the amended scheduled was amended again, with the two teams squaring off in a Saturday doubleheader. Game three is tentatively set for Sunday, but Monday is still in play, as there is a 70% chance of mixed precipitation.

 

 

The Weekend 10

As the midpoint of the college baseball season nears, while they may still be freshmen by class, this year’s Big Ten newcomers are turning in performances beyond their years. This season has witnessed first-year players spur Michigan’s turnaround and lead the revival of the Scarlet Knights.

This weekend, freshmen turned in some of the most impressive weekends, including the first double-award winner of the season. The Weekend 10 is led by four freshmen who turned in performances that made opposing coaches miserable knowing they have multiple years to come facing them, as well as a handful of sluggers who are making their case to be all-americans.

Ohio State Soph. OF Dominic Canzone

A big weekend in Ohio State’s first Big Ten series showed why Canzone is leads off the conference’ top hitting unit. In three games against Nebraska, Canzone collected seven hits in 14 at-bats, scoring five runs, driving in four and stealing three bases. Canzone has needed just 76 games to reach 100 career hits.

Michigan State Fr. RHP Mason Erla

Erla continues to shine in a season where a cloud has hung over the Spartans. Earl’s latest gem helped Michigan State to its first conference victory, leading the Green and White to a 6-0 win over Rutgers on Sunday. Erla pitched seven innings and allowed four hits, with three walks and six strikeouts. Moving to 4-1 on the year, Erla is responsible for more than half of MSUs seven victories.

Indiana Jr. C Ryan Fineman

Fineman continued a strong season, a junior campaign which has him batting a team-leading .342 through IU’s 20-5 start. In a three-game sweep of Butler, Fineman recorded seven hits in 12-bats, drove in six runs, and through out two Bulldogs on the bases.

Michigan Fr. 1B/OF Jesse Franklin

Michigan enters April with the nation’s longest active winning streak, extending their run to 12 games with a weekend brooming of Delaware. Leading the Wolverines charge against the Blue Hens, Franklin went 5-for-11 with a double and home run, driving in three runs while scoring another three.

Purdue Fr. RHP Trent Johnson

Purdue recorded its first sweep during the opening weekend of Big Ten play since 1985, and Johnson’s gem was the leading act in the clincher. In State College, over five innings, Johnson held the Nittany Lions to one hit, in Purdue’s 6-0 victory. The rookie struck out six batters and walk three, in the 79-pitch effort.

Northwestern Fr. LHP Quinn Lavelle

Lavelle pitched as fine of an outing as any Big Ten pitcher has this season, leading Northwestern to its first Big Ten victory in the Wildcats’ series-opener at Maryland. Tossing a shutout, Lavelle scattered four hits and struck out eight batters to one walk in Northwestern’s 4-0 win. This week’s pitcher and freshman of the week, Lavelle sports a 3-2 record alongside a 2.10 ERA over 34.1 innings.

Ohio State Sr. 1B Noah McGowan

McGowan helped lead a high-powered Buckeye attack to 25 runs in their weekend victory over Nebraska. In Greg Beals’ cleanup spot, the senior notched six hits, drove in five runs, and scored four runs. McGowan picked up a double in each game and ended hit his sixth home run of the season in the finale.

Indiana Jr. RHP Pauly Milto

After Indiana eeked out a 6-5 victory in their series opener against Butler, Milto made sure the Bulldogs had no bite as IU cruised to a 13-0 victory. Over six innings, Milto scatted six hits, issued two walks and struck out three batters. The victory moved Milto to 4-2 on the year and lowered his ERA to 2.25.

Nebraska Sr. 1B Scott Schreiber

A big weekend at the plate from Schreiber wasn’t enough for Nebraska to leave Columbus with a series win, but it was impressive enough for Schreiber to earn this week’s player of the week nod. Schreiber hit a home run in each of the Cornhuskers three games against the Buckeyes as part of an 8-for-14 weekend. The senior first baseman added a double as he drove in six runs and crossed home five times.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

Iowa was the latest team to run into a scorching hot Spillane. Though the Hawkeyes grabbed the weekend series in Champaign, Spillane was hard to contain, picking up two singles, a double, and three home runs over nine at-bats, before drawing four walks in the weekend finale. Spillane added five RBI and six runs to his eye-popping season statistics.

