Expect a Roaring Twenties for the Big Ten

Contrary to popular belief, relative to the rest of college baseball, the Big Ten before the 2010s was not a perpetually undersized, flea-ridden, runt of a dog. Yes, when the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2010, the Big Ten was entering a 34-year drought since its last national champion, Ohio State, in 1966. But the Atlantic Coast Conference had a longer drought, not fielding a conference member as the national champion since Wake Forest in 1955. Now, it had been more than a quarter of a century since a Big Ten team even appeared in Omaha, Michigan in 1984, and, yes, that was a black eye the conference donned. But the outside perspective that the Big Ten was a one-bid conference and nothing else overlooked or did not appreciate:

The Big Ten had three three-bid years in the 2000s (2000, 2007, 2009) and another three years of receiving two bids (2001, 2003, 2005).

Three Big Ten teams won a regional Penn State (2000 Montclair Regional), Ohio State (2003 Auburn Regional), Michigan (2007 Nashville Regional)

Three schools hosted a regional Minnesota (2000), Ohio State (2001), Michigan (2008)

Ohio State hosted a super regional in 2003.

For those that knew of those successes and followed baseball in the Big Ten, there was reason to be optimistic about what was to come for the conference over the next decade. In the last year of the aughts, the title race went down to the final day and the conference had four regional worthy clubs, where the one left out, Illinois, took a weekend series at LSU, the eventual national champions. In reaching a regional for the first time since 1996, it appeared Indiana was ready to join the upper tier of programs, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, teams who expected to be in a regional on a yearly basis. There was excitement for a new decade, that 2009’s success would lead to more such successes.

Then the 2010s happened.

And did they happen, that excitement of more conference success became a reality.

The decade begin with a seismic change, as conference realignment led to the Big Ten adding Nebraska joining in July of 2011. Then just three years later, the Big Ten welcomed Maryland and Rutgers, suddenly the conference’s roster of baseball team’s grew 30%. The TV-driven expansion led to an unprecedented windfall of money for Big Ten athletic departments. The cash infusion led to a facility boom that touched every corner of the Big Ten’s now expanded footprint.

Alongside the changes that were occurring away from the ballpark, on in some instances enhancing the ballpark, a new era was under way on the field. Indiana’s breakthrough season in 2013 ended the Big Ten’s College World Series drought. Big Ten program’s played host to regionals in four consecutive years (Purdue in 2012, Indiana in 2013 and 2014 and Illinois in 2015). The 2015 season produced two super regional participants, Maryland, who knocked off #1 national seed UCLA, and #6 National Seed Illinois. On three occasions, the Big Ten produced a record five NCAA Tournament clubs, 2015, 2017, and 2019. And in 2019, the decade’s final year providing the conference’s crescendo, with Michigan’s run to national runners-up, coming one game shy of ending the Big Ten’s national championship drought.

The 2010s were nothing short of a transformative decade for baseball in the Big Ten.

Now, what’s in store for the 2020s?

Before looking ahead, one final look back needs to occur. Well, two.

After the 2010 season, when longtime Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired, Indiana’s Tracy Smith was a finalist for the vacant Buckeye position. He removed himself for consideration on a drive home to Bloomington, thinking through what he already had, what he will have and what might he have. In providing insight into why he made that decision, Smith addressed the landscape of the Big Ten, felt confident his goals could be achieved at IU and, with conviction, not merely optimistic coachspeak, predicted within five years a team would make it to the College World Series. It didn’t hurt that it was less than a month after a then no-name Kyle Schwarber had committed to IU and maybe Smith knew something the rest of the world would find out three years later, but to this day his words felt prophetic.

So too did words spoke by Erik Bakich. It was the summer of 2013 and Bakich was on the phone following a recruiting trip to New England, where he evaluated potential Wolverines during an Area Codes workout. After returning Michigan to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010, and with a year of Big Ten baseball under his belt, Bakich spoke to what he saw in the conference. Giving testament to the Big Ten’s academic prowess across the board, the great college towns and the nationally-recognized brand power athletic departments that litter the conference, Bakich felt it wouldn’t be long before the Big Ten was truly recognized as a Power Five conference on the diamond, rubbed shoulders and stood toe-to-toe with the Big XII and Pac 12 on a regular basis. Well, since 2015, the Big Ten has placed 22 teams in a regional, in near lockstep with the 23 of the Big XII and Pac 12. More words spoken into existence.

