May 17-19 Weekend Observations

The regular season came to an end with a dramatic weekend throughout the Big Ten. With the conference championship decided on the season’s penultimate day, and a fight to the finish for the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten Tournament, stakes were in every series.

On hand for three of those series, here’s what was observed in Bloomington, Champaign, and West Lafayette, followed by quick hits from around the conference.

Maryland at Indiana

The leading storyline heading into the series between Maryland and Indiana was the Terps controlling their destiny in pursuit of the Big Ten Tournament. Hanging on to the tournament’s final seed, Maryland held the head-to-head tiebreaker against Michigan state, who also entered the weekend the same 9-11 mark in conference play. Secondary, though not in the mind of Chris Lemonis, was Indiana’s desire to round into form, as they entered the postseason. With little doubt the Hoosiers will be an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament, finding a way to hit on all cylinders would be timely for a club that appears to have the pieces on paper to make a deep postseason run. In the end, the Hoosiers (37-15, 14-9) showed their process, adding a weekend sweep on top of a big midweek win at Louisville to head to Omaha hot, a place where Maryland (24-30, 9-14) will not be traveling to, as their season came to an end.

Luke Miller’s promising power display

On Thursday, after Maryland’s Zach Jancarski gave the Terps a 2-0 lead with a home run to left in the top of the second, IU junior third baseman Luke Miller answered with a solo shot to left field in the bottom of the inning. Then, with Indiana trailing 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Miller hit a three-run home run to right field, giving Indiana their first lead of the game, en route to a 6-5 victory. On Friday, Miller added a home run to center field, providing the final run in Indiana’s 5-1 victory. Now pacing Indiana with 11 home runs, Miller’s performance comes at a time when big talent has played a big role in postseason success in recent years.

In 2016, it was Ronnie Dawson for Ohio State. Last year, Jake Adams produced home run after home run in the postseason. As much as pitching and defense may win regular season titles, the teams which have shown a bit of muscle have fared favorably in recent years. Illinois’ Bren Spillane, more on him later, is drawing attention for his eye-popping season and 22 home runs, but scouts and opposing coaches in the Big Ten feel Miller has the most raw power in the conference. It’s power that can carry Indiana through Omaha, and help the club find their way back to TD Ameritrade three weeks later.

Indiana baseball is ingrained in the Bloomington culture

It’s been five years since Indiana made their run to Omaha, capturing the attention of the nation behind Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Aaron Slegers, Joey DeNato, and company. There isn’t a member of Indiana’s College World Series team still in Bloomington, but on Thursday, with the athletic department passed out commemorative banners honoring the 2013 season, it was evident that baseball is there to stay in Btown. After 2,114 fans poured into Bart Kaufman Field for the series opener, the turnout was 1,790 on Friday, then 2,765 in the regular season finale, for a weekend average of 2,223. Attendance figures like that don’t happen by chance, especially when games are moved up and pushed back due to weather, but by conscious decisions. From the young to old, students and alumni, Indiana baseball has become entrenched into the fabric of life in Bloomington, where the program receives the type of support necessary to stay among the best in the country. And as Indiana has all but wrapped up a fifth regional in sixth years, it’s safe to say the Hoosiers are among the best programs in the country.

It was just that type of year for Maryland

An inning before Miller’s second home run of the game, Maryland held a 4-2 lead. Unfortunately for the Terps, storms in the area forced a rain delay of 1:50 with two outs in the top of the seventh, and ended the outing of right-handed pitcher Hunter Parsons. Outside of Miller’s second-inning home run, Parsons had been effective, scattering five hits, needing just 77 pitches to get through six innings. Once play resumed, Maryland’s bullpen was unable to hold the lead, dealing the Terps a tough defeat in the series opener, which the club never seemed able to rebound from. In a nutshell, the final three innings of Thursday’s contest seems to sum up the Maryland season. The Terps had shown streaks of playing good baseball, but weren’t able to get over the hump and live up to the potential they showed on paper. Rare did Maryland get blown out, instead there were games throughout with a defining play or moment that spelled doom. More will be shared on Maryland and what first-year head coach Rob Vaughn learned later this week.

 

Nebraska at Illinois

A little more than 150 miles northwest of Bloomington, the series between Nebraska and Illinois had much of the same elements. Like Maryland, Nebraska was fighting to reach the Big Ten Tournament as the last seed in, although unlike the Terps they needed quite the help and did not control their own destiny. For the host Illini, coming off of a weekend win at Michigan by most accounts put them in the NCAA Tournament. Winning the weekend against the Cornhuskers would send them into postseason play with momentum, as they look to play well into June. A sweep didn’t occur in Champaign as Nebraska salvaged their weekend with a win in their season finale, but Illinois showed a deep lineup on Friday, anchored by the conference player of the year.

Spillane continues shock and awe show

He didn’t match Miller with three home runs on the weekend, but Spillane hit home runs in the final two games of the series, running his season total to 22, four off of Illinois’ single-season record.

Friday’s contest was a microcosm of Spillane. In his first at-bat, Spillane struck out swinging, which he did again in the third inning. But on his second strikeout, Spillane showed the speed which has allowed him to steal 14 stolen bases, reaching first on the wild pitch. In the fourth inning, Nebraska intentionally walked Spillane, to load the bases. In his final at-bat, Spillane sent the first pitch of the sixth inning over the right field wall at Illinois Field for his 21st home run. Three official at-bats, respect from the opposing team, a run, an RBI, and four total bases.

The amount of strikeouts Spillane has is a red flag for scouts, 51 in 158 at-bats. But the opposite field power is a point in his favor. Regardless of how evaluators view him, it’s a joy, unless you’re the opposing team, to wait for the moment to happen, then have it happen, as one of Illinois’ best individual seasons ever winds down.

But the Illini aren’t Spillane and a bag of schmoes

Spillane is the big threat in the Illini lineup, but Dan Hartleb’s club has the ability to beat you with multiple players. Joining Spillane in homering during the 13-6 rout over the Huskers was Zac Taylor, pulling his 10th home run of the season out to left. As the team collected 15 hits, Michael Massey and Doran Turchin contributed doubles. In addition to those four players, Ben Troike continues to reach base in every game, while Jack Yalowitz is still capable of showing in flashes the ability which had him enter the season projected as one of the Big Ten’s top outfielders. Friday’s contest showed that even when the opposition does well to contain Spillane, Illinois has multiple players who can step up, and beat you with contact, speed, and power. The starting 6-9 hitters combined to go 9-for-17 with four RBI and five runs.

Wilkening’s plate potential turns into production

Although injuries have limited his time behind the plate, Nebraska catcher Jesse Wilkening has put together an outstanding season. On Friday, in a 2-for-4 game, Wilkening hit his ninth home run of the season, as he finished the year with a .372 average, 14 doubles, .445 on-base percentage, .588 slugging mark, and team-best 56 RBI. It was the type of offensive season many predicted when Wilkening was a highly sought recruit out of Indiana in 2015. A 28th-round draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks three years ago, Wilkening hit .270 as a freshman, then .247 last year. Wilkening had previously shown the ability to be a good receiver and defensive backstop, but the offense had yet to develop. It did this year in a big way, giving Nebraska a potent 1-2 threat in support of first baseman Scott Schreiber. Unfortunately too many injuries on the mound created a pitching situation which made Nebraska’s solid offensive season an afterthought. But at least for Wilkening, he enjoyed the type of season to put him back on scouts’ radars, and showcased what made him one of Darin Erstad’s top recruits.

 

Michigan at Purdue

Wrapping up the weekend back in Indiana, by the time action began on Saturday, ignoring the four outs needed to complete Friday’s suspended contest, Purdue had secured second place in the Big Ten, and couldn’t catch Minnesota. Michigan had lost a second consecutive series to leave their NCAA Tournament status fully in the air. On paper, whichever way the result unfolded would seem to have mattered little. But as Purdue capped a weekend sweep with a 2-1 victory, the two teams separated in the Big Ten standings by just one game, are heading into postseason going in opposite directions.