The Weekend 10

The first weekend of Big Ten play saw two intra-state rivalries, a meeting of two 2017 NCAA Tournament teams, a showdown between the last two conference champions and a border battle. Adding to the intensity of the weekend was Maryland hosting nationally-ranked Stetson during their conference bye week.

With bragging rights across the board on the line, and teams starting to fight for the conference championship, the weekend’s top performances were dominated by pitching, holding the adage true, pitching and defense wins championships.

Here’s who stood out.

Michigan Jr. OF Jonathan Engelmann

Helping the Wolverines to a 3-0 start to Big Ten play, sweep in-state rival Michigan State, and run Michigan’s winning streak to eight games, Engelmann terrorized Spartan pitching. This week’s player of the week, the junior outfielder picked up six hits in 12 at-bats, highlighted by a 4-for-5, two-home run contest on Friday. Englemann added a double and triple in the game, en route to finishing the weekend with seven runs, eight RBI, and added two stolen bases for good measure.

Minnesota Fr. RHP Patrick Fredrickson

In a battle between the last two Big Ten champions, Minnesota freshman Patrick Fredrickson had little trouble with Nebraska, leading the Gophers to a 2-0 victory on Sunday, to claim the series.  Over seven innings, the right-hander held the Huskers to four hits and did not concede a run. Improving to 3-0 on the year, the Gopher struck out six batters while only walking one.

Michigan St. Sr. RHP Ethan Landon

With eight innings of scoreless baseball under his belt, Landon was the victim of spotty Spartan defense, suffering a hard luck loss in Michigan State’s 3-1 defeat on Saturday. Pitching into the ninth, Landon held the Wolverines to four hits and three walks, while striking out nine batters. Two unearned runs were tacked against the senior, as U-M rallied to the last-at-bat victory.

Penn State Sr. LHP Taylor Lehman

A strong performance wouldn’t result in a win, but Lehman held a high-powered Rutgers lineup in check, turning in one of his best performances as a Nittany Lion. Over six innings, Lehman held Rutgers to three hits and one unearned run, striking out two batters and issuing one walk. Providing Rob Cooper with a solid Saturday starter, Lehman’s ERA fell to 2.81 in 25.2 innings on the year.

Illinois Soph. 2B Michael Massey

Massey continues to be one-half of the most dangerous first and second baseman duo in the Big Ten. Hitting in the five-hole, behind Bren Spillan, Massey picked up three singles, a double, and a home run in Illinois’ weekend sweep of Northwestern. Grabbing a walk, and touching 10 bases, Massey posted a .500 on-base percentage and slugged .762 over 14 plate appearances.

Maryland Jr. RHP Hunter Parsons

The season thus far for Maryland has been rocky, uneven, and inconsistent. None of those would describe Parsons on Sunday, as the junior right-handed led the Terps to a series-clinching, 2-0 victory over No. 26 Stetson. Earning 10 Innings’ Pitcher of the Week honors, Parsons twirled a two-hit shutout. Racking up a career-best nine strikeouts, Parsons pitched to only three batters over the minimum, surrendering singles in the fourth and fifth innings, and hitting a batter in the seventh.

Rutgers Fr. LHP Harry Rutkowski

Going toe-to-toe with Lehman, and the reason why Rutgers grabbed the 1-0 victory, was a sterling outing from Rutkowski. The first-year Scarlet Knight did not allow a run, scattering four hits over six innings, punching out seven batters against two walks. Moving to 3-0 on the Rutkowski induced nine groundouts as Rutgers clinched the weekend series.

