Big Ten teams are heading into the eighth weekend of play, reaching the halfway point of the college baseball season. With the race for the conference crown shaping up and teams putting together resumes in hopes of a return to the NCAA Tournament, 10 Innings’ Blake Dowson, Burke Granger and Chris Webb share their thoughts on the first half of the season across the Big Ten.
What’s the top storyline of the first half of the season?
BD: Minnesota. The Gophers leaned heavily on upperclassmen during last year’s Big Ten championship run. Austin Athmann, Matt Fiedler, Dan Motl, and Connor Schaefbauer are no longer in the Gopher lineup. Those four combined for 303 hits, 149 RBI, and 159 runs last year. Without them, Minnesota is undefeated in the Big Ten and 19-8 overall, with sweeps over Michigan State and Ohio State after being picked to finish sixth in the preseason. The Gophers land in the top half of the conference in team batting average, on-base percentage, team earned run average, opposing batting average, and team fielding percentage.
BG: Maryland’s hot streak. After a 1-5 start through the season’s first two weekends, all they’ve done is go 18-3 since, take two of three against a very good Michigan team, and they’re back in the national rankings.
CW: The little attention the Big Ten is garnering. What Michigan and Minnesota are doing shouldn’t be a surprise with who each team returned. But neither team loaded up on summer league all-stars or filled up prospect lists to enter the season with little fanfare. While Michigan was ranked for most of March, most are just now noticing what Minnesota is doing. Both have legitimate chances of hosting a regional. Add those two with Maryland, the season Iowa is putting together, Nebraska getting it turned around, and while stumbling of late, Michigan State’s pitching and power ability, this is an extremely deep Big Ten season. I guess there hasn’t been a “wow” series the Big Ten can hang its hat on, but something feels off with just how few headlines the conference has made so far. NCAA Tournament projections from Baseball America and D1Baseball do have Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota appearing in an regional, so people are aware there’s good teams, but it doesn’t quite feel like there’s an appreciation for the quality season thus far and the depth of the conference.
Which team has most exceeded expectations in your eyes?
BD: Purdue. The Boilermakers’ 15-13, 3-3 record isn’t flashy enough to get people talking about them outside of the conference, but considering where the team came from last year, a record above .500 is no small feat. Purdue has already eclipsed its win total from a year ago (10), as well as conference wins (2). With weekend series against Rutgers, Illinois, and Northwestern left on the schedule, Purdue could be on its way to its best season since it qualified for the NCAA Tournament back in 2012.
BG: Minnesota. Though they took home the Big Ten championship last season, they lost four players to the draft and I thought Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska would all finish above Minnesota in the standings. They still might, but the Gophers stand at 19-8 overall and 6-0 in the conference so they can’t be ignored.
CW: Iowa. I’ll one day learn to not to doubt a team coached by Rick Heller. I thought going into the season the losses of Joel Booker, Tyler Peyton and Nick Roscetti would be be tough to overcome, and while safely in the Big Ten Tournament mix, a shot at a regional berth would be a year away. Midway through the year the Hawkeyes are in a position to chase down a second NCAA Tournament trip in three years.
Which team has not lived up to your preseason expectations?
BD: Ohio State. The Buckeyes weren’t expected to contend for a Big Ten title this season. In the conference’s preseason rankings, Ohio State didn’t land in the top-6. But there is an expectation in Columbus to take care of business against in-state teams like Xavier, who the Buckeyes got swept by in mid-March. Two losses to a mediocre Purdue team and another sweep at the hands of Minnesota has Ohio State in a bad spot and in danger of finishing below .500 for the first time in six years.
BG: Ohio State. Perhaps I should have seen it coming after losing six players to the MLB Draft, but I thought the Buckeyes, having won the conference tournament last season, would be more competitive.
CW: Michigan State. The Spartans were not only my preseason Big Ten champion, but for the last 13 months I viewed this year as a regional hosting season for Michigan State. With series still to come against Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska, they certainly can fight their way back and achieve both. But the manner in which Minnesota swept Michigan State, was the same in South Carolina’s two victories over Jake Boss’ team and it’s a cause for concern. MSU is right there, they can go toe-to-toe with anyone, but there’s an inability to get over that hump. MSU now has a five-game skid going into their conference bye week and need to figure out who’s the player that’s going to be their Ronnie Dawson, David Kerian or Sam Travis.
Looking back, which weekend result did you not see coming?
BD: Minnesota’s sweep of Michigan State. The Gophers officially announced themselves as a threat in the Big Ten after sweeping the Spartans to get to 6-0 in the conference. Both teams came into the weekend at 3-0 in Big Ten play, but the Spartans left the weekend with their tails between their legs. Minnesota won a pair of one-run contests on Saturday before tagging Michigan State with 9 runs on Sunday, touching all four Spartan pitchers for at least one run.
BG: Michigan taking two of three in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic. Their only loss came in a 1-0 duel to UCLA where Oliver Jaskie nearly matched Griffin Canning, a potential day-one MLB Draft selection, blow for blow. This was a statement weekend for Michigan and it’s refreshing to see a cold weather teams play well in an early season invitational.
CW: LSU’s sweep of Maryland. It’s not that LSU isn’t a good team, the Tigers are, but Maryland wasn’t all that competitive in the series. I expected a better showing by the Terps in the Bayou, with Brian Shaffer and Taylor Bloom leading the way to a big weekend victory, putting a bullet on Maryland’s regional résumé.
Of note, strictly on looking back with no consideration of preseason expectations, that a scuffling Ohio State team is the lone loss on #1 Oregon State’s record is noteworthy.
Who is your first half Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Pitcher?
BD: Most Valuable Player: Jake Adams, Iowa. Adams, who was targeted by Iowa out of Des Moines Area Community College to replace Tyler Peyton in the lineup and at first base, has been better than anyone expected. The South Dakota native has hit for power and average. Adams is tied for first in home runs (11), is first in RBI (37) and total bases (74), second in slugging (.698), fifth in hits (36), and tied for tenth in average (.340). You can live with his 24 strikeouts compared to 12 walks with the amount of power he brings to the table.
Most Valuable Pitcher: Brian Shaffer, Maryland. Shaffer has filled the void that Shawaryn left and then some. He holds a 4-1 record with a league-leading 1.70 ERA, while throwing five more innings than anyone else in the Big Ten. His 52 strikeouts are second only to Oliver Jaskie in the conference, and his .187 batting average/against is third among qualified pitchers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Shaffer is dominating in his junior season — in his sophomore season he finished with 8 wins, 103 innings, and a 2.60 ERA, along with a complete game shutout against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.
BG: Most Valuable Player: Pat McInerney, Illinois. Most Valuable Pitcher: Shaffer.
CW: Most Valuable Player: Adams. Even with Robert Neustrom blossoming into a top flight outfielder and Mason McCoy being the Big Ten’s top all around shortstop, the offense is at a different level due to Adams. He’s been an anchor in the lineup, producing big hits and giving the Hawkeyes a power threat they’ve yet to have in the Heller Era.
Most Valuable Pitcher: Shaffer. As Blake laid out, Shaffer is doing Shaffer things. He’s doing exactly what was expected in the preseason.
*But, if there is only one MVP, it’d be Michigan State’s Alex Troop for what he has done as the Spartans’ ace and providing a big bat in the lineup, becoming the conference’s premier two-way player.