Webb's Words: Sit back and enjoy a very big weekend
I planned on being in Palo Alto this weekend for Michigan's series at Stanford. It was after a long debate, I also wanted to be in Minneapolis for the Dairy Queen Classic, and I also wanted to be in San Diego for Indiana's series against USD. Unfortunately I can't be at three places at once, and last month I booked a flight to San Francisco. Wanting to visit northern California for the first time, wanting to walk around Stanford's campus, ideally enjoy good weather, and see a competitive four-game series, tilted the scales in the favor of Michigan-Stanford.
Unfortunately matters at home have kept me from traveling anywhere this weekend. But as I sit back and scan the weekend ahead for the Big Ten, that isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's probably the best possible outcome, this is a weekend to sit back and enjoy what is set to take place in the Big Ten.
From Florida, to the Twin Cities, down to Texas and out to California, there are big games and big series up and down the conference. The Dairy Queen Classic has No. 11 UCLA, a traditional power in Arizona, and Washington taking on Illinois, Michigan State, and Minnesota. Down in Texas, Spencer Allen takes Northwestern to Austin, where the Wildcats can take in an incredible environment and see what it's like to be a college baseball blueblood in No. 21 Texas, as they look to continue building up the program in Evanston. Ohio State has a contest against No. 17 Southern Mississippi in Pensacola, Fla. In California, No. 5 Stanford and No. 30 San Diego respectively await the Wolverines and Hoosiers. Even Nebraska's series at Wichita State, and Iowa heading to UAB, represent quality series.
I cannot remember a weekend where this many big games littered one weekend for Big Ten programs. And as the conference seeks to build off of placing five teams in regionals for the second time in three years, this is a weekend that can go a long way in ensuring another handful of teams are in the field of 64.
Further wetting the appetite for this weekend's games, Northwestern's games against Texas will be on the Longhorn Channel, Saturday's Ohio State-Southern Mississippi will be shown on Cox Sports and Sunday's Michigan-Stanford finale will be on the Pac-12 Network.
It would have been great to see the Golden Gate bridge, hop around Silicone Valley, ride a trolley, and rack up more Delta SkyMiles. But I'll be just fine to sit back, open the laptop, grab the iPad, have too many tabs of Gametracker open, find a television at the appropriate time and enjoy an incredible weekend of Big Ten action.
Wildcats look to sustain momentum, stand against blueblood Longhorns
(Photo courtesy Northwestern Athletics)
Things haven’t gone quite as planned for the Northwestern baseball team so far this season, but an early 2-4 record isn’t anything to panic over.
The Wildcats found themselves in the Big Ten Tournament title game last year, just one win away from the NCAA Tournament. Now the task is for the Wildcats to show they can consistently find themselves in that position, and ultimately end an NCAA Tournament drought that dates back to 1957.
“We have to prove we can be a consistent club,” Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen said. “We want to be one of the top eight teams in the Big Ten every year. It’s a dog fight. There are good baseball teams left out of the Big Ten tournament every year. We want consistency, and to prove that last year wasn’t just a flash in the pan.”
One way to see how you stack up with the top dogs in the Big Ten? Schedule an early-season trip to Austin, Texas to take on the Texas Longhorns. One way to prove you belong at the top of the conference? Come away with a couple wins against the perennial power Longhorns.
Scheduling teams like Texas is important to Allen; he says he’s not into the false confidence a team gets by beating up on a bunch of second-rate programs.
“One, we want to figure out what we’re about,” he said. “I’m not into the false confidence of a great preseason record when you’re not playing anyone. Rutgers is playing miami, Michigan State is going out west. Nebraska always schedules tough. So the conference feels the same way. Two, I want our guys to be excited to go play. They’ll remember this trip. The opportunity to go play at Texas in front of a couple thousand fans is special.”
Allen and the Wildcats will have to try to keep pace with a Longhorn order that produced 20 runs in a three-game series against LSU in Baton Rouge. On the offensive side, it starts and ends with junior Willie Bourbon.
Bourbon, a junior this year for the Wildcats, is off to a great start, hitting .375 with an absurd 1.385 OPS. Bourbon has hit two doubles, two triples, three home runs, and has driven in 10 runs, while no other Northwestern hitter has driven in over three.
“Willie has been a three-year starter now,” Allen said. “As a freshman, I think he struck out 73 times. I’m happy for him because he stayed with it. He kept working.”
