Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

Ten thoughts from the summer I

With Labor Day behind us, summer has unofficially come to an end. While temperatures throughout the Midwest have been more typical of those seen in the days following Independence Day, students at Big Ten universities have returned to campus and conference baseball teams have begun fall practice.

As programs around the country insert the keys into the ignition and start the engine, in preparation of taking on the road to Omaha, 10 Innings’ Chris Webb puts a bow on summer with the first five of 10 thoughts and observations from news and trends that developed over the summer.

An Indiana man comes home

On July 2, Indiana named Wright State head coach Jeff Mercer the 25th head coach in program history. Mercer filled the vacancy created when Mississippi State tabbed former Hoosier head coach Chris Lemonis as their head coach, eight days prior. Lemonis’ tenure in Bloomington lasted four seasons, creating an situation where IU will be on its third head coach in six seasons in 2019, even though the program has been one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.

Lemonis followed Tracy Smith who left after nine years to try to revive the once dominant Arizona State program. But if Indiana continues the success first established by Smith and continued by Lemonis, the Hoosiers have appeared in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, there shouldn’t be any need for Indiana to be in search over another coach in the near future; Mercer is home.

A native of Bargersville, Indiana, Mercer guided Wright State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances during the first two years of his head coaching career. Continuing the high level of success at the Dayton, Ohio-based program, first established by current Penn State head coach Rob Cooper, Mercer was emerging as one of college baseball’s bright young coaches. But more importantly than Mercer budding as a promising coach, is Mercer viewing Bloomington as home. To him, there is no next step, no call from a Pac-12 nor Southeastern conference program will pull him from the Hoosier State as happened to his predecessors. Calling the Indiana position his dream job, Mercer is ready to retire as a Hoosier.

“I have loved baseball and the state of Indiana my whole life and it is an honor to be the head baseball coach of the state’s flagship institution,” said Mercer in the press release of his hiring. And to talk to Mercer, it’s quick to learn those words weren’t just the correct answer to go on-record with. Leading the Indiana program, one his father was an assistant coach at from 1988-1989, is where his career goals have been aimed towards and now heart and mind is fully vested in.

This should be welcomed by IU faithful, if not demanded. Lemonis, with his hand in helping nearby Louisville develop into a regional program, was the perfect fit to succeed Smith and keep Indiana at a high-level. The seemingly seamless transition that took place four years ago shouldn’t be taken for granted, each coach has his own identity and belief in how a program should be ran and the culture that’s created. All signs point to Mercer be just as much of a slam dunk hire as Lemonis, and for Indiana players, administrators and fans alike, this should be the last hire of a head baseball coach for the foreseeable future.

As Mercer told me this summer, “it wouldn’t matter if the New York Yankees are calling, I’m saying no, this is where I want to be for the next 25 years.”

Iowa personifies the conference-wide investment in baseball

There could have been a second Big Ten program in need of a new head coach if it wasn’t for the commitment to keep Rick Heller in place by Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta and his department. Pursued by Kansas State, Heller turned down an offer to lead the Wildcats in June, to stay at Iowa.

Announced on Aug. 24, with Heller’s loyalty to the Hawkeyes came a restructured contract and a pay raise. A bump in base salary to $325,000 annually, from $262,000, for the 2018-2019 season, then to $341,000, from $275,000, the next year, on a contract that runs through the 2024 season. Crossing the $300,000-threshold placed Heller among the top five highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten, a thought unfathomable not too long about. But in five seasons in Iowa City, Heller has average a hair shy of 35 wins, collecting 173 victories, for a program that had gone 24 seasons since its last 35-win campaign, with only five such years in the program’s annuals prior to Heller’s arrival.

But ponying up additional pennies to keep Heller in place is only a part of the commitment Iowa has thrown baseball’s way, a reflection of an increase in attention Big Ten programs are experiencing all over the conference. Duane Banks Field has undergone renovations, with more plans on the table to give the grandstands a makeover. Iowa has been able to create the necessary pool for assistant coach compensation in order to flank Heller with strong assistant coaches, coaches that are active in recruiting as well as taking a forward-thinking approach on technology and analytics in baseball.