Iowa Jr. RHP Brady Schanuel

Schanuel’s best performance as a Hawkeye came at an opportune time. With weather disrupting Iowa’s series against Indiana, a Friday doubleheader, and ultimately the weekend, was split, as Schanuel led Iowa to a 5-1 victory after a 4-2 defeat. In seven innings of work, the junior struck out 11 batters to four walks while allowing just one Hoosier hit. The right-hander did not yield a run in his 110-pitch outing.

Nebraska Sr. DH Scott Schreiber

Fredrickson and Minnesota may have grabbed the weekend series in Lincoln, but they did little to contain Schreiber. In 12 at-bats, Schreiber collected seven hits, and had two home runs in Nebraska’s 8-2 victory on Saturday. Schreiber opened and closed the weekend with two-hit games, each included a double, as the senior scored three runs, and plated four teammates.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

Spillane’s offensive outburst showed no signs of slowing down this weekend. Against the Wildcats, Spillane went 6-for-10, with two doubles and a home run, posting a triple-slash of .600/.714/1.100. Helping Illinois to their 15th win in 20 games, Spillane stole three bags on the weekend, running his season total to 10, one more than the number of home runs he has, showing a incredible blend of power and speed.

10 Innings Extra: Cultural blueprint fuels Buckeye bounce back

In mid-September, well before the his team compiled a 14-6 record over the first five weeks of the season, even before the first pitch was thrown in the fall-capping Scarlet and Gray World Series, Greg Beals liked what he saw in what would be the 2018 Ohio State baseball team.

But feeling good in the fall rarely holds much water, In fact, it would be noteworthy if a coach didn’t like what he saw in the fall, if optimism wasn’t falling alongside wind-blown leaves.

Players have a hop and skip in their step, returning to campus after a season of summer baseball. Recruits become freshmen, and in today’s recruiting cycle, it can take up to four years for a coaching staff to reap the fruits of their labor in recruiting, between the start of a recruitment and the time a player dons the school uniform for the first time. Coaches are revitalized, having spent the offseason examining what went wrong the prior season and determined to fix it, or to carry on what went right. And there’s the small fact that you can’t lose a game in October that will hurt your chances to reach Omaha in June.

However, now, in mid-March, the sentiment has only strengthen, Beals likes this team.

“[For us] to get to a national-caliber it’s just being a little cleaner, but there’s a lot to like about this ball club,” said Beals, following Ohio State’s 7-3 victory against Cal State Northridge on Sunday. “I like the depth, I like what we’ve done offensively, and the growth we’ve had.”

On paper, it’s easy to see what Beals likes about the current outfit of the Buckeyes.

A year after batting .260, the fourth-lowest mark in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s offense is hitting at a .295 clip, second best in the conference. A .352 on-base percentage has improved to .382, while the team is has a collective .435 slugging percentage, up .40 points. All together, Ohio State is averaging 7.45 runs through their first 20 games, a year-over improvement of 2.07 runs. And on the mound, Ohio State’s team ERA sits at 4.04, down from 2017’s 5.32 rate.

But to truly know what Beals likes about this team, why the program feels last year’s 22-34 campaign was an aberration and that they’re back on track to reach a regional, it’s what doesn’t show up in statstics, but what’s found in blueprints.

Posted through the coaches offices, coaches and players locker room, is the cultural blueprint of the Ohio State baseball program. It’s simplistic, it’s direct, and for Beals it resonates.

Elite preparation.

Competitive toughness.

The brotherhood.

Nothing more, nothing less. Those three mantras define what it means to be a Buckeye. And after a year where Ohio State suffered its worst Big Ten finish, 11th, in program history, the Buckeyes’ bounce back season has been anchored in the cultivation of that blueprint.

“I dig into our cultural blueprint,” Beals said, as Ohio State welcomes Georgetown to Columbus during their conference bye week. “Win, lose, or draw, we have to respond, behave, and do the things we expect each other to do. We’re going to prepare at an elite level, we’re going to compete with toughness—that’s what we’re starting to see now.”

When it comes to elite preparation, its the commitment to preparation which has spurred one of the Big Ten’s breakout players.

