10 B1G Baseball First-Half Thoughts

The Big Ten has reached the midway point of its conference season, bringing to close a first-half that had a bit over everything. A small sample size certainty contributes to it, but only one and a half games separate third from 10th place, as the first four weekends providing shocking results, one after another. It does appear two teams have jumped to the front of the pack, with two more teams hanging on by a thread, but for everyone else, it’s been a roller coaster of a conference slate.

Before looking ahead to what should be an equally frantic second-half, here’s a look at 10 first-half thoughts.

The wildest opening month in recent memory

Where does one begin? Whether it’s due to greater parity or weather forcing one Saturday doubleheader after another, the first four weeks of the Big Ten season has been full of twist and turns.

Illinois opened conference play with a 1-5 mark, after opening the season on a 17-4 tear. Iowa was primarily responsible for Illinois’ slow start, sweeping the Illini in their conference-opening series. Unfortunately for Rick Heller’s club, the Hawkeyes were on the opposite side of a sweep one week later at Indiana. Ohio State has also suffered a brooming, seeing Northwestern enter Columbus and leave with three wins. But the Buckeyes would then rebound the following weekend by taking two of three from a ranked Michigan team, a Wolverine club which some viewed to be the prohibitive favorite after taking a series against Minnesota.

Many times it has appeared a team was poised to make go on an extended run, only to take a step backwards the following weekend. Similarly, more than once has it appeared a club had a long season in front of them, before looking like a top club the next weekend. I guess that’s how you get five teams a game within .500.

Indiana has its scariest lineup in at least a decade

Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs and it’s not even close. The Hooisers have slugged 66 home runs, lapping Michigan’s second-best total of 37. In fact, with 13 home runs apiece, Cole Barr and Matt Lloyd have more home runs individually than Purdue (6) and Rutgers (10) do as a team and just as many as Michigan State. In total, 12 Hoosier have left the yard, with Matt Gorski (9) and Grant Richardson (7), set to join Barr and Lloyd in double-digits. It’s a 1-9 with power the Big Ten hasn’t seen in some time.

Indiana isn’t too far removed from the days of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, but this is the most potent IU lineup to take to Bart Kaufman Field. Indiana’s 2014 national seed team only hit 43 home runs on the year. The year before, when Indiana reached the College World Series, Tracy Smith’s club hit 53 home runs in 65 games. Those dominant clubs where more methodical and wore you down over nine innings, opposed to capable of putting up a crooked inning no matter which part of the lineup is due up, at whatever junction.

With 66 home runs in 37 games, this Indiana outfit is squarely on pace for a 100-home run season. Every player possesses the ability to go out of the yard, at any given moment, recall memories of Indiana’s 2009 club, when first-round Josh Phegley and freshman Alex Dickerson anchored a potent offense that mashed its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Again, the two best teams will not play each other

Speaking of the Hoosiers, its appears that they and the Huskers of Nebraska have separated from the pack and are moving forward as the two best clubs. Indiana’s 7-2 Big Ten mark trails only Nebraska’s 10-2 clip. While Indiana is powered by ferocious attack, Nebraska’s pitching has been at top form, stifling opponents. While they fight for the conference titles, fans look to be out in the cold, and won’t see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as the Hoosier and Huskers are not slated to play each other in the regular season. (Although that didn’t stop the two from meeting in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament for an unforgettable affairs.)

If the two finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the Big Ten standings, it will be another year when the top two clubs do not meet. Just as IU and Nebraska didn’t meet in 2014, nor did Illinois and Iowa in 2015, nor Minnesota and Nebraska in 2016, nor Nebraska and Illinois in 2017. The streak did end last year, as Minnesota and Purdue met in an abbreviated two-game as Minnesota outscored Purdue 40-15. That was far from the classic a not-to-be series between Indiana and Nebraska has the potential to be.

Penn State isn’t what their record says they are

At the opposite end of the standings, Penn State’s 1-10 conference mark has the Nittany Lions 12th in the 13-team table. It’s almost becoming downright cruel, but Penn State is far from what one would expect of a club with one win in 11 conference games. Of the 10 losses, five have been by two runs, with four coming by a lone run. Only once, a 5-1 loss to Minnesota in the first game of the Big Ten season, has Penn State been decisively outmatched.