If Iowa’s two regional trips since 2015 isn’t enough to show the Big Ten of yesteryear is a distant memory, the steps took to bring Iowa to national prominence, mirror throughout the conference, should leave one with no doubt.

Max Meyer Mania continues

Helping Minnesota to its first super regional appearance, and a top ten final ranking, right-handed pitcher Max Meyer compiled one of the most decorated freshman seasons in recent Big Ten history. Tying Minnesota’s single-season saves record with 16, next to a 2.03 ERA, the standout at the back of the Gopher bullpen received All-America honors from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Collegiate Baseball and D1Baseball.com, a third-team selection on each all-star rundown. Collegiate Baseball, Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association picked the Woodbury, Minn. product as a first-team Freshman All-American, with Collegiate Baseball naming Meyer the Freshman Relief Pitcher of the Year. Closing to home, Meyer was the first-team All-Big Ten selection at reliever.

Those accolades alone would not only fill a trophy case, but maker Meyer one of the nation’s top pitchers heading into the 2019 seasons. But what Meyer did over the summer as an encore to his freshman season places him in the elite of the elite among college baseball pitchers.

One of six freshmen named to the 26-member USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, on a team littered with the best talent from coast to coast, Meyer’s performance took a backseat to none this summer. Helping Team USA to a 12-3 showing, Meyer appeared in eight games, saving seven of USA’s victories. Although he only pitched eight innings, the ninth-most on the team, Meyer’s 15 strikeouts paced all USA pitchers. Off five hits and four walks, Meyer allowed three earned runs for a 3.38 ERA.

The last Big Ten pitcher to don the Red, White and Blue for the Collegiate National Team was Maryland right-handed Mike Shawaryn during the summer of 2016. There hasn’t been a Big Ten player play for Team USA as a freshman in at least a decade.

And one last note on Meyer, he was recruited to Minnesota as a two-way player, but the depth of the Gophers in the field and at the plate relegated him to just 30 at-bats in 2018. With program stalwarts such as Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson and Luke Pettersen lost to graduation, and the drafting of shortstop Terrin Vavra, the plan is for Meyer to go all-in as a two-way player, where the Minnesota staff believes he’s capable of just as much production at the plate as on the mound.

Ty McDevitt’s more-than-deserved promotion

But, what if I said Meyer wasn’t even the most decorated Minnesota freshman pitcher? That could be true, as classmate Patrick Fredrickson was picked as Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, the first freshman to win the honor, alongside being names conference freshman of the year, National Freshman Pitcher of the Year by both Collegiate Baseball and the NCBWA, was on every Freshman All-America team, and the ABCA named him a first-team All-American and D1Baseball.com a third-team pick.

Clearly, in Fredrickson and Meyer Minnesota has a two-headed monster every coach in the country would sign up for, potentially the best tandem of rising sophomore righties in the country. But Minnesota’s depth in the freshman class extends to Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen, a collection of six pitchers poised to be the foundation of a program looking to continue the run of success that has saw the program win two of the last three Big Ten championships.

As stout as Minnesota’s 2017 recruiting class was on the mound, nearly as impressive is how quickly the group collective got up to speed and started producing, with none of the six from a location south of Omaha, all lead by a volunteer coach.

The structure of Minnesota’s coaching staff for the last two years saw Rob Fornasiere as the top assistant to John Anderson, serving as third base coach and handling a lot of the in-game strategy. Pat Casey has served as Minnesota’s hitting coach and dominant force on the recruiting trail, elevated to a full-time position after the passing of longtime pitching coach Todd Oakes. That left the volunteer role to handle the pitching duties, which former Minnesota pitcher Ty McDevitt has done in a lights out manner. Minnesota’s 3.18 team ERA in 2018 was a full run better than the 4.19 mark in 2017, even though Minnesota had to replace their ace and closer.

