Weekend 10: Week 1

College baseball is back, with the first weekend of the 2019 season in the books. Minnesota and Ohio State each played on Monday, extending the weekend a day, giving us a President’s Day treat. But now, with all games in, here’s a rundown of 10 things that caught our attention, and made us say wow or go hm, over the opening weekend.

Grant Judkins dazzles

Viewed by head coach Rick Heller as the wildcard to the Hawkeye pitching staff, right-handed pitcher Grant Judkins wasted no time assuring he was indeed ready for a leading roll as a weekend rotation staple. Helping Iowa to a 10-0 romp over Marshall on Sunday, Judkins was unhittable. In six innings of work, the junior did not allow a hit to the Thundering Herd and struck out 11 batters. Judkins did walk three and hit another batter, but the 11 strikeouts were the Big Ten-high of the weekend and a career-high for Judkins. Judkins’ 11 were a part of Iowa hurling dialed up 41 strikeouts over three games this weekend.

Lonsway’s long-awaited debut

Arriving in Columbus as the Big Ten’s top ranked recruit, left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway never logged an inning as Ohio State reached the NCAA Tournament in 2018, ineligible due to how a high school course registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse. But now, as Ohio State looks for a third regional appearance in four years, the 19th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 is ready to lead the way atop the OSU rotation, as the Buckeyes need to replace all three weekend starts. The southpaw’s debut lived up to the hype of being a potential ace. Against Seton Hall, Lonsway scattered three hits, allowed one run and struck out nine batters against three walks in six innings.

Well-rounded Illini sweep through the weekend

It was a strong weekend showing for Illinois, getting it done in all three aspects in North Carolina. After opening the weekend with an offensive barrage in an 11-3 win over Georgetown, Illinois knocked off a ranked Wake Forest team at home, 5-2, before dispatching Sacred Heart, 4-0. Illinois relievers allowed only one unearned run, while the defense committed just one error throughout the weekend. The Illini tortured the opposition on the bases, racking up 10 steals in 11 tries, led by senior outfielder Zac Taylor going 5-5. While Dan Hartleb’s team hit on all cylinders, the performance of junior right-handed pitcher Cyrillo Watson was the weekend’s highlight. On Sunday, Watson struck out eight batters in six innings without issuing a walk.

Mercer picks up win #1

The Jeff Mercer Era in Bloomington was delayed a day, but the first game of Indiana’s Saturday doubleheader at Memphis, the Hoosiers knocked off the Tigers, 6-1, giving head coach and Indiana native Jeff Mercer his first victory leading IU. A seven-inning, two-hit effort from senior right-hander Pauly Milto and a four-run fifth inning sparked Indiana. Indiana’s third coach in five years, Mercer has spoke about how Indiana is the program he dreamed of leading, with the weekend’s two wins in Memphis, and series win, ideally the first of many.

Michigan marches on

A team with multiple preseason rankings, Michigan performed as a team worthy of a bullet, with a weekend sweep over Binghamton, in Port St. Lucie. A pair of 10-run margins, 10-0 and 12-2, sandwiched a last-at-bat, 5-4 win on Saturday. Junior lefty Tommy Henry showed ace-stuff with nine strikeouts and one walk over six innings in the season opener. Classmate Karl Kauffmann followed that with 10 punchouts in eight innings on Saturday. The first game saw four Wolverines record multi-hit games, before Saturday and Sunday produced games of three multi-hit efforts. For the weekend, the Michigan offense produced 11 extra-base hits and seven stolen bases, in turning back the Bearcats in all three contests.

Pitching powers PSU to sweep

Leading the Nittany Lions to a three-game sweep on Monmouth, PSU pitchers allowed just three earned runs all weekend, four total, as seven pitchers combined to yield just eight hits all weekend. With 27 strikeouts to nine walks, the pitching staff starred as PSU grabbed victories of 1-0, 7-0, 6-4. Making two relief appearances, sophomore Mason Mellott allowed one hit and one unearned run over six innings, a vital cog in PSU opening the season with a weekend sweep for the second year in a row.

Sidelined Huskers make their return

Three key Nebraska pitchers returned to the diamond after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. And, at least through the first weekend, the results were encouraging, although the defense behind them caused a few lines to appear bloated. Helping Nebraska take three of four games at Cal-Riverside, the returning pitchers and their performances were:

Sophomore left-hander Connor Curry: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 SO

Friday starter, junior right-hander Chad Luensmann 3 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO

Junior right-hander Robbie Palkert 1.1 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 SO

In 2017, Luensmann and Palkert were key late-inning relievers, respectively pitching 43.1 and 41.1 innings to 3.47 and 2.61 ERAs, helping Nebraska claim its first Big Ten time.

Purdue’s late-inning woes

It was a tough weekend for the Purdue bullpen, as the Boilermakers saw late leads lost in all three games at Southern Miss. Coming off of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012, Purdue showed they have the parts to be competitive against a top team, the Golden Eagles were ranked No. 26 in the NCBWA preseason poll, but following the graduation of two-time all-conference closer Ross Learnard, the bullpen depth came up short. The leads Purdue lost this weekend:

Friday, 6-4, after 7.5

Saturday 2-0, after 5.5

Sunday 7-4, after 5.5

There isn’t much time for Purdue to sulk or think what could have been, Purdue has another tough weekend in front of them with four games at Texas, another preseason top-30 club.

Minnesota’s rough weekend

It was almost as bad of a weekend as possible for the defending Big Ten champions. In four games in Surprise, Ariz., the Gophers managed only one win, suffering poor showings in all facets of the game. Minnesota did not receive a quality start on the weekend, committed four errors in an 11-1 loss to New Mexico, lost 13-1 to Oregon State, in a rematch of last years Corvallis Super Regional, then saw Gonzaga avenge their season-opening, 8-5 defeat, with a 6-5 win on Monday. Outscored, 38-15, pitching to a 6.69 ERA, while batting .200 and with six errors, the journey for a third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years is off to a nightmarish start for Minnesota. But, the last time Minnesota lost three games in one weekend, March 11-14, 2016, they would go on to claim a Big Ten title.

Burhenn showcases his stuff

As good as Lonsway was for Greg Beals, he didn’t turn in the best pitching performance of the weekend for the Buckeyes. Freshman right-handed pitcher Garrett Burhenn was almost perfect in his debut, helping Ohio State clinch the weekend series against Seton Hall on Saturday. In eight innings, Burhenn pitched to the minimum 24 batters over 78 pitchers. Allowing just a single, erased on a double play, the freshman from Indianapolis struck out six batters without issuing a walk., in Ohio State’s 6-0 win. Leading up to the season, the Ohio State staff was what Patrick Fredrickson and Max Meyer did as freshman for Minnesota, and believe their corp of freshman arms, led by Burhenn, had the potential to do the same. So far so good.

The Weekend 10

And just like that the regular season has come to an end. With Big Ten Tournament bids on the line, teams fighting for NCAA Tournament berths, and, unfortunately, the last round of collegiate at-bats and pitches for some players in the conference, from Rutgers to Iowa, and campuses in-between, big performances were found throughout the Big Ten.

Here’s the 10 weekend performances that caught the eye of 10 Innings.

Iowa Jr. LHP Nick Allgeyer

Allgeyer’s ledger held at 5-4, but the junior southpaw twirled a gem to open Iowa’s series against Penn State. Over seven innings, Allgeyer kept the Nittany Lions from crossing home, scattering five hits in a scoreless outing. Six Penn State batters went down on strikes, to two drawing walks, as Allgeyer ran his season total to 86 punchouts in 90 innings.

Purdue Sr. RHP Tanner Andrews

The final start of Andrews career at Alexander Field was a memorable. Helping Purdue take control of a key weekend series against Michigan, the senior pitched 7.1 innings of shutout baseball on Thursday. Holding the Wolverines to six hits and two walks, Andrews used five strikeouts in 107 pitches to move to 6-4 on the year, and lower his ERA to 2.71.

Ohio State Sr. 1B Bo Coolen

Providing Greg Beals with a late-season burst, Coolen went 3-for-5 with three doubles in Ohio State’s series-opening win against Michigan State on Thursday. The Buckeye first baseman scored a run and drove in two, before picking up two more hits over the weekend’s final two games.

Iowa Soph. SS Kyle Crowl

Crowl only went collected a single and a double over five at-bats, scoring three runs against Penn State. But Hawkeye had back-to-back games where he drew four walks, and added a hit by pitch in the weekend finale to reach base 11 times. It may not be the most offensive weekend, but it was an impressive weekend of plate discipline and pitch recognition by Crowl.

