What to watch for in Omaha

After a year hiatus, the Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha, where it will be for four more years. College baseball’s grand stage is set to host what many believe will be the Big Ten’s best tournament, as seven teams are in the mix for an at-large berth to next week’s NCAA Tournament.

From potential regional hosts, to Golden Spike Award semifinalists, to record-setting players on nearly every team, here’s the 10 leading storylines to follow this week in Omaha.

The Bren Spillane Show

Illinois’ 10th Big Ten Player of the Year is having a season rivaled by few, if any, in Illinois’ storied history. Spillane finished the regular season as the Big Ten’s Triple Crown winner, batting .407 with 22 home runs and 57 RBI. Regional projections from national outlets have Illinois safely in next week’s NCAA Tournament. But a big week by the Big Ten’s brightest star can make their case a slam dunk, by using his premium power to send a few balls out of TD Ameritrade Park.

Spartan speed

While Spillane has the power to hit home runs in any environment, TD Ameritrade Park is known for being tough on home run hitters. Perhaps better suited for teams with the ability to run, Michigan State enters the tournament as a potential dangerous No. 8 seed, thanks to their speed. The Spartans led the Big Ten in stolen bases and attempts, swiping 98 bags in 125 attempts. Sophomore outfielder Bryce Kelley paced Big Ten players with 31 steals, setting a new Michigan State single-season record.

Luke Miller’s power surge

Three home runs during a weekend sweep over Maryland helped Indiana junior third baseman Luke Miller grab the final Big Ten Player of the Week honor. After missing some time in the middle of the season due to injury, Miller is back being a force in the hear of IU’s lineup. Now leading the Hoosiers with 11 home runs, Miller has the type of bat that change the tide of a game in one swing, and do it again, game after game. Heading to Omaha on a six-game winning strike, IU looks poised to make a deep postseason run, spurred by one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous players getting hot.

Ohio State’s reliance on Seth Kinker

No Buckeye pitcher has appeared in more games over his career than senior right-hander Seth Kinker. No reliever in the eight-year tenure of Greg Beals has been as trusted as Kinker. Leading the Big Ten with a 1.62 ERA, Kinker has been Mr. Reliable for Beals and the Buckeyes, racking up 13 saves and a 6-1 record in 26 appearances. But those 26 outings have resulted in 55.2 innings pitched, as Kinker is more than a one-inning save. With few other Buckeyes showing the ability to close the door or escape a tight jam, how will Beals used Kinker? In past history is any indication, it’s a lot, Kinker pitched in five games during Ohio State’s run to the 2016 tournament title.

Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers

Minnesota has more than enough depth to pitch through the Big Ten Tournament, there isn’t a concern on how often a pitcher will be turned to, and how long he pitches. What is worth keeping in mind with the Big Ten championships is how their first-year pitchers perform in their first taste of postseason baseball. Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson, and fellow first-team All-Big Ten selection, closer Max Meyer, will be front and center as the pressure cranks up a notch, as too will Jake Stevenson and Sam Thoresen, fellow freshmen who will likely start Minnesota’s third and fourth games respectively, if Minnesota tracks towards their 10 tournament title.

Attendance

A loaded Big Ten Tournament field does not include the team nearest to Omaha. For the first time in their Big Ten history, Nebraska will not participate in the postseason tournament. A part of the return to Omaha was the attendance of the 2014 and 2016 tournaments, in large part due to Nebraska’s presence. Without the Huskers in the field, will Omaha still show up?

Hellerball

One caveat to a potential drop in attendance is Iowa’s making the tournament. Under Rick Heller, the Big Ten Tournament has provided some magical moments. Two years ago, Iowa almost shocked the conference, falling one game shy of winning the tournament as the No. 8 seed. Last year, the Hawkeyes did win the tournament, and reached the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. It appears the automatic bid is Iowa’s key to the NCAA Tournament again, but it seems Iowa is comfortable fighting with their back against the wall. And if the Hawkeyes reach the weekend, they will undoubtedly have a homefield advantage as Hellerball is running deep in the heart of those in the Hawkeye State.

Who has a fourth starter?

No matter what, in this format with eight teams, a team must play a minimum of four games to win the tournament. The Big Ten experienced some of the worst spring weather in recent memory, seeing games cancelled week after week. As a result, a team may not have a fourth starter as polished as previous seasons, where the ability to play numerous midweek games would help build depth in the rotation. Some teams, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, have more than one option available after their traditional weekend three. Others, Michigan State, and Ohio State, come to mind first, may utilize Johnny Wholestaff if they have a deep tournament run.

Does momentum matter?