In the run-up to Minnesota’s memorable postseason, it was announced Fornasiere was retiring at the end of the season. With nary a negative word to be said about him as a person or coach, Fornasiere will be missed in the Gopher program, Minnesota wouldn’t be where they are without him. But it was as perfect of timing as possible for a position to open. In Anderson elevating McDevitt to be Minnesota’s third full-time coach, one of college baseball’s brightest young pitching minds will stay home and work to keep Minnesota among national prominence.

Coaching staffs continue to expand

With Indiana welcoming Mercer, Iowa keeping Heller, and McDevitt moving into a full-time role, coaching news carried most of the summer action. But, increasingly, staff news is no longer just pertains to a head coach, two full-time assistants and a volunteer assistant.

A look at news around the Big Ten this summer saw Illinois and Penn State add a director of operations positions, with Sean Moore, former Iowa volunteer, having an additional title of player development next to his director of operations position for the Nittany Lions. Now all programs except Michigan State have a director of operations position, when no program did before Nebraska joined the conference in 2012.

Mercer won’t only have a director of operations on his first staff, but former Major League veteran Scott Rolen will be Indiana’s Director of Player Development. Ohio State saw their volunteer video coordinator, Matt Angle, move into a full-time role, then realigned the role to be a control position in hiring former Buckeye and all-conference infielder Kirby Pellant.  Michigan has a standalone video coordinator position, while a year ago Rutgers introduced the position of Director of Player Development to the Scarlet Knight program.

Just as the Big Ten has seen head coach salaries have doubled on average over the last decade and increases in assistant coach salary pools to attract and retain top assistants, the sizes of Big Ten baseball staffs continue to swell, showing more and more teams are trying to find that edge to be a perennial winner.

March 22 Power Rankings

With the exception of Maryland, Purdue, and Ohio State, Big Ten play starts this weekend. With teams tending to non-conference schedules in hopes of positioning themselves for an NCAA Tournament berth, the focus now turns to the conference crown.

From a standout newcomer, to veterans with multi-year track records, this week’s power rankings takes a look at each team’s closer, examining the first five weeks of the season for the pitchers responsible for nailing down the victory as Big Ten teams begin to fight for the title.

Previous power rankings: Week 1Week 2Week 3, Week 4

#1 Indiana (15-4) Last Week: 1

Jr. RHP Matt Lloyd– A preseason All-American at the utility position, the two-way talent has done his job at the back of the IU bullpen. Appearing in four games, Lloyd has pitched six scoreless innings. Saving two contests, Lloyd has surrendered five hits, walked two batters and struck out seven hitters.

#2 Ohio State (14-6) LW: 3

Sr. RHP Seth Kinker– A 3-1 record stands next to four saves for Kinker, as the Buckeye provides Greg Beals with security to keep games close and lock down Ohio State victories. In 17 innings, Kinker has struck out 19 batters against three walks, and holds a 1.06 ERA.

#3 Illinois (12-5) LW: 2

Jr. RHP Joey Gerber– Conceding only four hits in 27 at-bats, Gerber sports an impressive .148 batting average against, With a 3.58 ERA, the Illini has recorded four saves over eight outings, picking up 11 strikeouts and issuing three walks in 7.2 innings.

#4 Minnesota (14-8) LW: 6

Fr. RHP Max Meyer– Trough the first five weeks of the season Meyer has delivered on high expectations. After the graduation of All-Big Ten second-team selection Brian Glowcki, Meyer, has filled in nicely, recording five saves over nine outings. Meyer has picked up 19 strikeouts to four walks in 14.1 innings and holds a 3.14 ERA.

#5 Rutgers (11-7) LW: 5

Jr. RHP Serafino Brito– Brito has transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen in his third season in Piscataway. Making nine relief appearances, Brito has recorded two saves for the upstart Scarlet Knights. Brito has struck out 17 batters in 14.2 innings, sporting a 6.14 ERA.