Penn State Fr. RHP Bailey Dees

Making his fourth start of the season, Dees saved his best outing for last. Grabbing the ball to start Penn State’s opener at Iowa, Dees kept the Hawkeyes off of the scoreboard in his five-inning outing. The rookie allowed only three hits, issued four walks, and struck out six batters. The fine outing in Iowa City nets Dees this week’s 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week nod.

Illinois Jr. LHP Andy Fisher

Fisher held Nebraska in check on Friday, allowing one run off six hits, in six innings of work. In his first season of action, after transferring from Eastern Illinois, Fisher closed the regular season with his sixth win in eight decisions, striking out six batters to one walk.

Minnesota Jr. RHP Reggie Meyer

Meyer has been solid atop the Gopher pitching staff all season, the lone veteran in a rotation rounded out by freshmen. Perhaps fittingly, the upperclassmen’s best game of the year was the gem that clinched the 24th Big Ten championship in Minnesota’s history. On the road at Rutgers, on Thursday, Meyer, the Big Ten and 10 Innings Pitcher of the Week, tossed an efficient eight innings, in holding the Scarlet Knights off the scoreboard. Tossing 93 pitches, and allowing only three hits, Meyer improved to 6-3 on the year, thanks to out five strikeouts against one walk.

Indiana Jr. 3B Luke Miller

The Hoosiers are hot heading to Omaha, using a six-game winning streak to cap the regular season. Helping fuel Indiana’s sweep of Maryland was an offensive outburst from junior third baseman Luke Miller. The Big Ten and 10 Innings Player of the Week, Miller recorded a multi-hit game in each of Indiana’s three wins over the Terps. The weekend started with Miller going 2-for-3 with two home runs, a walk, and four RBI on Thursday. On Friday, Miller picked up his 11th home run of the season in a 2-for-4 game, before going 3-for-4 on Saturday with an double and his sixth RBI of the weekend.

Michigan State Soph. RHP Mike Mokma

With their postseason hopes on the line, Michigan State sophomore Mike Mokma turned in a dominant outing, lifting the Spartans past Ohio State, 8-3. Moving to 2-4 on the year, Mokma logged seven innings of work, holding the Buckeyes to one run off six hits. Mokma needed just 79 pitches to toss seven innings, issuing just one walk, while punching out four Buckeye batters.

Nebraska Jr. DH Jesse Wilkening

The Huskers weren’t able to find a last-weekend miracle, falling short of qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament. It was in no part due to the performance of Jesse Wilkening. In three games in Champaign, the junior collected six hits in 12 at-bats, drawing a pair of walks in two other plate appearances, recording two doubles and a home run, en route to driving in three runs and scoring twice.

May 17-19 Weekend Observations

The regular season came to an end with a dramatic weekend throughout the Big Ten. With the conference championship decided on the season’s penultimate day, and a fight to the finish for the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten Tournament, stakes were in every series.

On hand for three of those series, here’s what was observed in Bloomington, Champaign, and West Lafayette, followed by quick hits from around the conference.

Maryland at Indiana

The leading storyline heading into the series between Maryland and Indiana was the Terps controlling their destiny in pursuit of the Big Ten Tournament. Hanging on to the tournament’s final seed, Maryland held the head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan state, who also entered the weekend the same 9-11 mark in conference play. Secondary, though not in the mind of Chris Lemonis, was Indiana’s desire to round into form, as they entered the postseason. With little doubt the Hoosiers will be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament, finding a way to hit on all cylinders would be timely for a club that appears to have the pieces on paper to make a deep postseason run. In the end, the Hoosiers (37-15, 14-9) showed their process, adding a weekend sweep on top of a big midweek win at Louisville to head to Omaha hot, a place where Maryland (24-30, 9-14) will not be traveling to, as their season came to an end.

Luke Miller’s promising power display

On Thursday, after Maryland’s Zach Jancarski gave the Terps a 2-0 lead with a home run to left in the top of the second, IU junior third baseman Luke Miller answered with a solo shot to left field in the bottom of the inning. Then, with Indiana trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Miller hit a three-run home run to right field, giving Indiana their first lead of the game, en route to a 6-5 victory. On Friday, Miller added a home run to center field, providing the final run in Indiana’s 5-1 victory. Now pacing Indiana with 11 home runs, Miller’s performance comes at a time when big talent has played a big role in postseason success in recent years.

In 2016, it was Ronnie Dawson for Ohio State. Last year, Jake Adams produced home run after home run in the postseason. As much as pitching and defense may win regular season titles, the teams which have shown a bit of muscle have fared favorably in recent years. Illinois’ Bren Spillane, more on him later, is drawing attention for his eye-popping season and 22 home runs, but scouts and opposing coaches in the Big Ten feel Miller has the most raw power in the conference. It’s power that can carry Indiana through Omaha, and help the club find their way back to TD Ameritrade three weeks later.

Indiana baseball is ingrained in the Bloomington culture

It’s been five years since Indiana made their run to Omaha, capturing the attention of the nation behind Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Aaron Slegers, Joey DeNato, and company. There isn’t a member of Indiana’s College World Series team still in Bloomington, but on Thursday, with the athletic department passed out commemorative banners honoring the 2013 season, it was evident that baseball is there to stay in Btown. After 2,114 fans poured into Bart Kaufman Field for the series opener, the turnout was 1,790 on Friday, then 2,765 in the regular season finale, for a weekend average of 2,223. Attendance figures like that don’t happen by chance, especially when games are moved up and pushed back due to weather, but by conscious decisions. From the young to old, students and alumni, Indiana baseball has become entrenched into the fabric of life in Bloomington, where the program receives the type of support necessary to stay among the best in the country. And as Indiana has all but wrapped up a fifth regional in sixth years, it’s safe to say the Hoosiers are among the best programs in the country.

It was just that type of year for Maryland

An inning before Miller’s second home run of the game, Maryland held a 4-2 lead. Unfortunately for the Terps, storms in the area forced a rain delay of 1:50 with two outs in the top of the seventh, and ended the outing of right-handed pitcher Hunter Parsons. Outside of Miller’s second-inning home run, Parsons had been effective, scattering five hits, needing just 77 pitches to get through six innings. Once play resumed, Maryland’s bullpen was unable to hold the lead, dealing the Terps a tough defeat in the series opener, which the club never seemed able to rebound from. In a nutshell, the final three innings of Thursday’s contest seems to sum up the Maryland season. The Terps had shown streaks of playing good baseball, but weren’t able to get over the hump and live up to the potential they showed on paper. Rare did Maryland get blown out, instead there were games throughout with a defining play or moment that spelled doom. More will be shared on Maryland and what first-year head coach Rob Vaughn learned later this week.

 

Nebraska at Illinois

A little more than 150 miles northwest of Bloomington, the series between Nebraska and Illinois had much of the same elements. Like Maryland, Nebraska was fighting to reach the Big Ten Tournament as the last seed in, although unlike the Terps they needed quite the help and did not control their own destiny. For the host Illini, coming off of a weekend win at Michigan by most accounts put them in the NCAA Tournament. Winning the weekend against the Cornhuskers would send them into postseason play with momentum, as they look to play well into June. A sweep didn’t occur in Champaign as Nebraska salvaged their weekend with a win in their season finale, but Illinois showed a deep lineup on Friday, anchored by the conference player of the year.

Spillane continues shock and awe show

He didn’t match Miller with three home runs on the weekend, but Spillane hit home runs in the final two games of the series, running his season total to 22, four off of Illinois’ single-season record.

Friday’s contest was a microcosm of Spillane. In his first at-bat, Spillane struck out swinging, which he did again in the third inning. But on his second strikeout, Spillane showed the speed which has allowed him to steal 14 stolen bases, reaching first on the wild pitch. In the fourth inning, Nebraska intentionally walked Spillane, to load the bases. In his final at-bat, Spillane sent the first pitch of the sixth inning over the right field wall at Illinois Field for his 21st home run. Three official at-bats, respect from the opposing team, a run, an RBI, and four total bases.

The amount of strikeouts Spillane has is a red flag for scouts, 51 in 158 at-bats. But the opposite field power is a point in his favor. Regardless of how evaluators view him, it’s a joy, unless you’re the opposing team, to wait for the moment to happen, then have it happen, as one of Illinois’ best individual seasons ever winds down.