In their 11 conference contests, Penn State has only gave up 41 runs, an average of 3.72 per game, pitching to a 2.79 ERA in conference play. Only Nebraska and Indiana, a pair of clubs Penn State has played, have lower ERAs, 1.92 and 2.32, respectively. But in baseball you can only win if you outscore the opposition. As strong as Penn State’s pitching has been, the oppositions has been better, holding PSU to 26 runs and a .202 batting average. But, as the Nittany Lions enter the second-half of Big Ten play with the two toughest opponents behind them, they do so with a weekend rotation that should have them in every game and will trip up any time gauging their ability by their Big Ten record. Especially as Dante Biasi and his 1.93 ERA and Big Ten-leading 70 strikeouts sits atop the weekend rotation.

A slow start for the stars

Heading into the season, prognosticators pegged Illinois Michael Massey, Indiana’s Matt Gorski and Michigan’s Jesse Franklin as the Big Ten tops players, with Minnesota sophomore right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson a heavy favorite to repeat as the conference’s top pitcher. While it’s far too early to write anyone off, the seasons those four players are having are not what was expected.

Injury has slowed Massey down and kept him out of the field, regulated to Illinois’ DH spot all through February and March. Just recently has the 2018 Rawlings Gold Glove recipient returned to his natural second base, as he bats a good, but not spectacular .333. Gorski does have the aforementioned nine home runs, but he is batting just .276. That’s still significantly better than Franklin’s .238 mark, although Franklin has one-upped Gorski with 10 home runs. Iowa’s Chris Whelan, Ohio State’s Kobie Foppe and Rutgers’ Carmen Scalfani are also expected offensive leaders who haven’t seen hits fall in as expected.

But the most perplexing slow start falls on Fredrickson. A year removed from going 9-0 with a 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson is 1-3 with a 5.74 ERA. En route to winning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors, Fredrickson issued just 27 walks in 97 innings. Control has been a significant issue in 2019, as the Gopher has walked 25 batters in just 26.2 innings.

Freshmen making an impact

Where some returning standouts have struggle, there’s a crop of rookies getting it done, a few stepping up to pick up some of the slack from those once all-conference performers, setting up a dandy of a Freshman of the Year race.

Right-hander Garrett Burhenn holds a 3.16 ERA as he has emerged as Ohio State’s ace. Richardson’s seven home runs pace freshmen, one more than Burhenn’s fellow Buckeye freshman, Zach Denzenzo and Maryland’s Maxwell Costes, the latter holding a .911 OPS and a Maryland-leading 30 RBI. Michigan closer Willie Weiss has six saves and a 3.38 ERA. While Cam McDonald has stepped up nicely for the Illini, with a .307 batting average and

Seniors are providing significant production

Of course, the seniors won’t have the freshman steal all of the spotlight.

Seniors have stepping up to pacing their respective club in hitting are:

Jack Dunn (.374), Northwestern

Grant Van Scoy (.363), Illinois

Jordan Bowersox (.344), Penn State

Matt Lloyd (.318), Indiana

Dunn leads the conference in average and on-base percentage (.477), while Lloyd leads in home runs and slugging percentage (.689) and RBI (38).

Seniors carrying the torch on the mound are:

Matt Waldron (1.76 ERA), Nebraska

Pauly Milto (1.98), Indiana

Hunter Parsons (2.95), Maryland

Waldron’s ERA leads Big Ten hurlers, with Parsons’ 64 innings the standard-bearer.

Max Meyer gives Minnesota a puncher’s chance

One star who has delivered on preseason promise would be the walk-away winner of any Most Valuable Player honor: Minnesota sophomore Max Meyer. With the Gophers struggling to find traction, the Gophers moved their all-american closer to the front of the rotation. Converting a key reliever to starter hasn’t worked out well for a few Big Ten teams in recent years (Indiana, Nebraska (several times), Michigan State, Northwestern just to name a few), but it has so far for John Anderson, and it may be a move that saved their season.

Minnesota sat 2-8 on the year, in part due to stout competition, before Meyer made his first start against Oregon State on March 8. Minnesota has gone 14-10 since, while Meyer sports a 1.97 ERA on the season, with 58 strikeouts in 50.1 innings and a .204 batting average against. With Meyer atop the rotation, Minnesota can go toe-to-toe against anyone in the country. With Fredrickson’s regression and all but Jeff Fasching and Brett Schulze providing inconsistent returns, Minnesota desperately need the experiment to work. And it has. Meyer emerging as a frontline starter is also coming as he tackled two-way duties, batting .292 over 96 at-bats in 29 games.

