Expect a Roaring Twenties for the Big Ten

Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:

The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).

Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)

Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)

Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.

For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.

Then the 2010s happened.

And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.

The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.

Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.

The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.

Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?

Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.

After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.

So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.

In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.

And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)

The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.

Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.

 

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 11-20

With five teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the national runner-up, it’s safe to say Big Ten baseball is reaching new heights in modern college baseball. Entering a new season, and a new decade, there is a lot to look forward to. With new coaches leading three programs, two clubs breaking Baseball America’s preseason poll, and a handful of different players receiving preseason All-America praise, there are endless storylines around the conference as the calendar creeps towards February.

Kicking off 10 Innings’ preseason coverage, here is the first 10 of 20 things to watch through Big Ten baseball in 2020.

20. Northwestern overachieving, again

Let’s get this one out of the way. Spencer Allen’s Northwestern Wildcats will again exceed expectations in 2020. Northwestern painfully finished on the outside of the top eight last year, where a confluence of events, including a lightning delay, occurred on the final day to keep the ‘Cats home for the postseason. At 11-13 in Big Ten play, Northwestern finished one game behind a three-team tie for sixth. Per usual, few outside of Evanston expected Northwestern to hover near .500, they finished 24-27, and so is the case again this year. Perfect Game projects Northwestern to finish 12th, with D1Baseball.com slotting Northwestern 10th in their preseason table. Year over year Northwestern has been a tough out, and they aren’t too far removed from their 2017 Big Ten Tournament runner-up showing. They may still be a year away when it is all said and done, but don’t take the Wildcats as walk-overs, their history under Allen shows they’re anything but.

19. Will the Penn State pitchers get a little support

Focusing on a different breed of cats, will the Nittany Lions find some much-needed potency at the plate? Here’s a fun Did You Know: the Big Ten leader in team-ERA during conference play last season was….Penn State. In their 22 conference games, Penn State hurlers pitched to a 3.38 ERA and held the opposition to a .233 average. Unfortunately, .233 was still .015 better than what Penn State batters did at the plate in conference play. Last in average, PSU had the second-fewest stolen bases and third-fewest extra-base hits. The morbid offense play a significant role in Penn State going 0-8 in one-run conference games, as they were held to two or fewer runs in half of their 22 Big Ten games. Pitching coach Josh Newman has done wonders with the PSU arms. Now it’s time for Penn State to supplement their staff with some punch at the plate.

18. Better January weather = better February records?

The first day of team practice for the spring season came on Jan. 24. For more than a few schools the weather was favorable enough to escape indoor tunnels and facilities to practice outside. So far through the last week of January, the conditions have similarly held up. With the likes of Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers taking advantage and repeatedly practicing outside, will practicing in truer settings lead help them get out of the gates better? Of course, since this is the Big Ten, any reprieve in weather in January will lead to unwelcome conditions throughout April.

17. This year’s JUCO star

Two of the last three Big Ten Player of the Year winners have been players in their first Big Ten season after transferring from a junior college, Iowa’s Jake Adams in 2017 and Michigan’s Jordan Brewer last year. The JUCO ranks have played quite a role in the Big Ten’s upward trend over the last decade with the likes of Matt Lloyd, Mason McCoy, Noah McGowan, Jordan Parr and Tyler Peyton being key players in strong years for their respective clubs. Will there be another player that seemingly comes out of nowhere to take the conference by storm that was playing at a junior college last year? Likely so, but who will it be?

16. Fredrickson’s form

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson didn’t come from the junior college ranks, but he was a newcomer that had a banner season two years ago. Becoming the first freshman named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Fredrickson spurred Minnesota to the 2018 Big Ten championship and Corvallis Super Regional appearance. Looking to join Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers as back-to-back Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recipients, Fredrickson battled injury and his stuff backing up last year, en route to a 5.56 ERA with 30 walks in 43.2 innings. The Gopher staff has worked this offseason to tweak Fredrickson’s motion, making it shorter, to increase his command of his offspeed. If Fredrickson can return to his 2018 form, that will go a long way in the Gophers doing the same, and putting their 29-27 season far behind them.