Purdue’s mental makeup shines

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski praised his teams toughness following Saturday’s victory. Sometimes mental toughness is hard to put into words, but for every at Alexander Field on the sun-soaked day, it was clear Purdue has a bit of fortitude.

In the first inning, after striking out the leadoff batter, Purdue starter Ryan Beard allowed a single, issued a walk, then it a batter to load the bases. A third straight free base drove in a run and it appeared Purdue’s Senior Day would be a sour one. But the left-hander struck out the next two batters to limit the damage to one run. From the second inning on, until he was relieved with two outs in the sixth, Beard only allowed one Wolverine to reach second.

Two more examples came in the ninth, when closer Ross Learnard was called upon to close his third game of the weekend. He did just that, reaching 15 saves, which sets a new single-season record at Purdue. But a final element of toughness aided Learnard’s save. With a runner on first base and two outs, Michigan’s Jordan Nwogu pulled a rocket down the third base line. On the short hop, Purdue third baseman Evan Warden dove to smother the ball. Off the hop, the ball hit Warden in the mouth, leaving him bloodied and lying face down in the dirt, but the ball did not end up in the corner for a tying double, which it appeared ticketed. Michigan’s Jack Blomgren reached third on the play, but stayed there, as a fielder’s choice one batter later ended the game.

The parts are in place to sustain success in West Lafayette

In a cruel twist of luck, Purdue’s Alexander Field opened the season after the Boilermakers earned the right to host a regional. And up until now, the joys of the 2012 season, and what Purdue enjoyed as a program, and its fan, were a distant memory. But taking in the action on Saturday, one cannot help but see Purdue has the pieces in place to continue to enjoy the success the program is enjoying in Wasikowski’s second season.

From a facility standpoint, few places in the Big Ten, if any, can go toe-to-toe with the look, feel, and amenities of Alexander Field, for player, fans, and press alike. West Lafayette is located in a state with a strong prep baseball presence, and not far from the hotbed that is Chicagoland. But most importantly, the Purdue players, in how they carry themselves before and after games, their play in the field, their at-bats, and how their pitchers perform, are consistent, 1-35. That shows a complete buy-in into the message Wasikowski is preaching and are a 180-degree reversal from where they were just two years ago. The nature of the Big Ten, with the depth and unbalanced schedule, makes predicting future success tough, but there are the necessary foundation pieces in place for Purdue to continue to trend up.

Michigan’s underclassmen have Omaha-potential

Finishing the regular season on a 1-5 skid, a second consecutive regional appearance may have fell out of Michigan’s grip. But to be in a position where that thought is even entertained is a testament to the job Erik Bakich and his staff has done recruiting. Last year, after a Big Ten-leading 42-win season, Michigan saw 11 players drafted and five other players graduate from the program. In prior years, such roster turnover would have a team going into the final weekend of the regular season fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, not sit one game out of first-place. Many would say Michigan has benefited from a favorable in-conference schedule. But not every team beats the teams they’re supposed to, and it is extremely impressive for a team loaded with underclassmen to reel off 20 games in a row.

While there may be pain in potentially missing the NCAA Tournament this season, it’s clear the future is bright in Ann Arbor, with a core of underclassmen that should be thinking beyond just a regional. Every Michigan starting pitching will return next season. As too will the team’s catcher, shortstop, DH, corner outfielder, and a do-it-all in Jesse Franklin. Although Indiana was starting to perform like a top 25 team at the end of 2012, and Michigan has fallen from the rankings, Blomgren, Franklin, Nwogu, Ben Dragani, and company have the feel of that 2012 first-year core of Schwarber, Travis, Kyle Hart, and Scott Effross. Blomgren shows the ability of being the Big Ten’s best defensive shortstop, Nwogo has big time power, and Franklin has the all-around game and moxie to leave Ann Arbor with a Player of the Year honor in his bag. Add sophomores Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann, who sandwich Dragani in the rotation, and special days may not be too far down the road for Michigan.

Big Ten Releases 2018 Baseball Tournament Bracket

Rosemont, Ill— The conference office announced the bracket for the 2018 Big Ten Baseball Tournament, held May 23-27 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

The eight-team, double-elimination tournament begins Wednesday, May 23, with first-round games and continues through Sunday’s championship game on May 27. The tournament champion will earn the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

The first pitch of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament will take place at 9 a.m. (CT) Wednesday when No. 3 Michigan takes on sixth-seeded Iowa. Second-seeded Purdue will take the field at 1 p.m. on Wednesday against No. 7 Ohio State. The tournament will continue at 5 p.m. when No. 1 Minnesota plays No. 8 Michigan State. The final game on Wednesday will feature No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 Indiana at 9 p.m.

Once again this season, BTN will televise all games of the Big Ten Baseball Tournament live, with each game also available on the BTN2Go platform, either online at btn2go.com or through the BTN2Go app. The full bracket can be found attached.

Breaking down the NCAA Tournament picture

A little over one month away from the Memorial Day unveiling of the 2018 NCAA Tournament field, media outlets are starting to churn out weekly NCAA Tournament projections and discuss whose stock is rising or climbing. The Big Ten is drawing attention for having six teams with realistic regional odds, where if all were to make the tournament would set a conference record.

Whether it ends up six teams, or five, as was the case in 2015 and 2017, or even just four, it is becoming a May fixture to have a half-dozen teams pursuit a regional bid. This year, with respect to Purdue who is still hanging around on the outer edge of the bubble, the spotlight is on Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio State as they prepare to via for a coveted spot in the field of 64 over the last four weeks.

To get you up to speed on where the six teams stand, here’s an overview of their seasons to date, their remaining schedules and what their postseason picture looks like as of today, ahead of the weekend where the six teams are set to square off against each other, as Illinois travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Iowa, and Ohio State welcomes Minnesota.

References

Boyd’s World RPI Needs Report

NCAA Official RPI

Warren Nolan’s Big Ten page

(Opponent’s number parenthesis represent Warren Nolan RPI)

Illinois

Record: 24-12 overall, 9-3 in Big Ten (3rd)

Warren Nolan RPI: 58

Strength of Schedule: 113

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 6-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Four

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Indiana (26), May 1 vs. Southern Illinois (128), May 4-6 vs. Ohio State (39), May 11-13 @ Michigan (53), May 17-19 vs. Nebraska (126).

In a nutshell: The Illini have dropped four of their last five games, placing their RPI in the upper-50s, a precarious position. Illinois’ sweep of Pac-12 opponents in the Dairy Queen Classic is starting to look better with Arizona (40) turning around their season and UCLA (31) remaining a strong team, and the team has a split of two games at Coastal Carolina (25) to work with. But, in their lone weekend games against an RPI top 50 team since Minneapolis, Illinois dropped two of three games against Iowa. If there is a slight concern in addition to their RPI, it’s the lack of a signature weekend series win. The good news is that multiple such opportunities await the Illini. Series at Indiana and Michigan, while hosting Ohio State in-between, will allow Dan Hartleb’s team to go over 20 games against RPI top 100 teams.  Winning two of their next three weekends, which would also likely lead to a top-four finish in the Big Ten, should allow the Illini to return to NCAA play for the first time since 2015. According to Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs, which breaks down needed win-loss combinations to reach various RPI benchmarks, assuming all other teams in college baseball maintain their current winning percentage, 10 wins will have the Illini approach an RPI of 32, with several combinations to reach eight wins getting them in the top 45.

 

Indiana

Record: 29-8, 7-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 26

Strength of Schedule: 126

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 9-5

Losses against RPI > 150: One

Remaining schedule: April 25 @ Purdue (84) , April 27-29 vs. Illinois (58), May 4-6 @ Minnesota (38), May 8 vs. Kentucky (18), May 11-13 @ Nebraska (126), May 15 @ Louisville (41), May 17-19 vs. Maryland (119).

