10 B1G Baseball Things to Watch in May

The final month of the college baseball season is here. With respect to February, March, April and even June, there’s nothing like baseball in May.

From fights for conference championships, battles for individual honors, the polishing og postseason resumes, the opportunity for some firsts and the heartbreaks of some, lasting memories are made in May.

What’s in store for the Big Ten in May? Here’s 10 things to watch across the conference as a wild month unfolds.

The Player of the Year showdown

Michigan’s Jordan Brewer and Ohio State’s Dominic Canzone are 1-2 in the Big Ten in batting. The Wolverine leads the conference with a .378 average, the Buckeye sits second at .367. Both are hitting for power in posting gaudy averages. With the conference’s top slugging percentage, .685, Brewer has 11 doubles with 11 home runs. Slugging .656, Canzone has 12 doubles, two triples and 12 home runs. Where Brewer trails in extra-base hits, and total hits (66 to 54) he bests Canzone in stolen bases. Brewer has swiped 13 bags in 17 attempts to Canzone’s six stolen bases in seven tries.

For the first time in several years, without a David Kerian, Matt Fielder, Jake Adams or Bren Spillane there isn’t a clear cut favorite for the conference’s top individual honor as the season enters the final month. With two equally viable candidates, last POY battle this tight was 2013 when Illinois Justin Parr and Indiana’s Kyle Schwarber each had a rightful claim. As Michigan looks for its first conference crown in 11 years, and the Buckeyes fight for a spot in the conference tournament, these two leading men will be needed to be at their best. And the one that is looks like they’ll go down as the Big Ten’s best.

Who takes home the ERA crown?

Seven Big Ten pitchers posses ERAs between 2.00 and 2.40. Extending it to 2.70 nets three more hurlers. While pitching continues to get better and better in the Big Ten, and teams possessing deeper staffs, there hasn’t been a year quite like the one we’re witnessing in 2019. There isn’t just one very good, perhaps dominant pitcher, there’s been several.

Minnesota’s Max Meyer leads the Big Ten with a 2.00 ERA, a sneeze better than Penn State’s Dante Biasi’s 2.01 mark. Iowa’s Grant Judkins is right there at 2.11. PSU stretch reliever Mason Mellott sports a 2.30 ERA, Indiana’s Andrew Saalfrank checks in at 2.31.

With 90 strikeouts in 62.2 innings and a .177 ERA, Biasi has incredible numbers alongside his ERA to stake his claim for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. But with ERAs as low as his, and the company breathing down his neck, it would take one bad outing to fall out of the top 10.

Big time bye weeks

The race for the Big Ten crown is going to be dramatic, with Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa all within two games of each other. The rounding out of the Big Ten Tournament field should be just as intense, with two games separating fifth and 11th places. But don’t forget about the action taking place outside of conference play.

Three significant bye weeks round out the regular season. Iowa hosts UC Irvine, Nebraska host Arizona State, and Arizona travels to Penn State. The first two series have NCAA Tournament implications. Both Irvine and ASU are ranked. Winning those series will help Iowa and Nebraska solidify their postseason resumes. For Penn State, it’s been a tough season, one that start with promise before fizzling out. While postseason play will elude them, winning their final series of the weekend, especially against a Power 5, nationally-recognized team like Arizona, will give a young team something to rally around in the offseason.

Regardless of outcome, it is great for the Big Ten to have perennial powers and college bluebloods on their turf, late in the season, with an opportunity to continue to shape the perception of Big Ten baseball.

Does Penn State play spoiler?

It just hasn’t been Penn State’s year. Although the team has pitched to a 3.84 ERA, fourth-best in the Big Ten, a conference-worst .231 batting average has been an anchor around the Nittany Lions all season. Of Penn State’s 15 conference losses, seven have been by one run and six by two runs. Penn State has suffered six defeats where they allowed three runs or fewer, and three when it’s only been one or two runs. Although a return to the Big Ten Tournament must wait at least another year, Penn State can do significant damage to a pair of club’s postseason hopes, prior to the season-ending series versus Arizona.

First up, Penn State welcomes Rutgers to town this weekend, a club with their own offensive struggles. The Nittany Lions play their final Big Ten in Columbus, against an Ohio State team that is incredibly sneaky. Every possible outcome is on the table as Penn State takes on these two scarlet-clad clubs. Including outcomes that can keep a club, or both, from Omaha.

Can the Hoosier slug 100 home runs?

Indiana leads the country with 77 home runs, a pace of 1.75 home runs per each of the team’s 44 games. Over a 56-game schedule that amounts to 98 home runs. Can the Hoosiers hit 100 home runs? With 11 games left in the regular season, IU needs to hit 2.1 per contest to hit the century mark before the postseason. Assuming all games are played in the regular season and Indiana at worst goes 0-2 in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, they would need 23 over 15 games, a modest clip of 1.53 home runs per game. As the team creeps towards the century mark, the Big Ten record for home runs in a season is in play. The mark sits at 108, set by Michigan in 1985.

There is one record the Hoosiers are assuredly going to blow by: most times struck out. Indiana batters have struck out 469 times this season, just 14 shy of the single-season record set by Ohio State in 2016. Of course that Ohio State team won 40 games, and won the Big Ten Tournament. Success Indiana would take.

Is a regional heading to Champaign?

Earlier this season, there was a time when Illinois was ranked. Then, there was a time when Illinois sat 1-5 in Big Ten play. Now, the Illini are back on the upswing, with a few big opportunities in front on them.

Illinois picked up a 5-2 win over Indiana State on Wednesday, giving the team a ninth win in 13 contests against team with an RPI of 50 or better. And with an RPI of their own at 21, Illinois is compiling a resume that has a chance to host a regional. That resume can add a pretty shiny start with a weekend over Indiana, whom the Illini host this weekend. Illinois’ RPI may take a hit through the rest of May, series versus Purdue and at Michigan State has Illinois facing the Big Ten’s two worst rated clubs. But already Illinois has weekend wins against Florida Atlantic, Illinois State, Minnesota and Nebraska, in addition to taking two games against Coastal Carolina. Barring a complete collapse over the final month, Illinois zeroing in on a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. And just as they did that year, the Illini might be playing postseason baseball at home.

Will Rutgers have enough juice to get to Omaha?

Rutgers has the weekend rotation to earn a spot in the program’s first Big Ten Tournament. With Harry Rutkowski, Tommy Genuario and Tevin Murray, all three holding sub-3.50 ERAs, the Scarlet Knights are capable of winning every weekend on the strength of their staff. But to win a baseball game one must outscore the opposition. The scoring part has been tough for Rutgers this year. While the team has a 3.29 ERA in Big Ten play, fifth-best, the bats havent’ match. The club’s .234 batting average is 11th and it’s .292 slugging percentage sits last. With the weekend rotation all in line to return next year, their success this season has opened the door for possibilities next year of vying for a conference crown and spot in the NCAA Tournament. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow if postseason play is put off another year with the way the Rutgers rotation has pitched.

