It’ s statement weekend in the Big Ten with big series littered across the conference. From a marquee non-conference showdown in Ann Arbor between two ranked clubs, to the battle of Illinois, a pair of top-50 RPI teams battling it out in Bloomington and a border battle with Big Ten championship implications, many teams have a chance to make a statement this weekend.
Here’s this weekend’s preview.
Huskers and Iowa native Miller provide a challenge for Hawkeyes
When Rick Heller was hired in the spring of 2013 to head the Iowa baseball team, he made a vow that he said would turn the program around. He said it was a simple plan: keep the best players from the state of Iowa in house, in black and gold.
He’s done pretty well with that. Former two-way standout, Tyler Peyton, though a JUCO transfer from Iowa Central Community College, is a Grimes, Iowa native and played a big part in turning the program around the past three years. Ben Norman and Grant Judkins, both true freshmen from central Iowa, have made big contributions this season.
Heller has only been in Iowa City for about three and a half years now, though, which means the final round of top high school players of 2013 that Heller couldn’t get his hands on are now seniors elsewhere.
One of those players is Ben Miller, the 2013 Class 4A Player of the Year in Iowa, playing for West Des Moines Valley High School. The accolades don’t stop there, either. Miller was named first-team All-State by multiple organizations, named a top-50 left-handed pitching prospect, and was the No. 4 recruit from the state of Iowa in his senior year, according to Perfect Game.
Miller left Iowa, and has been an all-conference performer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, starting almost 200 games in his career. This weekend, Heller has to deal with Miller, the lead man in the final class of “the ones that got away” for the Iowa program.
The Clive, Iowa native has been on a tear lately, to make matters worse for the Hawkeyes. This past weekend, against a ranked Maryland team with arguably the best starting staff in the Big Ten, Miller went 10-for-13. In Tuesday’s game at Kansas State, where he also pitched three innings receiving the midweek start, Miller went 2-for-5 with a pair of doubles. From a .211 average a week ago, he now stands at .283 after multi-hit performances in his past four games, and seven of his last 10.
Miller is a good representation of which direction the Huskers are headed. Nebraska picked up its 20th win of the season on Tuesday against Kansas State, and sits at 4-1-1 in the Big Ten with series against Indiana and Maryland out of the way.
“This was a great challenge to build an identity. It was a pleasure to watch them go about their business today,” Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad said after his team’s Sunday win over Maryland. “I honestly did not have to say hardly anything today. You could hear, the right voices were the loudest, and the guys that we want to be leading the charge did a nice job and it was fun to just sit back and watch them do it. It’s to their credit. It’s a group of players that took it upon themselves to take the challenge and they did it.”
Iowa headed in the other direction last weekend, losing 2-of-3 to Northwestern in Evanston to move to .500 in conference. The Hawkeyes were generous in giving out an extra 90 feet to the Wildcats over the weekend, but cleaned that up a bit in their midweek win over Western Illinois.
“A big reason we got beat on Saturday and Sunday was that we gave up a lot of free bases on the mound,” Heller said. “Tonight we didn’t. If you look at basically every game…when you give up a lot of free bases there’s usually an ‘L’ on the other side of the column, when you don’t, it’s usually a ‘W.’ “
Iowa is good enough to beat anybody in the conference when Nick Gallagher is on the mound, as he will be on Friday. Gallagher has produced a 2.15 ERA and a 4-1 record over 46 innings, only giving up nine free passes all year (eight walks, one hit by pitch.)
Ryan Erickson will likely get the ball for Iowa on Saturday, and Cole McDonald on Sunday. Both of them have double-digit walk numbers this season in less work than Gallagher. McDonald will share the mound with Nebraska’s Jake Meyers on Sunday, who has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the Big Ten this season. Meyers has a 2.25 ERA over 44 innings, highlighted by his 7.1-inning performance against Maryland in which he scattered seven hits and three earned runs to earn the win.
According to junior catcher Austin Guzzo, though, Iowa won’t be looking at Meyers or any other Husker on the mound and worrying. To the Hawkeyes, it’s not Meyers or the Huskers they are competing against.