In a nutshell: Indiana has been the highest ranked Big Ten team all season. The preseason favorite in the eyes of the conference coaches, the Hoosiers have the conference’s top RPI, spurred by a Big Ten-leading 29 wins. It is a bit premature to say the Hoosiers are a lock for the NCAA Tournament, especially with a tough slate over the next four weeks, but Chris Lemonis’ club should be viewed as safely in the field of 64. Now, where it gets interesting for IU is whether their resume will warrant a spot as a regional host. Currently their RPI would suggest no, an absence of a weekend series win over a top 50 club is slight knock on IU’s season to date, but Indiana will have six conference games to add to their current 14 games against teams in the RPI top 100, with three midweek games against rivals, two on the road, at Purdue and Louisville (41), with the Cardinals joining the Kentucky Wildcats (18) as likely regional-bound clubs where wins would add bullets on Indiana’s resume. If Indiana can go 13-2 over their final 15 games, Boyd’s World suggest a top 16 RPI is in the picture, which would likely net a third Bloomington Regional in six years.

 

Iowa

Record: 23-13, 7-6

Warren Nolan RPI: 47

Strength of Schedule: 67

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 4-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 7-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Two

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. Milwaukee (187), April 27-29 vs. Michigan (53), May 1 vs. Missouri (29), May 2 vs. Western Illinois (288) , May 4-6 vs. Oklahoma State (34), May 11-13 @ Northwestern (235), May 15 @ Western Illinois (288), May 17-19 vs. Penn State (206).

In a nutshell: After being swept in a three-game series at UNLV (51), March 9-11, the odds that the Hawkeyes would appear in a second consecutive regional appeared long, at best. But since St. Patrick’s Day, Iowa is 14-7, with series victories over Illinois and Ohio State, while splitting an abbreviated two game series with Indiana. Iowa’s turnaround has been powered by the return of leadoff batter Chris Whelan, making the team Iowa was over the first month a shell of it’s current self. Iowa is coming off of a weekend defeat at Minnesota, but are set to welcome Michigan to Iowa City this weekend. Iowa is the lone team of the Big Ten’s six regional hopefuls to face the other five teams, a tough task which is doesn’t include playing host to Oklahoma State (34) next weekend during their conference by weekend. Already with the best strength of schedule of these six teams, Iowa will have more opportunities to strengthen its case to be in the field of 64, before finishing with consecutive series against the conference’s last-place clubs. Northwestern and Penn State may offer a break in competition but poor records and 200+ RPIs where that may set back Iowa’s schedule strength a tick.

 

Michigan

Record: 24-11, 11-0

Warren Nolan RPI: 53

Strength of Schedule: 167

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 1-4

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 3-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 @ Iowa (47), May 1 vs. Eastern Michigan (181), May 2 @ Eastern Michigan (181), May 4-6 @ Rutgers (139), May 8 @ Central Michigan (225), May 9 @ Michigan State (203), May 11-13 vs. Illinois (58), May 17-19 @ Purdue (84)

In a nutshell: The Wolverines are drawing national attention with a current 20-game winning streak, the second-longest winning streak in the country this season. Unfortunately for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances, the month-long run hasn’t included any games against teams in the RPI’s top 100, with 15 being played against teams whose RPI is somewhere in the 200s. The competition Michigan has faced is reflected in their strength of schedule. The Wolverines do have a win over Stanford, the RPI’s top-rated team, but outside of the four-game set in Palo Alto the Michigan has played only one other game against a top 50 team. That will change this weekend with their series at Iowa, and potentially in mid-May when they welcome Illinois to Ann Arbor. U-M’s perfect Big Ten record has them in prime position to claim a conference-leading 36th Big Ten championship, but their conference slate to date, opponents Michigan State, Northwestern, Maryland, and Penn State are a combined 12-42 in Big Ten play, has them squarely bubble for their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance.

 

Minnesota

Record: 25-11, 9-2

Warren Nolan RPI: 38

Strength of Schedule: 96

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 6-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 12-9

Losses against RPI > 150: Zero

Remaining schedule: April 25 vs. South Dakota State (244), April 27-29 @ Ohio State (39), May 1 vs. Concordia-St. Paul (N/A), May 4-6 vs. Indiana (26), May 11-13 vs. Michigan State (203), May 15 @ St. John’s (48), May 17-19 @ Rutgers (139)

In a nutshell: The Gophers would have liked a better showing in the Dairy Queen Classic they hosted, only able to come away with one victory, although the win over Arizona (40) has aged well. Likewise, seeing where Creighton (33) stands in the RPI picture, it would have been beneficial to have won that home series following the DQ Classic. But the form the Gophers have showed since early March has them heading towards a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, and currently ranked in polls. As they join IU with a number next to their name, its similarly too early to say they’re a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but Minnesota can start dream about hosting a regional. Already with the most games against the RPI top 100, the conference’s best mark in such games, series victories over TCU (75), St. John’s (48), and Iowa, a steadily falling RPI, and no losses against RPI 150+ teams, Minnesota is compiling a pretty impressive resume. That’s with series yet to come against Ohio State and Indiana. Winning one of the two next weeks should all but wrap up a bid, where taking both may mean Minnesota in home during the first weekend of June, in the good way as a regional host. And the Gophers are two games back on Michigan, a conference championship would be icing on the cake.

 

Ohio State

Record: 27-11, 8-4

Warren Nolan RPI: 39

Strength of Schedule: 106

W-L Against RPI Top 50: 5-6

W-L Against RPI Top 100: 5-6

Losses against RPI > 150: Three

Remaining schedule: April 27-29 vs. Minnesota (38), May 2 @ Ball State (179), May 4-6 @ Illinois (58), May 8-9 vs. Campbell (136), May 11-13 Purdue (84), May 15 @ Cincinnati (150), May 17-19 Michigan State (203).

In a nutshell: Likely the team least expected to be among the six, the Buckeyes are in a position to reach a regional for the second time in three seasons, a feat last accomplished in 2007-09. Ohio State has a solid strength of schedule, although they have yet to play a game against a team rated 51-100 in the RPI, and has taken care of business at home with a 12-3 mark to have their overall winning percentage rewarded with a high RPI. OSU’s non-conference slate helped put them in the discussion of the NCAA Tournament, winning a game against Southern Miss (32), and going 1-1 against Coastal Carolina (25) . Ohio State squandered a big opportunity in a game against Oregon State (7), allowing six last-at-bat runs in a 10-8 loss during the second weekend of the season. Any lingering “what-ifs” about that game were likely thrown away when the Buckeyes knocked off the Hoosiers this past weekend, securing a resume-anchoring win. Now, the Buckeyes have two more opportunities, with Minnesota becoming the second straight ranked team to visit Columbus, before heading to Champaign. Barring a late May collapse, grabbing one of the next two weekends should punch their ticket, where, like Minnesota, if Ohio State game win at least four of their next six conference games, maybe NCAA play returns to the Buckeye State for the first time since 2003.

Week 7 Weekend Observations

While weather throughout the Midwest may be more appropriate for early February, it is in fact April. As Big Ten teams hope warmer, more baseball-friendly weather is on the way, each of the 13 baseball programs have played at least one conference series with the chase for the championship under way.

With the college baseball season nearing its midpoint, here’s what was gathered from the most recent round of weekend play, as slowly but surely the cream is rising to the top.

Hoosiers keep humming along

A close 6-5 victory opened the weekend series, before Indiana handily defeated Butler, 13-0 and 10-3 to sweep the Bulldogs. With the three wins, Indiana ran its record to 20-5 through the first seven weeks of the season. Tabbed as the preseason favorite by Big Ten coaches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana is off to a strong start, but the consistency Chris Lemonis’ club has shown deserves recognition. Indiana has yet to suffer a losing weekend and only once has the team dropped back-to-back games. Indiana’s 2.68 ERA leads the conference, while its .286 average ranks third. Checking in at No. 11 in this week’s NCBWA poll, IU has done nothing to suggest they are not one of the country’s top teams, and should be in the mix to host a regional at the end of the season. There may be teams and players who are grabbing more attention at the moment, but with a deep lineup, a depth on the mound and a team that can play clean defense, the baseball team in Bloomington is living up to lofty expectations and handling everything presented in front of them.