What does Maryland get out of Blohm?

Maryland junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm opened May making just his third appearance on the mound. Prior to Wednesday’s action, the 2017 Big Ten Freshman of the Year was sidelined for two months, last pitching on Feb. 17 against Virginia Commonwealth, before returning to the mound on April 23 for a start against VCU. As he returns to form, the results have been encouraging. In his two outings, Blohm has logged 5.1 innings, allowed two hits and struck out nine batters against one walk. Blohm possesses the stuff to be among the Big Ten’s top pitching prospects when healthy. With his return, and doing so in strong from, he gives Rob Vaughn and the Terps one more bullet in the chamber as they fight a crowded field for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. It is worth watching if Maryland can get him back into the weekend rotation and stretched out, as their finishing stretch of Michigan-Minnesota-Iowa, might be the toughest in the conference.

Northwestern’s bid for a winning season

It’s been 15 years since Northwestern last had a non-losing season, going 25-25 in 2003. The drought dates back to 2000 to find Northwestern’s last winning season, a 30-27 campaign. The Wildcats opened May on a high, defeating Illinois State, 6-3, a team ranked 32 in the RPI. At 19-22 heading into their final 10 games, it would take a 7-3 run to finish the regular season north of .500. Northwestern’s final three weekends see Nebraska and Minnesota travel to Evanston, around a series at Rutgers. With that finishing stretch, a winning season may be a tall order. But the opportunity is there for Spencer Allen and company to take a significant step forward as a program.

Who wins the Big Ten? Who reaches Omaha?

Just look at the standings? It’s crowded. It’s time for chaos. Welcome to May.

10 B1G Baseball First-Half Thoughts

The Big Ten has reached the midway point of its conference season, bringing to close a first-half that had a bit over everything. A small sample size certainty contributes to it, but only one and a half games separate third from 10th place, as the first four weekends providing shocking results, one after another. It does appear two teams have jumped to the front of the pack, with two more teams hanging on by a thread, but for everyone else, it’s been a roller coaster of a conference slate.

Before looking ahead to what should be an equally frantic second-half, here’s a look at 10 first-half thoughts.

The wildest opening month in recent memory

Where does one begin? Whether it’s due to greater parity or weather forcing one Saturday doubleheader after another, the first four weeks of the Big Ten season has been full of twist and turns.

Illinois opened conference play with a 1-5 mark, after opening the season on a 17-4 tear. Iowa was primarily responsible for Illinois’ slow start, sweeping the Illini in their conference-opening series. Unfortunately for Rick Heller’s club, the Hawkeyes were on the opposite side of a sweep one week later at Indiana. Ohio State has also suffered a brooming, seeing Northwestern enter Columbus and leave with three wins. But the Buckeyes would then rebound the following weekend by taking two of three from a ranked Michigan team, a Wolverine club which some viewed to be the prohibitive favorite after taking a series against Minnesota.

Many times it has appeared a team was poised to make go on an extended run, only to take a step backwards the following weekend. Similarly, more than once has it appeared a club had a long season in front of them, before looking like a top club the next weekend. I guess that’s how you get five teams a game within .500.

Indiana has its scariest lineup in at least a decade

Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs and it’s not even close. The Hooisers have slugged 66 home runs, lapping Michigan’s second-best total of 37. In fact, with 13 home runs apiece, Cole Barr and Matt Lloyd have more home runs individually than Purdue (6) and Rutgers (10) do as a team and just as many as Michigan State. In total, 12 Hoosier have left the yard, with Matt Gorski (9) and Grant Richardson (7), set to join Barr and Lloyd in double-digits. It’s a 1-9 with power the Big Ten hasn’t seen in some time.

Indiana isn’t too far removed from the days of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, but this is the most potent IU lineup to take to Bart Kaufman Field. Indiana’s 2014 national seed team only hit 43 home runs on the year. The year before, when Indiana reached the College World Series, Tracy Smith’s club hit 53 home runs in 65 games. Those dominant clubs where more methodical and wore you down over nine innings, opposed to capable of putting up a crooked inning no matter which part of the lineup is due up, at whatever junction.

With 66 home runs in 37 games, this Indiana outfit is squarely on pace for a 100-home run season. Every player possesses the ability to go out of the yard, at any given moment, recall memories of Indiana’s 2009 club, when first-round Josh Phegley and freshman Alex Dickerson anchored a potent offense that mashed its way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.

Again, the two best teams will not play each other

Speaking of the Hoosiers, its appears that they and the Huskers of Nebraska have separated from the pack and are moving forward as the two best clubs. Indiana’s 7-2 Big Ten mark trails only Nebraska’s 10-2 clip. While Indiana is powered by ferocious attack, Nebraska’s pitching has been at top form, stifling opponents. While they fight for the conference titles, fans look to be out in the cold, and won’t see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, as the Hoosier and Huskers are not slated to play each other in the regular season. (Although that didn’t stop the two from meeting in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament for an unforgettable affairs.)

If the two finish 1-2 or 2-1 in the Big Ten standings, it will be another year when the top two clubs do not meet. Just as IU and Nebraska didn’t meet in 2014, nor did Illinois and Iowa in 2015, nor Minnesota and Nebraska in 2016, nor Nebraska and Illinois in 2017. The streak did end last year, as Minnesota and Purdue met in an abbreviated two-game as Minnesota outscored Purdue 40-15. That was far from the classic a not-to-be series between Indiana and Nebraska has the potential to be.

Penn State isn’t what their record says they are

At the opposite end of the standings, Penn State’s 1-10 conference mark has the Nittany Lions 12th in the 13-team table. It’s almost becoming downright cruel, but Penn State is far from what one would expect of a club with one win in 11 conference games. Of the 10 losses, five have been by two runs, with four coming by a lone run. Only once, a 5-1 loss to Minnesota in the first game of the Big Ten season, has Penn State been decisively outmatched.

In their 11 conference contests, Penn State has only gave up 41 runs, an average of 3.72 per game, pitching to a 2.79 ERA in conference play. Only Nebraska and Indiana, a pair of clubs Penn State has played, have lower ERAs, 1.92 and 2.32, respectively. But in baseball you can only win if you outscore the opposition. As strong as Penn State’s pitching has been, the oppositions has been better, holding PSU to 26 runs and a .202 batting average. But, as the Nittany Lions enter the second-half of Big Ten play with the two toughest opponents behind them, they do so with a weekend rotation that should have them in every game and will trip up any time gauging their ability by their Big Ten record. Especially as Dante Biasi and his 1.93 ERA and Big Ten-leading 70 strikeouts sits atop the weekend rotation.

A slow start for the stars

Heading into the season, prognosticators pegged Illinois Michael Massey, Indiana’s Matt Gorski and Michigan’s Jesse Franklin as the Big Ten tops players, with Minnesota sophomore right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson a heavy favorite to repeat as the conference’s top pitcher. While it’s far too early to write anyone off, the seasons those four players are having are not what was expected.