15. Maryland’s ballyhooed freshmen

Per D1Baseball.com, Maryland is home to the #3, #8 and #10 “Impact Freshmen” in the Big Ten, as well as four of the top 16 and five of the top 20. Viewing the freshmen as one, D1Baseball.com and Prep Baseball Report ranked Maryland as having the #7 freshman class in the country. Will the hype turn into a happy College Park? As Fredrickson and classmate Max Meyer showed in 2018, a pair of extremely talented rookies can make quite the impact. It’s worth watching what kind of seasons right-handed pitcher Nick Dean, and outfielders Bobby Zmarzlak and Tucker Flint have with high expectations.

14. Illini arms under Allen

After eight seasons developing and leading Illinois’ pitchers, assistant coach Drew Dickinson moved on to become the pitching coach at Virginia. Illini pitchers experienced tremendous success under Dickinson’s watch, most notably Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock, respectively the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and 2016. A testament to Dickinson, himself the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2002, neither Jay nor Sedlock, two eventual first-round draft picks, were blue chip recruits before arrive in Champaign and developing under Dickinson’s guidance, nor was Garrett Acton, last year’s Big Ten-leader in saves with 19, tied for the most ever by a Big Ten pitcher. It will now be up to Mark Allen to coach up and deploy Acton and the rest of the Illini staff as he sees fit. Allen arrives in Champaign after serving as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, ending a nine-year stay in professional baseball.

13. The 2020 iteration of #Hellerball

Iowa has been at the forefront of learning and implementing data, utilizing enhanced technology and thinking outside of the box in player development. Which might be exactly why nobody can really say what #Hellerball is. Playing off of the name of head coach Rick Heller, #Hellerball doesn’t really represent any style of baseball. And that in itself is probably the Iowa way. The Hawkeyes do an incredible job of creating an identity around the abilities and talents of their players. In years where you have Jake Adams, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, you don’t have to put as much in action, execute every first-to-third perfectly and be terrors on the bases. In years where there isn’t that punch in the lineup, you do need to do all of those things in order to create runs. Every year it seems Iowa finds a way to squeeze as much out of their players as any, continue to refine their process of player development. It’s to be determined what type of outfit Iowa rolls out in 2020, but whatever version of #Hellerball it is, it will likely optimize the talents on the lineup.

12. Big Ten vs. Big XII

There are a few Big Ten vs. Big XII matchups that will be worth watching in 2020. Over the last five years, the Big Ten has produced 22 NCAA Tournament teams to the Big XII’s 23. The conferences are closer in quality than many might assume. These five showdowns will give the Big Ten an opportunity to solidify that sentiment.

Nebraska @ Baylor, Feb. 14-16

TCU @ Minnesota, Feb. 22-24

Iowa vs. Kansas, March 10-11

Maryland @ TCU, March 13-15

Minnesota @ Texas Tech, March 20-22

11. Goff at the helm of the Boilermaker engine

Greg Goff will enter his first season leading a Big Ten program unlike any other in recent years. Purdue is only two years removed from appearing in an NCAA Regional. In recent years when a coach has left a program that so soon removed from a regional, they’ve left the program in a great spot. Coming off of hosting the 2014 Bloomington Regional, Indiana’s Tracy Smith left to go to Arizona State and then Chris Lemonis had the Hoosiers in a regional the following year. Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to the 2018 Austin Regional, before leaving to go head Mississippi State’s program, which led to Jeff Mercer stepping in and doing something Lemonis didn’t in leading IU to a Big Ten title, before he also put IU in a regional. But as Mark Wasikowski left Purdue to be the head coach at Oregon, he is did so after the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and 12th in the conference. For coaches that stepped into a setting where they’re program is coming of such a finish, they are usually an entirely new staff entering an unknown environment. Greg Goff was on Wasikowski’s staff, so too was Cooper Fouts, who Goff retain. So all that said, it’s really hard to know what may change under Goff, whether Purdue needs a rebuild, if they’re more like 2018 or more like 2019. We shall see.

Gorzelanny Returns to Iowa Staff in New Role

Iowa City, Iowa — Tom Gorzelanny, who spent the 2019 season as the University of Iowa baseball program’s volunteer assistant and pitching coach, returns to the staff in 2020 as the Hawkeyes’ director of player development.

“We’re excited bring Tom back to our staff in the player development role,” said Iowa head coach Rick Heller. “He did a great job with our pitching staff last year. He will be a valuable addition to our staff with his familiarity with our program.”

Gorzelanny helped the team post 31 victories last season – the program’s sixth straight 30-win season – and record a sixth straight Big Ten Tournament appearance. Iowa won six straight series during the regular season, which included series wins over No. 23 Illinois, No. 30 Nebraska, and No. 18 UC Irvine.