Minnesota’s strong March finish

Minnesota didn’t have the strongest start to March, going 1-2 against Pac-12 teams in the Dairy Queen Classic it hosted, before being out scored 14-6 in the first two games of the succeeding series against Creighton. But since a 15-1 win in the series finale against Creighton, Minnesota (18-10) won eight of 12 games to end the month, winning three consecutive series, defeating TCU and Nebraska on the road before a 9-8 win on Friday and 6-3 victory on Saturday led to taking two of three at home this weekend against St. John’s. One would believe John Anderson would have been thrilled in the preseason to take those results. TCU has been to the last four College World Series, Nebraska is the reigning Big Ten champion, and St. John’s was ranked in the preseason. March appeared to be a month that could either doom the Gophers or set them up for a big season. For a team rather green on the mound, the end-of-month success should build conference, and the results should still be strong enough to put the team in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, where their veteran-laden and deep lineup can carry a team.

Freshman arms continue to excel

Three freshmen pitchers made the Weekend 10, and the strong showings by rookie pitchers weren’t an aberration. A look at statistics throughout the Big Ten reveal three true freshmen among the top four leaders in ERA:

#1 Michigan LHP Ben Dragani: 1.38 ERA in 32.2 innings

#2 Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson: 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings.

#4 Northwestern LHP Quinn Lavelle: 2.10 ERA in 34.1 innings.

In additional to those three, who allowed one run while pitching a combined 19.1 innings, the weekend saw Purdue’s Trent Johnson join the Boilermaker rotation and shine to cap a sweep of Penn State, while Rutgers already calls on freshmen Harry Rutkowski and Eric Heatter to round out the Scarlet Knight rotation. Indiana has seen promise out of Tommy Sommer, Ohio State likes what they have in Griffan Smith, and Minnesota has Joshua Colliver, Ryan Duffy, Max Meyer and Sam Thoreson to join Fredrickson as a foundation for the future. Seemingly, everywhere one looks around the Big Ten, there is a freshman or two capable of providing big innings or lead a pitching staff.

Northwestern’s tough run continues

After Lavelle stymied Maryland’s lineup, to lead Northwestern to a 4-0 win on Friday, the Terrapins captured the weekend series by winning the next two games, 6-5 and 4-3. After two weekends, the Wildcats’ Big Ten record sits at 1-5, tied with Michigan State and Penn State at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. But the 1-5 record might not be a fair indicator of the team Spencer Allen has. Take a look at Northwestern’s conference results so far.

Northwestern’s Big Ten losses:

March 23, 5-4 to Illinois

March 24, 5-4 to Illinois in 11 innings

March 25, 4-2 to Illinois in 10 innings

March 31, 6-5 to Maryland in 10 innings

April 1, 4-3 to Maryland.

Runs allowed in Big Ten play: 24

Runs scored in Big Ten play: 22

A few breaks here or there could have Northwestern near the top of the conference, not at the bottom, meaning no conference team should look at the team’s current record and think an easy weekend is in store.

Iowa continues to be Iowa

It’s becoming a spring ritual: question how Iowa will replace a dominant core of players, then watch the Hawkeyes find a way to fight into the top-half of the Big Ten and have an NCAA Tournament appearance be a real opportunity. While Iowa didn’t exactly slow down Illinois’ potent offense, Iowa allowed 32 hits and 20 runs in three game, the Hawkeyes left Champaign with two victories against a ranked Illini team. The weekend win came a week after splitting a shortened set against Indiana. It wasn’t long ago when Iowa dropped five consecutive games and stand 8-6 on the season. But Rick Heller’s group has gone 8-3 since, with two headline-grabbing weekends. Iowa’s tough 2018 slate doesn’t let up, Ohio State, who is 19-8 on the season, visits Iowa City this weekend, then back-to-back series on the road at Nebraska and Minnesota take place. But if the first two weekends of conference play are any indication of what’s to come, Iowa will be in a position to compile a pretty impressive resume.

Catchers turning in strong seasons

With the All-America campaigns Illinois’ Bren Spillane, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are compiling, it’d be fair to call this the year of the first baseman in the Big Ten. And as previously mentioned, the strong seasons nearly a dozen freshman pitchers are putting together deserve praise. After a look at box scores from the weekend, the backstops who are on the receiving ends pitches are collectively having strong seasons in the Big Ten. Leading their teams in hitting are:

Sr. Tyler Cropley, Iowa (.356)

Jr. Ryan Fineman, Indiana  (.347)

Jr. Ryan Sloniger, Penn State (.289)

Jr. Nick Dalesandro, Purdue (.337)

Juniors Jacob Barnwell (.289), Jesse Wilkening (.299), and Eli Wilson (.356) are also enjoying strong seasons at the plate, respectively for Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota.

While the batting averages are good, so too have the throwing abilities for many.

Barnwell has thrown out eight of 23 runners on the bases. Dalesandro has gunned down 11 of 24 runners, Fineman has thrown out 14 runners against 12 successful swipes, Rutgers’ Nick Matera has caught seven of 19 runners attempting to steal a base, and Wilson has nabbed five runners in 12 tries.

The Weekend 10

The first weekend of Big Ten play saw two intra-state rivalries, a meeting of two 2017 NCAA Tournament teams, a showdown between the last two conference champions and a border battle. Adding to the intensity of the weekend was Maryland hosting nationally-ranked Stetson during their conference bye week.

With bragging rights across the board on the line, and teams starting to fight for the conference championship, the weekend’s top performances were dominated by pitching, holding the adage true, pitching and defense wins championships.

Here’s who stood out.

Michigan Jr. OF Jonathan Engelmann

Helping the Wolverines to a 3-0 start to Big Ten play, sweep in-state rival Michigan State, and run Michigan’s winning streak to eight games, Engelmann terrorized Spartan pitching. This week’s player of the week, the junior outfielder picked up six hits in 12 at-bats, highlighted by a 4-for-5, two-home run contest on Friday. Englemann added a double and triple in the game, en route to finishing the weekend with seven runs, eight RBI, and added two stolen bases for good measure.

Minnesota Fr. RHP Patrick Fredrickson

In a battle between the last two Big Ten champions, Minnesota freshman Patrick Fredrickson had little trouble with Nebraska, leading the Gophers to a 2-0 victory on Sunday, to claim the series.  Over seven innings, the right-hander held the Huskers to four hits and did not concede a run. Improving to 3-0 on the year, the Gopher struck out six batters while only walking one.

Michigan St. Sr. RHP Ethan Landon

With eight innings of scoreless baseball under his belt, Landon was the victim of spotty Spartan defense, suffering a hard luck loss in Michigan State’s 3-1 defeat on Saturday. Pitching into the ninth, Landon held the Wolverines to four hits and three walks, while striking out nine batters. Two unearned runs were tacked against the senior, as U-M rallied to the last-at-bat victory.

Penn State Sr. LHP Taylor Lehman

A strong performance wouldn’t result in a win, but Lehman held a high-powered Rutgers lineup in check, turning in one of his best performances as a Nittany Lion. Over six innings, Lehman held Rutgers to three hits and one unearned run, striking out two batters and issuing one walk. Providing Rob Cooper with a solid Saturday starter, Lehman’s ERA fell to 2.81 in 25.2 innings on the year.

Illinois Soph. 2B Michael Massey

Massey continues to be one-half of the most dangerous first and second baseman duo in the Big Ten. Hitting in the five-hole, behind Bren Spillan, Massey picked up three singles, a double, and a home run in Illinois’ weekend sweep of Northwestern. Grabbing a walk, and touching 10 bases, Massey posted a .500 on-base percentage and slugged .762 over 14 plate appearances.

Maryland Jr. RHP Hunter Parsons

The season thus far for Maryland has been rocky, uneven, and inconsistent. None of those would describe Parsons on Sunday, as the junior right-handed led the Terps to a series-clinching, 2-0 victory over No. 26 Stetson. Earning 10 Innings’ Pitcher of the Week honors, Parsons twirled a two-hit shutout. Racking up a career-best nine strikeouts, Parsons pitched to only three batters over the minimum, surrendering singles in the fourth and fifth innings, and hitting a batter in the seventh.

