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.