A transfer from McCLennan Community College, Noah McGowan arrived in Columbus last year as a junior expected to fill the offensively voids created with the departure of second-round pick Ronnie Dawson. Like Dawson, McGowan sports No. 4 and looks the part of a linebacker for Urban Meyer, less three-hole hitter for Beals. McGowan flashed brilliance a year ago, recording a three-home run game against Xavier on March 19. But McGowan connected for only two other home runs in his 128 other at-bats, and only 25 other hits in total, to bat .214.

This year, through 79 at-bats, McGowan has 31 hits for a team-leading .392 average. With seven doubles and five home runs, McGowan’s .696 slugging percentage is second in the Big Ten, and his 27 RBI leads the conference.

“[It’s just] trusting what I’m doing,” McGowan said on his strong senior season. “Seeing what I’m seeing, seeing spin, or if I see ball up in the zone, offspeed pitch, put a good swing on it.”

That may explain how McGowan approaches each at-bat, but it’s the work done prior to that allows him to step to the plate relaxed, with a clear mind and trusting himself.

“I’ll hit with coaches, but then I usually like to come back later at night and hit by myself” McGowan said. “Just so I can have time to myself and hit, not have outside distractions and focus on what I do in the cage, get my reps off of the machine.

“Last year I didn’t hit off the machine as much, and when I was in JUCO we hit off the machine a lot, and I think that was a part of my success…off the machine, that’s when you find the flaws in your swing.”

With the preparation established, taking on the opposition with competitive toughness is where results come.

Starting with the season-opening 11-7 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Ohio State scored nine runs over their final two at-bats, of the team’s 16 victories, four have come with Ohio State trailing after seven innings. The comeback wins include its two marquee victories, a 9-6 win over Southern Miss, and a 7-5 win at Coastal Carolina, both are ranked teams.

“This team has a lot of fight in them,”  Beals said. “You’ve seen that with comeback wins, late-inning breakouts, those type of things. Our guys are willing to play the whole game, go the long haul and that leads back to the competitive spirit we have.”

McGowan leads a charge of seven players batting .286 or better, on a team with “guys in our dugout that’ll be able to score runs and put up just as many runs as anyone else.” To him, Ohio State is never out of a contest, there’s never a moment to relent.

A beneficiary of Ohio State’s powerful offense is freshman Griffan Smith. Appearing in six games, including one start, Smith has logged 11.2 innings for the Buckeyes.

“You just go out there and pitch and do your thing, knowing that your offense has your back, especially with the way we’ve been hitting. There’s not a doubt in my mind when I step on the mound or go back in the inning that they’re going to pick me up, whether I do bad or good.”

And that’s where the final pillar of the Buckeyes foundation comes together: the brotherhood.

Co-captains for Ohio State are Kyle Michalik and Adam Niemeyer. Fifth-year seniors, the pitchers were part of a prolific high school class of 2013 recruiting haulthat Beals landed. Along with Dawson, Travis Lakins, Troy Montgomery, and Tanner Tully, the recruiting class is one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.

But tragically, there was only a glimpse of the unparalleled potential of the best prospect, Zach Farmer.

After a courageous two-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia, Farmer passed away in August 2015. Never prepared to suffer such a loss, the Ohio State players found comfort in each other, found a renewed sense of commitment to each other, and formed an unbreakable bond.

Arising from tragedy, taking the fight Farmer valiantly displayed, Ohio State ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, claiming the 2016 Big Ten Tournament title and leading the Big Ten with 44 wins.

A championship will never replace a life. Whenever a player’s career is over, be it at the end of his senior year or when the professional game passes him by, there is still life to take on. The best in athletics is preparing an individual to succeed in life, to take lessons learned from sacrifice, hard work and selflessness to be an asset to society. It would never be appropriate to compare a losing season to the loss of a life. But the brotherhood, the commitment to others that fueled Ohio State in 2016 has returned to Bill Davis Stadium.