Rutgers Fr. LHP Harry Rutkowski

Going toe-to-toe with Lehman, and the reason why Rutgers grabbed the 1-0 victory, was a sterling outing from Rutkowski. The first-year Scarlet Knight did not allow a run, scattering four hits over six innings, punching out seven batters against two walks. Moving to 3-0 on the Rutkowski induced nine groundouts as Rutgers clinched the weekend series.

Iowa Jr. RHP Brady Schanuel

Schanuel’s best performance as a Hawkeye came at an opportune time. With weather disrupting Iowa’s series against Indiana, a Friday doubleheader, and ultimately the weekend, was split, as Schanuel led Iowa to a 5-1 victory after a 4-2 defeat. In seven innings of work, the junior struck out 11 batters to four walks while allowing just one Hoosier hit. The right-hander did not yield a run in his 110-pitch outing.

Nebraska Sr. DH Scott Schreiber

Fredrickson and Minnesota may have grabbed the weekend series in Lincoln, but they did little to contain Schreiber. In 12 at-bats, Schreiber collected seven hits, and had two home runs in Nebraska’s 8-2 victory on Saturday. Schreiber opened and closed the weekend with two-hit games, each included a double, as the senior scored three runs, and plated four teammates.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

Spillane’s offensive outburst showed no signs of slowing down this weekend. Against the Wildcats, Spillane went 6-for-10, with two doubles and a home run, posting a triple-slash of .600/.714/1.100. Helping Illinois to their 15th win in 20 games, Spillane stole three bags on the weekend, running his season total to 10, one more than the number of home runs he has, showing a incredible blend of power and speed.

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.

Week 2 Weekend Observations

What grabbed 10 Innings’ attention the most the second weekend of the season? Here’s a look.

Purdue continues to prove times have changed

Purdue’s five-run ninth inning against Notre Dame on Sunday helped the Boilermakers capture the Alamo Irish Classic. It also was the latest sign things have changed in West Lafayette. After Purdue lost 4-2 in extra innings to the Irish on Saturday, halting their perfect start to the season at 5-0, the Boilermakers appeared in over their heads against their in-state rival on Sunday. But, down to their final three outs and trailing by four, Purdue showed the character of the culture Mark Wasikowski continues to mold is one of resiliency. With a 6-1 record heading into March, Purdue is receiving votes in the NCBWA poll for the second straight week, and showed they can go toe-to-toe with a team that previously took a weekend series at LSU. Purdue is far from untalented, no team in the conference had more than Purdue’s five preseason All-10 Innings selections, but more evidence continues to mount that Purdue is back among the top of the conference.

Michigan’s growing pains

With the turnover Michigan experienced, 11 draft picks tends to remove a few talented players from a program, it was expected the start of the season for the Wolverines may be a bit tough as newcomers take on Division I college baseball for the first time, and previous role players take on bigger burdens. But the degree to which Michigan has scuffled has been surprising. The competition was stout, but an 0-3 showing in the Tony Gwynn Legacy, combined with a Monday night defeat against San Diego State has Michigan sitting at 2-5, ahead of its four-game set at #5 Stanford. Michigan is pitching at a serviceable level, holding a 4.50 ERA, but the team is batting just .219 and has the Big Ten’s worst fielding percentage at  .950, yet to play an error-free game. Before needing to replace six starts, last year, Michigan finished second in the country with a .983 fielding percentage.

Don’t count Michigan State out just yet

Michigan State wasn’t playing bad over it’s first five games, the Spartans suffered three defeats of one run, but an 0-5 start is an 0-5 start, and Spartan faithful couldn’t be blamed if they were to have concern. But it is worth remembering five games is less than 10% of a 56-game season, and that all teams will scuffle throughout the season, some at the start, some in the middle, some at the end. For the Spartans, their skid ended on Saturday, before starting a new streak, this time on the winning side, in capturing the final two games of their series at Pepperdine. Through their first seven games, Michigan State has shown it will have the pitching necessary to compete for a conference title. Senior right-hander Ethan Landon is pitching to his 2016 self, Riley McCauley has stepped nicely into the Friday role, and the team may have a star in Sunday starter Mason Erla. As a team MSU has a 3.86 ERA, with 68 strikeouts against 17 walks. The offense is still morbid, the team is batting at a .208 clip, two wins and a strong pitching unit should give the Green and White optimism heading into this weekend’s loaded Dairy Queen Classic.

Ohio State’s sustains its offensive mite

Ohio State scored 36 runs in four games during the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, showing its opening weekend outburst of 34 runs wasn’t a fluke. It was worth watching if this would hold true, as Oregon State and Utah figured to offer better pitching than Canicius and Milwaukee, whom the Bucks played the weekend before. A year after batting .260, the fourth-worst mark in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes boast a healthy .311 average after eight games. Oregon State did not throw their ace Luke Heimlich on Friday, he faced Nebraska on Thursday, but Ohio State striking the Beavers for eight runs, five off of a pair of Connor Pohl home runs, should offer a level of confidence that will provide benefits throughout the season. A mighty offense will also help the 5-3 Buckeyes stay afloat if its defense continues to flounder, Ohio State committed nine errors over the weekend, as their .953 fielding percentage beats only Michigan.

Nebraska’s pitching staff may face another hit

Before the season began, Nebraska lost junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann and redshirt freshman lefty Connor Curry to Tommy John surgery. After the first weekend of the season, junior right-hander Robbie Palkert was lost for the season, also needing Tommy John. Now the Huskers are potentially without left-hander Jake McSteen after the junior left his Saturday start against Oregon State with an elbow concern. Nebraska is expecting Reece Eddins back from his own Tommy John surgery at some point this season, but for now, Nebraska’s pitching depth has taken quite the blow, only juniors Nate Fisher and Mitch Steinhoff represent healthy left-handed pitchers. The continued arm injuries may alter Darin Erstad’s plans to use Luis Alvarado as a two-way player. Alvarado, Nebraska’s Friday starter, made his first appearance in the field on Sunday, starting at first base, and promptly went 2-for-5, helping the club to a 7-4 victory over Utah. With a team average of .216 and only 10 extra-base hits, Nebraska can use Alvarado’s bat, but the rash of injuries may take the coaching staff to take an extremely cautious approach to his dual use.

Northwestern’s prowess on the bases

Coaches can be overly optimistic in the offseason, impressive feats can be exaggerated as there is no perspective to how performances would fare with another team on the mound, in the field, and at the plate. But Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen was confident his team would run more in 2018, and rely on speed to make up for some of the loss in power the Wildcats saw graduate, mainly in the form of All-Big Ten selection Joe Hoscheit. So far Allen’s belief has held true.  Highlighted by six steals in Saturday’s 18-12 victory over Kansas, through six games, Northwestern leads the Big Ten with 17 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Northwestern’s 17 stolen bases represents the fifth-most swipes in the country. A trio of player are leading the charge on the bases, with Alex Erro (6-6), Jack Dunn (5-5), and Ben Dickey (4-5) ranked first, second, and third in the Big Ten. The aggressiveness on the bases have helped Northwestern average 6.5 runs per contents, even through the team is batting .238.

Week 1 Weekend Observations

The opening weekend is in the books, and it was a fair weekend for the Big Ten, as the conference went 27-16. In five opportunities, the Big Ten picked up wins over nationally-ranked programs, Indiana topped South Alabama and Rutgers wrapped up their weekend with a victory over Miami. Three teams went 3-0, Iowa, Penn State, and Purdue, while Maryland and Michigan won weekend sets, with the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers joined the Hoosiers in going 3-1.

Digging deeper, here’s the top observations from the weekend that was.

Billy Phillips provides the weekend highlight

The box score may not garner a second look, it was a scoreless inning of relief in a lopsided defeat, allowing one hit with one strikeout, but Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Billy Phillips provided the highlight in all of college baseball this weekend.

From Wilmington, Del., Phillips’ sixth inning appearance in the Terrapins’ weekend finale against Tennessee was the first career outing for Phillips, as the southpaw has missed the prior two seasons fighting, recovering and winning a battle against leukemia, dating back to his senior year of high school in 2015.

