A wild Big Ten season is set to come to an end in nine days, with the final two weekends of play set to bring high drama and tense moments as six teams battle for the conference championship. Gearing up for a frantic finish, this week’s 10 Spot takes a look at 10 thoughts 10 Innings’ Chris Webb has on the season thus far.
Maryland’s Jekyll & Hyde Act
While it may not please head coach John Szfec, it is quite impressive how Maryland can be two different teams based on where a game is played. When playing in College Park, Maryland has the country’s best home record at 19-1. But away from Bob “Turtle” Thomas Stadium, the Terrapins are just 8-12 in road games. Avoiding home losses has helped Maryland keep a stout RPI, but the inability to play at the same high level looks to have cost the program a shot at its first Big Ten championship, dropping their last two series, at Indiana and at Illinois.
Gilbreath’s Pitcher of the Year claim
Minnesota junior left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath entered the season with much attention, moving into the Gophers’ Friday role after excelling in relief last year and boosting his prospect stock in the Cape. Strangely, Gilbreath hasn’t received a lot of attention as the year has gone on, even though he’s performing at a Big Ten Pitcher of the Year season. Overall, Gilbreath is 5-0, with a 2.30 ERA, third-lowest in the Big Ten, with 74 strikeouts in 62.2 innings, and the conference’s stingiest batting average against at .167. In conference play, Gilbreath’s 1.86 ERA is second among starters, his batting average against drops to an incredible .141 with 47 punch-outs in 39.2 innings. Maryland’s Brian Shaffer and Michigan State’s Alex Troop have also had strong seasons and garner more attention in respect to prospect status, but Gilbreath is right there and it’s undeniable he’s having one of the best seasons among pitchers in the Big Ten.
Quite the race is unfolding for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, with several players, not only having strong debut seasons, leading the way for their teams. Minnesota infielder Jordan Kozicky stepped into the lineup due to injury and has not relinquished a spot on the Gophers’ lineup. The redshirt freshman is second in the Big Ten with a .357 average. On his heels is Ohio State right fielder Dominic Canzone, leading the Buckeyes with a .356 average and 10 stolen bases. Illinois second baseman Michael Massey is batting .321 with 10 doubles and six home runs, adding a superb glove up the middle. Michigan State left fielder Bryce Kelley is batting .347 with three triples and 10 stolen bases and Purdue center fielder Skylar Hunter sports a .325 average. Each of the five players have shown the skill and ability to be a force in their teams lineup for the next few seasons.
Harris’ prospect status primed to climb
The back-half of the Big Ten season has not been kind to Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights have dropped five consecutive conference games after reaching .500 in Big Ten play through 10 games. But the season has seen center fielder Jawuan Harris continue to climb as one of the conference’s top draft prospects for the 2018 season. As a freshman, Harris’ used elite speed to lead the conference with 35 stolen bases. But as a two-sport standout for Rutgers, starring at wide receiver on the gridiron, Harris was more athlete than baseball player. With a year of at-bats under his belt, as well as year of collegiate strength and conditioning, Harris’ overall game has blossomed. He’s still the Big Ten’s premier base stealer, with 23 swipes in 29 attempts, but he is now adding power with the speed. Batting .279, Harris has connected on eight home runs. Being a two-sport player does limit Harris’ ability to take on the summer circuit and engage in fall ball, but what he has done this spring has been noticed and could force a decision on which sport to pursuit a year from now.
Kinker a bright spot for the Buckeyes
It’s been a tough year for Ohio State. After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years, leading the Big Ten with 45 wins a year ago, it’s been a step backward for the Buckeyes, all but looking on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament. Injuries have hampered OSU pitching to go with an offense needing to retool after the graduation or drafting of seven starters. But there’s been a bright spot in right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker. The junior has been a rock for Greg Beals, closing, providing long relief and now emerging as a starter. In his first career start, Kinker tossed six innings of two-run baseball in the series finale at Michigan, leading the Bucks to a 4-2 win. In conference play, Kinker has the sixth-best ERA of qualified pitchers at 2.21, striking out 20 batters in 20.1 innings, giving Beals and the Buckeyes an anchor in the pitching staff to build around next season.