Atop Ohio State’s pitching staff is junior left-handed pitcher Connor Curlis. With a 3-0 record, next to a 3.07 ERA in 29.1 innings, Curlis has ran with the role of weekend ace. But the title means less to him, it’s more what he can do to set the tone for the weekend.

“It feels awesome to have the coaches tell you that you’re the Friday starter, but more it’s to go out there and give it your all for the team,” Curlis said. “Every Friday night, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

McGowan, arguably the Big Ten’s top player over the first month deflects individual glory.

“Our focus this year has been more of a team, to come together and enjoying being around each other.” he said.

And when you have elite preparation, competitive toughness, and each player takes on the life of a brotherhood, to Beals that is what has spurred the Buckeyes to win tough games, go into tough environments and fight and enter the last week of non-conference play with all goals in tact.

“They believe they can do it. That belief goes back to everything we’ve talked about, the competitive toughness, the brotherhood, and it’s the elite preparation that they all know they’ve done. Then to be able to go out and do it, like we’ve done a few times this year early in the season, to prove it on the field also, just really builds that belief and feeling our guys have right now.”

Now, even though it was well before a pitch was thrown, a home run hit, or a game was won, it’s clear what Beals liked about this ball club in the fall. It’s in the blueprints.

The Weekend 10

In the final weekend before conference play begins, it was a big weekend for many teams around the Big Ten. Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State picked up home sweeps, while Minnesota and Rutgers collected big weekend victories on the road.

Who helped power those teams to victory? Here’s a look at the Weekend 10.

Penn State Fr. LHP Dante Biasi

Biasi twirled a gem on Sunday, as Penn State looked to finish a sweep of New Jersey Institute of Technology. The left-hander allowed just one hit and walked a batter, keeping NJIT off the scoreboard while striking out seven batters in six innings of work. NJIT erupted for seven runs over their last three at-bats to avoid the sweep, but not before Biasi made life miserable for the Highlanders

Ohio State Soph. OF Dominic Canzone

Ohio State opened their home slate with a swept Cal State Northridge, running their season-best winning streak to six games. The catalyst for the streaking Buckeyes has been Canzone, their leadoff hitter. The right fielder picked up eight hits over 15 at-bats, with two doubles, to set the table for an OSU lineup that scored 20 runs against the Matadors.

Michigan Fr. LHP Ben Dragani

Grabbing Freshman of the Week honors, Dragani turned in a brilliant, and efficient, performance against Bowling Green to cap a weekend sweep of the Falcons for Michigan. In his first start as a Wolverine, Dragani allowed just one unearned run off five hits, and struck out six batters without issuing a walk, needing only 74 pitches to pitch seven innings.

Michigan State Jr. RHP Riley McCauley

McCauley made sure the Spartans were victorious in their first home game of the season. On Thursday, against Niagara, McCauley pitched seven shutout innings, scattering four hits, to lead Michigan State to a 10-1 victory. McCauley walked three batters and struck out two, in recording his first victory of the season in three decision.

Minnesota middle infielders Luke Pettersen and Terrin Vavra

Minnesota’s middle infield was at the forefront of a headline-grabbing series victory at TCU. Knocking off the nationally-ranked Horned Frogs on the road, Pettersen, a senior second baseman, went 6-for-15 atop the Gopher lineup, while Vavra, a junior shortstop, went 7-for-13 from the three-hole. The two combined for six runs and six RBI.

Iowa Jr. OF Robert Neustrom

Neustrom had a big weekend to help Iowa end a five-game losing streak with a three-game sweep of Evansville. In a Saturday doubleheader against the Purple Aces, Neustrom went 5-for-9 with a pair of home runs, and a double, to score five runs and drive in three. Nuestrom scored his sixth run of the weekend on Sunday, collecting a walk and single in Iowa’s 4-3 win.