Injury has slowed Massey down and kept him out of the field, regulated to Illinois’ DH spot all through February and March. Just recently has the 2018 Rawlings Gold Glove recipient returned to his natural second base, as he bats a good, but not spectacular .333. Gorski does have the aforementioned nine home runs, but he is batting just .276. That’s still significantly better than Franklin’s .238 mark, although Franklin has one-upped Gorski with 10 home runs. Iowa’s Chris Whelan, Ohio State’s Kobie Foppe and Rutgers’ Carmen Scalfani are also expected offensive leaders who haven’t seen hits fall in as expected.

But the most perplexing slow start falls on Fredrickson. A year removed from going 9-0 with a 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson is 1-3 with a 5.74 ERA. En route to winning Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year honors, Fredrickson issued just 27 walks in 97 innings. Control has been a significant issue in 2019, as the Gopher has walked 25 batters in just 26.2 innings.

Freshmen making an impact

Where some returning standouts have struggle, there’s a crop of rookies getting it done, a few stepping up to pick up some of the slack from those once all-conference performers, setting up a dandy of a Freshman of the Year race.

Right-hander Garrett Burhenn holds a 3.16 ERA as he has emerged as Ohio State’s ace. Richardson’s seven home runs pace freshmen, one more than Burhenn’s fellow Buckeye freshman, Zach Denzenzo and Maryland’s Maxwell Costes, the latter holding a .911 OPS and a Maryland-leading 30 RBI. Michigan closer Willie Weiss has six saves and a 3.38 ERA. While Cam McDonald has stepped up nicely for the Illini, with a .307 batting average and

Seniors are providing significant production

Of course, the seniors won’t have the freshman steal all of the spotlight.

Seniors have stepping up to pacing their respective club in hitting are:

Jack Dunn (.374), Northwestern

Grant Van Scoy (.363), Illinois

Jordan Bowersox (.344), Penn State

Matt Lloyd (.318), Indiana

Dunn leads the conference in average and on-base percentage (.477), while Lloyd leads in home runs and slugging percentage (.689) and RBI (38).

Seniors carrying the torch on the mound are:

Matt Waldron (1.76 ERA), Nebraska

Pauly Milto (1.98), Indiana

Hunter Parsons (2.95), Maryland

Waldron’s ERA leads Big Ten hurlers, with Parsons’ 64 innings the standard-bearer.

Max Meyer gives Minnesota a puncher’s chance

One star who has delivered on preseason promise would be the walk-away winner of any Most Valuable Player honor: Minnesota sophomore Max Meyer. With the Gophers struggling to find traction, the Gophers moved their all-american closer to the front of the rotation. Converting a key reliever to starter hasn’t worked out well for a few Big Ten teams in recent years (Indiana, Nebraska (several times), Michigan State, Northwestern just to name a few), but it has so far for John Anderson, and it may be a move that saved their season.

Minnesota sat 2-8 on the year, in part due to stout competition, before Meyer made his first start against Oregon State on March 8. Minnesota has gone 14-10 since, while Meyer sports a 1.97 ERA on the season, with 58 strikeouts in 50.1 innings and a .204 batting average against. With Meyer atop the rotation, Minnesota can go toe-to-toe against anyone in the country. With Fredrickson’s regression and all but Jeff Fasching and Brett Schulze providing inconsistent returns, Minnesota desperately need the experiment to work. And it has. Meyer emerging as a frontline starter is also coming as he tackled two-way duties, batting .292 over 96 at-bats in 29 games.

Rutgers has the staff it needs to reach the postseason

While Minnesota entered the season looking to reach Omaha as College World Series participants, looking build off last season’s end in the Corvallis Super Regional, Rutgers is looking to play in Omaha as participants in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time. And for the first time under Joe Litterio, The Scarlet Knights have a weekend staff capable of getting them there.

Sophomore Harry Rutkowski, junior Tommy Genuario and junior Tevin Murray make up a rotation with respective ERAs of 3.23, 2.97 and 3.66. That has Rutgers join Illinois, Indiana and Michigan as Big Ten teams with each pitcher in their weekend rotation holding a sub-4.00 ERA. And just like the Hoosiers, Illinois and Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights have a reliable closer in senior Serafino Brito. Rutgers doesn’t have the pitching depth those three other clubs do, Rutgers’ team ERA is 4.69, ninth in the conference, but they can role out a strong rotation and close out games in a manner needed to finish in the top eight.

ESPN and Fox Sports provide more national exposure

As the Big Ten Network is in its second decade, the benefits of the conference-centric network have been invaluable. Additional revenue for Big Ten athletic departments have helped many olympic sports receive new or enhanced facilities. The network helps with recruiting in exposing those facilities and the game action to all parts of the country. And it’s new for friends and families to tune on a game when unable to travel and take in. But more and more BTN isn’t the only network airing Big Ten baseball to the country from coast to coast. Already ESPNU has aired Big Ten play, the finale of the Purdue-Nebraska series, while FS1 has shown a non-conference Purdue-Indiana midweek affair and a Butler-Purdue contest the following week. ESPNU will also air the finale of the Minnesota-Indiana , a week before FS1 broadcasts action from Minneapolis in a showdown between the Gophers and Buckeyes. While gates around the conference may take a small hit, it’s great to see Big Ten baseball on multiple airwaves around the country.

Big Ten baseball’s 19 things to look forward to in ’19

The next time the calendar reads the 15th, it will be opening day for the Division I college baseball season.

Although teams are still a little more than a week for holding spring practice, the upcoming season is getting closer and closer, it’s time to focus on the 2019 version of the Road to Omaha.

Kicking off preseason coverage, what is 10 Innings looking forward to most this season? Here’s 19 things to look forward to over the 2019 campaign.

1) Does Minnesota cement its dynasty?

The reigning Big Ten champions had a season for the ages in 2018, appearing in a super regional for the first time in program history. (Minnesota had reached the College World Series before the current NCAA Tournament format.) Going 44-15, the Gophers claimed a second Big Ten title in three years. Every five years or so, the Big Ten sees a program jump to the front of the pack and run off with multiple titles in a short window. Before Indiana went back-to-back in 2013-14, Michigan claimed three straight from 2006-08. At the turn of the millennium, Minnesota were Big Ten champs from 2002-04. And going on 25 years now, Ohio State finished atop the Big Ten standings for five straight seasons, starting in 1991. With a deeper returning lineup than many may believe, and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the conference, and a challenging pre-conference schedule to lead the Gophers into the Big Ten battle-tested, is another title in store, cementing Minnesota as the dominant program of the 2000’s second decade?

 

2) Will there be another 20-home run star?

Etching his name into the Big Ten record book, Jake Adams’ lone season at Iowa was historic, grabbing the nation’s attention with a 29-home run season in 2017. The record appeared to be in danger less than a year later as Illinois’ Bren Spillane opened the 2018 season on a historic tear. An ankle injury saw the Illini first basemen miss a few games in the middle of the season, slowing his momentum, forcing Spillane to finish with only 23 home runs. Will the 2019 season have another slugger emerge and rewrite school records in the process? Michigan’s Jesse Franklin is the conference’s returning home run leader with 10, but’s worth nothing he was able to reach double digits as a freshman.