In looking ahead at what is to come, the past has showed us that even thoughts and beliefs that may seem outlandish, may not be so.

And now, on the precipice of a new decade of baseball, it’s time to time that same excitement and optimism that was present 10 years ago, and anticipate another step forward. No longer will it be only within one’s imagination where a weekend of multiple regionals are played on Big Ten campuses. There will be a day when Big Ten teams meet in Omaha, in June, not May. And yes, there will be a national champion from the Big Ten. (But please don’t envision a day of Wisconsin baseball, because that may mean the world will end the next day.)

The 2010s were a wonderful decade for the Big Ten. The conference grew. Legendary turned programs over to some of the finest coaches in the country. The Big Ten won, celebrated superstars, captured hearts and showed it is not to be scoffed at any longer, it can run with the pack.

Now it’s time to take it all and leave no doubt there is bite with this bark.

 

20 Things to Watch for in 2020, 1-10

The 2020s figure to have plenty in store for Big Ten baseball. Here’s the top 10 things to watch for and the storylines that figure to make the decade’s first season a memorable one. Click here for 11-20.

#10 Bolt is back

A captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, the program’s all-time leader in doubles, and the associate head coach to Darin Erstad from 2012 to 2014, Will Bolt is back in Lincoln, now as the program’s 24th head coach. Following Erstad’s retirement, Bolt quickly emerged as the odds-on favorite to take over the Cornhusker program, and on June 14 he was selected to guide the program. In the first few years after Bolt left Erstad’s staff to join Rob Childress at Texas A&M, coaches around the conference spoke with relief as they felt Bolt was a significant factor in Nebraska being a pest to play. It’s hard to say Nebraska floundered in his absence, they did appear in regionals in 2016, 2017, and 2019, and won the Big Ten in 2017. But it did seem there was an element of Big Red’s attack that was missing. As Bolt returns, he inherits a team with more than enough talent to be in the top-half of the Big Ten. It will be worth watching how Nebraska takes the field this year and if the methodical, machine-like nature of the Husker lineup returns.

#9 Returning to the mound

There are several key arms returning to the mound that missed most or all of the 2019 season. Arms that have that the potential to be frontline starters, leading a conference-winning team or ready to take the ball in the first game of a regional. Headlining a return to the mound will be:

Illinois right-handed pitcher Ryan Kutt, missed all of last season

Maryland left-handed pitcher Tyler Blohm, limited to 15.2 innings

Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, missed all of last season.

Iowa left-handed pitcher Jack Dryer, appeared in just two games.

Michigan left-handed pitcher Steven Hajjar, missed all of last season.

Nebraska right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach, played in the field but did not pitch due to injury.

Purdue right-handed pitcher Trevor Cheaney, missed all of last season

#8 Ohio State’s weekend rotation

What a difference a year makes. Heading into the 2019 season, Ohio State needed to replace all three weekend starters. Connor Curlis, Ryan Feltner and Adam Neimeyer each started at least 15 games for the Buckeyes in 2018. The consistent weekend rotation played a big role in Ohio State finishing the season in a regional. Relying on three underclassmen, Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith formed a new big three, as they too led Ohio State to a regional. Led by Smith, the lone true junior of the trio, each pitcher logged at least 90 innings, with Lonsway’s 92.1 innings and Burhenn’s 91, just behind Smith’s 96.2. As a redshirt-sophomore, Lonsway’s mid-90s fastball and sharp curveball has him garnering draft attention, attention that like will be garnered by Burhenn next year, when he is draft eligible as a junior. For now, a proven 1-2-3 weekend rotation is a big reason why the Buckeyes enter the season with a ranking, and gives head coach Greg Beals a foundation in seeking a fourth regional in five years.

#7 Rutgers’ postseason pursuit

Rutgers joined Penn State (see #19) last year as a team capable of going head-to-head against anyone on the mound only to fall short at the plate. The Scarlet Knights pitched to a 4.02 ERA in conference play, but batted only .226, and had league-worst marks in on-base percentage, .300, and slugging, .302. The offensive shortcomings halted Rutgers’ promising first-half of conference play, where they stood 7-5 at the mid-way mark. A 2-9 showing over the back-half of the conference slate ended hopes of reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time, finishing in 10th. Unable to end the postseason drought, a change in leadership inserted Bryant’s Steve Owens as the program’s head coach. Owens takes over a program that returns the core of the strong pitching unit, with senior left-hander Tevin Murray, senior right-hander Tommy Genuario and junior right-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski all returning as weekend starters. There was some promise at the plate for Rutgers, led by Chris Brito, a sophomore first baseman with middle-of-the-order potential and and junior Mike Nyisztor. The question is now if Owens is the missing piece that gets the program over the hump and into postseason play.