A tough Coach of the Year call
With two weeks to go, it’s shaping up to be a tough call for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Nebraska’s Darin Erstad has been a calming and steady force in guiding the Huskers through a turbulent start to their perch atop the Big Ten standings. Purdue’s Mark Wasikowski has overseen the best turnaround in the country, taking last year’s last place Boilermakers into an all but Big Ten Tournament participant with a winning season. Considering where teams where a month ago, Indiana’s Chris Lemonis and Illinois’ Dan Hartleb deserve recognition for in-season coaching, and Northwestern’s Spencer Allen has the Wildcats competitive, fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in seven years. There’s still two weeks to go and the standings are sure to have a final shakeup or two, but there’s been several outstanding jobs done by coaches in the conference this year.
Meyers is MVP, but Player of the Year?
Nebraska junior left-handed pitcher and center fielder Jake Meyers isn’t the best position player in the conference, nor is he the most dominant or outstanding pitcher. But in being able to take the mound on Sunday, leadoff Nebraska’s lineup, play defensively up the middle and be a terror on the bases, it’s hard to argue a player is more valuable than Meyers. On the mound, Meyers is 7-1 with a 2.96 ERA, striking out 45 batters against just eight walks in 70 innings. At the plate, Meyers sports a .301 average, a .422 on-base percentage and has stolen 18 bases in 19 attempts. Last year, Minnesota’s Matt Fiedler was named the top player, serving as the Gophers DH and Friday starter. He wasn’t the best player on the mound nor at the plate, but he helped Minnesota to the conference championship as a two-way force. Meyers may not jump out as the top player, but the precedent is there for him to take home the honor.
IU the new OSU?
The Hoosiers are rocking and rolling hitting mid-May with a head full of stream. From scuffling near .500 to being the top Big Ten team by way of RPI, the Hoosiers have caught fire. The run of Indiana is not unlike what the Big Ten saw last year with Ohio State. At one point, the Buckeyes were 2-5 in conference play before controlling their championship destiny in the last weekend. The Buckeyes blitzed through the Big Ten Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament, a thought unfathomable two months prior. Ohio State slugged their way through the 2016 season, hitting a conference-best 57 home runs. Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs, also at 57, reaching the total in just 47 games, 18 less than last year’s Buckeyes. With Craig Dedelow, Matt Lloyd and Luke Miller, IU has a trio of players with at least 10 home runs, giving Chris Lemonis the Big Ten’s most dangerous lineup, one never out of a game.
Travel curfew madness
The Big Ten season has already experienced one tie, Nebraska and Indiana playing to an 11-inning, 1-1 tie on April 2. The game ended in a deadlock due to Nebraska’s travel curfew. The conference nearly saw a second tie due to a travel curfew this past Sunday, when Illinois and Maryland were in the bottom of the ninth, tied 6-6, as Maryland’s travel curfew hit. A tie was averted as Illinois hit a two-out, two-run walk-off home run, to avoid needing a new half-inning, which would not have played. But, the close call came a week after Maryland did not play nine innings, as a travel curfew ended their Sunday final in Bloomington, after eight innings. That game did experience a weather delay, but it may be time the Big Ten goes to 11 a.m. starts for select Sundays, when teams on the boundaries of the Big Ten border, Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland have to get away from locations without easily accessible airports. The games deserve a just completion.
Rebuilds continue Big Ten’s competitiveness
There’s no set blueprint to rebuilding a program, each task is different. How a rebuild unfolds hinges on the dynamics of a roster, is it an underclassmen-heavy roster or one that will experience a significant turnover with the graduation of a large senior class. How scholarships are allocated throughout the roster and things such as recruiting budgets, admission requiring and scheduling can slow or expedite a change in win-loss fortune. This year, the Big Ten is home to quicker-than-expected competitiveness from two clubs. Behind Wasikowski, Purdue is leading the country in improvement from 2016 to 2017 winning percentage, sitting in the middle of the Big Ten after finishing last two of three years. Northwestern hasn’t fared much better of late, and to be just a tiebreaker from inside the Big Ten Tournament’s field heading into the weekend, is a testament to the job Allen has done. The last five seasons have witness the top of the Big Ten compete with any team in the country. Now, those who have lagged are stepping up creating an ultra-competitive conference top to bottom.