But the Illini aren’t Spillane and a bag of schmoes

Spillane is the big threat in the Illini lineup, but Dan Hartleb’s club has the ability to beat you with multiple players. Joining Spillane in homering during the 13-6 rout over the Huskers was Zac Taylor, pulling his 10th home run of the season out to left. As the team collected 15 hits, Michael Massey and Doran Turchin contributed doubles. In addition to those four players, Ben Troike continues to reach base in every game, while Jack Yalowitz is still capable of showing in flashes the ability which had him enter the season projected as one of the Big Ten’s top outfielders. Friday’s contest showed that even when the opposition does well to contain Spillane, Illinois has multiple players who can step up, and beat you with contact, speed, and power. The starting 6-9 hitters combined to go 9-for-17 with four RBI and five runs.

Wilkening’s plate potential turns into production

Although injuries have limited his time behind the plate, Nebraska catcher Jesse Wilkening has put together an outstanding season. On Friday, in a 2-for-4 game, Wilkening hit his ninth home run of the season, as he finished the year with a .372 average, 14 doubles, .445 on-base percentage, .588 slugging mark, and team-best 56 RBI. It was the type of offensive season many predicted when Wilkening was a highly sought recruit out of Indiana in 2015. A 28th-round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks three years ago, Wilkening hit .270 as a freshman, then .247 last year. Wilkening had previously shown the ability to be a good receiver and defensive backstop, but the offense had yet to develop. It did this year in a big way, giving Nebraska a potent 1-2 threat in support of first baseman Scott Schreiber. Unfortunately too many injuries on the mound created a pitching situation which made Nebraska’s solid offensive season an afterthought. But at least for Wilkening, he enjoyed the type of season to put him back on scouts’ radars, and showcased what made him one of Darin Erstad’s top recruits.

 

Michigan at Purdue

Wrapping up the weekend back in Indiana, by the time action began on Saturday, ignoring the four outs needed to complete Friday’s suspended contest, Purdue had secured second place in the Big Ten, and couldn’t catch Minnesota. Michigan had lost a second consecutive series to leave their NCAA Tournament status fully in the air. On paper, whichever way the result unfolded would seem to have mattered little. But as Purdue capped a weekend sweep with a 2-1 victory, the two teams separated in the Big Ten standings by just one game, are heading into postseason going in opposite directions.

Purdue’s mental makeup shines

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski praised his teams toughness following Saturday’s victory. Sometimes mental toughness is hard to put into words, but for every at Alexander Field on the sun-soaked day, it was clear Purdue has a bit of fortitude.

In the first inning, after striking out the leadoff batter, Purdue starter Ryan Beard allowed a single, issued a walk, then it a batter to load the bases. A third straight free base drove in a run and it appeared Purdue’s Senior Day would be a sour one. But the left-hander struck out the next two batters to limit the damage to one run. From the second inning on, until he was relieved with two outs in the sixth, Beard only allowed one Wolverine to reach second.

Two more examples came in the ninth, when closer Ross Learnard was called upon to close his third game of the weekend. He did just that, reaching 15 saves, which sets a new single-season record at Purdue. But a final element of toughness aided Learnard’s save. With a runner on first base and two outs, Michigan’s Jordan Nwogu pulled a rocket down the third base line. On the short hop, Purdue third baseman Evan Warden dove to smother the ball. Off the hop, the ball hit Warden in the mouth, leaving him bloodied and lying face down in the dirt, but the ball did not end up in the corner for a tying double, which it appeared ticketed. Michigan’s Jack Blomgren reached third on the play, but stayed there, as a fielder’s choice one batter later ended the game.

The parts are in place to sustain success in West Lafayette

In a cruel twist of luck, Purdue’s Alexander Field opened the season after the Boilermakers earned the right to host a regional. And up until now, the joys of the 2012 season, and what Purdue enjoyed as a program, and its fan, were a distant memory. But taking in the action on Saturday, one cannot help but see Purdue has the pieces in place to continue to enjoy the success the program is enjoying in Wasikowski’s second season.

From a facility standpoint, few places in the Big Ten, if any, can go toe-to-toe with the look, feel, and amenities of Alexander Field, for player, fans, and press alike. West Lafayette is located in a state with a strong prep baseball presence, and not far from the hotbed that is Chicagoland. But most importantly, the Purdue players, in how they carry themselves before and after games, their play in the field, their at-bats, and how their pitchers perform, are consistent, 1-35. That shows a complete buy-in into the message Wasikowski is preaching and are a 180-degree reversal from where they were just two years ago. The nature of the Big Ten, with the depth and unbalanced schedule, makes predicting future success tough, but there are the necessary foundation pieces in place for Purdue to continue to trend up.

Michigan’s underclassmen have Omaha-potential

Finishing the regular season on a 1-5 skid, a second consecutive regional appearance may have fell out of Michigan’s grip. But to be in a position where that thought is even entertained is a testament to the job Erik Bakich and his staff has done recruiting. Last year, after a Big Ten-leading 42-win season, Michigan saw 11 players drafted and five other players graduate from the program. In prior years, such roster turnover would have a team going into the final weekend of the regular season fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, not sit one game out of first-place. Many would say Michigan has benefited from a favorable in-conference schedule. But not every team beats the teams they’re supposed to, and it is extremely impressive for a team loaded with underclassmen to reel off 20 games in a row.

While there may be pain in potentially missing the NCAA Tournament this season, it’s clear the future is bright in Ann Arbor, with a core of underclassmen that should be thinking beyond just a regional. Every Michigan starting pitching will return next season. As too will the team’s catcher, shortstop, DH, corner outfielder, and a do-it-all in Jesse Franklin. Although Indiana was starting to perform like a top 25 team at the end of 2012, and Michigan has fallen from the rankings, Blomgren, Franklin, Nwogu, Ben Dragani, and company have the feel of that 2012 first-year core of Schwarber, Travis, Kyle Hart, and Scott Effross. Blomgren shows the ability of being the Big Ten’s best defensive shortstop, Nwogo has big time power, and Franklin has the all-around game and moxie to leave Ann Arbor with a Player of the Year honor in his bag. Add sophomores Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann, who sandwich Dragani in the rotation, and special days may not be too far down the road for Michigan.

April 20-22 Weekend Observations

Finally, the weather broke enough over the weekend for all games that were scheduled to be played, and what a weekend it was across the conference.

Sweeps by Michigan State and Purdue have tightened the middle of the Big Ten table, while Michigan has opened up a bit of light between them and second-place Minnesota, following a weekend sweep which has their winning streak up to 20 games. But the eyes of the Gophers have sights set on larger prizes than the conference title, with a weekend win over Iowa solidifying their ground as a regional club, likewise for Ohio State, who earned a hard fought weekend win over Indiana.

What were the key takeaways from an action-packed weekend in the Big Ten? Here they are.

Home field defended in key matchups

The weekend was the first of three consecutive where Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State play each other, with Illinois also taking on Indiana and Ohio State over the next two weeks. With each of the four teams not only jockeying for their place in the Big Ten standings, but also as potential hosts for an NCAA regional, taking care of business at home is instrumental.

All four teams will receive a boost in the RPI based on each of the four teams having a winning percentage of at least .667. But what’s more critical than just playing stout competition is to avoid home losses. In the RPI’s formula, a home win is weight at .7, a home loss is weighted at 1.3.

Putting that into better perspective, a 1-2 weekend on the road, as Indiana encountered at Ohio State, goes into the RPI as a 1.3-1.4 weekend. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes, with all the glory and deserved respect of knocking off a top 10 team, only had a 1.4-1.3 weekend in the eyes of the RPI. If Indiana found a way to close Sunday’s 6-5, 12-inning thrilled, Ohio State would have had a .7-2.6 weekend.

It is critical for these teams with lofty NCAA Tournament sights defend their home field, and in the first round of circled weekends, Minnesota and Ohio State did that, now it’s on to see if their respective opponents, Iowa and Indiana, can do the same this upcoming weekend to boost their regional chances.

Scott Schreiber continues to torture conference pitchers

Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane could go hitless over his next 55 at-bats and still hold a .303 average for the season. Barring an unthinkable decline in performance, or injury, Spillane is likely ticketed for an All-America team. But do not overlook the season another Big Ten first baseman is having, one who also deserves consideration for the highest individual honors.

