Did you blink? Just like that we’re already a month into the season, reaching the quarter point of the 16-weekend NCAA college baseball schedule. The Big Ten has compiled a 98-81 record through the first four weeks, sitting fifth in conference RPI, for whatever value that holds at this point.
The Big Ten garnered headlines for taking five or nine games against the Pac-12 in the Dairy Queen Classic, led by a 3-0 showing from Illinois, leading to a split of 24 games against the Pac-12. Indiana has not fallen from the polls, in fact the Hoosiers’ positioning has improved across the board from their preseason pencilings. Mark Wasikowski continues to build up the Purdue program, Rutgers is off to its best start in a decade, while things aren’t as rosy from the two programs from Michigan.
All of that said, what has 10 Innings taken from the first month? Here are the thoughts of Blake Dowson and Chris Webb.
*All stats through March 12
BD: Since we’re looking at “Biggest Surprise” as a good thing, I’m going to go with the Fighting Illini. Dan Hartleb and his squad has gotten off to better starts in the past (they’re 8-4 right now), but the blue bloodedness of the teams they have beat this year can’t be ignored: Coastal Carolina, UCLA, and Arizona have all fallen to the Illini, and all three of those teams have won national titles since 2012.
CW: The Ohio State offense. Last year, the Buckeyes finished 10th in the conference with a .260 average, ninth with a .395 slugging percentage, and eighth with a .356 on-base percentage. Through 15 games, those numbers are up to .301, .450 and .388. The offensive turn-up also hasn’t come against second-rate competition, either. The Buckeyes put up eight runs in a game against Oregon State, 15 in two games against Coastal Carolina, and nine against Southern Miss. With six regulars batting at least .300, the Buckeyes have averaged 6.6 runs and 10.6 hits in five games against ranked reams.
BD: Michigan has done nothing to disprove the notion they are one of the better teams in the Big Ten, but its start is less than inspiring at 4-10. Losing three of four to Stanford is excusable, losing two of three to Lipscomb is not.
CW: Top pitching prospects. Using Baseball America’s preseason top 2018 MLB Draft prospects list, it hasn’t been the best month for pitchers drawing the most scouting attention. Baseball America ranked the top prospects as Ryan Feltner, Brady Schnauel, Jonathan Stiever, Riley McCauley and Will Tribucher. Their seasons thus far:
Feltner- 1-0, 7.50 ERA, 20.2 IP, 10 BB, 20 SO
Schnauel- 2-2, 4.24, 17.0, 14, 19
Stiever- 1-1, 4.81, 24.1, 8 32
McCauley- 0-2, 4.71, 21.0, 8, 27
Tribucher- 0-2, 4.76, 5.2, 5, 8
Pitcher of the Month
BD: Purdue needs to get some love on this list. Tanner Andrews gets the nod here. He is two outs away from leading the league in innings right now (he’s at 27.1), and sports a 0.99 ERA through four starts. He’s also fourth in the league in strikeouts.
CW: Where the top pitching prospects have underwhelmed, Andrews has pitched himself into being a very good senior sign, a potential top-10 round draft pick. Undoubtedly, the conference’s top pitcher, Andrews has pitched at least six innings in every start, while allowing just three extra-base hits. With Andrews pitching the way he has, Mark Wasikowski can feel confident on Fridays going into every weekend.
Player of the Month
BD: This is tough between Jacson McGowan and Noah McGowan. And no, these two aren’t related. I’ll give the nod to Noah for what he has done to propel the Buckeyes. His .404 average with 12 extra-base hits to go along with a league-leading 24 RBI are right in the middle of an Ohio State order that has absolutely exploded.
CW: McGowan v. McGowan is shaping up to be the toughest POY race since 2013 when Kyle Schwarber and Justin Parr went head to head. The offensive numbers between the two first baseman are equally impressive.
Jacson: .408/.508/.837, 3 2B, 6 HR, 20 RBI,
Noah: .410/.486/.787, 6 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 24 RBI.