Rutgers Fr. LHP Harry Rutkowski

The big weekend for rookie southpaws extends down into Florida, where Rutkowski led Rutgers to a weekend-clinich victory. Helping the Scarlet Knights turn back Florida Gulf Coast, 6-3, Rutkowski struck out seven Osprey batters over six innings, allowing one run off four hits and three walks. Moving to 2-0 on the year, the win ran Rutgers’ winning streak to six games.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

A three-home run game in Illinois’ weekend opener against Southern Illinois was the start of a big weekend for the 10 Innings Player of the Week. Powering the Illini to a 16-6 victory, Spillane’s three home runs were a part of a 4-for-6, six-RBI effort, in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. In the nightcap, Spillane collected four more hits, two were doubles, to collect 19 bases on the weekend in 13 at-bats, for a 1.461 slugging percentage.

Indiana Jr. RHP Jonathan Stiever

Collecting 10 Innings’ Pitcher of the Week honor, Stiever was nearly perfect as Indiana rolled to an 18-0 victory against Northern Illinois. In the series opener against the Huskies, Stiever faced only two batters over the minimum, allowing just two singles in six scoreless innings of work. Moving to 2-1 on the season, Stiever struck out six batters without issuing a walk.

Illinois Jr. RHP Ty Weber

A career outing from Weber helped Illinois grab their road series at Southern Illinois. Over eight innings, Weber allowed two runs, one earned, off three hits and two walks. In the 6-2 victory, eight strikeouts helped Weber moved to 2-1 on the year and lowered his ERA to 3.63.

March 15-18 Weekend Preview

Rutgers in position to turn the corner

Rutgers is off to a 9-6 start, even though top prospect Jawuan Harris has been limited to 10 games.  (Noah K. Murray/Rutgers University)

Blake Dowson-

Last season, as they had in seven of the previous eight years, Rutgers flew down to Miami to start its season against a very good Hurricane team. The Scarlet Knights dropped the first two games before rolling to a 17-6 victory in the Sunday finale.

But any momentum established from the romp in Coral Gables was short lived, Rutgers went 5-7 in their next 12 games following opening weekend, before finishing the non-conference portion of their schedule at 10-14.

This season, Rutgers again started its season at Miami, and again grabbed the Sunday finale after dropping the first two games of the series. The difference, though, has been the Scarlet Knights’ resiliency this season. Following the Miami series Rutgers has bounced back, going 8-4 since.

“So far, we’re playing okay,” Rutgers head coach Joe Litterio said. “That’s the best way to say it. We’re up and down. Our record’s pretty good. There were a couple games out there that we left out there. So our record should actually be much better. It’s been a process.”

The couple of games Litterio referred to were a Feb. 25, 11-6 loss to Boston College, where the Eagles scored seven runs in the ninth inning, and another last-inning lost, on March 4, when Rutgers couldn't hold a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, falling to Old Dominion 4-3.  But, on the heels of a four-game winning streak, those tough defeats are the thing of the past, with Rutgers' biggest weekend to-date on hand.

Rutgers is staring at a series against Florida Gulf Coast, a team that contributed to the Scarlet Knights’ rocky non-conference season a year ago by sweeping their three-game set. The Eagles outscored the Scarlet Knights 26-9 last season.

If Litterio and his squad want to completely flip the script from a season ago, a strong showing against FGCU will go a long way.

The thing about that is, strong showings against the Eagles have been hard to come by this year. They sit at 13-3, having won nine of 10 at home thus far.

“They’re a good ball club. It’ll be a good test for us heading into conference season,” Litterio said. “Going in on a Friday night and playing on someone else’s field is always a tough test. I’m excited to see how we compete.”

Compete is exactly what Rutgers has done this season, according to its head coach. Litterio said a deep lineup has been able to cover up any one struggling spot in the order.

If one or two guys are slumping, four or five other guys have come up with multi-hit games to level out the production. More of that this weekend will lead to success, Litterio said.

“Our lineup is deep,” he said. “I think our guys are firing together and when we do that, it gets real deep. We have some key guys struggling, but other guys are picking them up.”