A 1-2 weekend at Rutgers has Nebraska hanging on the thinnest of threads in pursuit of a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. At 4-9 in conference play, the Huskers are on pace for their worst showing in their seven-year Big Ten history. While it’s all but certain Nebraska won’t defend it’s conference crown, the scuffles of the Cornhuskers have all but alluded senior first baseman Scott Schreiber.

With home runs on Friday and Sunday in Piscataway, Schreiber increased his long ball total to 13, nine of which have come in Big Ten play. In Big Ten play, Schreiber is batting .481 with five doubles, nine home runs, and 58 total bases, 17 more than the closet player. Five Big Ten home runs shy of tying the in-conference mark, Schreiber’s reaching base at a .556 clip and slugging 1.074. With long-standing records in sight, Schreiber should join Spillane in being named one of the country’s best first basemen at season’s end.

Don’t dismiss Purdue’s regional chances

With outlets publishing NCAA Tournament projections, coming into discussion is the question of can the Big Ten break its record for most teams placed in a regional. The 2015 and 2017 seasons saw five teams participate in the field of 64, where today, six different teams, have been projected as a regional team by one outlet or another. The focus on the potential record-breaking season for the Big Ten has concentrated on the fates of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State.

Through games played on April 23, the NCAA’s listed RPI of those teams are:

Indiana- 26

Ohio State- 38

Minnesota- 40

Iowa- 45

Michigan- 53

Illinois- 58

Each team would merit consideration for a berth in this year’s team.

But there’s one more team to keep an eye on: Purdue.

After a weekend road sweep of Maryland, at 19-16, Prudue’s RPI is 77, closer to Illinois’ than the Illini’s is to Ohio State. The Boilermakers still have series left against Michigan and Ohio State, plus a non-conference midweek game on Wednesday against Indiana, a team who needed 13 innings to win their rubber match earlier this month. It may take a mighty push, plus a few wins in the Big Ten Tournament, but Purdue, who has 13 of their final 17 games at home, is hanging around the postseason picture.

Michigan State’s rotation shakeup pays off

Heading into the first weekend of April, Michigan State was 1-5 in Big Ten play. The Spartans were coming off of a win in their most recent Big Ten outing, but a sweep at the hands of in-state rival Michigan, then dropping two of three against Rutgers had MSU at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Facing a now-or-never moment, Jake Boss shook up his rotation, sending Friday starter Riley McCauley back into his closing role, moving Ethan Landon, the team’s best performing pitcher, atop the rotation, followed by Mason Erla, the undoubted ace of the future.

Their series limited to two games due to cold temperatures, MSU held Nebraska to eight runs in two victories. After a bye week hosting Valparaiso, Michigan State returned to Big Ten action this weekend with a road series at Northwestern, and left Evanston with three victories. Running their Big Ten-winning streak to six games, the Spartans held the Wildcats to 10 runs over three games.

In three outings since his return to the bullpen, McCauley has pitched five scoreless innings over three and recorded two saves this weekend at Northwestern. McCauley joins Mitchell Tyranski, three saves and a 1.71 ERA in 26.1 innings, as a two-headed monster at the back of the bullpen, ready to take the ball after setup Jake Lowery, who has pitched 4.2 innings over the run, without allowing an earned run, to make up a formidable late-inning trio.

Having a closer really, really, really helps

Speaking of the back of the bullpen, leading the Big Ten in saves are:

Illinois’ Joey Gerber (12)

Minnesota’s Max Meyer (10)

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker (9).

More wins will lead to more save opportunities, but it’s unlikely each of the three teams would be in a position to reach the NCAA Tournament without having their respective shutdown reliever. Highlighted by play around the conference this weekend, it’s evident how much having a standout reliever means.

Meyer, excelling as a freshman, recorded the final four outs in Minnesota’s 4-3 win over Iowa on Friday, before finishing a combined, 3-0 shutout on Saturday.

Earning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors, Purdue’s Ross Learnard recorded a save in all three games at Maryland.

After earning a two-inning save on Saturday against Indiana, Kinker pitched the final 5.1 innings on Sunday, to lead the Buckeyes to their weekend win over Indiana.

While a weapon like Gerber may be the ultimate desire, the Illini righy has six saves in six innings, with 12 strikeouts and zero walks in conference play, having a lockdown relief pitcher appears necessary for teams to win meaningful games, and rack up enough to be in the mix for a regional berth.

Week 7 Weekend Observations

While weather throughout the Midwest may be more appropriate for early February, it is in fact April. As Big Ten teams hope warmer, more baseball-friendly weather is on the way, each of the 13 baseball programs have played at least one conference series with the chase for the championship under way.

With the college baseball season nearing its midpoint, here’s what was gathered from the most recent round of weekend play, as slowly but surely the cream is rising to the top.

Hoosiers keep humming along

A close 6-5 victory opened the weekend series, before Indiana handily defeated Butler, 13-0 and 10-3 to sweep the Bulldogs. With the three wins, Indiana ran its record to 20-5 through the first seven weeks of the season. Tabbed as the preseason favorite by Big Ten coaches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana is off to a strong start, but the consistency Chris Lemonis’ club has shown deserves recognition. Indiana has yet to suffer a losing weekend and only once has the team dropped back-to-back games. Indiana’s 2.68 ERA leads the conference, while its .286 average ranks third. Checking in at No. 11 in this week’s NCBWA poll, IU has done nothing to suggest they are not one of the country’s top teams, and should be in the mix to host a regional at the end of the season. There may be teams and players who are grabbing more attention at the moment, but with a deep lineup, a depth on the mound and a team that can play clean defense, the baseball team in Bloomington is living up to lofty expectations and handling everything presented in front of them.

Minnesota’s strong March finish

Minnesota didn’t have the strongest start to March, going 1-2 against Pac-12 teams in the Dairy Queen Classic it hosted, before being out scored 14-6 in the first two games of the succeeding series against Creighton. But since a 15-1 win in the series finale against Creighton, Minnesota (18-10) won eight of 12 games to end the month, winning three consecutive series, defeating TCU and Nebraska on the road before a 9-8 win on Friday and 6-3 victory on Saturday led to taking two of three at home this weekend against St. John’s. One would believe John Anderson would have been thrilled in the preseason to take those results. TCU has been to the last four College World Series, Nebraska is the reigning Big Ten champion, and St. John’s was ranked in the preseason. March appeared to be a month that could either doom the Gophers or set them up for a big season. For a team rather green on the mound, the end-of-month success should build conference, and the results should still be strong enough to put the team in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, where their veteran-laden and deep lineup can carry a team.

Freshman arms continue to excel

Three freshmen pitchers made the Weekend 10, and the strong showings by rookie pitchers weren’t an aberration. A look at statistics throughout the Big Ten reveal three true freshmen among the top four leaders in ERA:

#1 Michigan LHP Ben Dragani: 1.38 ERA in 32.2 innings

#2 Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson: 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings.

#4 Northwestern LHP Quinn Lavelle: 2.10 ERA in 34.1 innings.

In additional to those three, who allowed one run while pitching a combined 19.1 innings, the weekend saw Purdue’s Trent Johnson join the Boilermaker rotation and shine to cap a sweep of Penn State, while Rutgers already calls on freshmen Harry Rutkowski and Eric Heatter to round out the Scarlet Knight rotation. Indiana has seen promise out of Tommy Sommer, Ohio State likes what they have in Griffan Smith, and Minnesota has Joshua Colliver, Ryan Duffy, Max Meyer and Sam Thoreson to join Fredrickson as a foundation for the future. Seemingly, everywhere one looks around the Big Ten, there is a freshman or two capable of providing big innings or lead a pitching staff.

Northwestern’s tough run continues

After Lavelle stymied Maryland’s lineup, to lead Northwestern to a 4-0 win on Friday, the Terrapins captured the weekend series by winning the next two games, 6-5 and 4-3. After two weekends, the Wildcats’ Big Ten record sits at 1-5, tied with Michigan State and Penn State at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. But the 1-5 record might not be a fair indicator of the team Spencer Allen has. Take a look at Northwestern’s conference results so far.

Northwestern’s Big Ten losses:

March 23, 5-4 to Illinois

March 24, 5-4 to Illinois in 11 innings

March 25, 4-2 to Illinois in 10 innings

March 31, 6-5 to Maryland in 10 innings

April 1, 4-3 to Maryland.

Runs allowed in Big Ten play: 24

Runs scored in Big Ten play: 22

A few breaks here or there could have Northwestern near the top of the conference, not at the bottom, meaning no conference team should look at the team’s current record and think an easy weekend is in store.