Bourbon will need his pitching staff to keep Texas somewhat in check, however, and that’s something the Wildcats have struggled with this year.
Northwestern has given up 51 runs in six games this season, adding up to a team ERA of 7.96 and opponents’ batting average of .333. Those numbers won’t win many games, especially when Northwestern runs into good pitching, like it did against Kansas and again this weekend against Texas and the entire Big Ten season.
This weekend poses a critical opportunity to get the pitching staff back on track against a really good team.
“Number one, we need to get a little bit more quality starts,” Allen said of his staff. “Getting guys into the sixth inning, starting the seventh. We need more consistency out of the bullpen. I think those are a couple things. We just need a little bit more [out of everyone].”
A 2-4 record or not, Allen said he’s happy with where his team is at. He said there is no sense of urgency this weekend to win games, just an urgency to get consistent.
If his team does that, he said they are on the right track.
“It’s everything to do with how we’re playing...Kansas this [past] weekend, they threw two or three second round draft picks. They were really good. I’m looking at how we’re playing. We need to tighten things up on the pitching staff. We’ve been facing some good arms, and I’m happy with where we’re at.”
What to watch for
Pacific Coast series
Three big series will take place in California this weekend, each with a varying degree of importance.
In San Diego, Indiana looks to lend further credence to their stature as one of the country's top teams and potential regional host. The 17th-ranked Hoosiers have a four-game set at No. 30 San Diego, providing Chris Lemonis' club with an opportunity to capture a resume-highlighting series. After dropping their season opener to Oklahoma, the Hoosiers have reeled off six consecutive victories. Wins over Coastal Carolina and South Alabama should hold up nicely as the season progresses, but the weekend set at San Diego was thought to be the non-conference highlight of IU's schedule, and, with USD opening the season 7-2, sweeping through last weekend's Tony Gwynn Legacy with victories over Arizona, Arkansas and Michigan, it is indeed the defining series of Indiana's pre-Big Ten slate. Indiana's powerful offense will be tested by a Torero staff which is holding the opposition to a .221 average.
Up the Pacific Coast Highway, driving through Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties, Penn State has a Saturday through Monday series at UC Santa Barbara. The Nittany Lions head to the Golden State at 3-3, after going 0-3 last weekend in Cary, N.C., falling twice by one run. Looking to turn the tide themselves, Santa Barbara enters the weekend at 2-6 on the young season. The Guachos have allowed at least six runs in eight of their contests and could be the opponent Penn State needs, as the Nittany Lions are batting just .204 on the season. The series may not hold the significance of the clash in San Diego, but it's important Penn State shows an ability to bounce back from a tough weekend if the team is to reach the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2012.
Further north, in the Bay Area, Michigan has a four-game series at Stanford. The Wolverines have dropped four games in a row, sitting at 2-5 on the season, while the fifth-ranked Cardinal have yet to lose a game, looking to build on an 0-8 start. In the offseason, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich turned down an offer to become Stanford's head coach. Any thoughts surrounding a homecoming for the northern California native is secondary to Bakich, as he looks to get his team back on track, while squaring off against on the country's best teams. Stanford holds a 2.12 team ERA, a stinginess that will be tough on Michigan, who enters the weekend with a .219 team average. If Michigan can come away with a pair of victories, they will still have 12 weekends to show this is a reload season, a weekend split at Stanford may be as good of a showing as any conference team. If the Cardinal keep the Wolverines out of the win column and drop the Maize and Blue to 2-9, it's hard to see the 2018 season as anything but a rebuilding season.
Dairy Queen Classic
The stakes are obviously high for Big Ten teams in this week's Dairy Queen Classic which is doubling as second round of Big Ten/Pac-12 challenges.
With U.S. Bank Stadium, Minnesota's second home to Siebert Field, welcoming conference brethren Illinois and Michigan State, and Arizona, UCLA and Washington from the Pac-12, three days of three inter-sectional showdowns will take place. For each Big Ten team, the first weekend of March has the chance to set the tone for the rest of the season.
The Illini are 3-3 on the season, after winning their final two games of last weekend, knocking off Coastal Carolina and VCU. It's been an up-and-down season for Illinois, the offense has been there for a few games, then disappeared. Liekwise, stout pitching will arise for a game then be hard to find the rest of the weekend. Three good-to-very good teams will test Illinois' ability to get all gears going at the same time. Illinois has missed the last two Big Ten Tournaments, on the heels of appearing in two regionals in three years. To get back to their 2011-2015 run, Illinois will need to pitch, field and hit, and all there areas will be tested this weekend.
