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.

Week 7 Weekend Observations

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

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

Hoosiers keep humming along

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

Minnesota’s strong March finish

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

Freshman arms continue to excel

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

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

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

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

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

Northwestern’s tough run continues

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

Northwestern’s Big Ten losses:

March 23, 5-4 to Illinois

March 24, 5-4 to Illinois in 11 innings

March 25, 4-2 to Illinois in 10 innings

March 31, 6-5 to Maryland in 10 innings

April 1, 4-3 to Maryland.

Runs allowed in Big Ten play: 24

Runs scored in Big Ten play: 22

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

Iowa continues to be Iowa

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

Catchers turning in strong seasons

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

Sr. Tyler Cropley, Iowa (.356)

Jr. Ryan Fineman, Indiana  (.347)

Jr. Ryan Sloniger, Penn State (.289)

Jr. Nick Dalesandro, Purdue (.337)

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

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

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

The Weekend 10

As the midpoint of the college baseball season nears, while they may still be freshmen by class, this year’s Big Ten newcomers are turning in performances beyond their years. This season has witnessed first-year players spur Michigan’s turnaround and lead the revival of the Scarlet Knights.

This weekend, freshmen turned in some of the most impressive weekends, including the first double-award winner of the season. The Weekend 10 is led by four freshmen who turned in performances that made opposing coaches miserable knowing they have multiple years to come facing them, as well as a handful of sluggers who are making their case to be all-americans.

Ohio State Soph. OF Dominic Canzone

A big weekend in Ohio State’s first Big Ten series showed why Canzone is leads off the conference’ top hitting unit. In three games against Nebraska, Canzone collected seven hits in 14 at-bats, scoring five runs, driving in four and stealing three bases. Canzone has needed just 76 games to reach 100 career hits.

Michigan State Fr. RHP Mason Erla

Erla continues to shine in a season where a cloud has hung over the Spartans. Earl’s latest gem helped Michigan State to its first conference victory, leading the Green and White to a 6-0 win over Rutgers on Sunday. Erla pitched seven innings and allowed four hits, with three walks and six strikeouts. Moving to 4-1 on the year, Erla is responsible for more than half of MSUs seven victories.

Indiana Jr. C Ryan Fineman

Fineman continued a strong season, a junior campaign which has him batting a team-leading .342 through IU’s 20-5 start. In a three-game sweep of Butler, Fineman recorded seven hits in 12-bats, drove in six runs, and through out two Bulldogs on the bases.

Michigan Fr. 1B/OF Jesse Franklin

Michigan enters April with the nation’s longest active winning streak, extending their run to 12 games with a weekend brooming of Delaware. Leading the Wolverines charge against the Blue Hens, Franklin went 5-for-11 with a double and home run, driving in three runs while scoring another three.

Purdue Fr. RHP Trent Johnson

Purdue recorded its first sweep during the opening weekend of Big Ten play since 1985, and Johnson’s gem was the leading act in the clincher. In State College, over five innings, Johnson held the Nittany Lions to one hit, in Purdue’s 6-0 victory. The rookie struck out six batters and walk three, in the 79-pitch effort.

Northwestern Fr. LHP Quinn Lavelle

Lavelle pitched as fine of an outing as any Big Ten pitcher has this season, leading Northwestern to its first Big Ten victory in the Wildcats’ series-opener at Maryland. Tossing a shutout, Lavelle scattered four hits and struck out eight batters to one walk in Northwestern’s 4-0 win. This week’s pitcher and freshman of the week, Lavelle sports a 3-2 record alongside a 2.10 ERA over 34.1 innings.

Ohio State Sr. 1B Noah McGowan

McGowan helped lead a high-powered Buckeye attack to 25 runs in their weekend victory over Nebraska. In Greg Beals’ cleanup spot, the senior notched six hits, drove in five runs, and scored four runs. McGowan picked up a double in each game and ended hit his sixth home run of the season in the finale.

Indiana Jr. RHP Pauly Milto

After Indiana eeked out a 6-5 victory in their series opener against Butler, Milto made sure the Bulldogs had no bite as IU cruised to a 13-0 victory. Over six innings, Milto scatted six hits, issued two walks and struck out three batters. The victory moved Milto to 4-2 on the year and lowered his ERA to 2.25.

Nebraska Sr. 1B Scott Schreiber

A big weekend at the plate from Schreiber wasn’t enough for Nebraska to leave Columbus with a series win, but it was impressive enough for Schreiber to earn this week’s player of the week nod. Schreiber hit a home run in each of the Cornhuskers three games against the Buckeyes as part of an 8-for-14 weekend. The senior first baseman added a double as he drove in six runs and crossed home five times.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

Iowa was the latest team to run into a scorching hot Spillane. Though the Hawkeyes grabbed the weekend series in Champaign, Spillane was hard to contain, picking up two singles, a double, and three home runs over nine at-bats, before drawing four walks in the weekend finale. Spillane added five RBI and six runs to his eye-popping season statistics.

Nebraska-Northwestern State Cancelled

Lincoln, Neb. –Today’s baseball game between Nebraska and Northwestern State has been canceled due to weather. The two teams will play one game on Saturday at the regularly scheduled time and one game on Sunday at the regularly scheduled time.

Saturday’s game is set for 2:05 p.m. (CT) and Sunday’s game is set for 11:05 a.m.

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