That deep lineup has seen 13 different guys pick up at least two RBI, including four that have reached double-digit runs batted in, and three more that have contributed seven. Five regulars are hitting above .300, led by Kyle Walker (hitting .515 in 33 at-bats) and Luke Bowerbank (.340 in 53 at-bats).

However, the Rutgers lineup has its work cut out for it this weekend, facing a Florida Gulf Coast staff that boasts three weekend starters who have all logged over 20 innings, and all sport an ERA of 2.74 or better.

All of that can be daunting, considering this is one of Rutgers’ biggest series in years.

Although the team has been in Florida for the last week, on spring break, the wear and tear of the travel a northern team faces over the first month can lead to tired bodies, haphazard and inconsistent play. And in some years, that would most likely be the case, according to Litterio.

“[Getting on so many planes] usually does take a toll, but I think this year it’s going too fast, because we’re playing good baseball,” Litterio said. “Everyone is getting along. There are no grumpy faces on the bench. We finished up practice [on Thursday], and everyone had high energy, they were focused. Usually this time of year, it’s a grind. We feel good with where we’re at right now.”

Win a couple games against FGCU, and Rutgers will feel really good heading into Big Ten play.

 

Webb's Words: Statement weekend round two

I often try to avoid putting too much stock into one weekend. First, baseball is a weird game, more than any sport, anyone can beat anyone. But more importantly, one three-game weekend is barely 5% of a 56-game college baseball season. A football fan wouldn't punt on a season after just one game, so I try to remind others that one weekend doesn't make or break a season.

But it's fair to say some weekends are bigger than others.

The first weekend of March saw high-profiled contests take place throughout the country. Michigan had a four-game series at Stanford, Indiana went to San Diego for another four-game set, Texas welcomed Northwestern and the Dairy Queen Classic saw Arizona, UCLA, and Washington take on Illinois, Michigan State and host Minnesota in a de facto Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge. Across those 21 games, the Big Ten went 10-11, lead by Illinois sweeping the DQ field and Indiana taking three games from San Diego. The weekend allowed Indiana to cement their position as a top team, and cause many to take notice of the Illini.

It's time for another significant weekend for the Big Ten.

In addition to Rutgers' series at Florida Gulf Coast, the conference has two more tough road series, Maryland travels to No. 18 East Carolina, while No. 11 TCU hosts Minnesota.

Both Maryland and Minnesota have appeared in the NCAA Tournament within the last two years, and each team has a roster which should put them in position to contend for a spot in another regional. Expectations were high entering the season, with the Gophers and Terrapins predicted to finished third and second, respectively, by D1Baseball.com.

Unfortunately neither team has really lived up to their billing. Minnesota went 1-2 in the DQ Classic, before suffering another 1-2 weekend last week at home against Creighton, to stand a respectable, but not too mighty, 12-7 on the year. Maryland has as many losses as Minnesota, but three less wins, their 9-7 record the result of a very uneven start to Rob Vaughn's tenure in College Park.

But any unfulfilled promise from the first month can be wiped away this weekend. In fact, this weekend is just the beginning of what could still shape up to be a special March, a month that stands tall come May.

Following Minnesota's trip to Texas, the Gophers open Big Ten play at reigning champion Nebraska, then welcome St. John's a preseason ranked team, to Minneapolis during their bye week. Maryland starts conference play in two weeks, but not before Stetson makes a trip to town, a team that is 13-1 and checks in as the No. 28 team in this week's NCBWA poll.

So this week this is a big week, but it won't make or break the season for Maryland, Minnesota, or Rutgers, but it's a weekend that can go a long way in starting something big, and provide another testament to the growth of Big Ten baseball, that Maryland and Minnesota are perennial regional threats, or that Rutgers is just the latest team to take a step forward.

