What to watch for in Omaha

After a year hiatus, the Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha, where it will be for four more years. College baseball’s grand stage is set to host what many believe will be the Big Ten’s best tournament, as seven teams are in the mix for an at-large berth to next week’s NCAA Tournament.

From potential regional hosts, to Golden Spike Award semifinalists, to record-setting players on nearly every team, here’s the 10 leading storylines to follow this week in Omaha.

The Bren Spillane Show

Illinois’ 10th Big Ten Player of the Year is having a season rivaled by few, if any, in Illinois’ storied history. Spillane finished the regular season as the Big Ten’s Triple Crown winner, batting .407 with 22 home runs and 57 RBI. Regional projections from national outlets have Illinois safely in next week’s NCAA Tournament. But a big week by the Big Ten’s brightest star can make their case a slam dunk, by using his premium power to send a few balls out of TD Ameritrade Park.

Spartan speed

While Spillane has the power to hit home runs in any environment, TD Ameritrade Park is known for being tough on home run hitters. Perhaps better suited for teams with the ability to run, Michigan State enters the tournament as a potential dangerous No. 8 seed, thanks to their speed. The Spartans led the Big Ten in stolen bases and attempts, swiping 98 bags in 125 attempts. Sophomore outfielder Bryce Kelley paced Big Ten players with 31 steals, setting a new Michigan State single-season record.

Luke Miller’s power surge

Three home runs during a weekend sweep over Maryland helped Indiana junior third baseman Luke Miller grab the final Big Ten Player of the Week honor. After missing some time in the middle of the season due to injury, Miller is back being a force in the hear of IU’s lineup. Now leading the Hoosiers with 11 home runs, Miller has the type of bat that change the tide of a game in one swing, and do it again, game after game. Heading to Omaha on a six-game winning strike, IU looks poised to make a deep postseason run, spurred by one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous players getting hot.

Ohio State’s reliance on Seth Kinker

No Buckeye pitcher has appeared in more games over his career than senior right-hander Seth Kinker. No reliever in the eight-year tenure of Greg Beals has been as trusted as Kinker. Leading the Big Ten with a 1.62 ERA, Kinker has been Mr. Reliable for Beals and the Buckeyes, racking up 13 saves and a 6-1 record in 26 appearances. But those 26 outings have resulted in 55.2 innings pitched, as Kinker is more than a one-inning save. With few other Buckeyes showing the ability to close the door or escape a tight jam, how will Beals used Kinker? In past history is any indication, it’s a lot, Kinker pitched in five games during Ohio State’s run to the 2016 tournament title.

Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers

Minnesota has more than enough depth to pitch through the Big Ten Tournament, there isn’t a concern on how often a pitcher will be turned to, and how long he pitches. What is worth keeping in mind with the Big Ten championships is how their first-year pitchers perform in their first taste of postseason baseball. Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson, and fellow first-team All-Big Ten selection, closer Max Meyer, will be front and center as the pressure cranks up a notch, as too will Jake Stevenson and Sam Thoresen, fellow freshmen who will likely start Minnesota’s third and fourth games respectively, if Minnesota tracks towards their 10 tournament title.

Attendance

A loaded Big Ten Tournament field does not include the team nearest to Omaha. For the first time in their Big Ten history, Nebraska will not participate in the postseason tournament. A part of the return to Omaha was the attendance of the 2014 and 2016 tournaments, in large part due to Nebraska’s presence. Without the Huskers in the field, will Omaha still show up?

Hellerball

One caveat to a potential drop in attendance is Iowa’s making the tournament. Under Rick Heller, the Big Ten Tournament has provided some magical moments. Two years ago, Iowa almost shocked the conference, falling one game shy of winning the tournament as the No. 8 seed. Last year, the Hawkeyes did win the tournament, and reached the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. It appears the automatic bid is Iowa’s key to the NCAA Tournament again, but it seems Iowa is comfortable fighting with their back against the wall. And if the Hawkeyes reach the weekend, they will undoubtedly have a homefield advantage as Hellerball is running deep in the heart of those in the Hawkeye State.

Who has a fourth starter?

No matter what, in this format with eight teams, a team must play a minimum of four games to win the tournament. The Big Ten experienced some of the worst spring weather in recent memory, seeing games cancelled week after week. As a result, a team may not have a fourth starter as polished as previous seasons, where the ability to play numerous midweek games would help build depth in the rotation. Some teams, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, have more than one option available after their traditional weekend three. Others, Michigan State, and Ohio State, come to mind first, may utilize Johnny Wholestaff if they have a deep tournament run.