“It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing,” he said. “…We’re playing the baseball. We’re not playing the other team. We’re trying to beat the baseball, trying to hit the baseball, field the baseball, no matter who’s hitting it or throwing it at us.”
And if they can beat the Huskers by beating, cleanly picking and throwing the baseball, a weekend victory will keep the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title hunt, an accomplishment that will surely help Heller put a fence around Iowa and keeping the Millers of the world at home.
Oklahoma gives a big opportunity for Michigan, Big Ten
Michigan has a 26-7 record, #13 overall ranking by D1Baseball.com and #18 in the NCBWA poll. But a look at this week’s NCAA Tournament projections by Baseball America has the Wolverines traveling for regional play, not worthy of hosting a regional.
The problem is, as much as Michigan passes the eye test, albeit early, the Wolverines aren’t rated highly in the RPI, checking in at #39 by Warren Nolan. Michigan won two of three games in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic, taking down San Diego and USC, two wins that should feel good, but a closer look has San Diego #44 in the RPI and USC #70.
Similarly, with more to follow in the weekend preview, Minnesota, who sits atop the Big Ten and has a 20-8 record, is one of the last four teams in Baseball America’s field, their strong season thus far doesn’t have them in a comfortable position, according to Baseball America. The publication’s projected field that does include four conference teams, and has one, Indiana in the first four out, and another, Michigan State, in the next four out. The signs are there that the Big Ten is a quality conference this year. But what’s missing, on both, Michigan’s resume and the overall perception of the Big Ten this year, is a marquee non-conference victory.
Michigan State had a chance to give the conference a boost with a series at South Carolina. The Spartans played the Gamecocks tough, but ultimately fell short. Iowa had a chance to take a road series to open the year at upstart South Florida, but could only take one game. In week two, Maryland was handily swept in their series at LSU. Penn State was no match for TCU, the same for Rutgers at Virginia. The conference’s signature victory, a 6-1 win over #1 Oregon State, is by an Ohio State team just fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, .500 games under .500. Taking away games from intra-conference victories, the Big Ten
All of that can change this weekend in Ann Arbor.
For their Big Ten bye week, Michigan hosts Oklahoma in a non-conference series garnering national attention. The Sooners are ranked #10 in this week’s NCBWA poll and are rated No. 16 in the RPI. In falling to Maryland on the road, Michigan is still in search of that premier win. This can be it. It can also be what the Big Ten needs to truly show their best can match up with the best of the best around the country, and give the conference the benefit of the doubt when looking forward, trusting the eyes, not the numbers.
Prospect showdown of the week
It isn’t one of the top series of the weekend, but there won’t be a better a head-to-head matchup of pitching prospects than Friday’s pairing of Maryland junior right-handed pitcher Brian Shaffer and Penn State junior right-handed pitcher Sal Biasi.
Viewed as the Big Ten’s top pitching prospect by D1Baseball.com in their Midseason top 100 college prospects, Shaffer is having a season worthy of being the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Just one out shy of averaging seven innings per start, in eight starts, Shaffer holds a 1.94 ERA with 56 strikeouts against 13 walks. At 6’5, Shaffer has long arms to create a good downhill plane, using a heavy low-90s fastball to attack hitters at the knees.
Biasi matches Shaffer with 56 strikeouts, but has racked up his total in just 39 innings. However, 22 walks have hurt the Nittany Lion, who sports a 4.15 ERA. Where Shaffer has a fluid delivery with little stress, to have above-average command of his pitches Biasi is a power pitcher, reliant on a fast arm. Biasi checks it at only 6′, but can empty the effort tank and run his fastball up to 96 MPH, and sit 93-95.
Around the conference
Minnesota (20-8, 6-0) at Indiana (17-13-2, 4-4-1)
Minnesota heads to Indiana with the Big Ten’s top conference mark and riding an 11-game winning streak. The reigning Big Ten champions are looking the part of potential back-to-back title holders, but in their pursuit of a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Minnesota’s resume is lagging, so say the numbers.
Though the Gophers started Big Ten play with a pair of road sweeps at Ohio State and Michigan State, Minnesota only has one win against a top-50 RPI team, the series opening victory against Missouri State. As a result, Minnesota’s RPI is only 46, though they are the current Big Ten leaders. It is still early to be too concerned with RPI and strength of schedule numbers, there are still seven weekends left in the season, but a golden opportunity is at hand for Minnesota to impress the computers.
