Expect a Roaring Twenties for the Big Ten

Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:

The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).

Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)

Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)

Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.

For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.

Then the 2010s happened.

And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.

The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.

Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.

The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.

Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?

Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.

After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.

So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.

In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.

And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)

The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.

Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.

 

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 1-10

The 2020s figure to have plenty in store for Big Ten baseball. Here’s the top 10 things to watch for and the storylines that figure to make the decade’s first season a memorable one. Click here for 11-20.

#10 Bolt is back

A captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, the program’s all-time leader in doubles, and the associate head coach to Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014, Will Bolt is back in Lincoln, now as the program’s 24th head coach. Following Erstad’s retirement, Bolt quickly emerged as the odds-on favorite to take over the Cornhusker program, and on June 14 he was selected to guide the program. In the first few years after Bolt left Erstad’s staff to join Rob Childress at Texas A&M, coaches around the conference spoke with relief as they felt Bolt was a significant factor in Nebraska being a pest to play. It’s hard to say Nebraska floundered in his absence, they did appear in regionals in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and won the Big Ten in 2017. But it did seem there was an element of Big Red’s attack that was missing. As Bolt returns, he inherits a team with more than enough talent to be in the top-half of the Big Ten. It will be worth watching how Nebraska takes the field this year and if the methodical, machine-like nature of the Husker lineup returns.

#9 Returning to the mound

There are several key arms returning to the mound that missed most or all of the 2019 season. Arms that have that the potential to be frontline starters, leading a conference-winning team or ready to take the ball in the first game of a regional. Headlining a return to the mound will be:

Illinois right-handed pitcher Ryan Kutt, missed all of last season

Maryland left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, limited to 15.2 innings

Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, missed all of last season.

Iowa left-handed pitcher Jack Dryer, appeared in just two games.

Michigan left-handed pitcher Steven Hajjar, missed all of last season.

Nebraska right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach, played in the field but did not pitch due to injury.

Purdue right-handed pitcher Trevor Cheaney, missed all of last season

#8 Ohio State’s weekend rotation

What a difference a year makes. Heading into the 2019 season, Ohio State needed to replace all three weekend starters. Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner and Adam Neimeyer each started at least 15 games for the Buckeyes in 2018. The consistent weekend rotation played a big role in Ohio State finishing the season in a regional. Relying on three underclassmen, Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith formed a new big three, as they too led Ohio State to a regional. Led by Smith, the lone true junior of the trio, each pitcher logged at least 90 innings, with Lonsway’s 92.1 innings and Burhenn’s 91, just behind Smith’s 96.2. As a redshirt-sophomore, Lonsway’s mid-90s fastball and sharp curveball has him garnering draft attention, attention that like will be garnered by Burhenn next year, when he is draft eligible as a junior. For now, a proven 1-2-3 weekend rotation is a big reason why the Buckeyes enter the season with a ranking, and gives head coach Greg Beals a foundation in seeking a fourth regional in five years.

#7 Rutgers’ postseason pursuit

Rutgers joined Penn State (see #19) last year as a team capable of going head-to-head against anyone on the mound only to fall short at the plate. The Scarlet Knights pitched to a 4.02 ERA in conference play, but batted only .226, and had league-worst marks in on-base percentage, .300, and slugging, .302. The offensive shortcomings halted Rutgers’ promising first-half of conference play, where they stood 7-5 at the mid-way mark. A 2-9 showing over the back-half of the conference slate ended hopes of reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, finishing in 10th. Unable to end the postseason drought, a change in leadership inserted Bryant’s Steve Owens as the program’s head coach. Owens takes over a program that returns the core of the strong pitching unit, with senior left-hander Tevin Murray, senior right-hander Tommy Genuario and junior right-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski all returning as weekend starters. There was some promise at the plate for Rutgers, led by Chris Brito, a sophomore first baseman with middle-of-the-order potential and and junior Mike Nyisztor. The question is now if Owens is the missing piece that gets the program over the hump and into postseason play.

#6 Underdog Hoosiers

It’s been a quite some time since the reigning Big Ten champion was not picked to be among the conference’s top three teams by pundits. But that’s the reality for Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers face, as the champions see Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State garner preseason rankings by various outlets. If one were to look at 2019 stats and  the roster holdovers and it’s not that surprising there is relatively little noise regarding the Hoosiers. IU did have 10 players drafted, where there won’t be the likes of Matt Lloyd and Matt Gorski anchoring the lineup, nor Pauly Milto providing seven strong innings every weekend. In fact Indiana needs to replace their entire weekend rotation (see above for an example on that not being a death penalty however), in addition to needing new two and three-hole hitters to emerge. But what can’t be captured on paper is the blue-collar mentality that embodies Mercer and his programs, dating back to his time as a coach at Wright State. In fact, Mercer may prefer that there are little expectations to allow IU to keep their head down and work hard. After all, few saw Mercer stepping in and doing something prior head coach Chris Lemonis didn’t do and win a conference championship.

#5 Minnesota’s ability to maximize Meyer

After bursting onto the scene with a 16-save season and All-America campaign as a freshman in 2018, John Anderson intended to return Max Meyer to his two-way roots last year. With considerable turnover at the plate, Anderson wanted Meyer’s bat at the plate and speed on the bases. Meyer did arrive at Minnesota as a standout shortstop in addition to a dominant pitcher. But with Minnesota needing Meyer’s arm fresh to close games, he would be utilized as a DH, maybe in left field if needed. Anderson’s plan changed when Meyer was needed to lead the Gopher rotation. Meyer pitched brilliantly, tossing 76.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA with 87 strikeouts. But Minnesota didn’t get his bat in the lineup as much as desired, with Meyer batting .256 over 121 at-bats. The Minnesota staff has been impressed with the development in Meyer’s bat and still see him as a capable threat at the plate. But knowing how Meyer excelled as an ace, showing he does have the stamina to be a #1, how far he is under or above last years 121 at-bats may be a sign of what’s happening around him, both on the mound and in the lineup, and ultimately the kind of team success Minnesota has. Meyer can do a lot, how he does it to fit the team’s needs remains to be seen.

#4 Day one drafts

A handful of Big Ten players have the ability to have their name called among the draft’s first 100 picks. Per Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, as of Jan. 8, the following Big Ten players were listed:

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Max Meyer, No. 29

Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, No. 53

Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, No. 93.

MLB.com respectively ranks Meyer, Criswell and Dingler as the draft’s No. 25, 52 and 55 prospects.

In addition to those three, Michigan outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwugo, and Ohio State left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway have a shot to go inside the first five rounds.