Iowa continues to be Iowa

It’s becoming a spring ritual: question how Iowa will replace a dominant core of players, then watch the Hawkeyes find a way to fight into the top-half of the Big Ten and have an NCAA Tournament appearance be a real opportunity. While Iowa didn’t exactly slow down Illinois’ potent offense, Iowa allowed 32 hits and 20 runs in three game, the Hawkeyes left Champaign with two victories against a ranked Illini team. The weekend win came a week after splitting a shortened set against Indiana. It wasn’t long ago when Iowa dropped five consecutive games and stand 8-6 on the season. But Rick Heller’s group has gone 8-3 since, with two headline-grabbing weekends. Iowa’s tough 2018 slate doesn’t let up, Ohio State, who is 19-8 on the season, visits Iowa City this weekend, then back-to-back series on the road at Nebraska and Minnesota take place. But if the first two weekends of conference play are any indication of what’s to come, Iowa will be in a position to compile a pretty impressive resume.

Catchers turning in strong seasons

With the All-America campaigns Illinois’ Bren Spillane, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are compiling, it’d be fair to call this the year of the first baseman in the Big Ten. And as previously mentioned, the strong seasons nearly a dozen freshman pitchers are putting together deserve praise. After a look at box scores from the weekend, the backstops who are on the receiving ends pitches are collectively having strong seasons in the Big Ten. Leading their teams in hitting are:

Sr. Tyler Cropley, Iowa (.356)

Jr. Ryan Fineman, Indiana  (.347)

Jr. Ryan Sloniger, Penn State (.289)

Jr. Nick Dalesandro, Purdue (.337)

Juniors Jacob Barnwell (.289), Jesse Wilkening (.299), and Eli Wilson (.356) are also enjoying strong seasons at the plate, respectively for Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota.

While the batting averages are good, so too have the throwing abilities for many.

Barnwell has thrown out eight of 23 runners on the bases. Dalesandro has gunned down 11 of 24 runners, Fineman has thrown out 14 runners against 12 successful swipes, Rutgers’ Nick Matera has caught seven of 19 runners attempting to steal a base, and Wilson has nabbed five runners in 12 tries.

Week 6 Weekend Observations

Big Ten play kicked off last weekend with five conference series. And because it’s March, there was a series shortened due to weather, as Indiana and Iowa were unable to play on Saturday and Sunday.

While the snowstorm that went through the Midwest will lead to an uneven standings, the action across the board showed the Big Ten race figures to be a heated battled leading to a congested table.

Here’s more on that and what else was observed this weekend.

The conference race will be a slugfest

It may be premature to make such a proclamation after one weekend, especially when three teams have yet to play a conference game, but the results from the weekend suggest every week with be a hold-you-breath affair up and down the conference. Consider the following:

Even though Illinois swept Northwestern, two games were decided in extra innings. The lone game that didn’t reach the 10th inning was still a one-run game.

Minnesota and Nebraska each picked up a decisive victory, Minnesota won 5-1 on Friday and Nebraska grabbed an 8-2 victory on Saturday, before Sunday’s rubber match finished 2-0.

Rutgers topped Penn State, 1-0 on Saturday, to win the weekend, but the Nittany Lions scored 10 weekend runs to the Scarlet Knights’ eight.

Before snow wrecked havoc on Iowa City, The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers split a Friday doubleheader, IU won 4-2 in game one, while UI rebounded for a 5-1 victory in the nightcap.

The most dominant weekend performance belonged to Michigan, but even they trailed 1-0 heading into the ninth against Michigan State on Saturday, a Spartan club which sat 6-16 after Sunday.

As every game was finished, nearly each result showed a close contest. Little separate the weekend’s winners from losers, now it’s time to add Maryland, Ohio State and Purdue to the mix to see who, if anyone, can show they’re a cut above.

Reggie Meyer is excelling under the radar

Minnesota’s strong 16-9 has been propelled by a mix of good hitting (.302 team average) and strong pitching (3.31 ERA). Upperclassmen like Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen and Terrin Vavra have led at the plate, while a handful of freshman have made an immediate impact on the mound, between Patrick Fredrickson, Bubba Horton, and Max Meyer. But want can’t be overlooked is the season junior right-handed pitcher Reggie Meyer is having as the team’s ace.

On Friday, Meyer Nebraska to one run while scattering eight hits, striking out five batters without issuing a walk over eight innings. Leveling his season record to 2-2, Meyer lowered his ERA to 2.89. With 37.1 innings pitched on the season, Meyer is averaging a six-inning start, and holds a 1.46 BB/9, with a 20 strikeouts against six walks. Meyer is pitching as well as the Minnesota staff could have envisioned, taking over the No. 1 role with ease following the departure of All-Big Ten left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath.

Penn State and Rutgers solidify competitive rotations

Penn State has not participated in the Big Ten Tournament since 2012. Rutgers is seeking its first berth. But as the two teams head into April, both programs can look to the postseason with optimism, as Rob Cooper and Joe Litterio had the same reason to leave the weekend’s series between the two feeling well; their weekend rotations.

For Penn State, the weekend trio of Justin Hagenman-Taylor Lehman-Dante Biasi is coming together to give Cooper his most stout rotation in his five years in State College. With a 3.71 ERA, Hagenman is going on his second year of being an asset in PSU’s rotation, but Lehman is enjoying a breakout season. A highly-touted prospect upon heading to Penn State, Lehman three hits and one unearned run over six innings on Saturday. The senior left-hander lowered his ERA to 2.81 for the season. Rounding out Penn State’s rotation is Dante Biasi, a redshirt freshman who missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery required after his high school career. Using a six-inning, one-run outing to collect the win on Sunday, Biasi has made five starts and sports a 4.79 ERA in his first collegiate season.

In the case of Rutgers, a blend of old and new have led to consistency in the rotation. In his 41st career start, senior right-hander John O’Reilly pitched his first complete game on Friday, allowing only a first-inning unearned run in Rutgers’ 4-1 victory. With the third-most career starts in school history under his belt, O’Reilly knows what it takes to win at this level. That experience is needed as two freshmen southpaws are behind him in the rotation, Harry Rutkowski and Eric Heatter. With respective 3.46 and 4.50 ERA, Heatter and Rutkowsi have been able to give Rutgers a foundation for the future, while being productive pitchers in the now. Until now, a true 1-2-3 rotation has eluded Rutgers as a Big Ten member, giving further proof this may be the year the Scarlet Knights break through.

Wolverine bats shake their slump

Michigan’s home-away-home series against Michigan State was bookend by a pair of offensive outbursts. On Friday, Michigan opened the series by rolling to a 12-3 win. On Sunday, Michigan capped the weekend sweep with an 11-0 victory.

Enjoying an eight-game winning streak, Michigan has put a forgetful first month behind them. As Erik Bakich’s club opened conference play with a perfect weekend, the rise of the Wolverines has coincided with the offense turning around.

It surely helps that eight of Michigan’s last nine games have come at home, and that they aren’t facing the pitching of Stanford. But compare the averages and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of the team’s top three hitters from their first 11 games to were they are now, and it’s easy to see how Michigan has enjoyed the country’s fifth-longest current winning streak through Tuesday.

Soph. OF Christian Bullock First 11: .270/.665, Current: .300/.726

Jr. OF Jonathan Engelmann- .250/.571, .322/.880

Jr. 2B Ako Thomas- .250/.725, .295/.796

And as a team, Michigan is batting .253, up from .205, with a .701 OPS, a stark improvement from the team’s .582 mark just 12 games ago.

Ryan Feltner has turned the corner

Although their seven-game winning streak fell in Saturday’s 5-1 loss to Georgetown, the start Ryan Feltner gave Ohio State was his second straight strong effort. In 6.2 innings, Feltner allowed three runs, one earned, and four hits. Without issuing a walk, the junior right-handed pitcher struck out four batters. A loss was tacked on Feltner’s record, and Georgetown represents the weakest opponent Ohio State has faced to date, but the quality start is the second in a row for Feltner as the Big Ten’s top pitching prospect is turning promise into production. A week before, against CSUN, Feltner logged another 6.2 innings, allowing three runs, two earned, off against four hits. That outing saw Feltner strike out nine batters to one walk. Together, the last two weekends have seen the right-hander pitch 13.1 innings, concede eight hits, allow two earned runs and strike out 13 batters to one walk. Feltner faced as tough of a run as any pitcher in the three previous weekends, taking on Oregon State, Southern Miss, and Coastal Carolina, the respective No. 1, No. 12 and No. 23 teams in the country. Now, as Ohio State heads into conference play, Feltner is rolling and knows what it takes to beat the best of the best, a welcomed thought for Greg Beals.