For the Spartans, an 0-5 start to the season has quickly faded with Michigan State's two wins to cap their weekend at Pepperdine. Now, can Michigan State's momentum continue? Michigan State's weekend rotation of Riley McCauley, Ethan Landon and Mason Erla have been the conference's best rotation out of the gate. The trio have combined to pitch 32 innings, have struck out 41 batters while only walking five hitters. The anchor that has held Michigan State back is a .208 team average, Jake Boss' team has yet to score more than five runs in a game, three contests saw them score just one run, with three others having the production top out at four runs. By comparison, MSU's 20 runs on the season is just one more than how many runs Ohio State's Noah McGowan has driven in. Is this the weekend the Green and White bats get going? It'll be a tall task. UCLA enters the weekend with a 1.88 ERA, Arizona is second in the Pac-12 at 2.01 and Washington checks in at an impressive 2.43.
The host Gophers may be the team best able to take on the Pac-12 trio, and also the one with the most to gain this weekend.
Minnesota's roster is littered with three and four-year starters. Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and Terrin Vavra were all key contributors in Minnesota's 2016 Big Ten championship team. With eight of nine starters back, and a schedule that'll give Minnesota many opportunities to capture impressive victories, this was viewed as a season where the elements could line up for the Gophers to reach their first super regional. That quest starts in earnest this weekend. Ranked 11th, UCLA is one of three ranked opponents Minnesota will face in March. In two weeks Minnesota travels to No. 7 TCU. The following weekend the Gophers host reigning Big Ten champion Nebraska to kick off conference play, the following week it's No. 23 St. John's turn to travel to the Twin Cities. Compiling a 7-2 weekend in February, Minnesota is off to a strong start, avoiding troubling losses that can stymie regional hopes before aspirations can take flight. Now, behind an offense batting .327, the Gophers can add quality wins to a stout record, and kick off a daunting month in grand style. Arizona's .221 average and Washington's .257, may provide the kind of opponent, good but not overly powerful, that will help a young Minnesota pitching staff encounter confidence-building success that will pay dividends throughout the month and, ideally for John Anderson, a long postseason.
Feltner back in the spotlight
For a second consecutive weekend, Ohio State junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner will toe the rubber against one of the country's best teams. Joining Ohio State in the Cox Diamond Invitational are Eastern Michigan, Nicholls State and No. 17 Southern Mississippi. A Last week, Feltner pitched six innings against No. 2 Oregon State, allowing four runs off six hits, striking out six batter while issuing two walks. Feltner received a no-decision as Oregon State rallied to a 10-8 victory with six runs in the bottom of the eighth. At 5-3, the Buckeyes have started the season solidly, there isn't a marquee victory, but two of the three losses are likely to a national seed in Oregon State. The game against Southern Mississippi gives the team another opportunity to secure a strong non-conference victory as look to return to the NCAA Tournament, and will have their top prospect on the mound as they do so.
After turning heads in the Michigan State bullpen over the past two seasons, McCauley is making the transition to the rotation as a junior. Serving as the Spartan closer last year, McCauley posted a 17.18 strikesouts per nine innings pitched, to go with a 2.10 ERA and nine saves. Carrying that momentum into the Cape Cod League, McCauley earned All-Star honors by continuing to miss bats with a 15.51 strikeouts per nine innings pitched and 1.92 ERA for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
Undersized, but athletically built, at 5’11” and 205 pounds, McCauley’s frame offers little by way of future projection. In short bursts, McCauley’s fastball is an above average-to-plus pitch at 92-94 MPH, though an AL scout disclosed that the right-hander has trouble maintaining that velocity as a starter.
McCauley’s best pitch is a late-breaking low-80s slider with two-plane break and 10-to-4 movement. Though he’s able to generate swings and misses with both pitches, control has been a challenge throughout his collegiate career, evidenced by a 4.07 walks per nine innings pitched rate. These factors combined with the lack of a third offering were reasons the scout cited for projecting McCauley’s future home in a bullpen as a professional.