#3 Is this the year for multiple regional

In the current format of the NCAA Tournament, since 1999, there has yet to be a year when two Big Ten programs hosted a regional on its campus. The Big Ten produced two super regional clubs in 2015, but Maryland played at Virginia, in the Charlottesville Regional, after winning the Los Angeles Regional, while Illinois hosted Vanderbilt in the Champaign Super Regional. Coaches around the conference feel the next step in the Big Ten’s ascend is to host more regionals and more than one regional in a year. That will be a better path forward to more teams in a super regional and ultimately more teams reaching Omaha on a regular basis. As the Big Ten leaves the 2010s on a high, the first year of the 2020s may be the year to break another ceiling. Both Michigan and Minnesota have the schedules and pitching staffs to compile a season that has them as a regional host. Ohio State may not have as many marquee series as those two, but a preseason ranking of #24 has them in the mind of others as being on the cusp of hosting worthy. Hosting a regional takes the right blend of performance, luck and the dominoes falling accordingly around the country. But as we enter the season, this year more than any in recent memory is one where it might be just the year.

#2 Michigan’s great expectations

There seems to be an endless number of college baseball polls, in fact there are six. While there may be a half-dozen different compilations on who the top teams are, there is consensus that Michigan is one of the 20 best teams entering the season. Justly so. The Wolverines did finish one win shy of being national champions and return key players in the heart of the diamond, a top prospect atop the rotation, a proven closer, and two key arms return from injury. It would be odd if Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason. But entering the season ranked #8 by Baseball America means Michigan is expected to be back in Omaha. That puts Michigan in a much different position than just a team expected to be good. While every team has a goal to finish the year in Omaha, the lone team to have similar expectations, Indiana in 2014 with a preseason #3 ranking, did not make it out of a regional they hosted. Erik Bakich preaches mental toughness, to treat to each game the same, take every game one-by-one. Can Michigan adhere to that? The schedule is a tough one, with an opening game against #1 Vanderbilt and a contest at #3 Arizona State the following day. Early and often, Michigan will be tested and needing to bring its A-game. That will help the Wolverines lock in, but it will still be worth following how a team that fell so painfully short of the ultimate goal plays without pressure under a magnified scope.

#1 Ohio State and Michigan battling for supremacy

The April 12 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State is the top showdown to circle in the 2020. But how Michigan and Ohio State fare will be worth watching beyond that weekend. With a combined 50 Big Ten championships between them, the 2010s were the first decade that ended without the Buckeyes or Wolverines claiming the conference championship. How rare is that? It’s the first time that has ever been the case since Chicago won the first Big Ten baseball championship in 1896. (Chicago was the first power in the Big Ten, winning championships in 1896-99, of course the Big Ten only had four schools, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin at the time.) Of course both Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed success in the last five years of the 2010s. Michigan appeared in regionals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, while the Bucks reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, Ohio State did so in 2016 and 2019. The rest of the Big Ten is hardly feeling bad for the two rivals, and all but one school would have traded Michigan’s position last year. But there is something odd in Michigan going on a 12-year Big Ten championship drought and Ohio State an 11-year void. For the first time since the clubs were respectively led by Rich Maloney and Bob Todd, this feels like the year when Michigan and Ohio State are in lockstep in the standings and will jockey for the top position. For every top prospect Michigan has, Jeff Criswell, Jesse Franklin, it feels Ohio State can counter, see Seth Lonsway and Dillon Dingler. Michigan is coming off of a year where they finished on a torrid run. The Buckeyes weren’t impressed, they did take three of four games, including a one-hitter that put Michigan’s season on the brink. And there is the whole rivalry thing. On the gridiron, the Ohio State-Michigan game draws the nations attention. With a #8 next to Michigan’s name and a #24 next to Ohio State’s, the battle on the baseball field may do just the same. And it may propel the victor forward to a long-awaited title and the first claim to Big Ten supremacy in the new decade.

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 11-20

With five teams in last year’s NCAA Tournament, including the national runner-up, it’s safe to say Big Ten baseball is reaching new heights in modern college baseball. Entering a new season, and a new decade, there is a lot to look forward to. With new coaches leading three programs, two clubs breaking Baseball America’s preseason poll, and a handful of different players receiving preseason All-America praise, there are endless storylines around the conference as the calendar creeps towards February.

Kicking off 10 Innings’ preseason coverage, here is the first 10 of 20 things to watch through Big Ten baseball in 2020.

20. Northwestern overachieving, again

Let’s get this one out of the way. Spencer Allen’s Northwestern Wildcats will again exceed expectations in 2020. Northwestern painfully finished on the outside of the top eight last year, where a confluence of events, including a lightning delay, occurred on the final day to keep the ‘Cats home for the postseason. At 11-13 in Big Ten play, Northwestern finished one game behind a three-team tie for sixth. Per usual, few outside of Evanston expected Northwestern to hover near .500, they finished 24-27, and so is the case again this year. Perfect Game projects Northwestern to finish 12th, with D1Baseball.com slotting Northwestern 10th in their preseason table. Year over year Northwestern has been a tough out, and they aren’t too far removed from their 2017 Big Ten Tournament runner-up showing. They may still be a year away when it is all said and done, but don’t take the Wildcats as walk-overs, their history under Allen shows they’re anything but.

19. Will the Penn State pitchers get a little support

Focusing on a different breed of cats, will the Nittany Lions find some much-needed potency at the plate? Here’s a fun Did You Know: the Big Ten leader in team-ERA during conference play last season was….Penn State. In their 22 conference games, Penn State hurlers pitched to a 3.38 ERA and held the opposition to a .233 average. Unfortunately, .233 was still .015 better than what Penn State batters did at the plate in conference play. Last in average, PSU had the second-fewest stolen bases and third-fewest extra-base hits. The morbid offense play a significant role in Penn State going 0-8 in one-run conference games, as they were held to two or fewer runs in half of their 22 Big Ten games. Pitching coach Josh Newman has done wonders with the PSU arms. Now it’s time for Penn State to supplement their staff with some punch at the plate.

18. Better January weather = better February records?

The first day of team practice for the spring season came on Jan. 24. For more than a few schools the weather was favorable enough to escape indoor tunnels and facilities to practice outside. So far through the last week of January, the conditions have similarly held up. With the likes of Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers taking advantage and repeatedly practicing outside, will practicing in truer settings lead help them get out of the gates better? Of course, since this is the Big Ten, any reprieve in weather in January will lead to unwelcome conditions throughout April.

17. This year’s JUCO star

Two of the last three Big Ten Player of the Year winners have been players in their first Big Ten season after transferring from a junior college, Iowa’s Jake Adams in 2017 and Michigan’s Jordan Brewer last year. The JUCO ranks have played quite a role in the Big Ten’s upward trend over the last decade with the likes of Matt Lloyd, Mason McCoy, Noah McGowan, Jordan Parr and Tyler Peyton being key players in strong years for their respective clubs. Will there be another player that seemingly comes out of nowhere to take the conference by storm that was playing at a junior college last year? Likely so, but who will it be?

16. Fredrickson’s form

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson didn’t come from the junior college ranks, but he was a newcomer that had a banner season two years ago. Becoming the first freshman named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Fredrickson spurred Minnesota to the 2018 Big Ten championship and Corvallis Super Regional appearance. Looking to join Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers as back-to-back Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recipients, Fredrickson battled injury and his stuff backing up last year, en route to a 5.56 ERA with 30 walks in 43.2 innings. The Gopher staff has worked this offseason to tweak Fredrickson’s motion, making it shorter, to increase his command of his offspeed. If Fredrickson can return to his 2018 form, that will go a long way in the Gophers doing the same, and putting their 29-27 season far behind them.

15. Maryland’s ballyhooed freshmen

Per D1Baseball.com, Maryland is home to the #3, #8 and #10 “Impact Freshmen” in the Big Ten, as well as four of the top 16 and five of the top 20. Viewing the freshmen as one, D1Baseball.com and Prep Baseball Report ranked Maryland as having the #7 freshman class in the country. Will the hype turn into a happy College Park? As Fredrickson and classmate Max Meyer showed in 2018, a pair of extremely talented rookies can make quite the impact. It’s worth watching what kind of seasons right-handed pitcher Nick Dean, and outfielders Bobby Zmarzlak and Tucker Flint have with high expectations.

14. Illini arms under Allen

After eight seasons developing and leading Illinois’ pitchers, assistant coach Drew Dickinson moved on to become the pitching coach at Virginia. Illini pitchers experienced tremendous success under Dickinson’s watch, most notably Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock, respectively the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2015 and 2016. A testament to Dickinson, himself the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2002, neither Jay nor Sedlock, two eventual first-round draft picks, were blue chip recruits before arrive in Champaign and developing under Dickinson’s guidance, nor was Garrett Acton, last year’s Big Ten-leader in saves with 19, tied for the most ever by a Big Ten pitcher. It will now be up to Mark Allen to coach up and deploy Acton and the rest of the Illini staff as he sees fit. Allen arrives in Champaign after serving as the pitching coordinator for the San Francisco Giants, ending a nine-year stay in professional baseball.

13. The 2020 iteration of #Hellerball

Iowa has been at the forefront of learning and implementing data, utilizing enhanced technology and thinking outside of the box in player development. Which might be exactly why nobody can really say what #Hellerball is. Playing off of the name of head coach Rick Heller, #Hellerball doesn’t really represent any style of baseball. And that in itself is probably the Iowa way. The Hawkeyes do an incredible job of creating an identity around the abilities and talents of their players. In years where you have Jake Adams, Mason McCoy and Robert Neustrom, you don’t have to put as much in action, execute every first-to-third perfectly and be terrors on the bases. In years where there isn’t that punch in the lineup, you do need to do all of those things in order to create runs. Every year it seems Iowa finds a way to squeeze as much out of their players as any, continue to refine their process of player development. It’s to be determined what type of outfit Iowa rolls out in 2020, but whatever version of #Hellerball it is, it will likely optimize the talents on the lineup.

12. Big Ten vs. Big XII

There are a few Big Ten vs. Big XII matchups that will be worth watching in 2020. Over the last five years, the Big Ten has produced 22 NCAA Tournament teams to the Big XII’s 23. The conferences are closer in quality than many might assume. These five showdowns will give the Big Ten an opportunity to solidify that sentiment.

Nebraska @ Baylor, Feb. 14-16

TCU @ Minnesota, Feb. 22-24

Iowa vs. Kansas, March 10-11

Maryland @ TCU, March 13-15

Minnesota @ Texas Tech, March 20-22

11. Goff at the helm of the Boilermaker engine

Greg Goff will enter his first season leading a Big Ten program unlike any other in recent years. Purdue is only two years removed from appearing in an NCAA Regional. In recent years when a coach has left a program that so soon removed from a regional, they’ve left the program in a great spot. Coming off of hosting the 2014 Bloomington Regional, Indiana’s Tracy Smith left to go to Arizona State and then Chris Lemonis had the Hoosiers in a regional the following year. Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to the 2018 Austin Regional, before leaving to go head Mississippi State’s program, which led to Jeff Mercer stepping in and doing something Lemonis didn’t in leading IU to a Big Ten title, before he also put IU in a regional. But as Mark Wasikowski left Purdue to be the head coach at Oregon, he is did so after the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and 12th in the conference. For coaches that stepped into a setting where they’re program is coming of such a finish, they are usually an entirely new staff entering an unknown environment. Greg Goff was on Wasikowski’s staff, so too was Cooper Fouts, who Goff retain. So all that said, it’s really hard to know what may change under Goff, whether Purdue needs a rebuild, if they’re more like 2018 or more like 2019. We shall see.

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.

Minnesota Tabbed Big Ten Baseball Favorite

Rosement, Ill. – Minnesota was voted the preseason favorite to claim the 2019 Big Ten Baseball Championship as selected by the conference coaches and announced on Wednesday. The coaches voted on the top six teams and also selected three students from their own squads to a Preseason Honors list. The Gophers were followed in the preseason poll by Michigan in second place, No. 3 Illinois, Indiana in fourth place, No. 5 Ohio State and Nebraska and Purdue tied for sixth place.

The Golden Gophers posted a 44-15 record last year en route to their 24th Big Ten Championship, the 2018 Big Ten Tournament Championship and an NCAA Super Regional berth. The Gophers became the first team since 2014 (Indiana) to win both the regular season and tournament titles in the same year. Minnesota is led into 2019 by preseason honorees pitcher Patrick Fredrickson, pitcher and outfielder Max Meyer and outfielder Ben Mezzenga. Fredrickson, the 2018 Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year, finished with a team-best 9-0 record and 73 strikeouts while leading the rotation with a 1.86 ERA, while first-team All-Big Ten honoree Meyer tied the program record with 16 saves while posting a 2.06 ERA. Mezzenga played in all 59 games and led the team with a .466 on-base percentage, while finishing second on the team with a .383 batting average.

The Wolverines finished 2018 with a 33-21 overall record. Last season, Dominic Clementi led the Wolverines with a .368 batting average and earned an All-Big Ten Conference First-Team selection, while Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwogu captured All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors to go with numerous freshman All-America accolades. Franklin finished the season with a team-leading .588 slugging percentage and 10 home runs, while Nwogu posted a .349 batting average with a .571 slugging percentage and a .442 on-base percentage.

The Fighting Illini reached the Big Ten Tournament semifinals in 2018, finishing the year with a 33-20 overall record. Among Illinois’ preseason honorees is Michael Massey, the 2018 ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner for second base, who finished the year with 166 assists and a .996 fielding percentage. Left-handed pitcher Andy Fisher, who went 6-3 on the year with a 3.96 ERA in 15 appearances, appears on the list of honorees along with right-handed pitcher Quinn Snarskis, who went 6-1 on the season with a 2.84 ERA in 73 innings pitched.

Indiana accumulated a 40-19 overall record a year ago and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year and eighth time overall. Among the Hoosiers’ preseason honorees are First-Team All-Big Ten selections Matt Gorski and Matt Lloyd, and transfer right-handed pitcher Tanner Gordon. Gorski led the Hoosiers in batting average (.356), hits (79) and total bases (123), while Lloyd threw 23.1 innings, striking out 22 batters and only allowing four earned runs, ending the season with a 4-2 record, seven saves, and a 1.54 ERA.

Ohio State finished the 2018 season with a 36-24 record and the team’s 21st appearance in the NCAA Tournament and second in the past three seasons. The Buckeyes return junior outfielder Dominic Canzone, sophomore catcher Dillon Dingler and junior first baseman Conner Pohl. Canzone finished second in the Big Ten in hits (80), fourth in doubles (18) and sixth in runs scored (51) last year, while Dingler batted .244 with 31 runs scored, 21 walks and 17 RBI in 53 games. Pohl, a Third-Team All-Big Ten honoree, batted .279 (64-for-229) with 41 runs scored, five doubles, seven home runs, 49 RBI and 36 walks in 60 starts last season.

Nebraska posted a 24-28 record last year and are led into 2019 by preseason honorees shortstop Angelo Altavilla, right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann and infielder/catcher Luke Roskam. Last season, Altavilla started 46 of his 48 appearances with 32 starts at shortstop, 12 starts at third base and two starts as the designated hitter, while ranking in the top five on the team in runs scored (35), RBIs (28) and walks (30). Roskam led the Huskers in walks (34), while ranking third in home runs (5), RBIs (46) and total bases (82). Luensmann returns this season after having Tommy John surgery last year.

Purdue made its third appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season and the first since 2012, finishing with a 38-21 record. The Boilermakers return junior outfielder Skyler Hunter and sophomore outfielder Ben Nisle, while welcoming a transfer catcher in Zac Fascia. Hunter started all 59 games for the Boilermakers and led the team in hits (78) for the second year in a row, while Nisle batted .304 with 28 runs scored, seven home runs and 43 RBI in 58 games.

The 2019 Big Ten baseball season is set to begin on Friday, Feb. 15. The preseason poll, featuring the top six teams, and the complete Preseason Honors list can be found below.

2019 BIG TEN BASEBALL PRESEASON POLL (top six teams and ties)

1 Minnesota

2 Michigan

3 Illinois

4 Indiana

5 Ohio State

6 Nebraska

6 Purdue

 

2019 BIG TEN BASEBALL PRESEASON HONORS LIST

Andy Fisher, LHP, Sr., Illinois

Michael Massey, 2B, Jr., Illinois

Quinn Snarskis, RHP, Sr., Illinois

Tanner Gordon, RHP, Jr., Indiana

Matt Gorski, OF, Jr., Indiana

Matt Lloyd, UTIL/RHP, Sr., Indiana

Jack Dreyer, LHP, So., Iowa

Cole McDonald, RHP, Sr., Iowa

Chris Whelan, OF, Sr., Iowa

AJ Lee, SS, Sr., Maryland

John Murphy, RHP, Sr., Maryland

Hunter Parsons, RHP, Sr., Maryland

Dominic Clementi, DH, Jr., Michigan

Jesse Franklin, OF, So., Michigan

Jordan Nwogu, OF, So., Michigan

Marty Bechina, SS, Sr., Michigan State

Indigo Diaz, RHP, Jr., Michigan State

Mason Erla, RHP, So., Michigan State

Patrick Fredrickson, RHP, So., Minnesota

Max Meyer, RHP/OF, So., Minnesota

Ben Mezzenga, OF, Sr., Minnesota

Angelo Altavilla, SS, Sr., Nebraska

Chad Luensmann, RHP, Jr., Nebraska

Luke Roskam, C/INF, Jr., Nebraska

Hank Christie, RHP, Jr., Northwestern

Jack Dunn, SS, Sr., Northwestern

Alex Erro, 2B, Jr., Northwestern

Dominic Canzone, OF, Jr., Ohio State

Dillon Dingler, C, So., Ohio State

Conner Pohl, 1B, Jr., Ohio State

Dante Biasi, LHP, So., Penn State

Parker Hendershot, DH/IF, So., Penn State

Ryan Sloniger, C, Sr., Penn State

Zac Fascia, C, Jr., Purdue

Skyler Hunter, OF, Jr., Purdue

Ben Nisle, OF, So., Purdue

Mike Nyisztor, OF, So., Rutgers

Harry Rutkowski, LHP, So., Rutgers

Kevin Welsh, INF, Jr., Rutgers

Meyer named to Golden Spikes watch list

Durham, N.C. – Preseason recognition continues to roll in for Minnesota sophomore Max Meyer as Thursday, USA Baseball named the pitcher/outfielder to the official preseason watch list for its Golden Spikes Award for the top amateur baseball player in the country.

Meyer is just the second Golden Gopher to achieve preseason recognition in the 42-year history of the award with Tom Windle (’13) the last to earn the honor in 2013.

Meyer competed with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team this past summer, collecting seven saves in eight appearances. He led the way for Team USA, striking out 15 batters in just 8.0 innings. Meyer has received Preseason All-America recognition from Collegiate Baseball News, D1Baseball.com, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA), and Perfect Game already in 2019.

The right-hander from Woodbury, Minnesota will expand his role this spring, competing in the outfield while also anchoring the Maroon & Gold bullpen. Last year, he matched Minnesota’s program record with 16 saves in 26 appearances, posting a 2.06 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. He allowed less than one baserunner per inning (0.94), holding opponents to just a .163 batting average. After collecting the third-most saves in the nation last year, Meyer earned the title of Freshman Relief Pitcher of the Year from Collegiate Baseball and helped the Gophers win the NCAA Minneapolis Regional.

The list contains 55 student athletes representing 44 universities and 18 conferences including 2018 Golden Spikes Award winner Andrew Vaughn of California. A midseason watch list follows on April 10 with semifinalists announced on May 15. At that time, fans will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite players at GoldenSpikesAward.com.

Trending Topics: Week 1

It was quite the weekend for Big Ten baseball teams, as action spanned the country from Miami, Fla., to Riverside, Calif. There were outstanding individual honors, like pitchers Grant Judkins of Iowa and Ohio State’s Garrett Burhenn, respectively logging a no-hit outing and flirting with perfection. A handful of teams sport spotless records: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And there were also a few surprises on the not as pleasant side, such as Minnesota losing to New Mexico and Oregon State by a combined score of 24-2 and Purdue and Rutgers concluding the opening weekend without a win.

Going beyond the scoreboard and box scores, the first of a weekly staple, Trending Topics, looks at five observations from the weekend that are either sending a team to success or holding them back.

Seniors stepping up

It’s hard to quantify, but ask any coach and there is something to draftitis affecting players over their junior year. Players who aren’t slam dunk draft picks, players with premium tools whose stock depends on production, time and time again press and scuffle, ultimately playing their way out of the draft. Then, when seniors, and facing the possibility of playing baseball competitively for the last time, no longer worrying about the draft just embracing the moment, an all-conference season unfolds.

The opening weekend showed there may be a few players who have strong senior seasons after watching their draft stock come and go, relaxed and just having the game come to them. Here’s a look at a few of those players, players who may end up having a significant say in how their team fares with them in the heart of the order.

Illinois OF Zac Taylor: 6-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5-5 SB-ATT

Indiana OF Logan Kaletha: 4-for-11, 2B

Maryland 3B Taylor Wright: 4-for-11

Michigan 1B Jimmy Kerr: 4-for-13, 2B, HR, 4 RBI

Ohio State LF Brady Cherry: 7-for-14, 2 2B, 2 HR

Buckeyes limit freebies

Although Ohio State went 36-24 and participated in the Greenville Regional last year, the Buckeyes were far from a well-oiled machine.

In 60 games, Ohio State’s defense committed 94 errors, more than 1.5 per contest and a whopping 20 more than the next closet team, leading to a Big Ten-worst .959 fielding percentage. The extra outs the Buckeyes gave the opposition were in addition to Ohio State hurlers hitting 77 batters, the most in the Big Ten, stood alongside surrendering 590 hits, also the most in the conference. A team that gives up a lot of hits, hits a lot of batters and routinely falls to play a clean game is far from the way Greg Beals wants his team to perform, regional or not.

Through the first weekend of the 2019 season, the Buckeyes have cleaned up their act.

Opening 4-0 for just the third time since 2010, Ohio State’s defense committed just two errors, for a .986 fielding percentage. Ohio State pitchers plunked only two batters, while walking just five hitters. As Ohio State breaks in an entirely new rotation, eliminating free passes, extra bases, and forced to record extra outs will go a long way in helping the Bucks reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03.

Huskers on the attack

Although Nebraska batted .274 in 2018, good for sixth in the conference, and scored 6.48 runs per contest, there was notable chatter on social media around the Huskers revolved around the offense. It is true Nebraska will no longer have the services of Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening, the team’s two leading batters who combined for 56 extra-base hits and 27 of the team’s 47 home runs. So on paper there is a noticeable void in power, but when looking back at Nebraska’s best teams under Erstad, they were never ones to so much power.

Take 2014, when Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten and participated in a regional. The Huskers batted .293 with only 19 homers. By comparison, Schreiber hit 18 by himself last year.

In 2016, another year in a regional, Nebraska batted .281 with 43 home runs.

Then, in 2017, when the Huskers won the Big Ten, the team held its .281 average but this time with just 25 home runs.

With Erstad leading the way, when Nebraska’s offense is at its best, it’s when every batter, 1-9, has a methodical approach of fouling balls off until one can be barreled, puts consistent pressure on the opponent, are aggressive with dirt ball reads, takes the extra 90 feet and squeezes the life out of the opposition.

In taking three of four games from UC Riverside, it appears Nebraska’s offense is getting back to that.

While it’s unlikely the team will bat .347 for the course of the season, there were 27 walks drawn in four games, 10 doubles, nine stolen bases and the team was able to generate 47 runs without needing to drop a sacrifice bunt, relying on three sac flies.

The key to Nebraska in 2019 isn’t necessarily who replaces the thump of Schreiber and Wilkening, it’s more who becomes the next Chad Christensen, Pat Kelly, Jake Meyers or Michael Pritchard, guys who did all of the little things that added up to a potent offense.

Did Minnesota’s superb defense graduate, too?

Picked by conference coaches to defend their Big Ten title, a lot of Minnesota’s expected success stems from their pitching staff. Last year, Minnesota pitched to a 3.20 ERA, a mark lowered to a conference-best 2.64 in Big Ten games. With the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson back in his Saturday role for his sophomore season, fellow all-american and classmate Max Meyer resuming his closing duties, and many capable high-ceiling arms back, such as Joshua Culliver, Jeff Fasching, Bubba Horton and Brett Schultz, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Gophers on the mound.

But the expected strength of the team falling on the pitching staff was also in part due to the graduation of multiple starters with at least three years of starting under their belt: Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and arguably the Big Ten’s best two-way player in Terrin Varva. Any concern regarding Minnesota would be on how John Anderson and staff would replace the key contributors at the plate,

After a rocky opening weekend, the real concern may be how does Minnesota replace the quintet in the field.

In addition to the second-best ERA, Minnesota had the second-best fielding percentage among Big Ten teams. With a .977 fielding percentage, Minnesota committed just 52 errors over 59 games. In 2017 Minnesota had a .978 fielding percentage, committing 47 errors in 57 games, and in 2016 the Gophers fielded at a .980 mark, with 43 errors in 56 games.

In four games in Arizona, Minnesota committed six errors, including four in Saturday’s 11-1 defeat to New Mexico. Each error in Saturday’s game came from a position where Minnesota last a starter, with the weekend’s six errors leading to nine unearned runs.

Now, it was opening weekend. It was Minnesota’s first time being outside on a baseball field since the fall, and young players need time to adjust to the speed of the game. But Minnesota’s pitchers are only as good as the defense behind them, and if too many extra bases and extra outs are provided to the opponents, it won’t matter what the Gophers do or don’t do at the plate.

Hawkkkkkeyes ring them up

When your former pitching coach is hired away by the Yankees for a position called Director of Pitch Development, a position created exclusively for him, chances are your pitchers were working with one of the best in the business as they perfected their craft. The results from Iowa’s three games over opening weekend would support that.

Although Iowa’s former pitcher coach Desi Druschel was behind the plate, taking in Saturday’s games as a bystander and not participant, his work with the Hawkeye pitchers was on display.

Against George Mason, Pitt and Marshall, Hawkeye pitchers were on the mound for 26 innings. In that time, Iowa struck out 41 batters. Jack Dreyer started the parade of eye-popping numbers with a 10-strikeout showing in 5.1 innings on Saturday against the Panthers. Less than 24 hours later, Grant Judkins grabbed the Big Ten lead in punch outs with 11, in six innings against the Thundering Herd. With relievers in tow, Iowa’s game totals for strikeouts were: 10, 15 and 16.

The 41 strikeouts helped Iowa hold the opposition to a .114 batting average, 10 hits in 88 at-bats. The 20 walks are an issue to address, but Iowa’s 14.19 K/9 showing through one weekend is impressive. In case you’re wondering, that would be 795 over a 56-game schedule. The Big Ten record is 549, set by Maryland in 2015.

Big Ten baseball’s 19 things to look forward to in ’19

The next time the calendar reads the 15th, it will be opening day for the Division I college baseball season.

Although teams are still a little more than a week for holding spring practice, the upcoming season is getting closer and closer, it’s time to focus on the 2019 version of the Road to Omaha.

Kicking off preseason coverage, what is 10 Innings looking forward to most this season? Here’s 19 things to look forward to over the 2019 campaign.

1) Does Minnesota cement its dynasty?

The reigning Big Ten champions had a season for the ages in 2018, appearing in a super regional for the first time in program history. (Minnesota had reached the College World Series before the current NCAA Tournament format.) Going 44-15, the Gophers claimed a second Big Ten title in three years. Every five years or so, the Big Ten sees a program jump to the front of the pack and run off with multiple titles in a short window. Before Indiana went back-to-back in 2013-14, Michigan claimed three straight from 2006-08. At the turn of the millennium, Minnesota were Big Ten champs from 2002-04. And going on 25 years now, Ohio State finished atop the Big Ten standings for five straight seasons, starting in 1991. With a deeper returning lineup than many may believe, and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the conference, and a challenging pre-conference schedule to lead the Gophers into the Big Ten battle-tested, is another title in store, cementing Minnesota as the dominant program of the 2000’s second decade?

 

2) Will there be another 20-home run star?

Etching his name into the Big Ten record book, Jake Adams’ lone season at Iowa was historic, grabbing the nation’s attention with a 29-home run season in 2017. The record appeared to be in danger less than a year later as Illinois’ Bren Spillane opened the 2018 season on a historic tear. An ankle injury saw the Illini first basemen miss a few games in the middle of the season, slowing his momentum, forcing Spillane to finish with only 23 home runs. Will the 2019 season have another slugger emerge and rewrite school records in the process? Michigan’s Jesse Franklin is the conference’s returning home run leader with 10, but’s worth nothing he was able to reach double digits as a freshman.

 

3) Mercer’s homecoming

On their third coach in five years, Indiana will see if the highs over the last decade can be carried over into next one. And if that’s the case, it’s likely first-year head coach Jeff Mercer will be the lone Hoosier head coach for a long, long time. Mercer, an Indiana native, is now in charge of steering the baseball program he’s always dreamed of leading. After two strong years at Wright State, leading the program current Penn State coach Rob Cooper built up, Mercer brings leads an All-Indiana staff to a program he’s determined to make Indiana’s signature college baseball team. Indiana returns a strong roster from last year’s Austin Regional runners-up team, and are now lead by a coach viewed as one of college baseball’s top young coaches. Putting it all together, does 2019 become a very special season in Mercer’s homecoming?

 

4) March 6-8 tournaments

If you’re looking to get a pretty big bang for your buck with a jam-packed Big Ten weekend, March 6-8 is a weekend to circle. On opposite coasts, a pair of tournaments have two Big Ten teams participating, and a third tournament features some bluebloods of college baseball. Circle this weekend and watch the fun unfold, especially in the Pacific Northwest where two of the Big Ten’s expected top teams can go a long way in show they’re also two of the country’s top teams.

Dodgertown College Baseball Classic

Michigan @ UCLA, @ USC, vs. Oklahoma State

Greenville Drive 1st Pitch Invitational

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, Ohio State, Furman, Appalachian State

Ohio State vs. Furman, Michigan State, Western Carolina

Seattle Baseball Showcase

Indiana vs. Washington, Oregon State, San Diego

Minnesota vs. Oregon State, San Diego, Washington

 

5) Who bounces back?

Five key players I want to see if there is a bounceback season in 2019, players team will ask a lot of, after struggling in 2018:

Nebraska senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla

Penn State junior left-handed pitcher Dante Biasi

Maryland senior shortstop AJ Lee

Michigan senior second baseman Ako Thomas

Illinois senior outfielder Jack Yalowitz

 

6) Seeing if Rutgers takes the next step

The 2019 season will be Rutgers fifth as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights are 0-for-4 in participating in a Big Ten Tournament. But after a staff shakeup, 2018 saw progress for Joe Literrio’s club. Rutgers went 25-25 on the season, a seven and one-half game improvement over the 2017 season, and finished at least .500 for the first time since 2014. Now the onus is for Rutgers to avoid unraveling in the Big Ten. On April 11, Rutgers was 18-11 overall and claimed Big Ten wins over Penn State and Michigan State before finishing 7-14. Literrio has worked to increase the talent level in Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights should have one of its better rosters going back to Todd Fraizer’s days. Now it’s time to see if potential meets production and Rutgers takes the next step and shows they are ready to meet the Big Ten’s upward trend.

 

7) Max Meyer at the plate

Armed with a weapon of a wipeout slider, Minnesota closer Max Meyer pitched his way to All-America honors and onto USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018. It doesn’t hurt Meyer’s fastball can comfortably sit in the mid-90s, too. But for everything he did and can do on the mound, Meyer arrived in Minnesota as a two-way player. The dominance Meyer exhibited on the mound as a freshman took the bat out of his hands after 30 at-bats,. But the Gophers are set to unleash the two-way Meyer this spring. Either in left field or at DH, Meyer was a high school shortstop but he will not see the infield to keep his arm fresh, Minnesota plans to insert Meyer in the heart of their lineup. With Meyer focusing just on hitting and baserunning this fall, reports out of Minneapolis were glowing. The Gopher staff believes Meyer has just as much potential at the plate as Matt Fieller showed in 2016, when that two-way Gopher batted .366 and slugged .525 en route to honor Big Ten Player of the Year honors. If that’s the case, the most dynamic player in the country may be Meyer.

 

8) Purdue as a hunted

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski has garnered national attention for the job he has done in West Lafayette. And it’s certainly just praise. It took only two years to take Purdue from the Big Ten’s basement and into a regional. The Boilermakers did not hide that they used preseason predictions of finishing outside of the Big Ten’s top six for motivation. But now, after finishing second in the conference and drawing slaps on the back and repeated praise, is the same hunger there? How Purdue fares this year, and if there is sustained success now and in the years to come, may be more indicative of Wasikowski’s coaching ability than last season. With high expectations, does Purdue keep moving along?

 

9) Is this the year Michigan finishes strong?

Michigan enters the season as Big Ten favorites by national outlets, and ranked in some polls. The Wolverines are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and many predict them to do so. But is this the year that Erik Bakich’s team finishes May with a head of momentum? A 2-9 finish to the 2016 cost U-M a potential NCAA Tournament berth, as did last year’s 2-7 swoon to conclude the season. And in the year Michigan did play in a regional, the Wolverines went 0-2, that on the heels of an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has won 111 games over the last three seasons, nothing at all to sneeze at, the how each season has finished has left more to be desired out of Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are set to have a number beside their name to open the season, will they have one with the final out is recorded?

 

10) Seth Lonsway’s debut

Before Patrick Fredrickson and Meyer helped guided Minnesota to a top 10 finish, the freshman pitcher expected to turn heads was Ohio State southpaw Seth Lonsway. Able to run it into the mid-90s, and turning down a six-figure offer from the Cincinnati Reds to head to Columbus, Lonsway was the Big Ten’s top recruit according to Baseball America. But how a high school course was registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse prevented Lonsway to being eligible as a freshman, unable to contribute to Ohio State’s regional-bound club. Now, with the Buckeyes needing to replace their entire rotation, the time couldn’t be better for Lonsway to debut and hopefully be the impact, blue-chip prospect Greg Beals needs as the Bucks seek a third regional in four years.

 

11) A dynamic freshman class

More and more, freshman are making a big impact in the Big Ten, and this year figures to be no different. Ohio State is set to rely on a quartet of freshman arms, in addition to Lonsway, as they seek to end a 10-year title drought. Illinois has a ballyhooed recruiting class, with high-ceiling rookies at catcher (Jacob Campbell), shortstop (Branden Comia), and on the mound (Aidan Maldonando). Nebraska shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach may by the most dynamic freshman Nebraska’s had as a Big Ten member, while teammates Bo Blessie and Colby Gomes headed to Lincoln after esteemed prep careers. Maryland sees a bright future in Maxwell Costes, the younger brother of former standout Marty. Minnesota likes their freshman haul, Michigan has another banner coast-to-coast class, as do in-state peer Michigan State. Gone are the days of seeing teams rely on upperclassmen to lead them to titles and into the postseason. Freshman are continually being expected to contributor in key roles and this year’s crop should have plenty that step up and do just that.

 

12) Will ninth innings being a collective roller coaster?

Last year, five Big Ten closers recorded at least 13 saves:

Minnesota’s Max Meyer- 16

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker- 15

Purdue’s Ross Learnard- 15

Illinois’ Joey Gerber- 14

Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee- 13.

Only Meyer returns. Iowa and Michigan will also be without their saves leader in 2018, forcing at least half of the Big Ten’s ninth-inning duties up for grabs around the conference. As Meyer, Kinker and Learnard were on teams playing the in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly helps Omaha-aspiring teams to have a stopped at the end of the bullpen. Who will step up in those roles this year, or will everyone but John Anderson be on edge as the last few outs are attempted to be recorded?

 

13) High how does Matt Gorski’s draft stock rise?

One of the best all-around Big Ten prospects of the last five years, Indiana’s Matt Gorski has shown an ability to play multiple positions, run, get on base and hit with pop. Entering the season as the top positional Big Ten prospect in a quick, by way of a quick informal poll of scouts, just how high can Gorski’s stock rise? In 2016, Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt and Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson were the respective 53rd and 62nd overall picks of the draft, can Gorski go higher? Before those two, other high outfield draft picks include Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre, 62nd in 2010 and Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka, 33rd in 2009.

 

14) More Big Ten/Pac-12 showdowns

The Big Ten and Pac-12 split 28 games last season; a 12-12 draw in the regular season, before Minnesota twice beat UCLA in the Minneapolis Regional, then twice falling to eventual national champion Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Although there is not a Big Ten/Pac-12 / DQ Classic this year, the 2019 schedule is still loaded with contests between the two Rose Bowl-linked conferences that should make for fun viewing. In additional to the March 6-8 tournaments keep an eye on:

Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Feb. 21-24

Michigan State @ Arizona State, March 1-3

Arizona State @ Nebraska, May 10-12

Arizona @ Penn State, May 16-18

 

15) And marquee Big Ten-Big XII series

And it’s not just the Pac-12 that the Big Ten has quite the buffet of contests against. These five series versus Big XII schools have the potential to be resume bullets come NCAA Tournament selection time.

Purdue @ Texas, Feb. 22-24

Iowa @ Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Baylor @ Nebraska, March 8-10

Michigan @ Texas Tech, March 21-23

Oklahoma @ Minnesota, April 19-21

 

16) Illinois’ ability to repeat history

Taking a short trip down memory lane, Illinois should have been in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Going 32-21 overall, and 17-7 in the Big Ten, the Illini put together an NCAA-worthy resume, including a sweep of SEC champion Florida, scoring 11 runs against one in two contests against the Gators. But Dan Hartleb’s team was only good enough to be one of the first teams outside the field of 64 in the eyes of the selection committee. That snub helped fuel the fire of Illinois in 2015, as the Illini blitzed the Big Ten, winning 21 of 22 games, put together a 27-game winning streak, earned the No. 6 national seed and hosted the program’s first super regional. Now, after Illinois was one of the first teams outside of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, returns their entire rotation and six starters, is history set to repeat itself and a pissed off Orange and Blue club leaves no doubt of its regional worthiness?

 

17) Patrick Fredrickson’s encore

In the 25 seasons of the Big Ten naming a Pitcher of the Year, only once has a pitcher earned the honor in two consecutive seasons: Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers, 2009-2010. There has also been another one-time feat, that is of a freshman claiming the title, which happened last year as Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was name the top freshman and pitcher in the conference. With a Big Ten-best 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson turned in a perfect 9-0 season and seemingly turned heads every weekend, brilliant from start to finish. Now that Big Ten batters will have their second go at the lanky righty, can he keep opposing batters to a .209 batting average? Is another All-America season in store? Few will have had the expectations that are being placed on Fredrickson heading into year two, it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to them and resets an already high bar.

 

18) Can the Big Ten host multiple regionals?

For all of the postseason progress the Big Ten has made over the last half-dozen years-a team in Omaha, multiple national seeds, three different regional hosts, multiple years with at least five regional participants and four different super regional participants-one accomplishment has remained outside of the conference’s grasp: multiple regional hosts. Under the NCAA Tournament’s current format, never have two Big Ten programs hosted a regional in the same tournament. With the conference sending at least three teams to the tournament in every year since 2015, it seems it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Will the 20th anniversary of the current format of the 64-team tournament be the year it happens?

 

19) The end of winter

Just kidding, this is the Big Ten, prepare for a mid-April cancellation to due cold temperatures and snow. And just as the Midwest and East Coast is blanketed in a fresh cover of snow, it’s time to welcome to the college baseball season.

The best recruiting classes from 2010-2014

There’s still a few Big Ten programs yet to start their fall practice season. But for most, new faces are mixing with returning places as rosters start to take shape with the 2019 season in mind.

As the talent across the Big Ten continues to get better and deep year over year, many freshmen will arrive to campus and put on their school’s colors with prodigious accolades from their prep days, with a few having the honor of being selected in the MLB Draft. The past of a freshman makes it easier to fill out bios and for outside publications to compile all of the freshmen who compose a recruiting class, list them next to each other, and proclaim who has the best recruiting class. But when the time comes to step into the batter’s box or toe the rubber, what was done in high school means little.

Instead, we think it’s best to allow a recruiting to have their four-year window on campus come to pass, in order to compare and determine who had the best. Here, before fall practice has commenced throughout the conference, and a sense of who may be a standout can fully form, 10 Innings looks at the top recruiting class over the last five years in the Big Ten.

To note, more emphasis was placed on individual success, believing that while one recruiting class can drastically change the fortunes of a program, the success of a team in any given year is made up of four recruiting classes. Also, recruiting classes were based on who was a freshman on campus in the fall of their high school graduating year. This would, for example, exclude considering Scott Donley as a part of Indiana’s class of 2011, as he was a transfer from Virginia Tech. Finally, the first classes for Maryland and Rutgers to have spent all four years in the Big Ten would have been 2014, four-year graduates of this past spring.

So with history on our side which program had the top recruiting class over the last five years?

2010- Indiana

Key players: Dustin DeMuth, Joey DeNato, Ryan Halstead, Aaron Slegers

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 153-82 overall, 65-31 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: DeNato. 2011 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: DeMuth, DeNato, Halstead. 2013 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Slegers. 2014 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: DeNato.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 7

Highest draft pick: Slegers, fifth round, 140th overall, 2013.

Why them? This class was the foundation of teams that helped Indiana lead the change in conversation regarding Big Ten baseball. The following year’s recruiting class drew the headlines, covered magazines and have two MLBers, but this is the class that was necessary to take Indiana into college baseball’s upper echelon. A four-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, holding the school record for innings, strikeouts and wins. Slegers’ 2013 campaign was quietly dominant. DeMuth litters the Indiana record book, and Halstead was a rock of a reliever at the back of the IU bullpen for their two regional clubs. Arriving to campus two years after Indiana broke through and won the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, this group pushed IU over the top.

 

2011- Indiana

Key players: Kyle Hart, Luke Harrison, Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013, 2014 Big Ten champions. 2013, 2014 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2013 Bloomington Regional champions. 2013 College World Series. 2014 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2015 NCAA Tournament. 158-81 overall, 66-28 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Travis. 2012 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Chad Clark, Hart, Schwarber, Chris Sujka, Travis. 2013 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Travis. 2013 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Schwarber, Travis. 2014 Big Ten Player of the Year: Travis. 2014 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Schwarber.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 5

Highest draft pick: Schwarber, first round, fourth overall, 2014.

Why them? The Bash Brothers. What hasn’t been said of the impact that Schwarber and Travis had on Indiana, Big Ten and college baseball? A rival coach called Schwarber a generational talent, one you see every 20-25 years, Travis a once-a-decade player. Where DeNato is the best pitcher in Indiana history, quite the argument can be made that Hart is the second-best. Appearing in 87 games, Harrison pitched 167 innings to the tune of a 2.86 ERA and 15-4 record. While Schwarber and Travis were ascending the ranks in the minors in 2015, Harrison and Hart were  key factors in Indiana’s transition between head coaches Tracy Smith and Chris Lemonis, making sure Indiana’s two-year run wasn’t a blip on the radar, but the start of a new day for IU baseball.

 

2012- Illinois

Key players: Kevin Duchene, Jason Goldstein, Tyler Jay, Adam Walton

Four-year team accomplishments: 2013 NCAA Tournament. 2015 Big Ten champions. 2015 National Seed. 2015 Champaign Regional champions. 145-74-1 overall, 64-30 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Duchene. 2013 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Duchene, Goldstein. 2015 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year: Jay. 2014 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team: Jay.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 4

Highest draft pick: Jay, first round, sixth overall, 2015.

Why them? If Indiana forced a different discussion around Big Ten baseball, this recruiting class of Illini helped cement the change in perception. After helping Illinois to the Nashville Regional in 2013, being left on the outside of the 2014 NCAA Tournament helped fuel the most dominant showing by a team in Big Ten play the following year. As upperclassmen, the class helped Dan Hartleb’s team to a school-record 27-game winning streak, and a 21-1 Big Ten record in 2015. The regular season ended with the Illini were earning the No. 6 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. From their first spring, Duchene was a key starter, Jay a lights-out receiver and Goldstein a rock behind the plate. Walton gave this recruiting class its fourth All-Big Ten first-team selection in 2015, with strong two-way play at short.

 

2013- Ohio State

Key players: Ronnie Dawson, Travis Lakins, Troy Montgomery, Tanner Tully

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 127-102 overall. 46-50 in Big Ten.

Individual honors: 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Tully. 2014 Big Ten All-Freshman Team: Dawson, Tully. 2016 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Dawson.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 2

Highest draft pick: Dawson, second round, 62nd overall, 2016.

Why them? The toughest class to pick, the individual star power between Dawson, Montgomery, Lakins and Tully helped pushed this class over Nebraska’s 2013 recruiting class. The Husker did appear in three NCAA Tournaments, 2014, 2016-17, and won the Big Ten, topping Ohio State’s one regional and tournament title. But of Nebraska’s 11 freshmen in the fall of 2013, there were only a combined four All-Big Ten selections, no first-team picks, only five of the 11 made significant contributions over their career. Dawson and Tully were both All-Big Ten second-team picks as freshmen in 2014, before earning first-team nods in 2016, while Montgomery was a second-team selection in 2015. Lakins was a sixth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2015.

 

2014- Minnesota

Key players: Micah Coffey, Lucas Gilbreath, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen

Four-year team accomplishments: 2016 Big Ten champions. 2016 NCAA Tournament. 2018 Big Ten champions. 2018 Big Ten Tournament champions. 2018 NCAA Tournament National Seed. 2018 Minneapolis Regional Champions. 137-88 overall, 58-34 in Big Ten.

Combined All-Big Ten first-team selections: 1

Highest draft pick: Gilbreath, seventh round, 216th overall.

Why them? The class didn’t have a star like Schwarber, Travis, or Dawson, but collectively they were steady contributors, year after year. Gilbreath is responsible for the lone All-Big Ten first-team selection in the recruiting class, tabbed as one of the three best Big Ten pitchers in 2017. But Coffey was a three-time All-Big Ten pick, a second-team selection in each of his final three seasons, with Hanson earning third-team praise in 2016, before Pettersen did in 2018. The last three years of their time in Minnesota stands against any three-year period for any Big Ten program over the last 25 years, capping their career with winning the Minneapolis Regional, advancing the program to its first super regional appearance.

The Big Ten’s newest assistants

The transition from the summer offseason to the fall practice season isn’t complete without a rundown of new faces. Yes, the Big Ten is welcoming another talented freshman class, headlined by several players saying no to professional organizations, but they will also be new faces in the in the coaches’ boxes and in the dugout as part of the coaching staff.

With an entirely new staff in Bloomington as head coach Jeff Mercer leads the Hoosiers, to two new assistants up the road in West Lafayette under Mark Wasikowski, rounded out by promotions in Columbus and Minneapolis, heres a look at the new full-time assistants coaches in the Big Ten.

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