The Hawkeyes went 10-3 against top-30 opponents in 2019, including taking two of three games at No. 19 Oklahoma State.

Gorzelanny coached Grant Leonard to second-team All-Big Ten honors after the reliever set a program record, converting all 14 of his save chances. Leonard was named to the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Midseason List and he finished seventh nationally in saves.

After leading the Hawkeyes to a Big Ten Tournament win over top-seeded Indiana, Friday night starter Cole McDonald was selected in the 14th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Houston Astros. It marked the 13th straight year a Hawkeye was drafted.

Gorzelanny joined the Hawkeyes following a 12-year career in Major League Baseball where he pitched for Pittsburgh (five years), Chicago Cubs (two years), Washington (two years), Milwaukee (two years), Detroit (one year), and Cleveland (one year).

The left-handed pitcher finished his career with a 50-53 record with a 4.40 ERA over 314 appearances (121 starts). Gorzelanny’s best season came in 2007, where he went 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA, making 32 starts and logging more than 200 innings for the Pirates.

Gorzelanny retired from professional baseball in 2017.

Following his senior season at Marist (Illinois) High School, Gorzelanny was selected in the 38th round of the 2000 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, but he elected to attend the University of Kansas. Gorzelanny spent two seasons in Lawrence — one as a redshirt — before transferring to Triton Community College.

After one season with the Trojans, Gorzelanny was drafted in the second round of the 2003 MLB Draft (45th overall pick) by Pittsburgh. He made his Major League debut in 2005 and played in the 2006 All-Star Futures Game.

Gorzelanny earned a regular spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation in 2007 — a season where he was a National League All-Star after being one of five players chosen from a final fan vote for the last spot on the NL roster.

Gorzelanny and his wife, Lindsey, reside in North Liberty with their two sons, Gavin and Connor.

Iowa’s 2020 Team Captains Announced

Iowa City, Iowa — Seniors Justin Jenkins, Grant Judkins, Grant Leonard, and Austin Martin have been voted team captains for the 2020 University of Iowa baseball season, it was announced Thursday by head coach Rick Heller.

Jenkins, an outfielder from Terre Haute, Indiana, started 22 games in 2019, where he was a .260 hitter with 12 runs and six steals. Jenkins had a career-high three hits in the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten Tournament opening round victory over No. 21 Indiana last May.

Judkins, a right-handed pitcher from Pella, Iowa, returns as the leader of the Iowa starting rotation. Last season as the Sunday starter, Judkins went 4-7 with a 2.72 ERA with 65 strikeouts over 82 2/3 innings. Judkins was the Collegiate Baseball and NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week on Feb. 19 and he finished the season ranking in the top 14 in the Big Ten in ERA, batting average against, and innings.

Leonard, a right-handed pitcher from Mokena, Illinois, returns for his second season as the Hawkeyes’ closer. The reliever was a second-team All-Big Ten All-Big Ten selection in 2019 after tallying a single-season school record 14 saves. Leonard, who was named to the NCBWA Midseason Closer of the Year list, was 2-3 with a 3.37 ERA in 28 appearances.

Martin, a catcher from Altoona, Iowa, started 53 games — 49 behind the plate — during his first season as a Hawkeye, where he hit .294 with 10 doubles, 30 RBIs, and 29 runs scored. Martin had a team-leading 18 multi-hit games in 2019 and he hit safely in 34 contests.

The Hawkeyes begin official team practices Friday. Iowa opens the regular season at the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 14, facing Kent State in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Iowa’s home opener is set for March 3 against Grand View at Duane Banks Field. Season tickets for the team’s 23 home contests are available at hawkeyesports.com/tickets.

Former Hawkeye Jimmy Frankos Joins Iowa Coaching Staff

Former Hawkeye Jimmy Frankos Joins Iowa Coaching Staff

Iowa City, Iowa — Former Hawkeye and University of Iowa graduate Jimmy Frankos has been named the volunteer assistant coach with the Iowa baseball program, head coach Rick Heller announced Wednesday.

Frankos replaces former Iowa teammate Jake Yacinich, who accepted a full-time assistant coach/recruiting coordinator position at Xavier University in December.

“We’re excited to welcome Jimmy to our program,” said Heller. “He returns with head coaching experience and knows our team and culture. He will be an excellent addition to our staff with his energy, work ethic, and will to succeed.”