A member of our a preseason 10 Innings first-team selection, McCauley’s move to the rotation has provided mixed results thus far. He was brilliant on opening weekend against Fresno State, allowing one run off two hits with 12 strikeouts and two walks, but he was hit hard last weekend against Pepperdine, being struck for five runs off 11 hits in 4.2 innings, striking out six batters and walking two.
As Michigan State looks to build off of their weekend win at Pepperdine, McCauley will take the ball to start the Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis this weekend against Washington.
10 Innings' Scouting Grades
After spending three seasons as Iowa's director of baseball operations, Desi Druschel stepped into the role of pitching coach, following the transition of assistant Scott Brickman to a role within the university's Iowa Foundation. At the forefront of the Hawkeyes embracing of technology, which has aided the program's revival, Druschel now leads a pitching unit head coach Rick Heller called the deepest he has had in his time in Iowa City. Here's Druschel in this week's Coachspeak.
In your time on the staff with Coach Brickman, what did you learn from him that you absolutely were going to continue implementing and carry on?
Specific to baseball, Scott was really good with the running game and had some great strategies to contain that critical part of the game. He was also a master at pitch-calling and use of off-speed pitches.
I’m always trying to figure out what makes people successful – what are the traits they possess that are major players in their success. Scott’s biggest trait is he is the ultimate listener. Couple that with his calm demeanor and those are the two things that made him as successful as he was. While we certainly continue with many of his baseball specific attributes it is these more holistic traits that I’ve benefited from the most. Scott is also still in town, knows the staff and is a great resource.
The Hawkeye program has gained national attention for its acceptance and use of technology. How have you personally embraced the continued development of technology, knowing it is an ever-changing, ever-improving field?
Whether it be professional, college, high school or youth baseball, technology is playing a heavy hand in it all. Some form of tech has become affordable for nearly everyone.
At our level and the professional level more expensive technology is now become more common. Through donors and Coach Heller’s willingness to invest, we have had the opportunity to be at the forefront of technological advances with Trackman, Pitchgrader, HitTrax, Senaptec, Rapsodo, BATS!, Synergy and other forms. As director of operations. I spent a great deal of time with the implementation of all of these different pieces of equipment. I got my hands dirty and have learned so much. It’s exciting to be able to implement technology in my current position.
A big thing now is that technology has become so popular that having the knowledge and background to implement effectively is the latest skill sought for programs and organizations. Having an understanding of what the data says and the ability to bring it to the field without sacrificing best skill acquisition practices is where the real challenge lies.
The technology is so good that I’ve come to the point where I’m reliant on it. And there is more coming. Every Power 5 conference team, probably nearly every Division I team will have Synergy next season. I’ve got my eye on a couple things for the offseason too.
I’ve always been interested in this kind of stuff so needless to say I’m enjoying seeing it become a major component of college and professional baseball
Iowa has appeared in two regionals in three years, success not seen in a generation. What steps do you take to not be content with what's already occurred and fight back complacency?
Our entire staff is from Iowa, we understand what the Tigerhawk means in our state. We have all followed the Hawks our entire lives. Personally I feel a great responsibility to all of those Hawk fans out there.
While Coach Heller has resurrected Iowa baseball and breathed life and enthusiasm into the program, I don’t think anybody is satisfied with where were are at. We are certainly proud of what the program has done but have so much more to accomplish. Complacency is a real thing; there is no doubt we have to deal with it on a regular basis. But I don’t think it’s what Coach Heller or the program is about. All of our staff could be described as scrappers and complacency is just not the way we live our lives.
Personally I’ve got a couple people to serve as checks as I don’t ever want to be described as an entitled person or coach. With all of the resources and recent program success it is easy to envision complacency or entitlement.
When you have a weekend rotation that needs entirely replaced, is there excitement in seeing who steps up and fills role or is that overwhelmed by the anxiety of the uncertainty?
All of the above! While there is some anxiety and certainly uncertainty there is also a great deal of excitement. We have probably the deepest pitching staff since Coach Heller took over the program. There have been guys working really hard, more or less waiting in the weeds for a shot. We’ve also had several guys come into the program with serious arm injuries sustained after commitment but before enrollment. Coach Heller stuck with those guys and they have been training diligently, just waiting for an opportunity. Long story short, we have capable guys on staff, 1-15. The early part of the season will determine how the roles are filled for league play.
Your one-sentence, elevator pitch to who you are as a coach:
I think one of the reasons why Coach Heller gave me this opportunity is that we are similar in a lot of ways, player development is what I’m about and what the program is about.