Rutgers has the staff it needs to reach the postseason

While Minnesota entered the season looking to reach Omaha as College World Series participants, looking build off last season’s end in the Corvallis Super Regional, Rutgers is looking to play in Omaha as participants in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. And for the first time under Joe Litterio, The Scarlet Knights have a weekend staff capable of getting them there.

Sophomore Harry Rutkowski, junior Tommy Genuario and junior Tevin Murray make up a rotation with respective ERAs of 3.23, 2.97 and 3.66. That has Rutgers join Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as Big Ten teams with each pitcher in their weekend rotation holding a sub-4.00 ERA. And just like the Hoosiers, Illinois and Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights have a reliable closer in senior Serafino Brito. Rutgers doesn’t have the pitching depth those three other clubs do, Rutgers’ team ERA is 4.69, ninth in the conference, but they can role out a strong rotation and close out games in a manner needed to finish in the top eight.

ESPN and Fox Sports provide more national exposure

As the Big Ten Network is in its second decade, the benefits of the conference-centric network have been invaluable. Additional revenue for Big Ten athletic departments have helped many olympic sports receive new or enhanced facilities. The network helps with recruiting in exposing those facilities and the game action to all parts of the country. And it’s new for friends and families to tune on a game when unable to travel and take in. But more and more BTN isn’t the only network airing Big Ten baseball to the country from coast to coast. Already ESPNU has aired Big Ten play, the finale of the Purdue-Nebraska series, while FS1 has shown a non-conference Purdue-Indiana midweek affair and a Butler-Purdue contest the following week. ESPNU will also air the finale of the Minnesota-Indiana , a week before FS1 broadcasts action from Minneapolis in a showdown between the Gophers and Buckeyes. While gates around the conference may take a small hit, it’s great to see Big Ten baseball on multiple airwaves around the country.

Friday Roundup, March 8

With the non-conference slate winding down and teams having nearly a dozen games under their belt, it’s beginning to be more clear what can be excepted of Big Ten teams to come. And if Friday’s results were any indication, what is to come is an incredibly competitive conference season where no weekend will be a gimme.

Here’s a roundup of a big night for Big Ten baseball.

Scores

Illinois (8-3) @ Grand Canyon (6-7), W, 6-3

Indiana (7-5) vs. Washington (8-3), W, 1-0

Maryland (8-4) @ Stetson (5-7), W, 7-0

#18 Michigan (9-2) @ #2 UCLA (9-3), W, 7-5

Minnesota (2-9) vs. #7 Oregon State (11-1), L 2-1

Nebraska (5-6) @ #25 Baylor (9-3), W, 12-4

Northwestern (4-7) @ Missouri (7-5), L, 3-2

Penn State (8-2) @ Central Florida (9-3), W, 5-2

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, CLD

Ohio State vs. Furman PPD

Rutgers @ USC Upstate PPD

Rankings reflective of Baseball America’s March 4 top 25.

Friday highlights

The Big Ten makes some big noise

Just a look at yesterday’s scoreboard reveals a big day for the Big Ten. The conference grabbed two road wins against top 25 clubs, while going 6-2 overall. And the the two losses were one-run contest against Power 5 opponents. The most runs a team allowed were UCLA’s five against Michigan, as the conference outscored the opposition 41-19. The conference has collectively had an up-and-down first three weeks, but now with conference play around the corner, it appears teams are coming into form.

Pauly Milto’s career-defining performance

Slowly, but very steadily and surely, Indiana right-hander Pauly Milto is carving space in the Indiana record books and is set to graduate as one of the Hoosiers best pitchers in program history. With a 2.87 ERA over 213.1 career innings, the numbers support the argument. And now, Milto has a defining outing that will live in the memories of Hoosier faithful well beyond his four-year career in Bloomington. The final game on opening day of the Seattle Baseball Showcase at T-Mobile Park, Milto was dominant against Washington, a 2018 College World Series participant and team entering with only two defeats over the 10 games in 2019.