#6 Underdog Hoosiers

It’s been a quite some time since the reigning Big Ten champion was not picked to be among the conference’s top three teams by pundits. But that’s the reality for Jeff Mercer’s Hoosiers face, as the champions see Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State garner preseason rankings by various outlets. If one were to look at 2019 stats and  the roster holdovers and it’s not that surprising there is relatively little noise regarding the Hoosiers. IU did have 10 players drafted, where there won’t be the likes of Matt Lloyd and Matt Gorski anchoring the lineup, nor Pauly Milto providing seven strong innings every weekend. In fact Indiana needs to replace their entire weekend rotation (see above for an example on that not being a death penalty however), in addition to needing new two and three-hole hitters to emerge. But what can’t be captured on paper is the blue-collar mentality that embodies Mercer and his programs, dating back to his time as a coach at Wright State. In fact, Mercer may prefer that there are little expectations to allow IU to keep their head down and work hard. After all, few saw Mercer stepping in and doing something prior head coach Chris Lemonis didn’t do and win a conference championship.

#5 Minnesota’s ability to maximize Meyer

After bursting onto the scene with a 16-save season and All-America campaign as a freshman in 2018, John Anderson intended to return Max Meyer to his two-way roots last year. With considerable turnover at the plate, Anderson wanted Meyer’s bat at the plate and speed on the bases. Meyer did arrive at Minnesota as a standout shortstop in addition to a dominant pitcher. But with Minnesota needing Meyer’s arm fresh to close games, he would be utilized as a DH, maybe in left field if needed. Anderson’s plan changed when Meyer was needed to lead the Gopher rotation. Meyer pitched brilliantly, tossing 76.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA with 87 strikeouts. But Minnesota didn’t get his bat in the lineup as much as desired, with Meyer batting .256 over 121 at-bats. The Minnesota staff has been impressed with the development in Meyer’s bat and still see him as a capable threat at the plate. But knowing how Meyer excelled as an ace, showing he does have the stamina to be a #1, how far he is under or above last years 121 at-bats may be a sign of what’s happening around him, both on the mound and in the lineup, and ultimately the kind of team success Minnesota has. Meyer can do a lot, how he does it to fit the team’s needs remains to be seen.

#4 Day one drafts

A handful of Big Ten players have the ability to have their name called among the draft’s first 100 picks. Per Baseball America’s top 100 draft prospects, as of Jan. 8, the following Big Ten players were listed:

Minnesota right-handed pitcher Max Meyer, No. 29

Michigan right-handed pitcher Jeff Criswell, No. 53

Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, No. 93.

MLB.com respectively ranks Meyer, Criswell and Dingler as the draft’s No. 25, 52 and 55 prospects.

In addition to those three, Michigan outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwugo, and Ohio State left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway have a shot to go inside the first five rounds.

#3 Is this the year for multiple regional

In the current format of the NCAA Tournament, since 1999, there has yet to be a year when two Big Ten programs hosted a regional on its campus. The Big Ten produced two super regional clubs in 2015, but Maryland played at Virginia, in the Charlottesville Regional, after winning the Los Angeles Regional, while Illinois hosted Vanderbilt in the Champaign Super Regional. Coaches around the conference feel the next step in the Big Ten’s ascend is to host more regionals and more than one regional in a year. That will be a better path forward to more teams in a super regional and ultimately more teams reaching Omaha on a regular basis. As the Big Ten leaves the 2010s on a high, the first year of the 2020s may be the year to break another ceiling. Both Michigan and Minnesota have the schedules and pitching staffs to compile a season that has them as a regional host. Ohio State may not have as many marquee series as those two, but a preseason ranking of #24 has them in the mind of others as being on the cusp of hosting worthy. Hosting a regional takes the right blend of performance, luck and the dominoes falling accordingly around the country. But as we enter the season, this year more than any in recent memory is one where it might be just the year.