 

Week 5 Weekend Observations

The final weekend before in-conference play beings was a good one for the Big Ten. There were seven home series, with Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State all grabbing weekend sweeps, Penn State captured two of three, and Michigan State and Nebraska split their weekend sets. On the road, Minnesota grabbed national attention with their road victory at TCU and Rutgers picked up a pair of solid victories at Florida Gulf Coast. All told, only two of the 13 teams suffered weekend defeats.

What garnered the most attention from the strong weekend? Here’s the top weekend observations.

Spillane jumps to the front of POTY race

A lot of attention, and rightfully so, had been cast upon the law office-sounding duo of Ohio State’s Noah McGowan and Purdue’s Jacson McGowan. Both first baseman put together impressive first months at the plate, where numbers on pace to shatter school records helped lead their respective clubs to strong starts. But there’s been an offensive eruption over the last three weeks by Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane that has him on track to be Illinois’ third conference player of the year in six years. Following an 8-for-16 weekend, where the series opener at Southern Illinois produced three home runs, before a two-double, 4-for-4 effort capped the Saturday doubleheader, Spillane is second in the Big Ten in hitting (.419), first in slugging (.887), first in doubles (nine), second in home runs (six), second in total bases (55), fifth in on-base percentage (.471), fifth in RBI (21) and fifth in stolen bases (five). Putting himself in line to be an All-American over the first month, the next two months will show if Spillane can follow the feats of former Illini who were named Big Ten Player of the Year, Justin Parr (2013) and David Kerian (2015), and lead Illinois to a regional.

Kaletha is Indiana’s catalyst

With Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, and Logan Sowers returning, Indiana was expected to have a strong offensive club. And through 19 games, Indiana is batting .286 with 42 doubles and 19 home runs, Chris Lemonis does indeed have a potent team at the plate. But it isn’t Lloyd, Miller, nor Sowers who is the driving force behind the high-powered Hoosiers offense, its newcomer Logan Kaletha. A transfer from John A. Logan College, the junior outfielder led Indiana in runs created heading into last weekend. As Indiana swept Northern Illinois, Kalthea went 5-for-13 with a double, home run, two RBI, three runs, a walk, and a stolen base. Atop Indiana’s lineup, Katleha has settled into being a dynamic leadoff batting, offering with hitting ability (.319 average), power (.580 slugging percentage) discipline (12 walks to 15 strikeouts), grit (12 plunkings) speed (five stolen bases). and for good measure sports a perfect fielding percentage.

Ohio State continues regional trajectory

Indiana has done nothing to dissuade any belief they are the Big Ten’s top team. Checking in at No. 15 in this week’s NCBWA poll, the first five weeks for the Hoosiers have justified their preseason top billing by conference coaches. But the Hoosiers aren’t the top rated Big Ten team by RPI, that would be Ohio State. According to Warren Nolan’s RPI formula, Ohio State’s RPI is 25 heading into Wednesday play. With only one-third of a season’s data in place, the RPI is very fluid and drastic fluctuations are common in March. But at 14-6, if the season ended today, the Greg Beals’ team would be in a regional. Riding a six-game winning streak, Ohio State has not suffered a losing weekend yet, the Buckeyes have picked up a pair of wins which figure to stand out on their resume (Coastal Carolina and Southern Miss), and started their home slate with three wins in three games. A solid win total, grabbing marquee victories as they come, and protecting the home field is the path to the postseason, and with their sweep of Cal State Northridge, the Buckeyes stayed on course.

Rookie Gophers grow up on big stage

Speaking of postseason resumes, Minnesota’s weekend victory at then No. 11 TCU will surely help the Gophers’ case to be in the field of 64 for a second time in three years. For those who have watched Big Ten baseball over the past few seasons, the upset may not have been that shocking. Minnesota is a game from being two-time reigning Big Ten champions, the Big Ten has equaled the Big XII’s 13 teams in a regional since 2015, and Minnesota has a very deep and veteran-laded lineup, But what was eye-opening, and may have a lasting effect beyond May, was the performance of Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers. In a weekend where TCU saw more than 4,000 fans turn out for each game, Patrick Fredrickson, Bubba Horton, Max Meyer, and Sam Thoresen combined to pitch 15.2 innings and allow just seven hits, striking out 17 batters. Minnesota will experience heavy roster turnover following this season with the graduations of Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, and Luke Pettersen, but those four pitchers, along with classmate Joshua Culliver and Ryan Duffy give the Gophers a foundation to continue the program’s ascend on.

Whelan provides a spark

Iowa had lost five straight games before Evansville came to town. The Hawkeyes started this week on a three-game winning streak. While it would be tough to give him all credit for halting the team’s skid and starting a run, the return of Chris Whelan had to be comforting for Rick Heller. With Whelan back in the lineup, Iowa had a true leadoff batter, something that was missing the first four weeks. In addition to someone who can get on base, Whelan can drive the ball and be a run-producing taking a little pressure off Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom. While Whelan’s UCL injury will limit him to just DH duties, his first weekend of action saw little rust. The 2017 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player went 5-for-12, drew two talks and scored four runs.

 

Michigan freshmen find comfort at home

No school in the country produced more MLB Draft picks last year than Michigan did with 11. While a noteworthy accomplishment, having that many players leave a program tends to cause a step back the following season as newcomers and role players are thrust into prominent roles. For the first four weeks of the season, Michigan did scuffle, the Wolverines entered last weekend’s series against Bowling Green at 4-11. But during their first home series, the emergence of a few freshman, part of a recruiting class ranked 10th by Baseball America, spurred a turnaround and should bring optimism to Ann Arbor ahead of conference play. Earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, outfielder Jordan Nwogu post a triple-slash of .362/.692/1.097, with a home run, two double and eight RBI. 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week accolades went to Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, after he pitched seven shutout innings on Sunday, striking out six batters without issuing a walk. Another freshman, shortstop Jack Blomgren reached base five times, picked up a double and stole two bases.

Week 4 Weekend Observations

The fourth weekend of the college baseball season is in the books. Yes, just like that, a month has already passed. With each team having a dozen games under their belts, any rust for winter practices confined to indoor facilities should be gone by now. As conference play grows nearer, the cream is starting to rise from the crop. And here’s what was observed from the past weekend as the picture becomes more and more clear as to the form teams really are.

Illini aren’t going away

Checking in at No. 24 in this week’s Baseball America poll, Illinois becomes the second team in the Big Ten to be ranked this year. The number next to their name comes on the heels of a seven-game winning streak that was stopped Sunday by Michigan State. Before the Spartans picked up a 4-2 win, Illinois had been clicking on all cylinders.

Between Feb. 24 and March 4, Dan Hartleb’s team had a run of six consecutive games without committing an error. Over the seven game winning streak, which included a sweep of the Dairy Queen Classic field, Illinois scored less than five runs just once, while allowing more than five runs just once.

A rotation of Quinn Snarskis, Andy Fisher, and Ty Weber holding a combined ERA of 3.19, a team doing a bit of everything offensively with a triple-slash of .261/.366/.438 with 17 stolen bases, and the Big Ten’s top fielding unit, Illinois hasn’t showed a true weakness. That’s a scary thought for future opponents as Jack Yalowitz (.222) and Zac Taylor (.189) have yet to get going.

Scarlet Knights make a statement

It might not have been the most attention-grabbing weekend, no ranked teams were defeated, wins weren’t gathered in a hostile environment, and there wasn’t a no-hitter or outrageous score were to carry the headline. But Rutgers’ weekend should make some take notice.

Rutgers played Army in Fort Myers, Fla., the third Big Ten opponent the Black Knights have faced this weekend. After splitting the first six games, going 1-2 against Michigan, a week before picking up a pair of wins at Maryland, Army was unable to grab a victory in three games against Rutgers. With the weekend sweep, Rutgers is off to a solid start at 8-6, a record which includes a pair last-inning stunning defeats to Boston College and St. Bonaventure.

When considering a close 7-6 loss to Indiana, and Rutgers’ run differential against Army of 17, compared to nine for Michigan and -1 for Maryland, more and more evidence is gathering that Rutgers will be in the mix for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, that the desired offseason culture change is taking place.