In a conference where from Ohio State left-handed pitcher Zach Farmer valiantly fought leukemia, as well as former Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes, we’re once again reminded of the resolve in humans and the character of the individuals who play and coach in the sport. And as we learned with Farmer and Oakes, nobody fights alone and we’re all there to support Phillips as his leukemia fades more and more into the distance.

Do not question their commitment to baseball

There’s been a noticeable increase in the level of commitment Big Ten baseball programs have seen over the last decade. The most obvious example of the uptick in commitment are the stadium renovations or completely new stadiums seen around the conference. Less noticeable signs of backing are increased salary pools for assistant coaches, more members to support staffs in the form of director of baseball operations and video coordinators, and increased recruiting budgets.

The latest sign of Big Ten programs doing everything they can to field a competitive team was on display this weekend as weather forced Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue alter their schedules.

All three teams were set to fly out of Chicago on Thursday, but each saw their flight canceled. Ultimately Illinois and Purdue had to cancel their trips to Texas. Northwestern did make it to their destination and played three of four games against Omaha, but not before every option was exhausted to ensure games were played.

Purdue ended up with three games in Georgia, Illinois saw their opening day pushed back twice, forced to settle for games against Austin Peay and South Dakota State in St. Louis on Sunday, Northwestern was considering incurring a cost of $30,000 to join Cincinnati and Miami on a charted plane to points out west.

Obviously, no team wants to bag their games on opening weekend. But it does take an administration to sign off on additional costs that come with a change of travel plans at the last second, find transportation, food and lodging for 40 people. That willingness is another testament to the importance of baseball around the Big Ten.

Hoosiers have the necessary experience

As great as a team may look on paper, you never truly know how a team will be once the season starts. Indiana returned a lot of players from their Lexington Regional team, and as reflected in the preseason conference coaches’ poll, were deserving of their near consensus preseason ranking. There will be more than a few home runs hit between Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller and Logan Sowers, already the trio have combined for five, but perhaps more important than the offensive production from the bats, or the scoreless innings Pauly Milto, Cal Krueger and Lloyd can toss on the mound, is the experience Indiana has as a club that’s been in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments and knows what is necessary to win at a high level.

Indiana finished the weekend with a solid 3-1 record, but it wasn’t a weekend full of ease for Chris Lemonis and staff.

Indiana jumped out to a 2-0 lead after their first at-bat in the season opener against Oklahoma, but ultimately lost 6-3. Indiana showed no hangover in cruising to a 5-0 victory over Kansas State on Saturday. On Sunday, IU rallied from 3-0 first-inning deficit to South Alabama in walk-off fashion, 8-4, and after Coastal Carolina grabbed a 5-3 lead with a four-spot in the fourth, answered with two runs in their at-bat in the fifth, before winning 6-5.

The ability to take a blow and respond, to stay composed in a final at-bat and throw away a poor performance will go a long way as Indiana looks to make a deep postseason run in June.

Michigan’s weekend rotation will carry the team

If you were following Michigan’s weekend series against Army you probably lost track of how many Wolverines made their Michigan debut this weekend. Between freshmen, JUCO transfers or players who have been in the program but buried due to the depth Erik Bakich has built up, it was almost a day-to-night change in the team Michigan fielded compared to the team that ended the 2017 season in the Chapel Hill Regional. But there was comfort to be found in the starting pitchers Michigan rolled out, a group that will likely carry the club in 2018 as fresh faces get accumulated and up to speed to the college game.

Using a weekend rotation of a senior followed by two sophomores, Alec Rennard, Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman each pitched at least five innings and recorded a scoreless start. The Right-left-right trio combined to pitch 16 innings, scattering 11 hits with two walks, holding Army batters to a .189 batting average. Each pitcher was a significant factor out of the Michigan bullpen in 2017, with Rennard garnering a few starts, and now, as three of the few Wolverines who know what it takes to win in the Big Ten, as starting pitchers the rotation will go a long way in how Michigan fares this year.

The perfect script for Penn State

Penn State head coach Rob Cooper could not have asked for a better opening weekend for the Nittany Lions. In a three-game series at Elon, Penn State swept the Phoenix, opening the season 3-0 for the first time since 1980. Each victory provided Cooper and company with reasons to be optimistic in Penn State’s quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012.

In the opener, Justin Hagenman surrendered four hits and struck out seven batters as he takes over the of staff ace following the departure of Sal Biasi. In total, PSU pitchers racked up 15 strikeouts in the 2-1 win. Penn State’s offense lifted the team to an 8-6 win on Saturday to clinch the series, the team picked up two doubles and two home runs in their 10 hits, noteworthy as Penn State only slugged .329 last season. After missing the 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Sal’s younger brother Dante made his PSU debut, keeping the game close, before closer Eric Mock recorded his second save of the weekend with a hitless, three-inning effort, helping Penn State secure the 3-2 win.

The pitching was there, more pop was on display and Penn State did not commit an error over the three games. All aspects clicked this weekend for the Nittany Lions.

A Year Two JUCO bump can help Bucks bounce back

It would be an understatement to say the 2017 season did not go as Ohio State hoped. Coming off of an appearance in the 2016 Louisville Regional, Ohio State finished 22-34 overall, 8-16 in the Big Ten to finish in 11th place. A big factor in Ohio State unable to duplicate their 2016 success was the loss of six draft pictures and a handful of other multi-year starters who graduated. Ohio State tried to fill the holes left in the lineup with JUCO transfer, but newcomers Bo Coolen, Tyler Cowles, and Noah McGowan respectively batted .230, .190, and .214 between 384 at-bats. It’s only one weekend, but the numbers put up in the first weekend may sure an their second season in Columbus may fare a bit better.

Earning Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors by Collegiate Baseball, McGowan batted .400 with a double, two home runs and a nation-leading 13 RBI, 12 coming with two outs. McGowan drove in 19 runs for the 2017 season. Cowles picked up four hits in 12 at-bats while Coolen added a pair of singles in five at-bats.

Ohio State will face a drastic jump in competition in the upcoming weekend, Oregon State and Utah and considerably better than UW-Milwaukee and Canisius, but the starts are encouraging for three players who struggled a year ago, a core that Ohio State has enough pieces surrounding to create a potent lineup if everything clicks.

 

Feb. 16-18 Weekend Preview

Webb's Words: Hoosier look to leave their mark in Big Ten history

(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)

Chris Webb-

The 2018 season marks my tenth year covering Big Ten baseball, 14th overall attending Big Ten games. Since 2005, when I was a freshman at Ohio State, I guess you can say I've seen quite a bit of Big Ten baseball. To sum up how much Big Ten baseball I've seen, there's been 21 different coaches lead a Big Ten program since 2009, with the latest being Maryland's Rob Vaughn.

I've seen stadiums transformed, like Michigan's Ray Fisher Stadium and Minnesota's Siebert Field. Incredible stadiums constructed in Purdue's Alexander Field and Indiana's Bart Kaufman Field. The conference has grown by 30% with Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers joining the conference. The conference tournament is no longer on the campus of the conference champion, in fact the conference set an NCAA record with an attendance of 19,965 for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game. The winner, Indiana, became the first Big Ten national seeds, then the conference needed one year for its second national seed in the form of Illinois. Oh and a program reached the College World Series ending the conference's 30-year drought.

The too long; don't read version: Big Ten baseball has experienced quite the transformation since 2009.

Now, about that College World Series team...

It was 2008 when Indiana showed signs of becoming a budding program. The Hoosiers reached the Big Ten Tournament in Tracy Smith's third season, ending the regular season sixth in the conference standings after four consecutive last place finishes. Just one year later, the Hoosiers put the end to another postseason drought, extending their season by a weekend. Winning the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers were in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in the program's history, the first time since 1996.

Following the 2009 season, do you know how many years it would take for Indiana to rack up three more NCAA Tournament appearances? Six years. By the eighth season, Indiana had played in a regional for the fourth time since the 2009 breakthrough. Oh, and it was Indiana, in 2013, who became the Big Ten's first team to play in Omaha since Michigan in 1984.