Frankos joins the program after spending the past three seasons at Heartland (Illinois) Community College. He was an assistant coach in 2017 and 2018 before being promoted to head coach in 2019. During his stint, the Hawks accumulated 119 wins, including a 34-20 record last season.

Heartland won one regular season MWAC Championship and finished runner-up in the 2018 Region 24 Regional Tournament. During his three seasons, 29 student-athletes went on to play at the Division I level, including a program record 14 in 2018. PJ Smith, a former Hawk and Purdue graduate, was an MLB Draft selection in 2019.

Frankos also has coaching experience in the Cape Cod Summer League, where he served as an assistant coach for the Wareham Gatemen in 2017. He worked with some of the nation’s top hitters, coached third base, and both catchers he coached were top 10 round selections in the 2018 MLB Draft.

Frankos played for the Hawkeyes from 2013-16, where he was a three-year starter. He finished his career with a .270 batting average with a career-best .313 average in 2014. Frankos was a team captain and Iowa’s recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award as a senior.

The Park Ridge, Illinois, native ranked 10th in the Big Ten in batting average (.344) as a sophomore and he was a Big Ten Co-Player of the Week during the 2015 season. During the 2015 campaign, the Hawkeyes won 41 games — the second most in a single season in program history — advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years, and posted their first NCAA Regional win since 1972.

Iowa finished the season in the national rankings for the first time in program history — 20th by Collegiate Baseball, 25th by Baseball America, and 28th by the NCBWA. As a senior in 2016, Frankos helped the Hawkeyes advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship game.

Frankos graduated from the University of Iowa in 2016 with a business management and leadership degree and a minor in sports studies.

Judkins Named NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week

Iowa City, Iowa –University of Iowa junior Grant Judkins has been named the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) National Pitcher of the Week, it was announced Tuesday by the association.

Judkins was also named a Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week and the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Week on Monday following his dominant performance in Iowa’s 10-0 victory over Marshall on Feb. 17 in Kissimmee, Florida.

The Pella, Iowa, native pitched a career-best six-innings of no-hit ball with a career-high 11 strikeouts against the Thundering Herd. Judkins had a fast start, punching out five batters through three innings. In the sixth, he worked out of trouble after back-to-back walks to start the inning. With runners on first and third with one out, Judkins reached double digit K’s, striking out the final two batters he faced.

Judkins’ 11 strikeouts are currently leading the Big Ten Conference and rank fifth nationally. As a team, the Hawkeyes have 41 strikeouts in three games to lead the league and rank fifth in the country with 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State Earn Baseball Weekly Honors

Rosement, Ill. — Huskers’ Hallmark named Player of the Week; Hawkeyes’ Judkins claims Pitcher of the Week recognition; Buckeyes’ Burhenn tabbed Freshman of the Week.

Player of the Week
Jaxon Hallmark, Nebraska

OF – So. – Midland, Texas – Midland – Sports Media and Communication

 

  • Helped the Huskers to a 3-1 record to open the season, posting a trio of victories over UC Riverside
  • Tallied 10 RBI on 8 hits and scored five runs while batting .444 on the week
  • Led the Huskers with a .556 slugging percentage and a .474 on-base percentage
  • Wins his first career Big Ten Player of the Week award
  • Last Nebraska Big Ten Player of the Week: Scott Schreiber (April 9, 2018)

 

Pitcher of the Week
Grant Judkins, Iowa

P – Jr. – Pella, Iowa – Pella High School – Finance

 

  • Shut down Marshall over six innings on Sunday, not allowing a hit, setting a career high with 11 strikeouts and helping Iowa to a 10-0 victory
  • Recorded five strikeouts through the first three innings
  • Overcame back-to-back walks in the sixth inning by escaping the jam with his final two strikeouts
  • The Academic All-Big Ten honoree records his first career Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honor
  • Last Iowa Big Ten Pitcher of the Week: Nick Allgeyer (April 30, 2018)

 

Freshman of the Week
Garrett Burhenn, Ohio State

P – Indianapolis, Ind. – Lawrence North – Health Professions Exploration

 

  • Threw eight scoreless innings allowing one hit with six strikeouts and no walks to help the Buckeyes to a 6-0 victory against Seton Hall on Saturday
  • Faced the minimum through eight innings to claim his first career win
  • Became the first Buckeye pitcher to toss at least seven innings in a debut since Brad Goldberg threw seven innings in his debut vs. St. John’s on Feb. 17, 2013
  • Wins his first Big Ten Freshman of the Week award
  • Last Ohio State Big Ten Freshman of the Week: Brady Cherry (Feb. 29, 2016)