The postseason is often called a new season. Starting today, the records reset, all eight teams have a 0-0 record, and there is a clean table. But does the end of the regular season matter? Does a teams form carry over? If so, that’s good news for Indiana and Purdue, who respectively start the tournament on a six-game winning streak and victors in 18 of their last 20, and not so good news for Michigan and Ohio State, teams who finished the regular season in six and four games, respectively.

The out of town scoreboard

Yes, it is true, one should focus on only the things which they can control. For teams in Omaha this week, that means effort, confidence, execution. But for more than a few teams it will be worth finding a way to send positive vibes into the environment, and wish a few teams good luck throughout the country. It appears Iowa, Michigan, and Purdue are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. For them, along with a few wins this week, it would be nice if favorites in other conference tournaments win, that no bids are stolen. There will be enough to watch in Omaha to keep fans interested and engaged through the weekend, keeping track of scores around the country is the cherry on the cake of conference tournament chaos.

Staying power: Culture keeps Iowa in regional mix

Iowa’s Cole McDonald threw an offspeed pitch in the fourth inning against Michigan on April 29, and came out of the game with elbow discomfort. The pitch was actually a fastball, it was his elbow that slowed the pitch down and made it seem like a changeup. It was deja vu for Iowa head coach Rick Heller, who around the same time a year ago lost Friday starter CJ Eldred to a UCL injury that required surgery.

In 2017, Iowa went on to win the Big Ten Tournament without Eldred, making an NCAA Regional for the second time in three years. Since losing McDonald, the Hawkeyes have finished off a series win against the Wolverines and took two-of-three from a top-15 Oklahoma State squad the weekend after.

The success that comes every May for his team must be starting to become deja vu for Heller, as well.

“It’s a priority for us to figure things out in the fall,” Heller said. “We talk about how important it is to play our best baseball down the stretch. It’s just talk at that point, but it sets the tone that we will work hard, we’ll stay in the weight room…We’re either moving forward or moving backward. We need to constantly be pushing forward. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s a part of our program that’s planned out.”

It seems as though Heller has it down to a science. Even with a series loss at Northwestern last weekend, the Hawkeyes still stand a good chance at grabbing an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, barring another series loss against Penn State this coming weekend.

It wasn’t necessarily supposed to go this well for Iowa this season, though. Heller was tasked with replacing Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams, an impossible task after Adams reset the Big Ten’s single-season home run mark, and all-conference shortstop Mason McCoy, both sixth-round draft picks. And those were just the guys you fully expected were gone.

Eldred and fellow RHP Nick Gallagher both signed professional contracts after last season, although both had eligibility remaining.

“All those things are so uncontrollable. Visualize this team if we had those guys back,” Heller said. “It’s the same mindset of losing guys to injury. Whoever is here, whoever is put out there, is expected to be successful. The accountability is there on this team, that’s an expectation. You can’t dwell on it, [because] there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”

Heller is not unlike other college coaches. The more control he can have, the better. Where he can’t control players leaving early in the draft, he can control the players filling their spots through recruiting. Now in his fifth year at Iowa, Heller’s lineup is filled entirely with his guys, instilled with his culture.

That’s a big reason why Iowa has become a contender each and every year.

“We have a culture established. The older guys understand you have to work hard on off days and in the weight room. They know we can’t just try to stay even,” Heller said. “It starts Day 1 when the players arrive. No matter who plays, we’re still going to find a way to get the job done. If somebody goes down, somebody’s prepared to fill in.

“We talk about it quite a bit, from the start of fall all the way through. That way, when someone does go down [or someone leaves], you don’t have that shock. we all know whoever that player that needs to step up might be and what he needs to do, and no one panics.”

There will be no panic this coming weekend for Iowa, although a series sweep of the Nittany Lions would go a long way in convincing the NCAA Selection Committee that the Hawkeyes should be in the tournament. Conference series wins against Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State make up a strong resume. The non-conference series win against Oklahoma State was another resume booster, and one that wouldn’t have happened without those Big Ten wins.

According to Heller, getting teams to travel to Iowa City has become easier as the team has improved each season. Come May, teams are looking for big wins, especially on the road, as those are worth more to the selection committee. For Oklahoma State, the idea of getting three games on the road against a team with a good RPI like Iowa was enticing.

The same was the case for Heller, with the added bonus of getting games in Stillwater next year. That being said, don’t picture Heller in his office calculating RPIs and scouring the internet for tournament projections depending on whether or not they were to beat the Cowboys, or any other high profile team. He doesn’t really pay attention to that stuff.

“I don’t [pay attention] a whole lot. It’s hard not to because everyone is talking about it, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re not taking care of your business on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t get caught up in any of that. If we don’t take care of our business, none of that matters. If we play well, and if wins come our way…against one of toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in the Big Ten, I think we’ll be okay.”

Iowa Extends Heller through 2024

Iowa City, Iowa University of Iowa head baseball coach Rick Heller has received a contract extension through 2024, the announcement was made Thursday by Henry B. and Patricia B. Tippie Director of Athletics Chair Gary Barta.

“The progress this program has made in four seasons under Rick has been incredible,” said Barta. “Rick has changed the culture from day one with the win, graduate, and do it right principles at the forefront. We’re excited to be able to reward Rick with this contract extension to keep him in Iowa City for the foreseeable future.

“You can feel the excitement and buzz surrounding the program throughout the state. We are excited to continue building on that and are looking forward to the 2018 baseball season.”

“I am proud to be part of such an outstanding, team-oriented athletics department and university,” said Heller. “With the fantastic leadership of Gary Barta and President (Bruce) Harreld our baseball program has grown significantly in the last five years and we look forward to working together to keep it moving forward.

“I am humbled that Gary and Bruce have given me the opportunity to be a Hawkeye for a long time. It’s a privilege to go to work each day with such an amazing group of coaches, staff, and student-athletes.”

Heller has injected life into the Hawkeyes since taking over the program in 2013. He has led Iowa to its best four-year stretch in program history, winning 140 games, advancing to two NCAA Regionals, and claiming the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.

Under Heller’s watch, Iowa has advanced to the postseason in four consecutive years for the first time in program history, he has coached five All-Americans, a unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year, and at least one first-team All-Big Ten selection each season. Iowa has had 15 Major League Baseball Draft picks in four seasons — the most in a four-year stretch all-time.

Heller has also given the Hawkeyes an international flavor, taking the team to the Dominican Republic in 2016 and Taipei, Taiwan, as the United States representative at the 2017 World University Games. Heller led USA to a silver medal, as the team became the first American squad to medal in Universiade history.

The Eldon, Iowa, native became the 20th head coach in program history in 2013 — his fourth stop as a collegiate head coach. He has enjoyed stints at Iowa (2014-present), Indiana State (2009-13), Northern Iowa (1999-2009), and Upper Iowa (1987-99), leading all four schools to NCAA postseason play. He is one of nine coaches all-time and one of five active coaches to lead three different Division I programs to NCAA Regional play.

Heller guided Iowa to an at-large berth into NCAA Regional play in 2015 — a first for the program since 1990 — and the team posted the school’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1972. It wasn’t a fluke; in the two seasons since, Iowa was runner-up at the 2016 Big Ten Tournament before claiming the program’s first tournament title in 2017 to lock up the school’s second NCAA Regional appearance in three seasons.

Iowa made just three NCAA Tournament appearances in its history prior to Heller’s arrival.

On the recruiting trail, Heller has turned the Hawkeyes into a major player on the national recruiting scene by keeping the best in-state players at home. Iowa had the top-rated class in the Big Ten — and 18th-best nationally — in 2015, and the 2016 class was ranked third in the league.

In 30 seasons as a head coach, Heller owns a career record of 830-654-4. He is one of two Iowa head coaches to lead the program to the NCAA Tournament.

At home at shortstop, McCoy starts strong at home

There’s no place like home…, home is where the heart isTake your choice of cliche, there is a distinct feeling of comfort, peace and being at ease when at home. If cliches aren’t one’s cup of tea, Iowa’s Mason McCoy can provide a first-hand testimony on what it means to be at home.

Back at his natural position, shortstop, McCoy is at home for the Hawkeyes. Playing relaxed and free, the senior is also off to a sizzling start at home plate.

The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, McCoy has a .407 average, through seven games, picking up 11 hits in 27 at-bats. Iowa’s two-hole hitter is slugging .704 on the strength of three doubles a triple and a home run. Leading the Hawkeyes into the Dairy Queen Classic, McCoy’s prowess at the plate is a benefit of being comfortable all around, starting with the change in defensive position.

“I know Mason, and that’s what he is, that’s what he wants to play, that’s his favorite spot,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said on McCoy moving from third base to shortstop. “Once we came back in the fall I could just tell how much more happy he was to be over there.”

“I agree with Coach Heller,” McCoy said. “The move to shortstop did comfort me in a lot of ways, not only in the field but at the plate as well.”

With Iowa fielding All-Big Ten shortstop Nick Roscetti, McCoy, a transfer from Illinois Central Community College, manned the hot corner in his first year with the Hawkeyes.

“Unselfishly, last year, he embraced third base and did the best he could,” Heller said. “We had talked and, obviously, he still wanted to play shortstop, but with as well as Roscetti was playing it just wasn’t going to happen. Then this year he stepped in and so far, we’re still pretty early in the season, but he’s playing an outstanding shortstop for us.”

By Heller’s watch, McCoy played an elite-level third base last year for the Hawkeyes. What didn’t occur, at least for the first half of the season, was McCoy performing at the plate at a level he and Heller knew he was capable of.

McCoy arrived in Iowa City with much fanfare. An All-American at ICCC, McCoy received interest from professional teams in the summer of 2015. Playing in the Northwoods League, McCoy set a league record with 112 hits, 80 runs and 168 total bases. Not drafted out of ICC, and spending two years at a JUCO, McCoy was free to sign with any professional club. But McCoy rebuffered all overtures and enrolled at Iowa. With the Hawkeyes coming off of a 40-win, NCAA Tournament season, the expectation was for McCoy to step in and lead Iowa back to a regional.

“I think last year he really pressed, he really wanted to get off to a good start with the accolades he came in with,” Heller said. “Kind of put a little pressure on himself.”

McCoy, who never hit below .300 in his time at ICCC or in the Northwoods, was batting below .250 as Iowa entered May. But as the Hawkeyes rallied in the final month of the season, going from outside of the Big Ten Tournament field to finishing tournament runners-up as the eighth-seed, McCoy caught fire. Finishing the year with a 13-game hitting streak, McCoy picked up 28 hits in last 60 at-bats, a stout .466 average.

“Late in the year he started to figure some things out, closing some stuff up before the conference tournament,” Heller said. “He was going pretty well that last month.”

Though he didn’t have a bad year, batting .291 with 12 doubles, two triples and a pair of home runs, the McCoy Iowa saw in the final month is who the team has seen from the start of the 2017 season. Taking a vested interest in his swing mechanics, the mental side of the game and understanding what opponents are trying to do, McCoy has dedicated himself to being a complete player.

“This fall I really worked with Pete (Lauritson), who was our hitting coached, before getting a job with the Indians,” McCoy, the MVP of the 2016 Northwoods League All-Star game said. “I really worked a lot with him on my swing mechanics. Just seeing the ball and hitting it, just trying to simplify everything.

“Then, Coach Moore, Sean Moore, stepped in in his place and really picked up where he left off. I think that’s been a big thing with me offensively this year, just having those sit-down talks with Pete, talking philosophy with Sean a lot, that kind of cleared my head and helped me offensively.”

Heller echoes McCoy’s change in mechanics and ability to have a better mental understanding.

“He’s really tightened his swing up, he’s cleaned it up. He shortened it up but increased his powered. Closed up holes to both sides of the plate, now he’s driving balls to the opposite field gap off the wall. He’s driving balls pull-side to the gap off the wall. Guys are having a hard time figuring out where to pitch him right now.

“His mental game is much much better, He has a really good plan on how to deal with failure. That’s what I see, he’s able to deal with that in a much more positive way and just move on to the next pitch.”

The maturity McCoy steps to the plate with extends into the locker room. One of four co-captains, McCoy’s comfort allows him to step up and speak when necessary.

“I’ve always kind of been, and I told Coach Heller this, I don’t lead by voice,” McCoy said. “I’ll say what I have to say, when it needs said, but I’m more of a lead by example. I think that’s what those guys were last year, especially Nick Rossetti, he was a big lead by example guy.

“I’m not going to be the guy that’s going to get in your ear all year, but there’s a couple of young guys this year, freshmen, where I’ll have to pull them aside to talk to them, and when I do they know this is important. That’s just the kind of relationship I wanted to be on this year with the younger guys, just to get them to learn.”

Heller oversees the infield during practices and with infielder Corbin Woods, the other non-pitching co-captain, nursing an off-season injury, McCoy is Heller conduit whenever a matter needs resolved or addressed on the field.

“He’s stepped up and done a really nice job with that communication and working with our other captains to make sure that all of the things are getting done that we expect from our guys both on and off the field. He’s done a super job with that since the beginning of the fall.”

A captain, off to a great start with gaudy numbers, it would be easy for McCoy to get ahead of himself, look for more accolades and even take a look at the draft. But from his upbringing to the guys he leads in the locker room, McCoy surrounds himself with people that won’t let that happen.

“I was raised that way by my parents, just to keep my feet on the mound, not to get too high and mighty with myself.

“But also my teammates. I walk into the locker room and they’re all ‘player of the week’, giving me a hard time about it.”

That sounds like a player right at home.