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.

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