In eight innings, Milto allowed just one hit, walked one batter and hit another, to face just three batters over the minimum. The senior struck out six batters in a 104-pitch outing, throwing 68 for strikes. Milto’s dominance on the mound was needed as the Hoosiers were held to just six hits, but Drew Ashley’s two-out single to left, scoring Cole Barr, was enough to give Indiana a key win.

Max Meyer’s statement-making first start

Before Milto silenced the Huskies, except for one pitch, Minnesota’s Max Meyer gave everything the Gophers could have asked for in his first career start, also twirling a gem. With Minnesota looking to turn around an 2-8 start, Meyer was moved into the Gopher rotation, following a 4.2-inning relief appearance at No. 23 North Carolina State, where the sophomore right-hander allowed one run and struck out four. In his second consecutive outing against a ranked team, Meyer gave John Anderson a career-high six innings against Oregon State, striking out eight batters without issuing a walk, and allowed only four hits. But one of the hits was a two-run home run against fellow USA Baseball Collegiate National Team member Adley Rutschman, one of the top two MLB Draft prospects. The 2-1 loss will sting, but Meyer showed he has the ability to go deep into contests, and if he can stymie a top five team the way he did last night, the season’s outlook is a lot brighter for Minnesota.

Penn State continues hot start

They didn’t defeat a ranked team, but Penn State knocking off Central Florida on the road might have been the most eye-catching result. Coming off of a 15-win season, few outside of State College expected much of the Nittany Lions. But a 7-2 showing after three weekends brought a little attention to what Rob Cooper’s club is doing in the early part of 2019, a spotlight surely to grow larger after holding an UCF team who entered the weekend at 9-3, to three hits. Sophomore Mason Mellott continues to shine as a stretch-reliever, pitching the final three innings without allowing a run, supporting 3-for-5 efforts by Jordan Bowersox and Parker Hendershot.

Tommy Henry’s B-game still plenty good

It wasn’t his best performance, but Wolverine junior left-handed pitcher Tommy Henry was still plenty good, leading Michigan to the road upset over UCLA. Michigan’s 7-5 win was the program’s first over a top five team since defeating #4 Illinois in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament. Entering the contest without conceding a run in 23 innings, the Bruins did tag Henry for two runs and six hits over six innings, but the southpaw’s 10 strikeouts to two walks helped keep the bears at bay, and push Michigan to 9-2 on the year.

Maryland’s Costes is picking up where his brother left off

With senior right-handed pitcher Hunter Parsons quieting the Hatters, Parsons scattered six hits over seven innings, with 10 strikeouts to one walk, freshman Maxwell Costes provided all of the offense the Terps would need. Now 8-4 on the young season with the 7-0 road win at Stetson, Maryland saw Costes go 2-for-3 with a walk, home run, two runs and RBI out of the cleanup spot. With a team-leading .326 average, two home runs and a 1.013 OPS, Costes is continuing the family trend of being a force in the heart of the Maryland lineup, more than adequately filling the shoes of Marty Costes, who was a 22nd-round draft pick of the Houston Astros following a three-year career in College Park.

Sweet swinging Jack Yalowitz is back

Following a breakout 2017 season, where he batted .335 with 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases as a sophomore, expectations were high for Illinois outfielder Jack Yalowitz in 2018. But the draft season played out in a surprising manner, with his average dropping to .216 and power dipping to four home runs. Back in Champaign for a senior season, Yalowitz is reverting to his 2017 form and giving the Illini the production they need to break a four-year NCAA Tournament drought. Powering Illinois to a 6-3 win over Grand Canyon, Yalowitz matched career highs with four hits, two home runs and five RBI. Helping Illinois to an 8-3 start, the former first-team all-conference outfielder is batting .350.

Nebraska finds the long ball, again, and again

Through their first 10 games, Nebraska had yet to hit a home run. The Huskers were able to find the long ball on Friday, then had so much fun they did it twice in the same inning. Just two batters in, senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla blasted a two-run home run, then three batters later it was junior catcher Luke Roskam’s turn to dial up a two-run long ball. En route to routing Baylor, 12-4, Altavilla hit his second home run of the game in the top of the ninth, to cap a five-RBI night. Roskam added three more hits, in addition to his home run in the first, to go 4-for-6 with two runs and four RBI. On the mound, senior right-hander Matt Waldron allowing two runs, one earned, over seven innings, striking out eight batters without issuing a walk.

 

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