Trending Topics: Week 1

It was quite the weekend for Big Ten baseball teams, as action spanned the country from Miami, Fla., to Riverside, Calif. There were outstanding individual honors, like pitchers Grant Judkins of Iowa and Ohio State’s Garrett Burhenn, respectively logging a no-hit outing and flirting with perfection. A handful of teams sport spotless records: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And there were also a few surprises on the not as pleasant side, such as Minnesota losing to New Mexico and Oregon State by a combined score of 24-2 and Purdue and Rutgers concluding the opening weekend without a win.

Going beyond the scoreboard and box scores, the first of a weekly staple, Trending Topics, looks at five observations from the weekend that are either sending a team to success or holding them back.

Seniors stepping up

It’s hard to quantify, but ask any coach and there is something to draftitis affecting players over their junior year. Players who aren’t slam dunk draft picks, players with premium tools whose stock depends on production, time and time again press and scuffle, ultimately playing their way out of the draft. Then, when seniors, and facing the possibility of playing baseball competitively for the last time, no longer worrying about the draft just embracing the moment, an all-conference season unfolds.

The opening weekend showed there may be a few players who have strong senior seasons after watching their draft stock come and go, relaxed and just having the game come to them. Here’s a look at a few of those players, players who may end up having a significant say in how their team fares with them in the heart of the order.

Illinois OF Zac Taylor: 6-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5-5 SB-ATT

Indiana OF Logan Kaletha: 4-for-11, 2B

Maryland 3B Taylor Wright: 4-for-11

Michigan 1B Jimmy Kerr: 4-for-13, 2B, HR, 4 RBI

Ohio State LF Brady Cherry: 7-for-14, 2 2B, 2 HR

Buckeyes limit freebies

Although Ohio State went 36-24 and participated in the Greenville Regional last year, the Buckeyes were far from a well-oiled machine.

In 60 games, Ohio State’s defense committed 94 errors, more than 1.5 per contest and a whopping 20 more than the next closet team, leading to a Big Ten-worst .959 fielding percentage. The extra outs the Buckeyes gave the opposition were in addition to Ohio State hurlers hitting 77 batters, the most in the Big Ten, stood alongside surrendering 590 hits, also the most in the conference. A team that gives up a lot of hits, hits a lot of batters and routinely falls to play a clean game is far from the way Greg Beals wants his team to perform, regional or not.

Through the first weekend of the 2019 season, the Buckeyes have cleaned up their act.

Opening 4-0 for just the third time since 2010, Ohio State’s defense committed just two errors, for a .986 fielding percentage. Ohio State pitchers plunked only two batters, while walking just five hitters. As Ohio State breaks in an entirely new rotation, eliminating free passes, extra bases, and forced to record extra outs will go a long way in helping the Bucks reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03.

Huskers on the attack

Although Nebraska batted .274 in 2018, good for sixth in the conference, and scored 6.48 runs per contest, there was notable chatter on social media around the Huskers revolved around the offense. It is true Nebraska will no longer have the services of Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening, the team’s two leading batters who combined for 56 extra-base hits and 27 of the team’s 47 home runs. So on paper there is a noticeable void in power, but when looking back at Nebraska’s best teams under Erstad, they were never ones to so much power.

Take 2014, when Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten and participated in a regional. The Huskers batted .293 with only 19 homers. By comparison, Schreiber hit 18 by himself last year.

In 2016, another year in a regional, Nebraska batted .281 with 43 home runs.

Then, in 2017, when the Huskers won the Big Ten, the team held its .281 average but this time with just 25 home runs.

With Erstad leading the way, when Nebraska’s offense is at its best, it’s when every batter, 1-9, has a methodical approach of fouling balls off until one can be barreled, puts consistent pressure on the opponent, are aggressive with dirt ball reads, takes the extra 90 feet and squeezes the life out of the opposition.

In taking three of four games from UC Riverside, it appears Nebraska’s offense is getting back to that.

While it’s unlikely the team will bat .347 for the course of the season, there were 27 walks drawn in four games, 10 doubles, nine stolen bases and the team was able to generate 47 runs without needing to drop a sacrifice bunt, relying on three sac flies.

