The opening weekend is in the books, and it was a fair weekend for the Big Ten, as the conference went 27-16. In five opportunities, the Big Ten picked up wins over nationally-ranked programs, Indiana topped South Alabama and Rutgers wrapped up their weekend with a victory over Miami. Three teams went 3-0, Iowa, Penn State, and Purdue, while Maryland and Michigan won weekend sets, with the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers joined the Hoosiers in going 3-1.
Digging deeper, here’s the top observations from the weekend that was.
Billy Phillips provides the weekend highlight
The box score may not garner a second look, it was a scoreless inning of relief in a lopsided defeat, allowing one hit with one strikeout, but Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Billy Phillips provided the highlight in all of college baseball this weekend.
From Wilmington, Del., Phillips’ sixth inning appearance in the Terrapins’ weekend finale against Tennessee was the first career outing for Phillips, as the southpaw has missed the prior two seasons fighting, recovering and winning a battle against leukemia, dating back to his senior year of high school in 2015.
In a conference where from Ohio State left-handed pitcher Zach Farmer valiantly fought leukemia, as well as former Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes, we’re once again reminded of the resolve in humans and the character of the individuals who play and coach in the sport. And as we learned with Farmer and Oakes, nobody fights alone and we’re all there to support Phillips as his leukemia fades more and more into the distance.
Do not question their commitment to baseball
There’s been a noticeable increase in the level of commitment Big Ten baseball programs have seen over the last decade. The most obvious example of the uptick in commitment are the stadium renovations or completely new stadiums seen around the conference. Less noticeable signs of backing are increased salary pools for assistant coaches, more members to support staffs in the form of director of baseball operations and video coordinators, and increased recruiting budgets.
The latest sign of Big Ten programs doing everything they can to field a competitive team was on display this weekend as weather forced Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue alter their schedules.
All three teams were set to fly out of Chicago on Thursday, but each saw their flight canceled. Ultimately Illinois and Purdue had to cancel their trips to Texas. Northwestern did make it to their destination and played three of four games against Omaha, but not before every option was exhausted to ensure games were played.
Purdue ended up with three games in Georgia, Illinois saw their opening day pushed back twice, forced to settle for games against Austin Peay and South Dakota State in St. Louis on Sunday, Northwestern was considering incurring a cost of $30,000 to join Cincinnati and Miami on a charted plane to points out west.
Obviously, no team wants to bag their games on opening weekend. But it does take an administration to sign off on additional costs that come with a change of travel plans at the last second, find transportation, food and lodging for 40 people. That willingness is another testament to the importance of baseball around the Big Ten.
Hoosiers have the necessary experience
As great as a team may look on paper, you never truly know how a team will be once the season starts. Indiana returned a lot of players from their Lexington Regional team, and as reflected in the preseason conference coaches’ poll, were deserving of their near consensus preseason ranking. There will be more than a few home runs hit between Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller and Logan Sowers, already the trio have combined for five, but perhaps more important than the offensive production from the bats, or the scoreless innings Pauly Milto, Cal Krueger and Lloyd can toss on the mound, is the experience Indiana has as a club that’s been in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments and knows what is necessary to win at a high level.
Indiana finished the weekend with a solid 3-1 record, but it wasn’t a weekend full of ease for Chris Lemonis and staff.
Indiana jumped out to a 2-0 lead after their first at-bat in the season opener against Oklahoma, but ultimately lost 6-3. Indiana showed no hangover in cruising to a 5-0 victory over Kansas State on Saturday. On Sunday, IU rallied from 3-0 first-inning deficit to South Alabama in walk-off fashion, 8-4, and after Coastal Carolina grabbed a 5-3 lead with a four-spot in the fourth, answered with two runs in their at-bat in the fifth, before winning 6-5.
The ability to take a blow and respond, to stay composed in a final at-bat and throw away a poor performance will go a long way as Indiana looks to make a deep postseason run in June.
Michigan’s weekend rotation will carry the team
If you were following Michigan’s weekend series against Army you probably lost track of how many Wolverines made their Michigan debut this weekend. Between freshmen, JUCO transfers or players who have been in the program but buried due to the depth Erik Bakich has built up, it was almost a day-to-night change in the team Michigan fielded compared to the team that ended the 2017 season in the Chapel Hill Regional. But there was comfort to be found in the starting pitchers Michigan rolled out, a group that will likely carry the club in 2018 as fresh faces get accumulated and up to speed to the college game.
Using a weekend rotation of a senior followed by two sophomores, Alec Rennard, Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman each pitched at least five innings and recorded a scoreless start. The Right-left-right trio combined to pitch 16 innings, scattering 11 hits with two walks, holding Army batters to a .189 batting average. Each pitcher was a significant factor out of the Michigan bullpen in 2017, with Rennard garnering a few starts, and now, as three of the few Wolverines who know what it takes to win in the Big Ten, as starting pitchers the rotation will go a long way in how Michigan fares this year.
The perfect script for Penn State
Penn State head coach Rob Cooper could not have asked for a better opening weekend for the Nittany Lions. In a three-game series at Elon, Penn State swept the Phoenix, opening the season 3-0 for the first time since 1980. Each victory provided Cooper and company with reasons to be optimistic in Penn State’s quest to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012.
In the opener, Justin Hagenman surrendered four hits and struck out seven batters as he takes over the of staff ace following the departure of Sal Biasi. In total, PSU pitchers racked up 15 strikeouts in the 2-1 win. Penn State’s offense lifted the team to an 8-6 win on Saturday to clinch the series, the team picked up two doubles and two home runs in their 10 hits, noteworthy as Penn State only slugged .329 last season. After missing the 2017 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Sal’s younger brother Dante made his PSU debut, keeping the game close, before closer Eric Mock recorded his second save of the weekend with a hitless, three-inning effort, helping Penn State secure the 3-2 win.
The pitching was there, more pop was on display and Penn State did not commit an error over the three games. All aspects clicked this weekend for the Nittany Lions.
A Year Two JUCO bump can help Bucks bounce back
It would be an understatement to say the 2017 season did not go as Ohio State hoped. Coming off of an appearance in the 2016 Louisville Regional, Ohio State finished 22-34 overall, 8-16 in the Big Ten to finish in 11th place. A big factor in Ohio State unable to duplicate their 2016 success was the loss of six draft pictures and a handful of other multi-year starters who graduated. Ohio State tried to fill the holes left in the lineup with JUCO transfer, but newcomers Bo Coolen, Tyler Cowles, and Noah McGowan respectively batted .230, .190, and .214 between 384 at-bats. It’s only one weekend, but the numbers put up in the first weekend may sure an their second season in Columbus may fare a bit better.
Earning Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors by Collegiate Baseball, McGowan batted .400 with a double, two home runs and a nation-leading 13 RBI, 12 coming with two outs. McGowan drove in 19 runs for the 2017 season. Cowles picked up four hits in 12 at-bats while Coolen added a pair of singles in five at-bats.
Ohio State will face a drastic jump in competition in the upcoming weekend, Oregon State and Utah and considerably better than UW-Milwaukee and Canisius, but the starts are encouraging for three players who struggled a year ago, a core that Ohio State has enough pieces surrounding to create a potent lineup if everything clicks.