#2 Michigan’s great expectations

There seems to be an endless number of college baseball polls, in fact there are six. While there may be a half-dozen different compilations on who the top teams are, there is consensus that Michigan is one of the 20 best teams entering the season. Justly so. The Wolverines did finish one win shy of being national champions and return key players in the heart of the diamond, a top prospect atop the rotation, a proven closer, and two key arms return from injury. It would be odd if Michigan wasn’t ranked in the preseason. But entering the season ranked #8 by Baseball America means Michigan is expected to be back in Omaha. That puts Michigan in a much different position than just a team expected to be good. While every team has a goal to finish the year in Omaha, the lone team to have similar expectations, Indiana in 2014 with a preseason #3 ranking, did not make it out of a regional they hosted. Erik Bakich preaches mental toughness, to treat to each game the same, take every game one-by-one. Can Michigan adhere to that? The schedule is a tough one, with an opening game against #1 Vanderbilt and a contest at #3 Arizona State the following day. Early and often, Michigan will be tested and needing to bring its A-game. That will help the Wolverines lock in, but it will still be worth following how a team that fell so painfully short of the ultimate goal plays without pressure under a magnified scope.

#1 Ohio State and Michigan battling for supremacy

The April 12 meeting between Michigan and Ohio State is the top showdown to circle in the 2020. But how Michigan and Ohio State fare will be worth watching beyond that weekend. With a combined 50 Big Ten championships between them, the 2010s were the first decade that ended without the Buckeyes or Wolverines claiming the conference championship. How rare is that? It’s the first time that has ever been the case since Chicago won the first Big Ten baseball championship in 1896. (Chicago was the first power in the Big Ten, winning championships in 1896-99, of course the Big Ten only had four schools, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin at the time.) Of course both Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed success in the last five years of the 2010s. Michigan appeared in regionals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, while the Bucks reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, Ohio State did so in 2016 and 2019. The rest of the Big Ten is hardly feeling bad for the two rivals, and all but one school would have traded Michigan’s position last year. But there is something odd in Michigan going on a 12-year Big Ten championship drought and Ohio State an 11-year void. For the first time since the clubs were respectively led by Rich Maloney and Bob Todd, this feels like the year when Michigan and Ohio State are in lockstep in the standings and will jockey for the top position. For every top prospect Michigan has, Jeff Criswell, Jesse Franklin, it feels Ohio State can counter, see Seth Lonsway and Dillon Dingler. Michigan is coming off of a year where they finished on a torrid run. The Buckeyes weren’t impressed, they did take three of four games, including a one-hitter that put Michigan’s season on the brink. And there is the whole rivalry thing. On the gridiron, the Ohio State-Michigan game draws the nations attention. With a #8 next to Michigan’s name and a #24 next to Ohio State’s, the battle on the baseball field may do just the same. And it may propel the victor forward to a long-awaited title and the first claim to Big Ten supremacy in the new decade.

Rutgers to Retire Glen Gardner’s No. 49

Piscataway, N.J. — Director of athletics Pat Hobbs and head coach Steve Owens announced that Rutgers baseball will retire Glen Gardner’s No. 49 on Oct. 11 at Bainton Field. It will be the third number retired in program history, joining Jeff Torborg’s No. 10 and Fred Hill’s No. 24. The announcement was made Saturday evening to close the inaugural Leadoff Banquet held at The Rutgers Club.

“To be going on the wall as a retired number with Jeff Torborg and coach Hill, it really doesn’t seem real or that I’m worthy of it,” Gardner said in a statement. “This is a great honor and it’s one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. But really, this is a tribute to all the players I had the chance to coach over the years. This is about them. I’ll always be grateful for their dedication to Rutgers baseball.

“I’m also thankful to coach Hill for giving me the opportunity to come back to Rutgers as a coach. I learned so much from him, on and off the field. Coach Hill always let me be me. He let me be myself and that’s the way I coached.”

A Rutgers baseball legend, Gardner was one of the most prolific hitters in school history and returned to work 29 seasons on staff. He was inducted into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997.

Gardner spent 18 seasons as an assistant coach under Hill before serving as the director of baseball operations, volunteer assistant coach and senior advisor to the head coach. The Scarlet Knights secured 870 wins, eight NCAA Regional appearances, seven regular season conference championships and five conference tournament titles with Gardner on staff. That included hosting an NCAA Regional in 2000, a rarity for a Northeast school. Gardner played a key role in identifying, recruiting and developing talent.

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.

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