And then there were two… the best two. Saturday’s semifinals saw No. 1 seed Minnesota top No. 7 Ohio State, 8-1, before second-seeded Purdue provided their own definite victory, toppling No. 4 Illinois, 11-5. As Minnesota seeks its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2010, and Purdue seeks a second crown to stand alongside their 2012 triumph, the Big Ten Tournament championship features the top two teams in the conference standings, the two teams with the highest rated RPIs, the two hottest teams, and two teams ticketed for a regional.
Here’s what was observed on Saturday.
Fredrickson cool under pressure (and heat)
If there was to be a time when Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was a bit vulnerable, the conditions were favorable for that time to arrive on Saturday morning. In his first taste of postseason action the freshman was on the rubber against a tough Ohio State lineup, one who has already faced him, in 90-degree weather. Neither the Buckeyes nor blistering Omaha sun could rattle the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. With an efficient 77-pitch, six-inning start, Fredrickson scattered only two hits, allowing one run, a first inning home run by Tyler Cowles, to improve to 9-0 on the year.
“The formula once again with Patrick Fredrickson on the mound was for him to pound the zone with three pitches and for us to play defense behind him,” said John Anderson after the game. He gave up the home run, but he … then got back to doing his thing. Before the six-run inning, I got the guys together in the dugout and said, we were trying too hard. We didn’t have a good approach at the plate the first half of the game. We had a lot of opportunities but couldn’t get the big hit.”
Minnesota exhibits offensive depth
With Fredrickson cruising, one big inning from Minnesota was all that was needed to cruise into Sunday’s title game. With the game tied 1-1, a Jordan Kozicky walk followed by Toby Hanson sending a triple over the head of Ohio State center fielder Dillon Dingler put the Gophers in front. Kozicky later singled in the inning, as to did Luke Pettersen and Cole McDevitt, with Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, and Eli Wilson all drawing walks. By the time the sixth inning was over, eight batters reached base safely, six Gophers crossed home, and Minnesota was well on their way to their 40th victory of the season. The inning summed up Minnesota’s ability to wear down the opposition, with multiple players showcasing an ability to be patient, string out at-bats and reach base. By the end of the game, seven Minnesota batters recorded a hit, even with leading hitter Terrin Vavra going 0-for-4.
Pavlopoulos gives Beals something to build on
Needing a fourth starter to step up in an effort to extend their tournament run, Greg Beals turned to senior right-handed pitcher Yianni Pavlopoulos. Making his fifth start, appearing in his 17th game overall, Pavlopoulos allowed one run off five hits in three innings. The right-handed did walk three batters, but Minnesota’s John Anderson spoke to Pavlopoulos’ changeup and sinking fastball keeping the Gophers off balance, and from being able to capitalize early in the contest. Ticketed for a regional, it’ll be important for Ohio State to be able to find a dependable fourth starter. Weekend starters Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner, and Adam Niemeyer have yet to pitch a complete game in their combined careers. Next weekend, the Buckeye bullpen, led by workhorse Seth Kinker, will likely be needed in every contest, chipping away at Ohio State’s pitching depth as the weekend progresses. If the Buckeyes find themselves in the loser’s bracket, it’s imperative a capable fourth starter emerges to alleviate some of the bullpen strain, that role may now be on Pavlopoulous.
Cowles breakthrough campaign continues
With a home run and two walks, Cowles continued his strong senior season, as his two-year Ohio State career enters the final month. A transfer from Sinclair Community College, Cowles struggled in 2017, batting .190. Saturday’s home run upped his average to .327 and boasted his slugging percentage to .527, an increase of .213. Teammate Noah McGowan received much attention throughout the year, and deserved attention, in leading the Buckeyes in hitting, average, on-base percentage, doubles, home runs, and RBI. But Cowles, a third-team All-Big Ten outfield selection, has allowed McGowan to put up big time numbers in his cleanup spot by being a force in the Ohio State three-hole. With Dominic Canzone and Kobie Foppe’s ability to reach base, Cowles, more than any other, is the Buckeye that stirs the pot and get the team going.
Don’t forget the Gopher upperclassmen pitchers
After Fredrickson qualified for a quality start and exited after six innings, senior right-handed pitcher Jackson Rose allowed one hit over two innings, before junior left-handed pitcher Jeff Fasching closed the door with a scoreless ninth. Rose and Fasching’s outings come on the heels of junior right-handed pitcher Reggie Meyer tossing a shutout against Illinois on Thursday, and Jake Steven logging 3.2 innings in the tournament opener against Michigan State. Minnesota’s underclassmen pitchers, led by Fredrickson and fellow first-team all-Big Ten selection Max Meyer, have been in the spotlight as they have excelled as first-year players. But with 15.2 innings of work from upperclassmen this week and only two earned runs allowed between them, the Gophers with hardware from the team’s 2016 championship have been a steady force in Minnesota on the verge of securing a regional at home.
Illini uncharacteristically sloppy…
Illinois entered Saturday with a Big Ten-leading .980 fielding percentage, and arguably the country’s top defensive middle infield. Unfortunately for Dan Hartleb’s club, Illinois had more than a few miscues contribute to their exit from the tournament. Shortstop Ben Troike had a tailor-made double play ball roll under his glove, catcher David Craan threw a ball into center field trying to throw out a runner, and the webbing in the glove of first baseman Bren Spillane allowed a ball to tear through. In addition to the free bases allowed by the defense, Illinois pitchers issued four walks, hit two batters, and threw five wild pitches. It was an atypical outing from a team who defense and ability to eliminate extra opportunities had contributed mightily to the team’s 33 wins.
…and Purdue pounces on opportunities
Every time Illinois made a mistake, Purdue seemingly took advantage of the opportunity. It’s never ideal to give a quality team extra outs, but more so when that team is Purdue. Taking the mold of their head coach, Purdue seeks every opportunity to find an edge, pushes for extra bases, and tries to exert as much pressure as possible on the opposition. In addition to the three errors, four walks, two hit batters, and five wild pitches, Purdue stole four bases, led by Nick Dalesandro grabbing two. Purdue did get thrown out on the bases three times, but Mark Wasikowski’s club stayed true to form, and more times than not were rewarded for being the aggressor and taking the action to Illinois.
Hartleb’s confidence in Watson warrented
Ahead of his start against Purdue, Dan Hartleb showered right-handed pitcher Cyrillo Watson with praise, Saturday evening, saying he has all of the confidence in the sophomore, regardless of opponent. Illinois’ shaky defense did allow Purdue to score three unearned runs, but Watson put Illinois in a position to win, pitching six innings, allowing two earned runs of six hits and a walk, striking out three batters. Watson entered the year in the Illini rotation and much was expected of him. Illinois would see Andy Fisher and Quinn Snarskis blossom and grab weekend roles, limiting Watson’s opportunities, but the performance Watson gave against Purdue showed why much was thought of him, and also shows the Illini has the depth in starting pitching to make a run in a regional.
Boilermakers powered on by bullpen
Purdue did benefit from a sloppy Illinois performance, and they did set the tone offensively. But the Boilermakers didn’t play the cleanest baseball themselves, walking eight batters, hitting two, and committed two errors. The difference was the performance by the Boilermaker bullpen. Trent Johnson, Bo Hofstra and Dalton Parker combined to pitch the final 6.1 innings, allowing Illinois to score one run off two hits. The depth of Purdue’s bullpen has been on display this week, and is nicely summed up in the fact all-Big Ten closer Ross Learnard has yet to pitch, even though Purdue heads into the title game 3-0.
Purdue’s looks to give doubters one last statement
Purdue players and coaches alike have not shied away from referencing how one preseason prediction penciled the team to finish 11th in the Big Ten this year, and how that has fueled their motivation. From 2-22 to a second-place finish and a shot to return to West Lafayette with a Big Ten Tournament title, if there are any who still choose to cast doubt over Wasikowski and the direction of the Purdue program, they do so at their own peril, the Boilermakers have looked like one of the best teams in the nation this week in Omaha, and don’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. Sunday should be fun on.