#6 Michigan (9-11) LW: 11

Soph. RHP Jack Weisenburger– It’s been bullpen by committee for Michigan, but more and more Weisenburger’s number is being called later in tight contests. With all seven appearances coming in relief, Weisenburger has logged 14.2 innings and has a save under his belt. The second-year pitcher has struck out 17 batters, walked 11, and holds a .176 batting average against.

#7 Iowa (12-7) LW: 9

Jr. RHP Zach Daniels– Three Hawkeyes have recorded saves this year, but Daniels has been the most consistent. The converted infielder has a 2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings, with two saves and a 2-1 record. Daniels has recorded 16 strikeouts, tied for third most on the team, responsible for nine hits and five walks.

#8 Nebraska (12-9) LW: 5

Sr. RHP Jake Hohensee– Injuries have depleted Darin Erstad’s pitching staff, but Hohensee has been a rock in a move to the bullpen. Hohensee’s five saves have come over eight outings, as he’s allowed one run over nine innings. Hohensee has stifled the opposition, allowing just four hits in 32 at-bats with one walk, while striking out seven.

#9 Northwestern (7-8) LW: 12

Sr. RHP Tommy Bordignon– Bordignon’s power arm is starting to turn in the production Spencer Allen has believed the senior held. Enjoying his best season in Evanston, Bordginon has recorded three saves in five outings. Logging 11.2 innings of work, Bordginon’s ERA stands at 3.09.

#10 Maryland (10-11) LW: 7

Jr. RHP John Murphy– Murphy has been a strikeout machine out of the Terrapin bullpen, picking up 19 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. Nine walks have contributed to a 2.61 ERA, as Murphy has only allowed four hits in 34 at-bats. The junior has two saves on the season.

#11 Penn State (6-9) LW: 13

Soph. RHP Eric Mock– Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Mock has shown flashes of promise for Rob Cooper. The redshirt sophomore has recorded three saves, as he’s toed the rubber six times this year. Mock’s 5.86 ERA is the result of 10 hits in 11.1 innings, two being home runs, but he has struck out 16 batters to four walks.

#12 Purdue (9-9) LW: 8

Sr. LHP Ross Learnard– A preseason All-American, Learnard has pitched well, although save opportunities have been limited. Appearing in seven games, Learnard has pitched eight innings, and holds a 2.25 ERA. The lefty’s .143 opponent’s batting average continues to be one of the best in the conference.

#13 Michigan State (6-12) LW: 10

Soph. LHP Mitchell Tyranski– The Spartans as a whole may be off to a tough start, but the sophomore southpaw has been a consistent weapon out of the bullpen for Jake Boss. Tyranski’s 1.15 ERA leads Michigan State pitchers who have at least two appearances. In eight games, Tyranski has allowed nine hits, issued eight walks, and struck out 15 batters.

Week 5 Weekend Observations

The final weekend before in-conference play beings was a good one for the Big Ten. There were seven home series, with Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State all grabbing weekend sweeps, Penn State captured two of three, and Michigan State and Nebraska split their weekend sets. On the road, Minnesota grabbed national attention with their road victory at TCU and Rutgers picked up a pair of solid victories at Florida Gulf Coast. All told, only two of the 13 teams suffered weekend defeats.

What garnered the most attention from the strong weekend? Here’s the top weekend observations.