 

3) Mercer’s homecoming

On their third coach in five years, Indiana will see if the highs over the last decade can be carried over into next one. And if that’s the case, it’s likely first-year head coach Jeff Mercer will be the lone Hoosier head coach for a long, long time. Mercer, an Indiana native, is now in charge of steering the baseball program he’s always dreamed of leading. After two strong years at Wright State, leading the program current Penn State coach Rob Cooper built up, Mercer brings leads an All-Indiana staff to a program he’s determined to make Indiana’s signature college baseball team. Indiana returns a strong roster from last year’s Austin Regional runners-up team, and are now lead by a coach viewed as one of college baseball’s top young coaches. Putting it all together, does 2019 become a very special season in Mercer’s homecoming?

 

4) March 6-8 tournaments

If you’re looking to get a pretty big bang for your buck with a jam-packed Big Ten weekend, March 6-8 is a weekend to circle. On opposite coasts, a pair of tournaments have two Big Ten teams participating, and a third tournament features some bluebloods of college baseball. Circle this weekend and watch the fun unfold, especially in the Pacific Northwest where two of the Big Ten’s expected top teams can go a long way in show they’re also two of the country’s top teams.

Dodgertown College Baseball Classic

Michigan @ UCLA, @ USC, vs. Oklahoma State

Greenville Drive 1st Pitch Invitational

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, Ohio State, Furman, Appalachian State

Ohio State vs. Furman, Michigan State, Western Carolina

Seattle Baseball Showcase

Indiana vs. Washington, Oregon State, San Diego

Minnesota vs. Oregon State, San Diego, Washington

 

5) Who bounces back?

Five key players I want to see if there is a bounceback season in 2019, players team will ask a lot of, after struggling in 2018:

Nebraska senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla

Penn State junior left-handed pitcher Dante Biasi

Maryland senior shortstop AJ Lee

Michigan senior second baseman Ako Thomas

Illinois senior outfielder Jack Yalowitz

 

6) Seeing if Rutgers takes the next step

The 2019 season will be Rutgers fifth as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights are 0-for-4 in participating in a Big Ten Tournament. But after a staff shakeup, 2018 saw progress for Joe Literrio’s club. Rutgers went 25-25 on the season, a seven and one-half game improvement over the 2017 season, and finished at least .500 for the first time since 2014. Now the onus is for Rutgers to avoid unraveling in the Big Ten. On April 11, Rutgers was 18-11 overall and claimed Big Ten wins over Penn State and Michigan State before finishing 7-14. Literrio has worked to increase the talent level in Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights should have one of its better rosters going back to Todd Fraizer’s days. Now it’s time to see if potential meets production and Rutgers takes the next step and shows they are ready to meet the Big Ten’s upward trend.

 

7) Max Meyer at the plate

Armed with a weapon of a wipeout slider, Minnesota closer Max Meyer pitched his way to All-America honors and onto USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018. It doesn’t hurt Meyer’s fastball can comfortably sit in the mid-90s, too. But for everything he did and can do on the mound, Meyer arrived in Minnesota as a two-way player. The dominance Meyer exhibited on the mound as a freshman took the bat out of his hands after 30 at-bats,. But the Gophers are set to unleash the two-way Meyer this spring. Either in left field or at DH, Meyer was a high school shortstop but he will not see the infield to keep his arm fresh, Minnesota plans to insert Meyer in the heart of their lineup. With Meyer focusing just on hitting and baserunning this fall, reports out of Minneapolis were glowing. The Gopher staff believes Meyer has just as much potential at the plate as Matt Fieller showed in 2016, when that two-way Gopher batted .366 and slugged .525 en route to honor Big Ten Player of the Year honors. If that’s the case, the most dynamic player in the country may be Meyer.

 

8) Purdue as a hunted

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski has garnered national attention for the job he has done in West Lafayette. And it’s certainly just praise. It took only two years to take Purdue from the Big Ten’s basement and into a regional. The Boilermakers did not hide that they used preseason predictions of finishing outside of the Big Ten’s top six for motivation. But now, after finishing second in the conference and drawing slaps on the back and repeated praise, is the same hunger there? How Purdue fares this year, and if there is sustained success now and in the years to come, may be more indicative of Wasikowski’s coaching ability than last season. With high expectations, does Purdue keep moving along?

 

9) Is this the year Michigan finishes strong?

Michigan enters the season as Big Ten favorites by national outlets, and ranked in some polls. The Wolverines are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and many predict them to do so. But is this the year that Erik Bakich’s team finishes May with a head of momentum? A 2-9 finish to the 2016 cost U-M a potential NCAA Tournament berth, as did last year’s 2-7 swoon to conclude the season. And in the year Michigan did play in a regional, the Wolverines went 0-2, that on the heels of an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has won 111 games over the last three seasons, nothing at all to sneeze at, the how each season has finished has left more to be desired out of Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are set to have a number beside their name to open the season, will they have one with the final out is recorded?

 

10) Seth Lonsway’s debut

Before Patrick Fredrickson and Meyer helped guided Minnesota to a top 10 finish, the freshman pitcher expected to turn heads was Ohio State southpaw Seth Lonsway. Able to run it into the mid-90s, and turning down a six-figure offer from the Cincinnati Reds to head to Columbus, Lonsway was the Big Ten’s top recruit according to Baseball America. But how a high school course was registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse prevented Lonsway to being eligible as a freshman, unable to contribute to Ohio State’s regional-bound club. Now, with the Buckeyes needing to replace their entire rotation, the time couldn’t be better for Lonsway to debut and hopefully be the impact, blue-chip prospect Greg Beals needs as the Bucks seek a third regional in four years.

 

11) A dynamic freshman class

More and more, freshman are making a big impact in the Big Ten, and this year figures to be no different. Ohio State is set to rely on a quartet of freshman arms, in addition to Lonsway, as they seek to end a 10-year title drought. Illinois has a ballyhooed recruiting class, with high-ceiling rookies at catcher (Jacob Campbell), shortstop (Branden Comia), and on the mound (Aidan Maldonando). Nebraska shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach may by the most dynamic freshman Nebraska’s had as a Big Ten member, while teammates Bo Blessie and Colby Gomes headed to Lincoln after esteemed prep careers. Maryland sees a bright future in Maxwell Costes, the younger brother of former standout Marty. Minnesota likes their freshman haul, Michigan has another banner coast-to-coast class, as do in-state peer Michigan State. Gone are the days of seeing teams rely on upperclassmen to lead them to titles and into the postseason. Freshman are continually being expected to contributor in key roles and this year’s crop should have plenty that step up and do just that.

 

12) Will ninth innings being a collective roller coaster?

Last year, five Big Ten closers recorded at least 13 saves:

Minnesota’s Max Meyer- 16

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker- 15

Purdue’s Ross Learnard- 15

Illinois’ Joey Gerber- 14

Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee- 13.