Although there overall record is not as impressive as Minnesota, Indiana sits No. 37 in Warren Nolan’s RPI. And though they are just .500 in Big Ten play, Indiana is looking to gather a bit of momentum and put together a winning streak so they can be in position to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers have played five games against the RPI’s top 50, but are 0-4-1. With Minnesota in the last four in, in this week’s field of 64 projection by Baseball America, and Indiana one of the first four at, it’s going to be a big weekend in Bloomington.
Ohio State (14-19, 3-6) at Michigan State (18-11, 3-3)
Two teams with inconsistent offenses will square off in East Lansing with Michigan State hosting Ohio State. Uneven results over the last three weeks are having both teams in search for consistency and build momentum heading into the second half of the season.
Michigan State ended a five-game losing streak with a sweep over Fresno State last weekend. During their slide, MSU scored only 14 runs, an output nearly doubled in the 27 runs the Spartans scored against Fresno State. But the bats were quite again in midweek action, falling to Notre Dame, 2-1, a fourth straight midweek loss by a run.
Ohio State knows all too well the troubles of midweek games, scoring just two runs off nine hits in losses this week to Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan. The offensive outage comes after sweeping a Sunday doubleheader at Penn State where the Buckeyes scored 16 runs.
Michigan State still has a shot at the Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament berth while the Buckeyes are playing for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. A weekend win is critical to both in their respective pursuits.
Purdue (17-15, 5-4) at Rutgers (11-18, 0-3)
Rutgers hopes to keep their slugging ways going as they host a series critical to their Big Ten Tournament aspirations. With the team experiencing travel issues last weekend, wiping away their three games at Minnesota, the Scarlet Knights have less of a margin of error in trying to build out of an 0-3 start to Big Ten play.
One of the teams they’re chasing, Purdue, heads to Piscataway this weekend. Rutgers is coming off of a school-record, 28-run performance in their midweek win against Lafayette, and have a key number in mind. Rutgers is 9-0 this year when scoring at least six runs, sitting 38-8 since 2015 when scoring sextet of runs.
For Purdue, as they look to continue their turnaround campaign, the weekend provides an opportunity to firmly take grip of a top-eight spot, current the Boilermakers have a two-game advantage, and a tiebreaker in hand, over Ohio State. The series will feature a pair of the Big Ten’s hottest hitters with Scarlet Knight senior first baseman Mike Carter leading the conference with a .409 average and Purdue sophomore catcher Nick Dalesandro sporting a .362 clip.
Northwestern (12-20, 2-4) at Illinois (12-18, 1-5)
This weekend’s series in Champaign between Illinois and Northwestern comes too early to call this an elimination game in a pursuit for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. But it’s hard to see the loser picking up enough wins to garner a spot in the eight-field tournament by season’s end. However, the winner can start to make a climb up the standings, keeping eighth place in striking distance and both teams enter the weekend playing their best baseball of late. Illinois did lose two out of three against Michigan, but the Illini are 6-2 in their last eight games. After winning their home series against Iowa last week, Northwestern has won seven of their last 10. Both teams can put up a crooked number, the key this weekend will be minimizing free bases and extra opportunities for the opponent.
Home Run Chase 2017
Iowa Jr. 1B Jake Adams: 13 home runs in 31 team games, 56-game pace of 23. School record: 22 (John Knapp, 1986)
Illinois Sr. 1B Pat McInerney: 11 home runs in 30 team games, 56-game pace of 20. School record: 26 (Josh Klimek, 1996)
College Spotlight: Week 8 -PerfectGame.org
Wildcats pick up fourth straight win, look to add to streak -Joseph Wilkinson, The Daily Northwestern
Hawkeyes back on track after upending Western Illinois -Dargan Southard, Des Moines Register
The heroic feats of Kyle Schwarber -ESPN
Michigan to see first test in No. 18 Oklahoma -Robert Hefter, The Michigan Daily
Do Or Die Time For Buckeyes…? -Sonny Fulks, Press Pros Magazine