Spillane jumps to the front of POTY race

A lot of attention, and rightfully so, had been cast upon the law office-sounding duo of Ohio State’s Noah McGowan and Purdue’s Jacson McGowan. Both first baseman put together impressive first months at the plate, where numbers on pace to shatter school records helped lead their respective clubs to strong starts. But there’s been an offensive eruption over the last three weeks by Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane that has him on track to be Illinois’ third conference player of the year in six years. Following an 8-for-16 weekend, where the series opener at Southern Illinois produced three home runs, before a two-double, 4-for-4 effort capped the Saturday doubleheader, Spillane is second in the Big Ten in hitting (.419), first in slugging (.887), first in doubles (nine), second in home runs (six), second in total bases (55), fifth in on-base percentage (.471), fifth in RBI (21) and fifth in stolen bases (five). Putting himself in line to be an All-American over the first month, the next two months will show if Spillane can follow the feats of former Illini who were named Big Ten Player of the Year, Justin Parr (2013) and David Kerian (2015), and lead Illinois to a regional.

Kaletha is Indiana’s catalyst

With Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, and Logan Sowers returning, Indiana was expected to have a strong offensive club. And through 19 games, Indiana is batting .286 with 42 doubles and 19 home runs, Chris Lemonis does indeed have a potent team at the plate. But it isn’t Lloyd, Miller, nor Sowers who is the driving force behind the high-powered Hoosiers offense, its newcomer Logan Kaletha. A transfer from John A. Logan College, the junior outfielder led Indiana in runs created heading into last weekend. As Indiana swept Northern Illinois, Kalthea went 5-for-13 with a double, home run, two RBI, three runs, a walk, and a stolen base. Atop Indiana’s lineup, Katleha has settled into being a dynamic leadoff batting, offering with hitting ability (.319 average), power (.580 slugging percentage) discipline (12 walks to 15 strikeouts), grit (12 plunkings) speed (five stolen bases). and for good measure sports a perfect fielding percentage.

Ohio State continues regional trajectory

Indiana has done nothing to dissuade any belief they are the Big Ten’s top team. Checking in at No. 15 in this week’s NCBWA poll, the first five weeks for the Hoosiers have justified their preseason top billing by conference coaches. But the Hoosiers aren’t the top rated Big Ten team by RPI, that would be Ohio State. According to Warren Nolan’s RPI formula, Ohio State’s RPI is 25 heading into Wednesday play. With only one-third of a season’s data in place, the RPI is very fluid and drastic fluctuations are common in March. But at 14-6, if the season ended today, the Greg Beals’ team would be in a regional. Riding a six-game winning streak, Ohio State has not suffered a losing weekend yet, the Buckeyes have picked up a pair of wins which figure to stand out on their resume (Coastal Carolina and Southern Miss), and started their home slate with three wins in three games. A solid win total, grabbing marquee victories as they come, and protecting the home field is the path to the postseason, and with their sweep of Cal State Northridge, the Buckeyes stayed on course.

Rookie Gophers grow up on big stage

Speaking of postseason resumes, Minnesota’s weekend victory at then No. 11 TCU will surely help the Gophers’ case to be in the field of 64 for a second time in three years. For those who have watched Big Ten baseball over the past few seasons, the upset may not have been that shocking. Minnesota is a game from being two-time reigning Big Ten champions, the Big Ten has equaled the Big XII’s 13 teams in a regional since 2015, and Minnesota has a very deep and veteran-laded lineup, But what was eye-opening, and may have a lasting effect beyond May, was the performance of Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers. In a weekend where TCU saw more than 4,000 fans turn out for each game, Patrick Fredrickson, Bubba Horton, Max Meyer, and Sam Thoresen combined to pitch 15.2 innings and allow just seven hits, striking out 17 batters. Minnesota will experience heavy roster turnover following this season with the graduations of Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, and Luke Pettersen, but those four pitchers, along with classmate Joshua Culliver and Ryan Duffy give the Gophers a foundation to continue the program’s ascend on.

Whelan provides a spark

Iowa had lost five straight games before Evansville came to town. The Hawkeyes started this week on a three-game winning streak. While it would be tough to give him all credit for halting the team’s skid and starting a run, the return of Chris Whelan had to be comforting for Rick Heller. With Whelan back in the lineup, Iowa had a true leadoff batter, something that was missing the first four weeks. In addition to someone who can get on base, Whelan can drive the ball and be a run-producing taking a little pressure off Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom. While Whelan’s UCL injury will limit him to just DH duties, his first weekend of action saw little rust. The 2017 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player went 5-for-12, drew two talks and scored four runs.