Only Meyer returns. Iowa and Michigan will also be without their saves leader in 2018, forcing at least half of the Big Ten’s ninth-inning duties up for grabs around the conference. As Meyer, Kinker and Learnard were on teams playing the in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly helps Omaha-aspiring teams to have a stopped at the end of the bullpen. Who will step up in those roles this year, or will everyone but John Anderson be on edge as the last few outs are attempted to be recorded?

 

13) High how does Matt Gorski’s draft stock rise?

One of the best all-around Big Ten prospects of the last five years, Indiana’s Matt Gorski has shown an ability to play multiple positions, run, get on base and hit with pop. Entering the season as the top positional Big Ten prospect in a quick, by way of a quick informal poll of scouts, just how high can Gorski’s stock rise? In 2016, Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt and Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson were the respective 53rd and 62nd overall picks of the draft, can Gorski go higher? Before those two, other high outfield draft picks include Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre, 62nd in 2010 and Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka, 33rd in 2009.

 

14) More Big Ten/Pac-12 showdowns

The Big Ten and Pac-12 split 28 games last season; a 12-12 draw in the regular season, before Minnesota twice beat UCLA in the Minneapolis Regional, then twice falling to eventual national champion Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Although there is not a Big Ten/Pac-12 / DQ Classic this year, the 2019 schedule is still loaded with contests between the two Rose Bowl-linked conferences that should make for fun viewing. In additional to the March 6-8 tournaments keep an eye on:

Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Feb. 21-24

Michigan State @ Arizona State, March 1-3

Arizona State @ Nebraska, May 10-12

Arizona @ Penn State, May 16-18

 

15) And marquee Big Ten-Big XII series

And it’s not just the Pac-12 that the Big Ten has quite the buffet of contests against. These five series versus Big XII schools have the potential to be resume bullets come NCAA Tournament selection time.

Purdue @ Texas, Feb. 22-24

Iowa @ Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Baylor @ Nebraska, March 8-10

Michigan @ Texas Tech, March 21-23

Oklahoma @ Minnesota, April 19-21

 

16) Illinois’ ability to repeat history

Taking a short trip down memory lane, Illinois should have been in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Going 32-21 overall, and 17-7 in the Big Ten, the Illini put together an NCAA-worthy resume, including a sweep of SEC champion Florida, scoring 11 runs against one in two contests against the Gators. But Dan Hartleb’s team was only good enough to be one of the first teams outside the field of 64 in the eyes of the selection committee. That snub helped fuel the fire of Illinois in 2015, as the Illini blitzed the Big Ten, winning 21 of 22 games, put together a 27-game winning streak, earned the No. 6 national seed and hosted the program’s first super regional. Now, after Illinois was one of the first teams outside of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, returns their entire rotation and six starters, is history set to repeat itself and a pissed off Orange and Blue club leaves no doubt of its regional worthiness?

 

17) Patrick Fredrickson’s encore

In the 25 seasons of the Big Ten naming a Pitcher of the Year, only once has a pitcher earned the honor in two consecutive seasons: Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers, 2009-2010. There has also been another one-time feat, that is of a freshman claiming the title, which happened last year as Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was name the top freshman and pitcher in the conference. With a Big Ten-best 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson turned in a perfect 9-0 season and seemingly turned heads every weekend, brilliant from start to finish. Now that Big Ten batters will have their second go at the lanky righty, can he keep opposing batters to a .209 batting average? Is another All-America season in store? Few will have had the expectations that are being placed on Fredrickson heading into year two, it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to them and resets an already high bar.

 

18) Can the Big Ten host multiple regionals?

For all of the postseason progress the Big Ten has made over the last half-dozen years-a team in Omaha, multiple national seeds, three different regional hosts, multiple years with at least five regional participants and four different super regional participants-one accomplishment has remained outside of the conference’s grasp: multiple regional hosts. Under the NCAA Tournament’s current format, never have two Big Ten programs hosted a regional in the same tournament. With the conference sending at least three teams to the tournament in every year since 2015, it seems it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Will the 20th anniversary of the current format of the 64-team tournament be the year it happens?

 

19) The end of winter

Just kidding, this is the Big Ten, prepare for a mid-April cancellation to due cold temperatures and snow. And just as the Midwest and East Coast is blanketed in a fresh cover of snow, it’s time to welcome to the college baseball season.

Rutgers Releases 2019 Schedule

Piscataway, N.J. –Under the direction of sixth-year head coach Joe Litterio, Rutgers baseball released its 2019 schedule on Tuesday. The Scarlet Knights have 53 games listed, including 19 at Bainton Field and 24 in Big Ten play.

“I am happy with how the schedule came together for this season,” Litterio said. “The difficult early-season games will prepare us for league play in the competitive Big Ten Conference.”

The Scarlet Knights will open at Miami for the 10th time in 11 seasons with a three-game set beginning Feb. 15 against the Hurricanes. Next up, RU will take part in a tournament at New Orleans that will also feature games versus Butler and Chicago. Succeeding non-conference weekends will at Old Dominion and at USC Upstate. The spring break trip to Florida starts with a series at Florida Gulf Coast before playing Harvard midweek in Port Charlotte and wrapping up against Indiana State in a neutral weekend at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers.

The home opener at Bainton Field is scheduled for Feb. 26 versus Wagner, which would once again be the earliest home contest in program history. Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern will all visit Piscataway during Big Ten play. The conference road trips will be to Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana. The top eight teams in the conference standings will qualify for the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha.

The Scarlet Knights are finishing up fall practice after improving by six wins in 2018. RU had a streak of six-straight series wins, winning seven-of-eight weekends during a stretch into mid-April. That included a 6-1 spring break trip in Florida that propelled the team to 12 victories in March, the most since 2001, and later to as high as seven games over .500 for the first time since 2012. The pitching staff lowered its season ERA from 6.11 to 4.82 and the gloves led the Big Ten with 50 double plays. At the plate, the Scarlet Knights picked up 111 RBIs with two outs for an average of more than two per game.

Click here for the full 2019 schedule.

Rutgers Hires Tom Conley as Assistant Coach

Piscataway, N.J. –Rutgers baseball head coach Joe Litterio has announced the hiring of Tom Conley as an assistant coach. A four-year starter at catcher for Massachusetts, he spent the last two seasons on the coaching staff at Harvard. The Quincy, Massachusetts, native will work with the Scarlet Knight catchers among other duties.

“We are excited to welcome Tom to our staff,” Litterio said. “He brings with him a ton of knowledge and experience at the catching position.”

“My fiancée, Amelia, and I are excited to join the Rutgers University community,” Conley said. “I want to thank coach Litterio and the Rutgers administration for giving me this opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with the coaching staff and helping in any way that I can to get our guys better and achieve our goals.”

In his second year at Harvard in 2018, Conley saw success with the Crimson as he accompanied a successful team to a Beanpot Championship title — its first since 2014 and fifth in program history — and its most wins since 2005 with a 22-20 overall record. Harvard tied for third in the conference with a record of 12-9, with contribution from seven All-Ivy players and four NEIBA All-New England selections.