The key to Nebraska in 2019 isn’t necessarily who replaces the thump of Schreiber and Wilkening, it’s more who becomes the next Chad Christensen, Pat Kelly, Jake Meyers or Michael Pritchard, guys who did all of the little things that added up to a potent offense.

Did Minnesota’s superb defense graduate, too?

Picked by conference coaches to defend their Big Ten title, a lot of Minnesota’s expected success stems from their pitching staff. Last year, Minnesota pitched to a 3.20 ERA, a mark lowered to a conference-best 2.64 in Big Ten games. With the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson back in his Saturday role for his sophomore season, fellow all-american and classmate Max Meyer resuming his closing duties, and many capable high-ceiling arms back, such as Joshua Culliver, Jeff Fasching, Bubba Horton and Brett Schultz, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Gophers on the mound.

But the expected strength of the team falling on the pitching staff was also in part due to the graduation of multiple starters with at least three years of starting under their belt: Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and arguably the Big Ten’s best two-way player in Terrin Varva. Any concern regarding Minnesota would be on how John Anderson and staff would replace the key contributors at the plate,

After a rocky opening weekend, the real concern may be how does Minnesota replace the quintet in the field.

In addition to the second-best ERA, Minnesota had the second-best fielding percentage among Big Ten teams. With a .977 fielding percentage, Minnesota committed just 52 errors over 59 games. In 2017 Minnesota had a .978 fielding percentage, committing 47 errors in 57 games, and in 2016 the Gophers fielded at a .980 mark, with 43 errors in 56 games.

In four games in Arizona, Minnesota committed six errors, including four in Saturday’s 11-1 defeat to New Mexico. Each error in Saturday’s game came from a position where Minnesota last a starter, with the weekend’s six errors leading to nine unearned runs.

Now, it was opening weekend. It was Minnesota’s first time being outside on a baseball field since the fall, and young players need time to adjust to the speed of the game. But Minnesota’s pitchers are only as good as the defense behind them, and if too many extra bases and extra outs are provided to the opponents, it won’t matter what the Gophers do or don’t do at the plate.

Hawkkkkkeyes ring them up

When your former pitching coach is hired away by the Yankees for a position called Director of Pitch Development, a position created exclusively for him, chances are your pitchers were working with one of the best in the business as they perfected their craft. The results from Iowa’s three games over opening weekend would support that.

Although Iowa’s former pitcher coach Desi Druschel was behind the plate, taking in Saturday’s games as a bystander and not participant, his work with the Hawkeye pitchers was on display.

Against George Mason, Pitt and Marshall, Hawkeye pitchers were on the mound for 26 innings. In that time, Iowa struck out 41 batters. Jack Dreyer started the parade of eye-popping numbers with a 10-strikeout showing in 5.1 innings on Saturday against the Panthers. Less than 24 hours later, Grant Judkins grabbed the Big Ten lead in punch outs with 11, in six innings against the Thundering Herd. With relievers in tow, Iowa’s game totals for strikeouts were: 10, 15 and 16.

The 41 strikeouts helped Iowa hold the opposition to a .114 batting average, 10 hits in 88 at-bats. The 20 walks are an issue to address, but Iowa’s 14.19 K/9 showing through one weekend is impressive. In case you’re wondering, that would be 795 over a 56-game schedule. The Big Ten record is 549, set by Maryland in 2015.

Iowa Announces 2019 Team Captains

Iowa City, Iowa— Seniors Mitchell Boe, Cole McDonald, and Chris Whelan, and redshirt junior Kyle Shimp have been voted team captains for the 2019 University of Iowa baseball season, it was announced Monday by head coach Rick Heller.

Shimp is a team captain for a second straight season.

Boe, a second baseman from Naperville, Illinois, started 50 games as a junior, where he hit .266 with 23 runs, 23 RBIs, and 10 doubles, while McDonald went 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 2018. The right-handed pitcher from New Hampton, Iowa, is slated to be Iowa’s Friday starter for the 2019 season.

Whelan, an outfielder from Naperville, Illinois, hit .308 as a junior as the Hawkeyes’ leadoff hitter after missing the first month of the season because of injury. He hit safely in 31-of-38 games and had 13 multi-hit contests.

Shimp, a left-handed pitcher from Yorkville, Illinois, appeared in nine games in 2018 before missing the final two months because of injury.

The Hawkeyes open the season Feb. 15 at the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida. Iowa faces George Mason on Opening Day.

Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

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