 

Michigan freshmen find comfort at home

No school in the country produced more MLB Draft picks last year than Michigan did with 11. While a noteworthy accomplishment, having that many players leave a program tends to cause a step back the following season as newcomers and role players are thrust into prominent roles. For the first four weeks of the season, Michigan did scuffle, the Wolverines entered last weekend’s series against Bowling Green at 4-11. But during their first home series, the emergence of a few freshman, part of a recruiting class ranked 10th by Baseball America, spurred a turnaround and should bring optimism to Ann Arbor ahead of conference play. Earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, outfielder Jordan Nwogu post a triple-slash of .362/.692/1.097, with a home run, two double and eight RBI. 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week accolades went to Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, after he pitched seven shutout innings on Sunday, striking out six batters without issuing a walk. Another freshman, shortstop Jack Blomgren reached base five times, picked up a double and stole two bases.

Fall Update: Minnesota

Getting started

Head coach: John Anderson, 37th season at Minnesota

2017 record: 36-20 overall, 15-8 in Big Ten, third

Key losses: RHP Toby Anderson, LHP Lucas Gilbreath, RHP Brian Glowicki, OF Jordan Smith

Key returners: Sr. OF Alex Boxwell, Sr. 3B Micah Coffey, Sr. OF/INF Toby Hanson, Soph. INF/OF Jordan Kozicky, Jr. C Cole McDevitt, Jr. OF Ben Mezzenga, Jr. RHP Reggie Meyer, Sr. INF Luke Pettersen, Soph. RHP Brett Schulze, Jr. INF Terrin Vavra

New name to know: Fr. RHP/INF Max Meyer

Minnesota rundown

In defense of their 2016 Big Ten championship, Minnesota stormed out of the gate in conference play, sweeping its opening two series, at Ohio State and Michigan State. But the Gophers dropped their next three series, falling to Indiana, Nebraska and Illinois. Minnesota rebounded with 5-0 run against Penn State and Rutgers, to be in control of its destiny entering the final weekend, but a 1-2 showing against Purdue saw Minnesota finish one and one-half game behind the champion Cornhuskers. The series defeat to the Boilermakers was the fifth home series Minnesota lost at home, finishing the season 17-14 between US Bank Stadium and Siebert Field. With the weighted-RPI formula, ironically created to help northern programs who often travel and do not play more than 30 home games, Minnesota finished with an RPI of 72, and did not garner a second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.

For many programs, it was a good season, 36 wins, 13 against the RPI top 100, and a third-place finish. But for the Gophers it wasn’t good enough. Those in Minneapolis are determined to return the program to the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s, where John Anderson had Minnesota routinely atop the Big Ten.

Once again Minnesota will have a chance to bring home the trophy.

Minnesota returns eight players who recorded at least 100 plate appearances in 2017, bringing back every starter around the horn, and losing only Jordan Smith in the outfield. As a team, the Gophers batted .297 on the season, and returns the top four hitters: Pettersen (.354 AVG, .411 OBP, .395 SLG, eight XBH), Coffey (.340, .396, .493, 21), Kozicky (.325, .421, .476, 16), Hanson (.319, .350, .477, 23). Offensively there are few questions for Minnesota this offseason.

In absence of finding who can fill voids, the coaching staff has moved players around seeing who can take on greater roles, creating versatility where lineup maximization can occur. During the team’s scout day, Hanson saw time at first and left field, Coffey played both corner spots in the infield, Pettersen can play either middle infield spot, so too can Vavra, while Kozicky showed his versatility last year, stepping into third base when Coffey went down with a sprained ankle, but also playing in the outfield, at short stop. Minnesota even has depth behind the plate with sophomore Eli Wilson has had a strong fall, giving the coaching staff confidence he can fill in in a pinch for junior Cole McDevitt, the first-team All-Big Ten selection at catcher last year.