Conley was a part of the coaching staff that helped Noah Zavolas and Simon Rosenblum-Larson become 2018 MLB Draft picks for the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays, respectively. In addition, the team was recognized for the NCAA Academic Progress Rate Public Recognition Award, with 21 players recognized by the ECAC for academic accomplishments.

Conley previously spent three seasons at Trinity. During his tenure with the Bantams, Conley helped the team improve its conference record in each of his three seasons, working with the catchers and hitters. The team finished second in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Championships in 2016. Conley mentored five players who earned NESCAC All-Conference honors, including 2016 NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Scott Cullinane at catcher.

As the head coach for the Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, Conley assisted the Suns in reaching the playoffs in the past three seasons with the team winning its first playoff game in franchise history in 2014. He served as a mentor to four players selected in the Major League Baseball draft while in Pittsfield.

Conley served as an assistant coach at Bryant University during the 2012-13 season, and supported the team to the NEC Conference Championships. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts in 2012, where he played catcher, Conley later received his master’s degree from Trinity College in 2016.

Conley joins a Rutgers staff that also includes pitching coach Phil Cundari, assistant coach Jim Duffy, director of player development Peter Barron and senior advisor to the head coach Glen Gardner.

The Scarlet Knights are in the midst of fall practice after improving by six wins in 2018. RU had a streak of six-straight series wins, winning seven-of-eight weekends during a stretch into mid-April. That included a 6-1 spring break trip in Florida that propelled the team to 12 victories in March, the most since 2001, and later to as high as seven games over .500 for the first time since 2012. The pitching staff lowered its season ERA from 6.11 to 4.82 and the gloves led the Big Ten with 50 double plays. At the plate, the Scarlet Knights picked up 111 RBIs with two outs for an average of more than two per game.

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.

Fitzpatrick & Liu Added to Rutgers’ Recruiting Class

Piscataway, N.J. –Both Brian Fitzpatrick and Tom Liu have signed to compete for Rutgers baseball, head coach Joe Litterio announced. The duo will join the Scarlet Knights this fall and make it 12 signings in the latest recruiting class.

NOVEMBER SIGNINGS | MAY SIGNINGS

Brian Fitzpatrick

LHP | 6-6 | 220 | L/S

Port Jefferson, N.Y./St. Anthony’s High School

Notes: A two-year varsity letterwinner at St. Anthony’s High School … from Long Island … played travel baseball for the Long Island Titans … son of Mary and John Fitzpatrick … father played basketball at the University of Buffalo … has four older sisters who competed in Division I athletics: Katelyn (volleyball at Cornell University), Julie (rowed crew at Cornell University), Megan (rowed crew at Indiana University) and Kelly (volleyball at University of Buffalo) … intends to major in business economics.

Tom Liu

RHP | 6-0 | 165 | R/R

San Dimas, Calif./San Dimas

Notes: Competed four years at San Dimas High School … school is in the San Gabriel Valley just outside of Los Angeles … named Scholar Athlete for holding a GPA over 3.0 … played travel baseball for the Socal Bombers from 2015-18 … also participated with SGV Arsenal from 2014-16 … son of Kelly Li and Russell Love … born in China … set to become first person in family to take part in collegiate athletics.

Rutgers-Michigan State Series Schedule Altered

East Lansing, Mich.– Due to inclement weather in the forecast for the weekend, Michigan State baseball’s weekend schedule with Rutgers has been altered with a doubleheader on Friday and a single game on Saturday at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field.

The Spartans and Scarlet Knights will now play a doubleheader on Friday at 12:05 p.m., with a single game scheduled for Saturday at 1:05 p.m.

MSU opened a 12-game homestand at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field on Wednesday, and this weekend is the Spartans’ first full Big Ten series at home.

Any further schedule updates will be announced on www.MSUSpartans.com.

March 15-18 Weekend Preview

Rutgers in position to turn the corner

Rutgers is off to a 9-6 start, even though top prospect Jawuan Harris has been limited to 10 games.  (Noah K. Murray/Rutgers University)

Blake Dowson-

Last season, as they had in seven of the previous eight years, Rutgers flew down to Miami to start its season against a very good Hurricane team. The Scarlet Knights dropped the first two games before rolling to a 17-6 victory in the Sunday finale.

But any momentum established from the romp in Coral Gables was short lived, Rutgers went 5-7 in their next 12 games following opening weekend, before finishing the non-conference portion of their schedule at 10-14.

This season, Rutgers again started its season at Miami, and again grabbed the Sunday finale after dropping the first two games of the series. The difference, though, has been the Scarlet Knights’ resiliency this season. Following the Miami series Rutgers has bounced back, going 8-4 since.

“So far, we’re playing okay,” Rutgers head coach Joe Litterio said. “That’s the best way to say it. We’re up and down. Our record’s pretty good. There were a couple games out there that we left out there. So our record should actually be much better. It’s been a process.”

The couple of games Litterio referred to were a Feb. 25, 11-6 loss to Boston College, where the Eagles scored seven runs in the ninth inning, and another last-inning lost, on March 4, when Rutgers couldn't hold a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, falling to Old Dominion 4-3.  But, on the heels of a four-game winning streak, those tough defeats are the thing of the past, with Rutgers' biggest weekend to-date on hand.

Rutgers is staring at a series against Florida Gulf Coast, a team that contributed to the Scarlet Knights’ rocky non-conference season a year ago by sweeping their three-game set. The Eagles outscored the Scarlet Knights 26-9 last season.

If Litterio and his squad want to completely flip the script from a season ago, a strong showing against FGCU will go a long way.

The thing about that is, strong showings against the Eagles have been hard to come by this year. They sit at 13-3, having won nine of 10 at home thus far.

“They’re a good ball club. It’ll be a good test for us heading into conference season,” Litterio said. “Going in on a Friday night and playing on someone else’s field is always a tough test. I’m excited to see how we compete.”

Compete is exactly what Rutgers has done this season, according to its head coach. Litterio said a deep lineup has been able to cover up any one struggling spot in the order.

If one or two guys are slumping, four or five other guys have come up with multi-hit games to level out the production. More of that this weekend will lead to success, Litterio said.

“Our lineup is deep,” he said. “I think our guys are firing together and when we do that, it gets real deep. We have some key guys struggling, but other guys are picking them up.”

That deep lineup has seen 13 different guys pick up at least two RBI, including four that have reached double-digit runs batted in, and three more that have contributed seven. Five regulars are hitting above .300, led by Kyle Walker (hitting .515 in 33 at-bats) and Luke Bowerbank (.340 in 53 at-bats).

However, the Rutgers lineup has its work cut out for it this weekend, facing a Florida Gulf Coast staff that boasts three weekend starters who have all logged over 20 innings, and all sport an ERA of 2.74 or better.

All of that can be daunting, considering this is one of Rutgers’ biggest series in years.