The 2013-14 Indiana teams will go down as one of the best dynasties in Big Ten baseball history. Don't forget, the 2012 club finished second in the conference, only one game behind Purdue, or it would have been three straight Big Ten titles, a feat that's been accomplished only by Michigan (2006-08), Ohio State (1993-95), Illinois (1906-08) and the University of Chicago, yes they fielded a mighty Big Ten program winning the conference 1896-99.

At the end of the 2014 season, Smith became the head coach at Arizona State, the program saw the graduation of Dustin DeMuth and Joey DeNato after the respective third baseman and pitcher re-wrote the IU record book, and the drafting of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, the famed Bash Brothers who were the respective first and second round draft picks of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

If there was to be an end to Indiana's reign as the dominant Big Ten program, it was to happen with the historical turnover.

But it didn't.

From the second Smith left Bloomington for Tempe, Indiana administrators knew who they waited to take over the program. They didn't have to go far, barely reaching across the Ohio River, to name Louisville assistant Chris Lemonis as the program's new head coach. Though once-a-generation talent had moved to the professional ranks and the architect of the program relocated out west, Indiana didn't miss a beat. In Lemonis' first year, Indiana became the first Big Ten program since Michigan in 2005-08 to reach three straight NCAA Tournaments, appearing in the 2015 Nashville Regional.

Indiana did return to the pack in 2016, although they still finished in a tie for third in the conference, missing the NCAA Tournament. But now the Hoosiers are again coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance after participating in the Lexington Regional as the No 2 seed.

With a core of players led by Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, Logan Sowers and Jonathan Stievers, Indiana returns much of its 2017 club and enter the 2018 season as the conference favorite in the eyes of coaches and media alike. Named the coaches' preseason favorite, Indiana has preseason rankings of No. 19 by Baseball America, No. 24 by the NCBWA, and earned the 27th-most points in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll. It's expected Indiana will again be back in the field of 64, if not hosting if they finish the season near the position Baseball America penciled them in.

If that were to happen Indiana will join exclusive company. The Big Ten programs that have played in five NCAA Tournament in six years are the who's who of dominant eras in Big Ten baseball history. Minnesota reached six regionals in seven years between 1998-2004. Ohio State appeared in six regionals in seven years between 1992-1997. Michigan made seven straight NCAA Tournament appearance between 1983-87. No other programs as Big Ten members will have enjoyed the level of sustain success as Indiana will have.

It may be easier in today's game for such runs of success to take place, and we may see continued runs of NCAA Tournament trips occur regularly, after all the Big Ten has placed 13 teams in the NCAA Tournament over the last three seasons, one more than the combined total of the seven years prior. Even so, if the season unfolds as many expect, what Indiana will have accomplished. It will be a run of sustained success between two coaches, a program lifted by generational talent, but kept at a high standard with an entirely new cast of characters, a program elevated to a level of national esteem.

From someone who's seen a little bit of Big Ten baseball, Indiana and the conference are in a new day, with no signs of going back.

 

New look Huskers ready to reign

(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)

Blake Dowson-

The expectations have changed in the Big Ten Conference. Although there were no teams in super regionals in 2017, a record number of teams from the conference made the NCAA Tournament. Recruiting has ramped up, bringing in more talent. Athletic departments are putting more money into baseball programs. There’s momentum here.

But it can’t stop at just getting teams into the NCAA Tournament. The next step is the supers, and ultimately the College World Series.

The two Big Ten team closest to the home of the College World Series, Nebraska, took a step forward last season as the conference champions, reaching the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four years. In a sport where your best talent typically leaves each year and in a conference that makes it difficult to reload each year, Nebraska’s Darin Erstad has work to do in 2018 with a new look squad.

“I don’t roll seasons over,” Erstad said at Nebraska’s media day. “It’s a whole new set of circumstances coming into this year.”

Erstad is tasked with replacing All-American Jake Meyers and Derek Burkamper in the Husker rotation, two who combined to eat up over 150 innings for the Huskers last season. But Erstad isn't without a pitcher coming off of an impressive 2017 season. Senior right-hander Luis Alvarado is back in Lincoln after being drafted in the 13th round last year after a solid year as Nebraska’s closer. He’ll be stretched out after totaling 15.1 innings last year, taking the ball on opening day as Nebraska's Friday night starter. Jake McSteen will be the Saturday starter after being leaned on heavily out of the bullpen last year, nearly reaching 40 innings. Nate Fisher and Creighton transfer Matt Warren will fill out the rotation.

Of Alvarado starting, Erstad said they would adjust as they go.

“You’re going to be patient,” the seventh-year head coach said. “And looking long term as far as building their pitch counts up…I’m sure there will be some bumps there. We want our best arm going out there right out of the gate and let him do his thing.”

Nebraska starts this season without the services of Ben Miller, Meyers, and Jake Schleppenbach, respective multi-year starters at first base, center fielder and second base. Those three combined to make 163 starts and over 600 at-bats.

Luckily, two-time first-team All Big Ten selection Scott Schreiber is back for his senior season. Schreiber hit .330 last year with 55 RBI. His production will be key in Nebraska building on last season’s success, along with All-Big Ten players Angelo Altavilla and Jake Hohensee.

Altavilla, Alvarado, Hohensee, and  Schreiber, along with the likes of third baseman Luke Roskam and left fielder Mojo Hagge gives Erstad a collection of players who have enjoyed success in college baseball. But with sizable holes to fill and expandad roles for many, what we will learn in the coming month is which newcomers will make an impact and who is ready to embrace a bigger role for the reining Big Ten champions, what kind of team Nebraska will be in 2018.

“I think they’re going to be annoying to face,” Erstad said. “We’ve got a bunch of grinders. They’ve had a taste of winning and they want more.”

What to watch for this weekend

Who plays?

Inclement weather saw flights cancelled throughout the Midwest on Thursday, leaving Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern stranded at airports, scrambling for last minute options for travel options and potential new weekend opponents on the eve of the college baseball season. For teams who have reached their destination, weather doesn't look favorable in the southeast, with Maryland's series at Tennessee potential impacted, although Minnesota with a weekend in Georgia against Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State and Georgia State look safe for now. It's the return of the college baseball season, and the return of schedule uncertainty.

Who takes the field for Michigan?

Weather won't be a factor for Michigan when they take the field in Port St. Luice for four games against Army. But there is mystery around the Wolverines this weekend with it being up in the air as to who will start for Erik Bakich. After 11 players were picked in the MLB Draft, Michigan experienced quite the turnover from its Chapel Hill Regional team. Michigan's game notes this week lists five potential starters for the four games, and two options at every position in the field. Illness and injuries have played a role in some of the uncertainty for Michigan, but for Bakich, who likes the depth of the team, it may take a week or two to figure out who gives Michigan the best shot to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.

Can Feltner become Ohio State's ace?

Ohio State has high expectations for junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner. The Buckeye staff will give the highly-touted prospect, who held a 0.00 ERA as a closer in the Cape Cod League to earn an all-star nod, every chance to show he can succeed as a starter. So far in his career, the result have been unever as a Buckeye, holding a 5.14 ERA over 131.1 innings. To rebound from a 10th-place finish a year ago, Ohio State needs Feltner to harness his stuff, he has a four-pitch arsenal which includes as fastball that can reach 99, and be the pitcher who enters the season as one of the Big Ten's top prospects. If Feltner can be the aces Greg Beals and company hopes he can, Ohio State has the bullpen depth and experience in the weekend rotation to be a contender if the offense takes a step forward.

(Photo courtesy Rutgers Athletics)

Burke Granger & Chris Webb-

A two-sport athlete, Jawuan Harris shines on both the gridiron and the diamond for Rutgers.

As a freshman, he led the Scarlet Knights in receiving, hauling in 39 passes for 481 yards and three scores before transitioning to safety last season. He enters the spring as one of the more intriguing MLB Draft prospects in the conference.

"He's an unique athlete that you typically don't see in college," said a long-time National League scout. "The athleticism can take over the game and match up with anyone in the country."