Does momentum matter?

The postseason is often called a new season. Starting today, the records reset, all eight teams have a 0-0 record, and there is a clean table. But does the end of the regular season matter? Does a teams form carry over? If so, that’s good news for Indiana and Purdue, who respectively start the tournament on a six-game winning streak and victors in 18 of their last 20, and not so good news for Michigan and Ohio State, teams who finished the regular season in six and four games, respectively.

The out of town scoreboard

Yes, it is true, one should focus on only the things which they can control. For teams in Omaha this week, that means effort, confidence, execution. But for more than a few teams it will be worth finding a way to send positive vibes into the environment, and wish a few teams good luck throughout the country. It appears Iowa, Michigan, and Purdue are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. For them, along with a few wins this week, it would be nice if favorites in other conference tournaments win, that no bids are stolen. There will be enough to watch in Omaha to keep fans interested and engaged through the weekend, keeping track of scores around the country is the cherry on the cake of conference tournament chaos.

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.

The Prospect Junkie: Early season review

With two weekends of the young season now in the books, we’re starting to starting to see some early returns on prospects for whom we’ve been patiently waiting through this long, if not mild, Midwest winter.

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based off a few games.  There’s a reason why we associate mid-season form with peak performance.  It takes time for players, much less teams, to round into form.

For those reasons, we’re not going to overreact when a player gets off to a hot or cold start.  However, February games count just as much as the games in May, so we’re not going to ignore them either.  Also, some of these early non-conference matchups provide the best opportunity to size-up prospects against some of the more highly regarded players in the nation.

Strong starts

Luke Miller, Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, the Hoosier third-basemen was an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection in 2016 where he produced a slash line of .284/.352/.368 while finishing second on the team in hits (54).  While power was lacking for Miller last season, he’s already topped his 2016 home run production (one) by hitting two in just 14 at-bats to open the season.

Brian Shaffer, Maryland

The start has been less than ideal for the Terrapins.  Tabbed as a preseason top 25 team by several publications, Maryland stands at just 1-5 after being swept at LSU last weekend. Shaffer has been one of the few bright spots.  Matching up against potential first round pick Alex Lange last Friday, Shaffer held his own by allowing six hits and three runs over 6.2 innings.  He struck out six Tigers and walked three.  Shaffer gets great extension on a three-quarter delivery and pounds the strike-zone with sinking fastballs and has the confidence to throw his tight late-breaking slider in any count.  While Shaffer took the loss in the contest, I came away impressed.

Tre’ Gantt, Ohio State

Gantt teamed with Ronnie Dawson (Astros – 2nd Round) and Troy Montgomery (Angels – 8th Round) in the Buckeye outfield last season and could join them in pro ball next season.  Setting the table as the Ohio State leadoff hitter this season, Gantt is hitting .300/.382/.567 with a pair of stolen bases and three doubles thus far.

 

Looking to turn the corner

Logan Sowers, Indiana

Sowers’ star has dimmed some over the past two seasons but as noted last two weeks ago, I’m intrigued by his power potential.  He’s yet to show much of anything on the young season, hitting just .143/.200/.143 with 13 strikeouts compared to just 2 walks in 30 plate appearances.

Kevin Smith, Maryland

If there was a knock on Smith coming into the year, it was uncertainty about his ability to hit for average, having produced acceptable but unspectacular batting averages of .273 and .259 his freshman and sophomore years respectively.  Through six games this season, Smith is hitting just .130/.200/.174 with 11 strikeouts and just one walk.  The sample size is small, but not insignificant.  Smith had contact issues last year including 33 strikeouts in 143 at-bats in the Cape Cod League.  An encouraging sign is that he went 2-3 with a double against the aforementioned Lange.

Lucas Gilbreth, Minnesota

After a sophomore campaign where he dazzled with a team best 1.36 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 33 innings out of the bullpen, Gilbreth has allowed more earned runs through two starts (eight) than he did all of last season (five). Gilbreth was able to grind out a victory against UC Irvine on opening weekend despite allowing seven hits and five runs in just three innings.  He followed that up with six walks in another three-inning start against a prospect-laden Seattle University team.

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