Maryland remains a mystery

It’s been a season of streaks for Maryland. The Terps opened the season winning their first two games before dropping the next four. That skid was followed by a five-game winning steak. Maryland’s winning ways were stopped by back-to-back defeats, before picking up consecutive wins to grab the home series against Bryant. At 9-6, Maryland’s up-and-down season hasn’t derailed postseason dreams, but it has made it tough to gauge how good Rob Vaughn’s team is.

Is Maryland the team that 14 runs in its first two games at Tennessee, or closer to the team that scored 13 over the next four? Maryland beat Ball State 13-1, to run their winning streak to five games, then came up flat, falling 7-1 to Delaware. Mirroring the up/down nature of Maryland’s season is the performance of the expected top two contributors.

Junior second baseman Nick Dunn is batting .358 with five doubles and five home runs, pacing the club. Classmate outfielder Marty Costes, is off to a .151/.309/.264. As was the case this weekend, Dunn can carry the team to victory. But he can’t continually do it all by himself at the plate, getting Costes going will surely stabilize the Terrapins.

Indiana’s depth shows

The Hoosiers may have only scored eight runs in their 2-1, series victory over Pacific, but a detailed look at the box scores shows why Indiana is the Big Ten’s top-ranked team and favorite to win the conference title.

On Friday, in a 2-1 loss, Indiana received a 4-for-4, three-double game from first baseman/second baseman Matt Lloyd. On Saturday, each of Colby Stratten’s two hits were doubles. Then, on Sunday, Logan Sowers had a 3-for-4 day with three doubles, driving in three runs. Three different players with multi-extra-base games, which didn’t include top hitter Logan Kalthea or Luke Miller, who are 1-2 in slugging percentage at .577 and .574, respectively, shows how much of a headache the Indiana lineup can be.

Then, Indiana throws a very deep bullpen at opponents. Hoosier relievers combined to toss nine innings without allowing an earned run against Pacific, as four relievers who have appeared in at least three games continue to have a spotless 0.00. The depth at the plate and options on the mound backs up head coach Chris Lemonis’ assertion this is his deepest Indiana team.

Ohio State: Very Good O, Very Bad D

If you’re eighth-year head coach Greg Beals, there’s a lot to like about the 2018 Ohio State outfit. But there is also a very concern area.

After a .295/.364/.541 weekend at the Chanticleer Classic, Ohio State has a season triple-slash of .301/.388/.450. The Buckeyes’ slugging percentage is tops in the Big Ten, spurred by a conference-leading 16 home runs. Of the team’s 15 games, the Bucks have scored at least six runs 10 times, averaging a Big Ten-best 7.53 runs per game. Seniors Tyler Cowles and Noah McGown give Beals a potent 1-2 punch in the heart of the lineup.

The best in the Big Ten at plating runs, the Buckeyes are the worst in the field, helping the opposition score more unearned runs than any team. With 28 errors and a .951 fielding percentage, the Buckeye nine is the conference’s worst fielding unit, one that has allowed 26 unearned runs, almost two a game, to score. Ohio State has had only one error-less game, while 10 contests have seen the Bucks commit at least two errors. Most damaging, the Buckeyes allowed Oregon State, the top-ranked team in the country, to score six unearned runs on Feb. 23, in a 10-8 loss, before allowing #28 Coastal Carolina to score three unearned runs on Saturday, in another 10-8 defeat.

Minnesota can’t cash in at U.S. Bank

The construction of U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Vikings, and use of the facility to play baseball games was to give Minnesota an asset. Instead of traveling to all parts of the country over the first month of the season, Minnesota could play games at home, in Minneapolis. Unfortunately the Gophers showing inside of the home of Super Bowl XVII have been troublesome than rewarding.

Through 10 games, Minnesota is 6-4 at home. Considering two of the four losses are to UCLA and Washington, the record isn’t that bad. But Minnesota’s offense has produced only four games where the team has scored more than three runs. Before Sunday’s 15-1 triumph over Creighton, the team averaged 3.1 runs per game, while allowing four runs per contest to the visitors.

The next eight games for Minnesota come on the run, including three at No. 11 TCU and three at reigning Big Ten champion Nebraska. The stretch of eight games will go a long way in determining Minnesota’s postseason fate, and considering the team’s struggles inside spacious U.S. Bank Stadium, it may be beneficial they come on the road, especially with the weight RPI formula.

Week 2 Weekend Observations

What grabbed 10 Innings’ attention the most the second weekend of the season? Here’s a look.

Purdue continues to prove times have changed

Purdue’s five-run ninth inning against Notre Dame on Sunday helped the Boilermakers capture the Alamo Irish Classic. It also was the latest sign things have changed in West Lafayette. After Purdue lost 4-2 in extra innings to the Irish on Saturday, halting their perfect start to the season at 5-0, the Boilermakers appeared in over their heads against their in-state rival on Sunday. But, down to their final three outs and trailing by four, Purdue showed the character of the culture Mark Wasikowski continues to mold is one of resiliency. With a 6-1 record heading into March, Purdue is receiving votes in the NCBWA poll for the second straight week, and showed they can go toe-to-toe with a team that previously took a weekend series at LSU. Purdue is far from untalented, no team in the conference had more than Purdue’s five preseason All-10 Innings selections, but more evidence continues to mount that Purdue is back among the top of the conference.

Michigan’s growing pains

With the turnover Michigan experienced, 11 draft picks tends to remove a few talented players from a program, it was expected the start of the season for the Wolverines may be a bit tough as newcomers take on Division I college baseball for the first time, and previous role players take on bigger burdens. But the degree to which Michigan has scuffled has been surprising. The competition was stout, but an 0-3 showing in the Tony Gwynn Legacy, combined with a Monday night defeat against San Diego State has Michigan sitting at 2-5, ahead of its four-game set at #5 Stanford. Michigan is pitching at a serviceable level, holding a 4.50 ERA, but the team is batting just .219 and has the Big Ten’s worst fielding percentage at  .950, yet to play an error-free game. Before needing to replace six starts, last year, Michigan finished second in the country with a .983 fielding percentage.

Don’t count Michigan State out just yet

Michigan State wasn’t playing bad over it’s first five games, the Spartans suffered three defeats of one run, but an 0-5 start is an 0-5 start, and Spartan faithful couldn’t be blamed if they were to have concern. But it is worth remembering five games is less than 10% of a 56-game season, and that all teams will scuffle throughout the season, some at the start, some in the middle, some at the end. For the Spartans, their skid ended on Saturday, before starting a new streak, this time on the winning side, in capturing the final two games of their series at Pepperdine. Through their first seven games, Michigan State has shown it will have the pitching necessary to compete for a conference title. Senior right-hander Ethan Landon is pitching to his 2016 self, Riley McCauley has stepped nicely into the Friday role, and the team may have a star in Sunday starter Mason Erla. As a team MSU has a 3.86 ERA, with 68 strikeouts against 17 walks. The offense is still morbid, the team is batting at a .208 clip, two wins and a strong pitching unit should give the Green and White optimism heading into this weekend’s loaded Dairy Queen Classic.

Ohio State’s sustains its offensive mite

Ohio State scored 36 runs in four games during the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, showing its opening weekend outburst of 34 runs wasn’t a fluke. It was worth watching if this would hold true, as Oregon State and Utah figured to offer better pitching than Canicius and Milwaukee, whom the Bucks played the weekend before. A year after batting .260, the fourth-worst mark in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes boast a healthy .311 average after eight games. Oregon State did not throw their ace Luke Heimlich on Friday, he faced Nebraska on Thursday, but Ohio State striking the Beavers for eight runs, five off of a pair of Connor Pohl home runs, should offer a level of confidence that will provide benefits throughout the season. A mighty offense will also help the 5-3 Buckeyes stay afloat if its defense continues to flounder, Ohio State committed nine errors over the weekend, as their .953 fielding percentage beats only Michigan.

Nebraska’s pitching staff may face another hit

Before the season began, Nebraska lost junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann and redshirt freshman lefty Connor Curry to Tommy John surgery. After the first weekend of the season, junior right-hander Robbie Palkert was lost for the season, also needing Tommy John. Now the Huskers are potentially without left-hander Jake McSteen after the junior left his Saturday start against Oregon State with an elbow concern. Nebraska is expecting Reece Eddins back from his own Tommy John surgery at some point this season, but for now, Nebraska’s pitching depth has taken quite the blow, only juniors Nate Fisher and Mitch Steinhoff represent healthy left-handed pitchers. The continued arm injuries may alter Darin Erstad’s plans to use Luis Alvarado as a two-way player. Alvarado, Nebraska’s Friday starter, made his first appearance in the field on Sunday, starting at first base, and promptly went 2-for-5, helping the club to a 7-4 victory over Utah. With a team average of .216 and only 10 extra-base hits, Nebraska can use Alvarado’s bat, but the rash of injuries may take the coaching staff to take an extremely cautious approach to his dual use.