Where known commodities litter the field, on the mound Minnesota has a pair of significant holes to fill. Friday starter Lucas Gilbreath and closer Brian Glowicki were respective seventh and tenth round draft picks after outstanding seasons. Gilbreath finished his junior season with 92 strikeouts in 81.1 innings, pitching to a 2.66 ERA. As a senior, Glowicki reset Minnesota’s singles-season saves record with 16, a Stopper of the Year finalist with 39 strikeouts against seven walks in 32.2 innings.

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Brett Schulze (4-3, 5.50 ERA, 70.1 IP) is set to return to the weekend rotation, after holding the Saturday role in his debut season, with the coaching staff excited to see him take the next step in his development, Schulze has worked 89-93 this fall, keeping his fastball velocity inline with his spring showings. It will be a boon for Minnesota have junior right-handed pitcher Reggie Meyer pick up where his 2017 season left off. In an elimination game against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, Meyer pitched eight innings, surrendering three runs off four hits with seven strikeouts against the eventual tournament champions. For the season, Meyer went 5-1 with a 3.18 ERA, making seven starts in 19 appearances.

Relievers Jeff Fasching, Nick Lackney, Fred Manke and Jackson Rose return, with Lackney a potential starting option to give Minnesota a left-hander in the rotation. A potential key contributor, sophomore Nolan Burchill will be lost for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, following an injury last May against Georgia Southern. But the aforementioned four relievers will be joined by multiple freshman pitchers, a group Anderson believes is his most talented class in a long time, to fill out the pitching staff.

Headlining the freshman haul are right-handers Joshua Culliver and Max Meyer. Culliver arrives in Minnesota from Omaha, a good athlete with a fast arm and loose delivery, albeit a bit raw, where he mechanically can get out of sync. Over his career the staff expects Culliver to blossom and be a star. Meyer has the present stuff to compete now and is expected to contribute in the back of the bullpen. Meyer shows an above-average slider with spin rates in line of the best in MLB, that is a true out-pitch. Complimenting his slider with a commandable fastball and hockey player mentality, Meyer, a two-way player, is likened to Fiedler, a player who has all conference-potential and can step up in tense moments. Left-handed freshman Danny Kapala and Ryan Duffy have also shown flashes this fall.

Minnesota missed opportunities to reach an NCAA Tournament by dropping home series to Long Beach State, Missouri State and Nebraska, all regional teams. This season, Minnesota has a series against TCU, a program with four consecutive College World Series appearances, and host a Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge, where Arizona, UCLA and Washington come to town. Those, along with playing in a conference where another handful of teams can be expected to be in regional contention, will give Minnesota an opportunity to play itself into the NCAA Tournament. After falling shy last year, the team with 15 upperclassmen, have made it a mission this fall to advance the program to its first Super Regional and continue the process of restoring Minnesota baseball to past prominence.

One lingering question

Who steps in as the closer?

As mentioned, the two biggest voids Minnesota needs to fill are Friday starter and closer, with the latter the tougher to pencil in. Reggie Meyer did finish with a pair of saves last year, but with his feel for secondaries, command and just average fastball velocity (88-91) he is better suited to start. Manke, a senior right-hander, also recorded two saves, doing so over 15 innings in 12 outings, but issuing 12 walks, 7.2/9 innings, to counter his stellar .180 batting average against with just a double as his lone extra-base hit conceded. Max Meyer has shown flashes of possessing the stuff to close, but it is a tall task to do so as a freshman, more so if Meyer is to see time in the field as a two-way player. With Glowicki, Minnesota had a weapon at the back of the bullpen, a bulldog who could give six outs if needed, pounding the strikezone with little fear. Glowicki was everything a staff could dream of as a closer, but in being such leaves the biggest hole for the Gophers to fill.

 

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