Although the team has been in Florida for the last week, on spring break, the wear and tear of the travel a northern team faces over the first month can lead to tired bodies, haphazard and inconsistent play. And in some years, that would most likely be the case, according to Litterio.

“[Getting on so many planes] usually does take a toll, but I think this year it’s going too fast, because we’re playing good baseball,” Litterio said. “Everyone is getting along. There are no grumpy faces on the bench. We finished up practice [on Thursday], and everyone had high energy, they were focused. Usually this time of year, it’s a grind. We feel good with where we’re at right now.”

Win a couple games against FGCU, and Rutgers will feel really good heading into Big Ten play.

 

Webb's Words: Statement weekend round two

I often try to avoid putting too much stock into one weekend. First, baseball is a weird game, more than any sport, anyone can beat anyone. But more importantly, one three-game weekend is barely 5% of a 56-game college baseball season. A football fan wouldn't punt on a season after just one game, so I try to remind others that one weekend doesn't make or break a season.

But it's fair to say some weekends are bigger than others.

The first weekend of March saw high-profiled contests take place throughout the country. Michigan had a four-game series at Stanford, Indiana went to San Diego for another four-game set, Texas welcomed Northwestern and the Dairy Queen Classic saw Arizona, UCLA, and Washington take on Illinois, Michigan State and host Minnesota in a de facto Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge. Across those 21 games, the Big Ten went 10-11, lead by Illinois sweeping the DQ field and Indiana taking three games from San Diego. The weekend allowed Indiana to cement their position as a top team, and cause many to take notice of the Illini.

It's time for another significant weekend for the Big Ten.

In addition to Rutgers' series at Florida Gulf Coast, the conference has two more tough road series, Maryland travels to No. 18 East Carolina, while No. 11 TCU hosts Minnesota.

Both Maryland and Minnesota have appeared in the NCAA Tournament within the last two years, and each team has a roster which should put them in position to contend for a spot in another regional. Expectations were high entering the season, with the Gophers and Terrapins predicted to finished third and second, respectively, by D1Baseball.com.

Unfortunately neither team has really lived up to their billing. Minnesota went 1-2 in the DQ Classic, before suffering another 1-2 weekend last week at home against Creighton, to stand a respectable, but not too mighty, 12-7 on the year. Maryland has as many losses as Minnesota, but three less wins, their 9-7 record the result of a very uneven start to Rob Vaughn's tenure in College Park.

But any unfulfilled promise from the first month can be wiped away this weekend. In fact, this weekend is just the beginning of what could still shape up to be a special March, a month that stands tall come May.

Following Minnesota's trip to Texas, the Gophers open Big Ten play at reigning champion Nebraska, then welcome St. John's a preseason ranked team, to Minneapolis during their bye week. Maryland starts conference play in two weeks, but not before Stetson makes a trip to town, a team that is 13-1 and checks in as the No. 28 team in this week's NCBWA poll.

So this week this is a big week, but it won't make or break the season for Maryland, Minnesota, or Rutgers, but it's a weekend that can go a long way in starting something big, and provide another testament to the growth of Big Ten baseball, that Maryland and Minnesota are perennial regional threats, or that Rutgers is just the latest team to take a step forward.

 

Required reading

Former Illinois Coach Augie Garrido Dies -Matt Daniels, Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

Punxsutawney natives bring lifelong friendship to Penn State -Matthew Knaub, Daily Collegian

Matt Warren appreciating his extra innings for Huskers -Evan Bland, Omaha World-Herald

What to watch for

Avoiding the letdown

What may be most impressive about Indiana's season so far is the Hoosiers ability to avoid a stretch of bad play. The bats may not have been out in full force last week against Pacific, but the pitching was stingy and powered a series victory. Any slight hiccup that may have occurred with a midweek loss to Cincinnati and dropping the first game to Pacific, 2-1, has been swept to the side by three straight victories.

At 12-4 and with a handful of quality victories, IU looks the part of a potential regional host.

A lot was expected of Indiana this season, the coaches' preseason conference favorite, and a veteran team has kept a steady ship.

Now it's time to see how a couple of teams, who many didn't think much of in the preseason, react with the attention upon them growing.

Illinois cracked this week's Baseball America poll at No. 24, and Ohio State caught the eye of DIBaseball.com after a midweek swept of UNC-Wilmington after splitting two games against Coastal Carolina. At 8-4 and 11-6, respectively, Illinois and Ohio State may be the contenders Indiana must fend off, opposed to Maryland and Nebraska, whom received the bulk of the preseason attention.

After picking up quality wins away from home, both the Buckeyes and Illini are playing baseball in their home state this weekend. As Illinois travels to Southern Illinois and Ohio State hosts Cal State-Northridge, but Big Ten teams are favored to win, and taking care of business against the teams they should, will help both sustain their momentum heading into conference action, with a growing eye on the NCAA Tournament.

Whelan's return

With all of Iowa's star power last year,  Jake Adams, Tyler Cropley, Mason McCoy, and Robert Neustrom, helping the Hawkeyes to the Houston Regional, it may take a peak at the Big Ten record book to remember Chris Whelan was selected as the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament.

After starting out 8-2, Iowa has dropped five consecutive games, in part due to an offense batting just .248, the absences of McCoy, to graduation, and Adams, the nation's home run leader, have certainly been felt. But this weekend Rick Heller and the Hawkeyes hope to get a shot in the arm and turn around their recent ways with the return of Whelan.

Coming off of a campaign where he batted .307 with 11 doubles and seven home runs as a sophomore, the outfielder has missed the first four months of the season after sustaining an UCL injury in his throwing elbow, which required surgery. Whelan has been medically cleared to swing and returns to the Iowa lineup as the team's DH this weekend against Evansville.

With only 21 extra-base hits, the fewest in the Big Ten, a bat like Whelan's returning one week before Iowa hosts Indiana to start Big Ten play is exactly what Iowa needs, as it seeks a fifth consecutive 30-win season.

Michigan, the new Florida?

It may be spring break for many teams around the Big Ten, but the action isn't heavy in Florida this weekend, only Rutgers is playing in the Sunshine State. Instead, no state has more Big Ten teams playing in it this weekend than Michigan.

Michigan and Michigan State have kicked off their home slates this week, continuing action on campus this weekend with the Wolverines hosting Bowling Green and the Spartans welcoming Niagara. An hour north of East Lansing, Central Michigan plays host to Northwestern.

There may be a little shifting of schedules in the three series, as Friday temperatures won't break the mid-30s throughout the state, but Saturday and Sunday will be sunny, climbing into the 40s and 50s. As the temperatures rise, all three teams hope they catch fire, Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern have struggled to 4-11, 5-10 and 5-7 starts so far.

 

By the numbers

.156- Already a two-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week, Mason Erla is holding the opposition to a .156 batting average.

.333- Opponents have a 33% success rate in stolen base attempts against Indiana, stealing a Big Ten-low five bases in 15 attempts.

0- The Wolverines are the lone Big Ten yet to record a save this season.