At 5’9” and 190 pounds, Harris has a compact frame with an athletic, well-proportioned build that offers minimal projection. Though he’s on the smaller end of the scale, Harris displayed power last spring when he led the team in home runs with eight. There is some swing and miss to Harris’ game that he needs to tighten up, evidenced by his career 26.2% strikeout rate.

"The swing-and-miss will cut down with reps," said the scout, noting he believes Harris has the athleticism and aptitude to make the appropriate adjustments.

"He hasn't committed to baseball full-time ever in his, it's exciting to think of the possibilities."

Harris does well to mitigate that deficiency by taking more than his fair share of walks, drawing a free pass 12.74% of the time where he can get on base and showcase his carrying tool. A disruptive and efficient base stealer, Harris has utilized his top of the scale speed to steal 60 bases over the past two seasons while being caught just 14 times.

"It's elite speed," said the vertran scout. "He profiles at center field with the speed, it's a matter of if he's a top-of-the-order bat, by cutting down-on-the-swing and miss."

Harris will attempt to set the table for Rutgers this weekend against what could be his toughest competition of the year in Miami as the Hurricanes are expected to have one of the best pitching staff’s in the ACC.

10 Innings' Scouting Grade

Hit- 35/50

Power- 45/50

Run- 80/80

Throw- 50/50

Field- 55/70

Each week 10 Innings will have a coach step into the batter's box for a round of rapid-fire questions. First up is Penn State pitching coach Josh Newman.

A former All-Big Ten selection at Ohio State, Newman appeared in 14 MLB games between the 2007-08 seasons as a Colorado Rockie and Kansas City Royal, before returning to Ohio State as a volunteer assistant from 2011-13. Now, the ex-big leaguer is looking to help the Nittany Lions find the glory he experienced in Columbus as part of three NCAA Tournament teams.

Now that you're back in the Big Ten, what's the biggest difference since your days on the bump at Ohio State?

I have always held this baseball conference to high regard (this is my 8th year in this conference — four as a player and this will be four now as a coach) but it is now deeper than ever. The Big Ten has evolved into one of the premier baseball conferences in the country.

When Coach Cooper approached you over the summer, what stuck out about the opportunity to be on staff at Penn State?

I have always admired the body of work Coach Cooper has accomplished throughout his coaching career. Coach Cooper exemplifies everything I strive to be — both professionally and personally. His passion for the game and leadership qualities are infectious. The opportunity to join his staff and to do it at such an elite institution like Penn State, is a dream come true to my family and I.

What have you taken from your MLB experience that you've tried to have your pitchers learn from?

This game is extremely difficult. It will humble you in a heartbeat. However, I want our guys to respect that part of it but also I want them to enjoy their time here at Penn State and beyond. There have been so many incredible people that have helped me along my journey in this game and I owe to those people to continue to pay it forward.

The keys to Nittany Lion success on the mound in 2018 are...?

We must take care of today. Today is the most important thing that matters. These guys have fully embraced the expectations of excellence and have made tremendous strides thus far. We must continue to grow every single day.

Three words you want to have your pitching staff describe as?

Prove them wrong!

By the numbers

Last NCAA Tournament appearance

Illinois: 2015

Indiana: 2017

Iowa: 2017

Maryland: 2017

Michigan: 2017

Michigan State: 2012

Minnesota: 2016

Nebraska: 2017

Northwestern: 1957

Ohio State: 2016

Penn State: 2000

Purdue: 2012

Rutgers: 2007

10secondary

Preseason Notebook

After nearly eight months of offseason, college baseball is back. From the 10 Innings preseason All-Big Ten teams, to the newcomers to know and areas of strength and concerns for clubs, it’s time for games to be played and everything on paper rendered meaningless. Before the first pitch is thrown, here’s a rundown of news and notes from around the Big Ten as teams prepare to play ball.

Iowa’s Whelan ahead of schedule

Iowa junior outfielder Chris Whelan suffered an elbow injury during the team’s scout day in October, injuring the UCL in his right arm, requiring surgery. Without Whelan in the field, Iowa will turn to a left-to-right outfield of Ben Norman, Justin Jenkins and Robert Neustrom. But the nature of Whelan’s injury kept the door open that he could be used as a DH this season, with Rick Heller and staff hoping they could insert the 2017 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player into the lineup at some point. Just this week Whelan was cleared to swing a bat, his rehab ahead of schedule with the door open for a return in mid-to-late March. Iowa is enjoying a run of unprecedented success, seeking a fifth consecutive 30-win season and a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years. Having Whelan’s bat in the lineup will be a boon for the program.

Northwestern to utilize tandem system

After finishing a victory shy of the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern is looking to sustain the momentum captured during the second season of the Spencer Allen tenure. As they do so, the Allen will utilize a tandem system for his pitchers to start the season, allowing each pitcher to know his specific role and maximize the depth of the Wildcat staff. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Hank Christie will open the season for Northwestern, with senior hander Tommy Bordignon viewed as Friday’s reliever, ideally pitching the last three innings. Freshman right-hander Ryan Bader and classmate southpaw Quinn Lavelle look to round out the rotation, with a respective relief pairings of sophomore left-hander Sam Lawrence and senior right-hander JR Reimer.

Minnesota young guns show promise

Minnesota returns a deep and talented lineup, but enters the season with questions marks throughout the pitching staff. John Anderson must replace Friday starter Lucas Gilbreath and closer Brian Glowicki, both All-Big Ten selections, as well as Sunday start Toby Anderson and key reliever Tim Shannon. The burden of replacing three significant cogs has lessened with the promise a group of freshman have shown in the preseason. left-hander Ryan Duffy and right-handers Josh Culliver, Max Meyer and Sam Thoresen make up a group of rookie hurlers that is considered the best group of incoming talent Anderson and staff have seen in a long time. Each pitcher can reach 90 MPH with their fastball with Meyer and Thoresen able to reach back and hit 94 and 95, respectively. Minnesota has a daunting schedule that will challenge the freshmen, but if the Gophers get through March with momentum, a second Big Ten title in three years is in the picture.

Illness setbacks back Michigan freshmen

Jack Blomgren and Joe Donovan have bright futures ahead of them in Ann Arbor, but both may be just a step back to start this season after mononucleosis infected both this winter. A catcher from Westmont, Ill., Donovan is one of four Wolverines in a heavy battle to take over behind the plate following the graduation of Harrison Wenson. A fall teammate of Donovan on the Chicago Scouts Association scout team, Blomgren is Michigan’s shortstop of the future and is expected to run with the role. In Blomgren’s absence, Ako Thomas, a preseason All-American at second base has filled in. Alongside Thomas, a healthy Blomgren should form one of the Big Ten’s top defensive middle infields.

Ohio State left-hander Seth Lonsway ineligible for the season

Ohio State left-hander Seth Lonsway, one of the Big Ten’s top recruits, will miss the 2018 season, ineligible due to an academic matter from high school. How a course registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse did not meet the conditions needed to establish Lonsway’s initial eligibility. On the first day of preseason practice, Ohio State head coach Greg Beals alluded to Lonsway having no issue in his current courses in Columbus. The university appealed Lonsway’s ineligibility to the NCAA but it was denied. Beals has seen a pitcher sit out a year previously due to academic matters stemming from arrive prior to Ohio State. Former All-Big Ten pitcher Brad Goldberg sat out two seasons after transferring from Coastal Carolina, the first the standard sit-out period, the second due to some credits not aligning with his major at Ohio State. Goldberg helped Ohio State to a second-place finish in 2013 and debuted with the White Sox in 2017, four years after being a 10th-round draft pick.

Bechina ready to go

Michigan State junior third baseman Marty Bechina suffered a broken leg in the fall, but the rehab of the Cape Cod League home run derby participant has been faster than expected. Head coach Jake Boss says Bechina will start the season at the hot corner for Michigan State in a four-game set at Fresno State. How Bechina is used the rest of the weekend will be determined on a day-by-day instance, but having Bechina ready to go from day one is big for the hopes of Michigan State who seek to end a five-year NCAA Tournament drought. Also of note, Bechina’s teammate at St. Rita in Chicago, and in East Lansing, Danny Gleaves is fully healthy after having hip labrum surgery last year.