 

Required reading

Former Illinois Coach Augie Garrido Dies -Matt Daniels, Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

Punxsutawney natives bring lifelong friendship to Penn State -Matthew Knaub, Daily Collegian

Matt Warren appreciating his extra innings for Huskers -Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald

What to watch for

Avoiding the letdown

What may be most impressive about Indiana's season so far is the Hoosiers ability to avoid a stretch of bad play. The bats may not have been out in full force last week against Pacific, but the pitching was stingy and powered a series victory. Any slight hiccup that may have occurred with a midweek loss to Cincinnati and dropping the first game to Pacific, 2-1, has been swept to the side by three straight victories.

At 12-4 and with a handful of quality victories, IU looks the part of a potential regional host.

A lot was expected of Indiana this season, the coaches' preseason conference favorite, and a veteran team has kept a steady ship.

Now it's time to see how a couple of teams, who many didn't think much of in the preseason, react with the attention upon them growing.

Illinois cracked this week's Baseball America poll at No. 24, and Ohio State caught the eye of DIBaseball.com after a midweek swept of UNC-Wilmington after splitting two games against Coastal Carolina. At 8-4 and 11-6, respectively, Illinois and Ohio State may be the contenders Indiana must fend off, opposed to Maryland and Nebraska, whom received the bulk of the preseason attention.

After picking up quality wins away from home, both the Buckeyes and Illini are playing baseball in their home state this weekend. As Illinois travels to Southern Illinois and Ohio State hosts Cal State-Northridge, but Big Ten teams are favored to win, and taking care of business against the teams they should, will help both sustain their momentum heading into conference action, with a growing eye on the NCAA Tournament.

Whelan's return

With all of Iowa's star power last year,  Jake Adams, Tyler Cropley, Mason McCoy, and Robert Neustrom, helping the Hawkeyes to the Houston Regional, it may take a peak at the Big Ten record book to remember Chris Whelan was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament.

After starting out 8-2, Iowa has dropped five consecutive games, in part due to an offense batting just .248, the absences of McCoy, to graduation, and Adams, the nation's home run leader, have certainly been felt. But this weekend Rick Heller and the Hawkeyes hope to get a shot in the arm and turn around their recent ways with the return of Whelan.

Coming off of a campaign where he batted .307 with 11 doubles and seven home runs as a sophomore, the outfielder has missed the first four months of the season after sustaining an UCL injury in his throwing elbow, which required surgery. Whelan has been medically cleared to swing and returns to the Iowa lineup as the team's DH this weekend against Evansville.

With only 21 extra-base hits, the fewest in the Big Ten, a bat like Whelan's returning one week before Iowa hosts Indiana to start Big Ten play is exactly what Iowa needs, as it seeks a fifth consecutive 30-win season.

Michigan, the new Florida?

It may be spring break for many teams around the Big Ten, but the action isn't heavy in Florida this weekend, only Rutgers is playing in the Sunshine State. Instead, no state has more Big Ten teams playing in it this weekend than Michigan.

Michigan and Michigan State have kicked off their home slates this week, continuing action on campus this weekend with the Wolverines hosting Bowling Green and the Spartans welcoming Niagara. An hour north of East Lansing, Central Michigan plays host to Northwestern.

There may be a little shifting of schedules in the three series, as Friday temperatures won't break the mid-30s throughout the state, but Saturday and Sunday will be sunny, climbing into the 40s and 50s. As the temperatures rise, all three teams hope they catch fire, Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern have struggled to 4-11, 5-10 and 5-7 starts so far.

 

By the numbers

.156- Already a two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week, Mason Erla is holding the opposition to a .156 batting average.

.333- Opponents have a 33% success rate in stolen base attempts against Indiana, stealing a Big Ten-low five bases in 15 attempts.

0- The Wolverines are the lone Big Ten yet to record a save this season.

1.32- The combined era over 47.2 innings between Purdue starters Tanner Andrews and Gareth Stroh, who respectively rank first and third in the conference.

51- Ohio State senior first baseman Noah McGowan has touched 51 bases this year, 10 more than any other Big Ten player.

203- Minnesota leads the Big Ten in hits with 203, for the conference's best average (.308), while having the best walk-to-strikeout ratio with just 107 strikeouts to 93 walks.

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: