Webb's Words: Hoosier look to leave their mark in Big Ten history
(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)
The 2018 season marks my tenth year covering Big Ten baseball, 14th overall attending Big Ten games. Since 2005, when I was a freshman at Ohio State, I guess you can say I've seen quite a bit of Big Ten baseball. To sum up how much Big Ten baseball I've seen, there's been 21 different coaches lead a Big Ten program since 2009, with the latest being Maryland's Rob Vaughn.
I've seen stadiums transformed, like Michigan's Ray Fisher Stadium and Minnesota's Siebert Field. Incredible stadiums constructed in Purdue's Alexander Field and Indiana's Bart Kaufman Field. The conference has grown by 30% with Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers joining the conference. The conference tournament is no longer on the campus of the conference champion, in fact the conference set an NCAA record with an attendance of 19,965 for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game. The winner, Indiana, became the first Big Ten national seeds, then the conference needed one year for its second national seed in the form of Illinois. Oh and a program reached the College World Series ending the conference's 30-year drought.
The too long; don't read version: Big Ten baseball has experienced quite the transformation since 2009.
Now, about that College World Series team...
It was 2008 when Indiana showed signs of becoming a budding program. The Hoosiers reached the Big Ten Tournament in Tracy Smith's third season, ending the regular season sixth in the conference standings after four consecutive last place finishes. Just one year later, the Hoosiers put the end to another postseason drought, extending their season by a weekend. Winning the 2009 Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers were in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in the program's history, the first time since 1996.
Following the 2009 season, do you know how many years it would take for Indiana to rack up three more NCAA Tournament appearances? Six years. By the eighth season, Indiana had played in a regional for the fourth time since the 2009 breakthrough. Oh, and it was Indiana, in 2013, who became the Big Ten's first team to play in Omaha since Michigan in 1984.
The 2013-14 Indiana teams will go down as one of the best dynasties in Big Ten baseball history. Don't forget, the 2012 club finished second in the conference, only one game behind Purdue, or it would have been three straight Big Ten titles, a feat that's been accomplished only by Michigan (2006-08), Ohio State (1993-95), Illinois (1906-08) and the University of Chicago, yes they fielded a mighty Big Ten program winning the conference 1896-99.
At the end of the 2014 season, Smith became the head coach at Arizona State, the program saw the graduation of Dustin DeMuth and Joey DeNato after the respective third baseman and pitcher re-wrote the IU record book, and the drafting of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, the famed Bash Brothers who were the respective first and second round draft picks of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.
If there was to be an end to Indiana's reign as the dominant Big Ten program, it was to happen with the historical turnover.
But it didn't.
From the second Smith left Bloomington for Tempe, Indiana administrators knew who they waited to take over the program. They didn't have to go far, barely reaching across the Ohio River, to name Louisville assistant Chris Lemonis as the program's new head coach. Though once-a-generation talent had moved to the professional ranks and the architect of the program relocated out west, Indiana didn't miss a beat. In Lemonis' first year, Indiana became the first Big Ten program since Michigan in 2005-08 to reach three straight NCAA Tournaments, appearing in the 2015 Nashville Regional.
Indiana did return to the pack in 2016, although they still finished in a tie for third in the conference, missing the NCAA Tournament. But now the Hoosiers are again coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance after participating in the Lexington Regional as the No 2 seed.
With a core of players led by Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, Logan Sowers and Jonathan Stievers, Indiana returns much of its 2017 club and enter the 2018 season as the conference favorite in the eyes of coaches and media alike. Named the coaches' preseason favorite, Indiana has preseason rankings of No. 19 by Baseball America, No. 24 by the NCBWA, and earned the 27th-most points in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll. It's expected Indiana will again be back in the field of 64, if not hosting if they finish the season near the position Baseball America penciled them in.
If that were to happen Indiana will join exclusive company. The Big Ten programs that have played in five NCAA Tournament in six years are the who's who of dominant eras in Big Ten baseball history. Minnesota reached six regionals in seven years between 1998-2004. Ohio State appeared in six regionals in seven years between 1992-1997. Michigan made seven straight NCAA Tournament appearance between 1983-87. No other programs as Big Ten members will have enjoyed the level of sustain success as Indiana will have.
It may be easier in today's game for such runs of success to take place, and we may see continued runs of NCAA Tournament trips occur regularly, after all the Big Ten has placed 13 teams in the NCAA Tournament over the last three seasons, one more than the combined total of the seven years prior. Even so, if the season unfolds as many expect, what Indiana will have accomplished. It will be a run of sustained success between two coaches, a program lifted by generational talent, but kept at a high standard with an entirely new cast of characters, a program elevated to a level of national esteem.
From someone who's seen a little bit of Big Ten baseball, Indiana and the conference are in a new day, with no signs of going back.
New look Huskers ready to reign
(Photo courtesy Indiana Athletics)
The expectations have changed in the Big Ten Conference. Although there were no teams in super regionals in 2017, a record number of teams from the conference made the NCAA Tournament. Recruiting has ramped up, bringing in more talent. Athletic departments are putting more money into baseball programs. There’s momentum here.
But it can’t stop at just getting teams into the NCAA Tournament. The next step is the supers, and ultimately the College World Series.
The two Big Ten team closest to the home of the College World Series, Nebraska, took a step forward last season as the conference champions, reaching the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four years. In a sport where your best talent typically leaves each year and in a conference that makes it difficult to reload each year, Nebraska’s Darin Erstad has work to do in 2018 with a new look squad.
“I don’t roll seasons over,” Erstad said at Nebraska’s media day. “It’s a whole new set of circumstances coming into this year.”
Erstad is tasked with replacing All-American Jake Meyers and Derek Burkamper in the Husker rotation, two who combined to eat up over 150 innings for the Huskers last season. But Erstad isn't without a pitcher coming off of an impressive 2017 season. Senior right-hander Luis Alvarado is back in Lincoln after being drafted in the 13th round last year after a solid year as Nebraska’s closer. He’ll be stretched out after totaling 15.1 innings last year, taking the ball on opening day as Nebraska's Friday night starter. Jake McSteen will be the Saturday starter after being leaned on heavily out of the bullpen last year, nearly reaching 40 innings. Nate Fisher and Creighton transfer Matt Warren will fill out the rotation.
Of Alvarado starting, Erstad said they would adjust as they go.
“You’re going to be patient,” the seventh-year head coach said. “And looking long term as far as building their pitch counts up…I’m sure there will be some bumps there. We want our best arm going out there right out of the gate and let him do his thing.”
Nebraska starts this season without the services of Ben Miller, Meyers, and Jake Schleppenbach, respective multi-year starters at first base, center fielder and second base. Those three combined to make 163 starts and over 600 at-bats.
Luckily, two-time first-team All Big Ten selection Scott Schreiber is back for his senior season. Schreiber hit .330 last year with 55 RBI. His production will be key in Nebraska building on last season’s success, along with All-Big Ten players Angelo Altavilla and Jake Hohensee.
Altavilla, Alvarado, Hohensee, and Schreiber, along with the likes of third baseman Luke Roskam and left fielder Mojo Hagge gives Erstad a collection of players who have enjoyed success in college baseball. But with sizable holes to fill and expandad roles for many, what we will learn in the coming month is which newcomers will make an impact and who is ready to embrace a bigger role for the reining Big Ten champions, what kind of team Nebraska will be in 2018.
“I think they’re going to be annoying to face,” Erstad said. “We’ve got a bunch of grinders. They’ve had a taste of winning and they want more.”
What to watch for this weekend
Inclement weather saw flights cancelled throughout the Midwest on Thursday, leaving Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern stranded at airports, scrambling for last minute options for travel options and potential new weekend opponents on the eve of the college baseball season. For teams who have reached their destination, weather doesn't look favorable in the southeast, with Maryland's series at Tennessee potential impacted, although Minnesota with a weekend in Georgia against Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State and Georgia State look safe for now. It's the return of the college baseball season, and the return of schedule uncertainty.
Who takes the field for Michigan?
Weather won't be a factor for Michigan when they take the field in Port St. Luice for four games against Army. But there is mystery around the Wolverines this weekend with it being up in the air as to who will start for Erik Bakich. After 11 players were picked in the MLB Draft, Michigan experienced quite the turnover from its Chapel Hill Regional team. Michigan's game notes this week lists five potential starters for the four games, and two options at every position in the field. Illness and injuries have played a role in some of the uncertainty for Michigan, but for Bakich, who likes the depth of the team, it may take a week or two to figure out who gives Michigan the best shot to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
Can Feltner become Ohio State's ace?
Ohio State has high expectations for junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner. The Buckeye staff will give the highly-touted prospect, who held a 0.00 ERA as a closer in the Cape Cod League to earn an all-star nod, every chance to show he can succeed as a starter. So far in his career, the result have been unever as a Buckeye, holding a 5.14 ERA over 131.1 innings. To rebound from a 10th-place finish a year ago, Ohio State needs Feltner to harness his stuff, he has a four-pitch arsenal which includes as fastball that can reach 99, and be the pitcher who enters the season as one of the Big Ten's top prospects. If Feltner can be the aces Greg Beals and company hopes he can, Ohio State has the bullpen depth and experience in the weekend rotation to be a contender if the offense takes a step forward.