1.32- The combined era over 47.2 innings between Purdue starters Tanner Andrews and Gareth Stroh, who respectively rank first and third in the conference.

51- Ohio State senior first baseman Noah McGowan has touched 51 bases this year, 10 more than any other Big Ten player.

203- Minnesota leads the Big Ten in hits with 203, for the conference's best average (.308), while having the best walk-to-strikeout ratio with just 107 strikeouts to 93 walks.

Week 4 Weekend Observations

The fourth weekend of the college baseball season is in the books. Yes, just like that, a month has already passed. With each team having a dozen games under their belts, any rust for winter practices confined to indoor facilities should be gone by now. As conference play grows nearer, the cream is starting to rise from the crop. And here’s what was observed from the past weekend as the picture becomes more and more clear as to the form teams really are.

Illini aren’t going away

Checking in at No. 24 in this week’s Baseball America poll, Illinois becomes the second team in the Big Ten to be ranked this year. The number next to their name comes on the heels of a seven-game winning streak that was stopped Sunday by Michigan State. Before the Spartans picked up a 4-2 win, Illinois had been clicking on all cylinders.

Between Feb. 24 and March 4, Dan Hartleb’s team had a run of six consecutive games without committing an error. Over the seven game winning streak, which included a sweep of the Dairy Queen Classic field, Illinois scored less than five runs just once, while allowing more than five runs just once.

A rotation of Quinn Snarskis, Andy Fisher, and Ty Weber holding a combined ERA of 3.19, a team doing a bit of everything offensively with a triple-slash of .261/.366/.438 with 17 stolen bases, and the Big Ten’s top fielding unit, Illinois hasn’t showed a true weakness. That’s a scary thought for future opponents as Jack Yalowitz (.222) and Zac Taylor (.189) have yet to get going.

Scarlet Knights make a statement

It might not have been the most attention-grabbing weekend, no ranked teams were defeated, wins weren’t gathered in a hostile environment, and there wasn’t a no-hitter or outrageous score were to carry the headline. But Rutgers’ weekend should make some take notice.

Rutgers played Army in Fort Myers, Fla., the third Big Ten opponent the Black Knights have faced this weekend. After splitting the first six games, going 1-2 against Michigan, a week before picking up a pair of wins at Maryland, Army was unable to grab a victory in three games against Rutgers. With the weekend sweep, Rutgers is off to a solid start at 8-6, a record which includes a pair last-inning stunning defeats to Boston College and St. Bonaventure.

When considering a close 7-6 loss to Indiana, and Rutgers’ run differential against Army of 17, compared to nine for Michigan and -1 for Maryland, more and more evidence is gathering that Rutgers will be in the mix for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, that the desired offseason culture change is taking place.

Maryland remains a mystery

It’s been a season of streaks for Maryland. The Terps opened the season winning their first two games before dropping the next four. That skid was followed by a five-game winning steak. Maryland’s winning ways were stopped by back-to-back defeats, before picking up consecutive wins to grab the home series against Bryant. At 9-6, Maryland’s up-and-down season hasn’t derailed postseason dreams, but it has made it tough to gauge how good Rob Vaughn’s team is.

Is Maryland the team that 14 runs in its first two games at Tennessee, or closer to the team that scored 13 over the next four? Maryland beat Ball State 13-1, to run their winning streak to five games, then came up flat, falling 7-1 to Delaware. Mirroring the up/down nature of Maryland’s season is the performance of the expected top two contributors.

Junior second baseman Nick Dunn is batting .358 with five doubles and five home runs, pacing the club. Classmate outfielder Marty Costes, is off to a .151/.309/.264. As was the case this weekend, Dunn can carry the team to victory. But he can’t continually do it all by himself at the plate, getting Costes going will surely stabilize the Terrapins.

Indiana’s depth shows

The Hoosiers may have only scored eight runs in their 2-1, series victory over Pacific, but a detailed look at the box scores shows why Indiana is the Big Ten’s top-ranked team and favorite to win the conference title.

On Friday, in a 2-1 loss, Indiana received a 4-for-4, three-double game from first baseman/second baseman Matt Lloyd. On Saturday, each of Colby Stratten’s two hits were doubles. Then, on Sunday, Logan Sowers had a 3-for-4 day with three doubles, driving in three runs. Three different players with multi-extra-base games, which didn’t include top hitter Logan Kalthea or Luke Miller, who are 1-2 in slugging percentage at .577 and .574, respectively, shows how much of a headache the Indiana lineup can be.

Then, Indiana throws a very deep bullpen at opponents. Hoosier relievers combined to toss nine innings without allowing an earned run against Pacific, as four relievers who have appeared in at least three games continue to have a spotless 0.00. The depth at the plate and options on the mound backs up head coach Chris Lemonis’ assertion this is his deepest Indiana team.

Ohio State: Very Good O, Very Bad D

If you’re eighth-year head coach Greg Beals, there’s a lot to like about the 2018 Ohio State outfit. But there is also a very concern area.

After a .295/.364/.541 weekend at the Chanticleer Classic, Ohio State has a season triple-slash of .301/.388/.450. The Buckeyes’ slugging percentage is tops in the Big Ten, spurred by a conference-leading 16 home runs. Of the team’s 15 games, the Bucks have scored at least six runs 10 times, averaging a Big Ten-best 7.53 runs per game. Seniors Tyler Cowles and Noah McGown give Beals a potent 1-2 punch in the heart of the lineup.

The best in the Big Ten at plating runs, the Buckeyes are the worst in the field, helping the opposition score more unearned runs than any team. With 28 errors and a .951 fielding percentage, the Buckeye nine is the conference’s worst fielding unit, one that has allowed 26 unearned runs, almost two a game, to score. Ohio State has had only one error-less game, while 10 contests have seen the Bucks commit at least two errors. Most damaging, the Buckeyes allowed Oregon State, the top-ranked team in the country, to score six unearned runs on Feb. 23, in a 10-8 loss, before allowing #28 Coastal Carolina to score three unearned runs on Saturday, in another 10-8 defeat.

Minnesota can’t cash in at U.S. Bank

The construction of U.S. Bank Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Vikings, and use of the facility to play baseball games was to give Minnesota an asset. Instead of traveling to all parts of the country over the first month of the season, Minnesota could play games at home, in Minneapolis. Unfortunately the Gophers showing inside of the home of Super Bowl XVII have been troublesome than rewarding.

Through 10 games, Minnesota is 6-4 at home. Considering two of the four losses are to UCLA and Washington, the record isn’t that bad. But Minnesota’s offense has produced only four games where the team has scored more than three runs. Before Sunday’s 15-1 triumph over Creighton, the team averaged 3.1 runs per game, while allowing four runs per contest to the visitors.

The next eight games for Minnesota come on the run, including three at No. 11 TCU and three at reigning Big Ten champion Nebraska. The stretch of eight games will go a long way in determining Minnesota’s postseason fate, and considering the team’s struggles inside spacious U.S. Bank Stadium, it may be beneficial they come on the road, especially with the weight RPI formula.

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