I’ll give the edge, barely, to Noah, as he can play first, second, and the outfield, adding an element of versatility, and being a bit more valuable, that beats out. Fortunately we have a May series between the two teams in Columbus, where they can decide this head-to-head on the field.
BD: The consistency at Indiana is impressive. The Hoosiers are the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten in polls and in my mind. They sit at 11-4 with impressive wins over Kansas State, South Alabama, Coastal Carolina, three against San Diego, and two against Pacific.
CW: I think Illinois has played the best baseball thus far. The Illini are getting it done at the plate, with Ben Troike, Michael Massey and Bren Spillane, and figure to be a team nobody wants to see once Zac Taylor and Jack Yalowitz get going. The weekend rotation has settled in with newcomers Quinn Snarski and Andy Fisher leading the way, while Joey Gerber at the back of the bullpen has shown flashes of brilliance. Oh, and the team is fielding at an insane rate. Illinois has made a strong case to be the most complete team.
Most Impacting Injury
BD: It’s been tough for Iowa to ride any sort of momentum from last season’s Big Ten Tournament title without the Big Ten Tournament MVP, Chris Whelan. Besides the tournament, Whelan hit .309 overall last season with 25 RBI. An elbow injury has kept Whelan out of the middle of Iowa’s order this season, but he’s scheduled to debut this weekend.
CW: Chad Luensmann. Especially with how many pitchers Nebraska has lost since he went down in the offseason. As they start to get out of their annual early season slump, the Huskers should have on of the Big Ten’s top lineups, that will be title-defense worthy. Luis Alvrado has nicely stepped into the ace role, the same for Jake Hohensee as the team’s closer. But the Huskers are hurting in depth, where the junior right-hander had the ability to either be a long-inning reliever, lockdown down closer, or spot starter.
BD: Through the first few weekends, the Big Ten looked like it was going to surprise a lot of people throughout college baseball. Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan State all made statements at the DQ Classic. Purdue won six of its first seven, including a win over Notre Dame. Iowa won eight of its first nine games.
But things have slowed down a bit since. That same Iowa team has now lost four in a row,
Michigan has won two of nine, Michigan State is two for its last seven, and Northwestern squandered a big opportunity in Austin by losing three of four to the Longhorns.
Now comes time for Big Ten teams to start beating up on each other, meaning the conference as a whole can’t rise up too much. If one team is bolstering a resume, it came at the expense of another Big Ten team. Now is when we start to see who the contenders and pretenders are.
CW: It’s been a solid non-conference run for the Big Ten. There hasn’t been anything truly eye-catching, Indiana has held serve, as the top team should, and the showings of Illinois and Purdue aren’t that surprising, the teams had three and five respective 10 Innings’ preseason all-conference picks.
The conference had the potential to really make a statement with splits, but Ohio State saw Oregon State score six runs in their last at-bat and a walk-off three run home run prevented Michigan from splitting with Stanford. Iowa being swept by UNLV, Michigan’s o-for-Tony Gwynn Legacy, Nebraska dropping the series at Wichita State, and Michigan State being swept by Fresno State, are sore spots.
But Ohio State beat Southern Miss and split with Coastal Carolina, Rutgers is 8-6, Northwestern has road wins at Kansas and Texas, and the aforementioned Indiana series at San Diego, and Illinois’ perfect Dairy Queen Classic are certainly bright spots.
All in all, it’s been a month where a good, but not truly great conference, has shown depth and ability. With Indiana, the Big Ten has a likely regional host if the season ended today, joined in the field by Illinois and Ohio State, who both likely with multiple resume-highlighting wins. Maryland and Minnesota have done enough to head into two very important weeks, with Iowa, Nebraska, and Purdue beating who they should have beat to hang around enough. With only a week to go before conference play begins, it appears everything is inline for another half-dozen Big Ten teams to be in the mix for a regional bid.