Northwestern’s prowess on the bases

Coaches can be overly optimistic in the offseason, impressive feats can be exaggerated as there is no perspective to how performances would fare with another team on the mound, in the field, and at the plate. But Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen was confident his team would run more in 2018, and rely on speed to make up for some of the loss in power the Wildcats saw graduate, mainly in the form of All-Big Ten selection Joe Hoscheit. So far Allen’s belief has held true.  Highlighted by six steals in Saturday’s 18-12 victory over Kansas, through six games, Northwestern leads the Big Ten with 17 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Northwestern’s 17 stolen bases represents the fifth-most swipes in the country. A trio of player are leading the charge on the bases, with Alex Erro (6-6), Jack Dunn (5-5), and Ben Dickey (4-5) ranked first, second, and third in the Big Ten. The aggressiveness on the bases have helped Northwestern average 6.5 runs per contents, even through the team is batting .238.

Week 1 Weekend Observations

The opening weekend is in the books, and it was a fair weekend for the Big Ten, as the conference went 27-16. In five opportunities, the Big Ten picked up wins over nationally-ranked programs, Indiana topped South Alabama and Rutgers wrapped up their weekend with a victory over Miami. Three teams went 3-0, Iowa, Penn State, and Purdue, while Maryland and Michigan won weekend sets, with the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers joined the Hoosiers in going 3-1.

Digging deeper, here’s the top observations from the weekend that was.

Billy Phillips provides the weekend highlight

The box score may not garner a second look, it was a scoreless inning of relief in a lopsided defeat, allowing one hit with one strikeout, but Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Billy Phillips provided the highlight in all of college baseball this weekend.

From Wilmington, Del., Phillips’ sixth inning appearance in the Terrapins’ weekend finale against Tennessee was the first career outing for Phillips, as the southpaw has missed the prior two seasons fighting, recovering and winning a battle against leukemia, dating back to his senior year of high school in 2015.

In a conference where from Ohio State left-handed pitcher Zach Farmer valiantly fought leukemia, as well as former Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes, we’re once again reminded of the resolve in humans and the character of the individuals who play and coach in the sport. And as we learned with Farmer and Oakes, nobody fights alone and we’re all there to support Phillips as his leukemia fades more and more into the distance.

Do not question their commitment to baseball

There’s been a noticeable increase in the level of commitment Big Ten baseball programs have seen over the last decade. The most obvious example of the uptick in commitment are the stadium renovations or completely new stadiums seen around the conference. Less noticeable signs of backing are increased salary pools for assistant coaches, more members to support staffs in the form of director of baseball operations and video coordinators, and increased recruiting budgets.

The latest sign of Big Ten programs doing everything they can to field a competitive team was on display this weekend as weather forced Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue alter their schedules.

All three teams were set to fly out of Chicago on Thursday, but each saw their flight canceled. Ultimately Illinois and Purdue had to cancel their trips to Texas. Northwestern did make it to their destination and played three of four games against Omaha, but not before every option was exhausted to ensure games were played.

Purdue ended up with three games in Georgia, Illinois saw their opening day pushed back twice, forced to settle for games against Austin Peay and South Dakota State in St. Louis on Sunday, Northwestern was considering incurring a cost of $30,000 to join Cincinnati and Miami on a charted plane to points out west.

Obviously, no team wants to bag their games on opening weekend. But it does take an administration to sign off on additional costs that come with a change of travel plans at the last second, find transportation, food and lodging for 40 people. That willingness is another testament to the importance of baseball around the Big Ten.

Hoosiers have the necessary experience

As great as a team may look on paper, you never truly know how a team will be once the season starts. Indiana returned a lot of players from their Lexington Regional team, and as reflected in the preseason conference coaches’ poll, were deserving of their near consensus preseason ranking. There will be more than a few home runs hit between Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller and Logan Sowers, already the trio have combined for five, but perhaps more important than the offensive production from the bats, or the scoreless innings Pauly Milto, Cal Krueger and Lloyd can toss on the mound, is the experience Indiana has as a club that’s been in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments and knows what is necessary to win at a high level.

Indiana finished the weekend with a solid 3-1 record, but it wasn’t a weekend full of ease for Chris Lemonis and staff.

Indiana jumped out to a 2-0 lead after their first at-bat in the season opener against Oklahoma, but ultimately lost 6-3. Indiana showed no hangover in cruising to a 5-0 victory over Kansas State on Saturday. On Sunday, IU rallied from 3-0 first-inning deficit to South Alabama in walk-off fashion, 8-4, and after Coastal Carolina grabbed a 5-3 lead with a four-spot in the fourth, answered with two runs in their at-bat in the fifth, before winning 6-5.

The ability to take a blow and respond, to stay composed in a final at-bat and throw away a poor performance will go a long way as Indiana looks to make a deep postseason run in June.

Michigan’s weekend rotation will carry the team

If you were following Michigan’s weekend series against Army you probably lost track of how many Wolverines made their Michigan debut this weekend. Between freshmen, JUCO transfers or players who have been in the program but buried due to the depth Erik Bakich has built up, it was almost a day-to-night change in the team Michigan fielded compared to the team that ended the 2017 season in the Chapel Hill Regional. But there was comfort to be found in the starting pitchers Michigan rolled out, a group that will likely carry the club in 2018 as fresh faces get accumulated and up to speed to the college game.

Using a weekend rotation of a senior followed by two sophomores, Alec Rennard, Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman each pitched at least five innings and recorded a scoreless start. The Right-left-right trio combined to pitch 16 innings, scattering 11 hits with two walks, holding Army batters to a .189 batting average. Each pitcher was a significant factor out of the Michigan bullpen in 2017, with Rennard garnering a few starts, and now, as three of the few Wolverines who know what it takes to win in the Big Ten, as starting pitchers the rotation will go a long way in how Michigan fares this year.

The perfect script for Penn State

Penn State head coach Rob Cooper could not have asked for a better opening weekend for the Nittany Lions. In a three-game series at Elon, Penn State swept the Phoenix, opening the season 3-0 for the first time since 1980. Each victory provided Cooper and company with reasons to be optimistic in Penn State’s quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012.

In the opener, Justin Hagenman surrendered four hits and struck out seven batters as he takes over the of staff ace following the departure of Sal Biasi. In total, PSU pitchers racked up 15 strikeouts in the 2-1 win. Penn State’s offense lifted the team to an 8-6 win on Saturday to clinch the series, the team picked up two doubles and two home runs in their 10 hits, noteworthy as Penn State only slugged .329 last season. After missing the 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Sal’s younger brother Dante made his PSU debut, keeping the game close, before closer Eric Mock recorded his second save of the weekend with a hitless, three-inning effort, helping Penn State secure the 3-2 win.

The pitching was there, more pop was on display and Penn State did not commit an error over the three games. All aspects clicked this weekend for the Nittany Lions.

A Year Two JUCO bump can help Bucks bounce back

It would be an understatement to say the 2017 season did not go as Ohio State hoped. Coming off of an appearance in the 2016 Louisville Regional, Ohio State finished 22-34 overall, 8-16 in the Big Ten to finish in 11th place. A big factor in Ohio State unable to duplicate their 2016 success was the loss of six draft pictures and a handful of other multi-year starters who graduated. Ohio State tried to fill the holes left in the lineup with JUCO transfer, but newcomers Bo Coolen, Tyler Cowles, and Noah McGowan respectively batted .230, .190, and .214 between 384 at-bats. It’s only one weekend, but the numbers put up in the first weekend may sure an their second season in Columbus may fare a bit better.

Earning Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors by Collegiate Baseball, McGowan batted .400 with a double, two home runs and a nation-leading 13 RBI, 12 coming with two outs. McGowan drove in 19 runs for the 2017 season. Cowles picked up four hits in 12 at-bats while Coolen added a pair of singles in five at-bats.

Ohio State will face a drastic jump in competition in the upcoming weekend, Oregon State and Utah and considerably better than UW-Milwaukee and Canisius, but the starts are encouraging for three players who struggled a year ago, a core that Ohio State has enough pieces surrounding to create a potent lineup if everything clicks.

 

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: