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.

Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State Earn Baseball Weekly Honors

Rosement, Ill. — Huskers’ Hallmark named Player of the Week; Hawkeyes’ Judkins claims Pitcher of the Week recognition; Buckeyes’ Burhenn tabbed Freshman of the Week.

Player of the Week
Jaxon Hallmark, Nebraska

OF – So. – Midland, Texas – Midland – Sports Media and Communication

 

  • Helped the Huskers to a 3-1 record to open the season, posting a trio of victories over UC Riverside
  • Tallied 10 RBI on 8 hits and scored five runs while batting .444 on the week
  • Led the Huskers with a .556 slugging percentage and a .474 on-base percentage
  • Wins his first career Big Ten Player of the Week award
  • Last Nebraska Big Ten Player of the Week: Scott Schreiber (April 9, 2018)

 

Pitcher of the Week
Grant Judkins, Iowa

P – Jr. – Pella, Iowa – Pella High School – Finance

 

  • Shut down Marshall over six innings on Sunday, not allowing a hit, setting a career high with 11 strikeouts and helping Iowa to a 10-0 victory
  • Recorded five strikeouts through the first three innings
  • Overcame back-to-back walks in the sixth inning by escaping the jam with his final two strikeouts
  • The Academic All-Big Ten honoree records his first career Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honor
  • Last Iowa Big Ten Pitcher of the Week: Nick Allgeyer (April 30, 2018)

 

Freshman of the Week
Garrett Burhenn, Ohio State

P – Indianapolis, Ind. – Lawrence North – Health Professions Exploration

 

  • Threw eight scoreless innings allowing one hit with six strikeouts and no walks to help the Buckeyes to a 6-0 victory against Seton Hall on Saturday
  • Faced the minimum through eight innings to claim his first career win
  • Became the first Buckeye pitcher to toss at least seven innings in a debut since Brad Goldberg threw seven innings in his debut vs. St. John’s on Feb. 17, 2013
  • Wins his first Big Ten Freshman of the Week award
  • Last Ohio State Big Ten Freshman of the Week: Brady Cherry (Feb. 29, 2016)

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

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.

Fall Notes: Nebraska

Program at a glance

Head Coach: Darin Erstad, eighth year

2018 Record: 24-28 overall, 8-14 Big Ten (10th)

Key departures: 1B/DH Scott Schreiber (.369 AVG/.446 OBP/.692 SLG, 18 HR), C Jesse Wilkening (.372/.445/.588, 56 RBI), RHP Luis Alvarado (70 IP, 4.89 ERA, 65 SO) RHP Jake Hohensee (25.2 IP, 1.05 ERA, 28 SO, 13 SV)

Key returners: Sr. SS Angelo Altavilla (.228/.354/.352), Jr. OF Mojo Hagge (.275/.369/.376), Jr. RHP Chad Luensmann (DNP, Tommy John), Jr. RHP Robbie Palkert (4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 SV), Jr. 3B/1B/C Luke Roskam (.269/.373/.425, 13 2B), Sr. RHP Matt Waldron (69.2 IP, 4.26 ERA, 61 SO, 12)

Notable newcomers: Fr. RHP Bo Blessie, Fr. INF/RHP Colby Gomes, Soph. OF Aaron Planesky, Fr. RHP/INF Spencer Schwellenbach

2018 in review

No matter the adjective, unlucky, unbelievable, crestfallen, or downright weird, it’s hard to find the appropriate word to describe the Huskers’ 2018 campaign. Coming off of the program’s first Big Ten championship, the first conference team title a Nebraska men’s program has won as a member of the Big Ten, 2018 was to be the season Nebraska took the next step forward. Although the 2017 season ended with a third regional in four years, the program is only 1-6 over the trio of 64-team tournaments, including back-to-back 0-2 showings. With one monkey off of the back, it was time to eviscerate another.

That monkey postseason unfortunately still is there, as a black cloud seemingly formed over Lincoln and never left.

Before the season started, junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann was lost for the season, needing Tommy John surgery.  That created a void in the Huskers’ weekend rotation as the third-year player was expected to move from standout reliever to starter. Luensmann was lost for the year after sophomore southpaw Connor Curry also needed offseason surgery. Junior righty Robbie Palkert joined the mash unit, going under the knife after showing flashes of brilliance, limited to 4.2 innings. And Junior left-hander Jake McSteen encountered arm trouble as well, limited to two starts and 12.2 innings over five outings.

With pitchers recovering from injuries, a handful being lost to injury, and continuous shuffling of roles, Nebraska used 19 pitchers last season, eight receiving a start. The lack of consistency and players put in roles out of necessity, less merit, resulted in a team ERA of 5.70, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Led by senior first baseman Scott Schreiber and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska’s offence batted at a .274 clip, sixth in the conference. But after the two all-conference performances who combined for 27 doubles and home runs, no other Husker regular batted over .275, and only two reach double digits in extra-base hits. While Wilkening made a big leap forward following a sophomore campaign of .247/.330/.312, shortstop Angelo Altavilla took a step back in his draft year, going from .316/.407/.406 for the Big Ten champions to .228/.354/.352 for the conference’s 10th-place club. Sophomores Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam showed they can be solid players, complimentary of Nebraska’s two big bats, but there wasn’t the lineup depth of years past, where 1-9 Nebraska wore down opposing pitchers.

But Nebraska still managed to score 6.48 runs per game. The bug-a-boo for the Huskers was the ravaged pitching staff. Nebraska lost five conference games where they scored at least four runs, as its in-conference ERA of 6.35 was the Big Ten’s worst. Offensively, the batted .288 and slugged .457 against conference foes, both makes good for second.

The 24-28 overall record, 8-14 Big Ten record and 10th place finish were the worst for an Erstad-led team. 

Fall notes

With the snake-bitten, disappointing year behind them, Erstad said every player returned to Lincoln motivated this fall. The eighth-year head coach added there was no need to speak of last year to his players, the players know their season wasn’t up to par, not even close. As such, compared to years past, Erstad says that a different feeling throughout the team was present this fall, noting it’s easy to coach a team who had their butt kicked.

Regarding the Curry, Luensmann and Palkert, Erstad said each are progressing fine in their recovery, no set backs have occurred and each are in line to return in 2019 at various points.

Even without the three pitchers on the mend, Erstad said the team he saw this fall has more depth than any team he’s had thus far in Lincoln. With the depth, and true to his M.O. nothing is in pen heading into the 2019 season, according to Erstad. It’ll be a battle for starts throughout the lineup and on the pitching staff. 

A key factor in the depth are the eleven freshman that make up the 2019 Nebraska roster. Right-handed pitchers Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes, and Spencer Schwellenbach drew praise and high attention during the prep and showcase circuit, each spurning the opportunity to play professional baseball. Gomes and Schwellenbach were also standout two-way players in high school, both possessing the bat and fielding prowess to make impacts all over the diamond. But, Erstad says the college game is a whole different ball game than what those and the other freshman have faced to date.

Another key newcomer is outfielder Aaron Palensky, who Erstad says is just a fun player to coach. A sophomore after spending one year at Southeast Community College, Palensky looks to be the part of a key bat in the Husker lineup, as they need a bat to emerge to fill the void of Schreiber and Wilkening. At the JUCO, last year Palensky batted .417 with 18 home runs, 77 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 24 stolen bases, while posting a .850 slugging percentage and .515 on-base percentage.

But for all of the accolades, the positive energy and determination present throughout the fall, Erstad knows none of it matters if the players don’t show up game after game.

And in 2019 the Huskers will need to be ready to bring it from day one. Nebraska’s schedule is as tough as it’s ever been, with Erstad saying, “We want to challenge our guys…we want to find out how good we are, and we will know right away.” Following a four-game series at UC Riverside to open the season, a four-game series against defending national champion Oregon State awaits. Nebraska opens March plays in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, alongside Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech. Non-conference series against Baylor and Arizona State are also on the schedule.

You’ll have to go to the bottom of Nebraska’s roster to find his name, but Curtis Ledbetter transitioning from Director of Operations to volunteer coach has been a boon for Erstad. Like he is, Erstad says Ledbetter being a Husker alum, adds an extra element to the staff. The head coach notes his volunteer assistant was on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, and knows what it takes to get there, determined to get the team, showing in turning away a paying job to be the volunteer coach.

Huskers Unveil 2019 Baseball Schedule

Lincoln, Neb. — Head Coach Darin Erstad and the Nebraska baseball team announced the Huskers’ 2019 schedule on Wednesday, which includes 27 home games at Hawks Field.

Nebraska’s schedule features games against seven NCAA Tournament qualifiers from last season, including three College World Series participants. In addition, the Huskers face each of the top four teams from last year’s Big Ten standings.

NU begins its 54-game schedule with trips to California, Arizona and Texas. For the third consecutive year, the Huskers open their season against UC Riverside (Feb. 15-17). Nebraska visits the Highlanders for four games in Riverside, Calif., after squaring off each of the last two seasons in Tempe, Ariz.

Nebraska enters a daunting slate of seven neutral-site games when the Huskers play at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge (Feb. 21-24) and the Frisco College Baseball Classic (March 1-3). Three of Nebraska’s four opponents during that stretch – Oregon State, Texas Tech and Mississippi State – qualified for the 2018 College World Series. NU faces the reigning national champion Beavers four times at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz., from Feb. 21-24.

The Huskers make their second appearance in three years at the Frisco Classic when NU travels to Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas to open the month of March. Nebraska battles former Big 12 foe and 2018 CWS participant Texas Tech (March 1), reigning Southland regular-season champion Sam Houston State (March 2) and 2018 CWS qualifier Mississippi State (March 3) in Frisco.

NU’s home opener is set for Tuesday, March 5 against intrastate rival Omaha at Hawks Field. The Huskers and Mavericks meet twice in 2019, including an April 17 matchup at Werner Park in Omaha. NU has three games scheduled against its other intrastate rival, Creighton. The Huskers and Bluejays square off March 26 and April 23 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, and April 9 at Hawks Field.

The Huskers host former Big 12 brethren Baylor, March 8-10, to continue a 13-game homestand. The Bears won last season’s Big 12 Tournament en route to earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskers host North Dakota State on Wednesday, March 13 before a three-game set against New Mexico State (March 15-17) and a two-game series against Air Force (March 19-20). New Mexico State won last year’s WAC Tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Nebraska opens Big Ten play at home against Michigan State, March 22-24. NU also hosts conference series against Purdue (April 5-7), Illinois (April 26-28) and Michigan (May 16-18). All four opponents qualified for the eight-team Big Ten Tournament last year, including the Boilermakers, who finished second in the regular season and tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines finished third in the Big Ten last season, while the Fighting Illini took fourth place.

NU’s first Big Ten road trip is slated for March 29-31 at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers captured the 2018 Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles before advancing to the Super Regionals, where they fell to eventual national champion Oregon State.

Nebraska’s other Big Ten road series are at Penn State (April 12-14), Iowa (19-21) and Northwestern (May 4-6). The last time NU visited State College, Pa., the Huskers clinched the 2017 Big Ten regular-season crown with a win in the season finale. The Hawkeyes took sixth place in the Big Ten last season to earn a spot in the conference tournament.

The Huskers face former Big 12 rival Kansas State twice in 2019, visiting Manhattan, Kan., on April 2 before hosting the Wildcats at Hawks Field on April 16.

Before its final home series against Michigan, which concludes with Senior Day on May 18, Nebraska hosts Arizona State for a three-game series, May 10-12. The series history between the Huskers and Sun Devils includes NU’s first win in a College World Series game in 2005. The two teams last met at the 2007 NCAA Tempe Regional.

The Big Ten Tournament is scheduled for May 22-26 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. The Huskers have taken runner-up honors twice at the tournament (2013, 2014) since joining the conference before the 2012 campaign. TD Ameritrade Park previously hosted the event in 2014, 2016 and 2018 in addition to the College World Series since 2011. The Big Ten Tournament returns to TD Ameritrade Park from 2020 to 2022.

New season tickets for the 2019 season can be purchased starting on Friday, Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. by visiting Huskers.com/tickets. Current season ticket holders will receive renewal information in the near future. Improvements and additional purchases will be available in January during the Seat Yourself process, which allows fans to choose their own seats at Hawks Field.

Nebraska Recruiting Class Ranked No. 16 by D1 Baseball

Lincoln, Neb. –The Nebraska baseball team’s 2018 recruiting class is ranked 16th nationally by D1 Baseball, which announced its top 25 classes on Monday. The rankings are based on newcomers that arrived on campus this fall.

The Huskers achieved the best recruiting class ranking by a Big Ten team, six spots ahead of No. 22 Illinois. D1 Baseball compiled its rankings with help from Prep Baseball Report in addition to information from recruiting coordinators and scouts across the nation in an attempt to balance instant impact with long-term potential.

NU has 15 newcomers on the roster, including 11 freshmen, as the entire recruiting class made it to campus.

Two newcomers – Spencer Schwellenbach and Bo Blessie – were drafted in June 2018, but chose to come to Nebraska to play college baseball. Schwellenbach, an infielder/right-handed pitcher from Saginaw, Mich., was selected in the 34th round by the Cleveland Indians. Blessie, a right-handed pitcher from Midland, Texas, was drafted in the 36th round by the Washington Nationals.

Additional freshmen include Cam Chick (Rocheport, Mo.), Caleb Feekin (Papillion, Neb.), Drew Gilin (Omaha, Neb.), Colby Gomes (Omaha, Neb.), Brett Hammit (Nixa, Mo.), Tyler Martin (Webb City, Mo.), Kyle Perry (Omaha, Neb.), Blake Peterson (Loomis, Calif.) and Shay Schanaman (Grand Island, Neb.).

Four newcomers – Aaron Palenksy (Southeast Community College), Trey Kissack (UNC-Greensboro and Southeast Community College), Ty Roseberry (Nebraska-Kearney) and Gareth Stroh (Purdue and Coffeyville Community College) – bring previous college baseball experience to NU’s roster.

In addition to D1 Baseball, NU also earned a top-35 spot from Baseball America on Sept. 18 when the publication released its “Next 10” after the top-25 class rankings. NU earned the second-best recruiting class ranking by a Big Ten team from Baseball America, behind only No. 24 Illinois.

Ten thoughts from the summer II

It’s time to close the book on summer thoughts, news and notes.

Here’s the second part of ten thoughts from the summer, as we get ready to shift gears to fall practices and the 2019 season.

Top prospects heading to campus

The MLB Draft was pretty kind to Big Ten programs this year. Across the conference, from Minnesota to New Jersey, top prep players with pledges to Big Ten programs spurned professional overtures.

A few players did sign a contact. Michigan lost Drew Rom, a Kentucky prep left-handed pitcher, to the Baltimore Orioles, after the American League organization picked him in the fourth round. Ohio State saw recruit Keegan Fish, a catcher and 13th-round pick from southwest Ohio, sign with the Miami Marlins. And Iowa-signee Korry Howell, a JUCO transfer picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 12th round.

But more players who were the highlights of respective recruiting classes will arrive on campus.

A few noteworthy players:

Illinois

Catcher Jacob Campbell- 36th round, Chicago Cubs

RHP Aidan Maldonando- 38th round, Milwaukee Brewers

Michigan

RHP Steven Hajjar- 21st round, Brewers

Michigan State

OF Zaid Walker- 36th round, Cincinnati Reds

Nebraska

SS/RHP Spencer Schwellenbach- 34th round, Cleveland Indians

Rutgers

C- Peter Serruto- 22nd round, Reds

Worth noting, a player picked in the 30th+ rounds may not seem overly impressive, outside of the impressiveness of being draft in the first place, but each of the above player’s talent merited being selected earlier. They were drafted in the final quarter of the draft due to their respective commitments to their school. Professional clubs viewed them as unlikely to sign, but the talent each possessed warranted selecting them, just in case there was a change of heart, or a signing bonus of $125,000, the maximum a club can offer without it counting against its allotted pool to sign players drafted in the first 10 rounds, would be a enough.

Prep Baseball Report ranks Maldonado, Schwellenbach and Walker the respective number two players in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, players who have a chance to standout on campus over the next three years before their time comes again to be picked by a professional club.

Midwest vs. West

Players like Hajjar and Serruo heading to campus is another example of the Big Ten providing a great product on the field, alongside the world-class education the student-athletes receive. How good that product is might surprise the casual fan, but more and more there is proof the Big Ten is an elite baseball conference.

I remember five years ago, after his first season in Ann Arbor, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich told me there was no reason the Big Ten would not only be a true Power 5 conference in baseball, but would be on par, if not better than the Pac-12 and Big XII. The depth of the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, along with the geographic advantage will likely have those two be 1-2 in some order for the foreseeable future. But Bakich had no doubt the Midwest could be the Big Ten’s and level to those on the Pacific coast.

Looking at NCAA Tournament participants, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 17 teams in a regional, with the Pac-12 one ahead at 18. Last year, the Big Ten and Pac-12 split 24 regular season games.

The Pac-12 has done a better job of advancing teams through the NCAA Tournament, and of course have the reigning national champion in Oregon State, who knocked out Minnesota in the Corvallis Regional, but not before the Gophers twice beat UCLA to win the Minneapolis Regional. Now, as schedules begin to trickle out, the 2019 season will offer more opportunities for to two conferences with Rose Bowl ties to square off on the mind.

In touching base with coaches around the conference, what’s known so far in Big Ten-Pac 12 showdowns:

Arizona will travel to Penn State during the final weekend of the regular season, the start of a home-and-home series which has Penn State traveling to Tucson in 2020.

Michigan State has a three-game series at Arizona State, followed by a midweek game at Arizona.

Minnesota will see Oregon State in back-to-back weekends to open the season, the two participating in a pair of tournaments.

Michigan will participate in the Dodger Stadium/Dodgertown College Baseball Classic with USC, UCLA and Arizona. Two years ago the Wolverines were in the field with USC, UCLA and San Diego.

Lengthy droughts continue for Michigan and Ohio State

I started blogging on Big Ten baseball matters 10 years ago, taking over the Ohio State-centric Buckeye Nine. One, I have no idea how that turned into this. Two, it’s a bit scary to think a decade has passed.

Nonetheless, to say the Big Ten of 2018 is not the Big Ten of 2008 is an understatement. Forget recruits, facilities, head coach salaries, just look who has won the Big Ten this decade.

Since 2010, Minnesota has three titles (2010, 2016, 2018) and Illinois has two (2011, 2015). Those two have been historically strong programs, their championships would cause someone to bat an eye in 2008. But Michigan State (2011), Purdue (2012), Indiana (2013-14), Nebraska, hello realignment, (2017) certainly would. But perhaps more than who has won the conference crown is who hasn’t.

The 2019 season will be the ten-year mark since the Buckeyes last won the Big Ten. But even then, they will have a more recent championship than their arch-rival, Michigan last winning the conference championship in 2008. To know just how rare this is, the last time neither Michigan nor Ohio State won a Big Ten championship in a nine-year window would be 1908-1916. A period when the University of Chicago found themselves Big Ten baseball champs.

For the conference as a whole, it’s a good thing the Big Ten isn’t dominated by Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, as was the case for four decades from 1980-2010. More teams winning means more depth, more depth means more teams in the NCAA Tournament, more teams in the NCAA Tournament increases the odds of having a representative in Omaha.

But it is a bit surprising two of collegiate athletics most recognizable names, programs with storied histories, have gone so long without winning the conference.

Wisconsin baseball isn’t coming back

With the team they have returning, losing only one underclassman to the draft, many view Michigan as a preseason Big Ten favorite, a club ready to end that aforementioned drought. While certainly possible, if not probably, we know for certain one Big Ten institution that’s not winning a baseball championship any time soon: Wisconsin.

The baseball-less Badgers are the lone Big Ten university without a varsity baseball program. As Big Ten baseball continues to make strides, as well as Wisconsin producing top baseball talent (Campbell is a Wisconsin native, as was Minnesota All-American shortstop Terrin Vavra), it’s entertaining to think is the time coming for Wisconsin to revive its baseball program.

I don’t think it’s happening.

In June, the Detroit News revealed the University of Michigan will receive $52.1 million in Big Ten conference distributions, stemming from the television rights the conference has with ABC/ESPN, FOX, and its own Big Ten Network.

There would be Title IX matters to resolve in terms of scholarship equality between female and male students, as well as figuring out where games will be played. But if living in a day and age where Big Ten universities are receiving more than $50 million a year from television rights doesn’t create the landscape for Wisconsin to bring back a program, one that many believe would have more than a shot to compete for conference championships and regional bids when brought back, I can’t see when the time will be right.

Joe Healy’s appreciated work

Wrapping up everything that crossed my mind over the summer, I cannot go without shining a light on the work done by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy and his podcast series, especially in the absence of myself producing any content. Throughout the summer, Healy spoke to people throughout the media, often beat writers, to dig into ongoings regarding programs around the country. Many of Healy’s podcast covered Big Ten teams, and here you can listen to insights, news and opinion on:

Indiana

Iowa

Nebraska

Purdue

Joe was the lone national writer to cover the Big Ten Tournament this past year, and is a great reference and source for news and content covering the Big Ten.

Nebraska’s Ledbetter to Transition into Volunteer Coach Role

Lincoln, Neb. — Head Coach Darin Erstad announced on Wednesday that Curtis Ledbetter will take on a new role with the Nebraska baseball team as the volunteer coach after spending 10 years as the team’s director of operations.

“We could not be more excited to add Coach Ledbetter to our staff,” Erstad said. “He has been a vital part of the Nebraska baseball program for last 10 years in the director of operations role. Coach Ledbetter wants to pursue his dream of coaching college baseball, and I am glad he chose our program to chase his dream.”

Ledbetter, a former all-conference performer at Nebraska, joined the Husker staff in May of 2008 after a stint in professional baseball. Starting with the 2019 season, he will be the Huskers’ first-base coach.

“The past 10 years have provided an amazing experience for my family and I here while serving as the director of baseball operations,” Ledbetter said. “I’m super excited for the opportunity Coach Erstad has offered to me to be on his 2019 staff in a slightly different role. Coaching is something that I’ve eventually wanted to do since stepping foot back on campus following my playing career. It’s something that I’m very passionate about, and a chapter in my life which I’m extremely excited for. This place has provided opportunities for me in the past 17 years that I’ll never be able to repay it for, but I’m fired up to continue giving it a try, now in helping these student-athletes grow as people and ball players on the diamond.”

An 18th-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2005, Ledbetter played professional baseball for three years, earning Frontier League all-star honors in 2007 – his final season in the professional ranks. In addition to his playing duties, Ledbetter worked at the Nebraska Baseball Academy.

Ledbetter was a three-year starter for the Huskers from 2003 to 2005, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors at two positions (designated hitter and first base). He ranks among the best in NU baseball history in several categories, including career hits (tied for 21st, 223), career home runs (tied for 10th, 34), career RBIs (10th, 165), career doubles (tied for fifth, 47) and career putouts (second, 1,216).

Ledbetter holds the school record for single-season putouts (655), which he achieved as part of Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team. He added Big 12 Tournament MVP honors to his list of accomplishments as a senior in 2005, as the Huskers swept the conference regular-season and tournament titles. Ledbetter also earned NCAA Tournament All-Regional honors in 2003 and 2005.

In the classroom, Ledbetter was a three-time academic All-Big 12 selection, a Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll member and graduated from Nebraska in 2005 with a degree in journalism. He added a master’s degree in education administration in December of 2012.

A native of Lawrence, Kan., Ledbetter played one season at Garden City Community College, earning honorable-mention All-Jayhawk League accolades. He hit .404 with 13 home runs and threw out 50 percent of would-be base stealers as the team’s catcher.

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.

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