The Weekend 10

As the midpoint of the college baseball season nears, while they may still be freshmen by class, this year’s Big Ten newcomers are turning in performances beyond their years. This season has witnessed first-year players spur Michigan’s turnaround and lead the revival of the Scarlet Knights.

This weekend, freshmen turned in some of the most impressive weekends, including the first double-award winner of the season. The Weekend 10 is led by four freshmen who turned in performances that made opposing coaches miserable knowing they have multiple years to come facing them, as well as a handful of sluggers who are making their case to be all-americans.

Ohio State Soph. OF Dominic Canzone

A big weekend in Ohio State’s first Big Ten series showed why Canzone is leads off the conference’ top hitting unit. In three games against Nebraska, Canzone collected seven hits in 14 at-bats, scoring five runs, driving in four and stealing three bases. Canzone has needed just 76 games to reach 100 career hits.

Michigan State Fr. RHP Mason Erla

Erla continues to shine in a season where a cloud has hung over the Spartans. Earl’s latest gem helped Michigan State to its first conference victory, leading the Green and White to a 6-0 win over Rutgers on Sunday. Erla pitched seven innings and allowed four hits, with three walks and six strikeouts. Moving to 4-1 on the year, Erla is responsible for more than half of MSUs seven victories.

Indiana Jr. C Ryan Fineman

Fineman continued a strong season, a junior campaign which has him batting a team-leading .342 through IU’s 20-5 start. In a three-game sweep of Butler, Fineman recorded seven hits in 12-bats, drove in six runs, and through out two Bulldogs on the bases.

Michigan Fr. 1B/OF Jesse Franklin

Michigan enters April with the nation’s longest active winning streak, extending their run to 12 games with a weekend brooming of Delaware. Leading the Wolverines charge against the Blue Hens, Franklin went 5-for-11 with a double and home run, driving in three runs while scoring another three.

Purdue Fr. RHP Trent Johnson

Purdue recorded its first sweep during the opening weekend of Big Ten play since 1985, and Johnson’s gem was the leading act in the clincher. In State College, over five innings, Johnson held the Nittany Lions to one hit, in Purdue’s 6-0 victory. The rookie struck out six batters and walk three, in the 79-pitch effort.

Northwestern Fr. LHP Quinn Lavelle

Lavelle pitched as fine of an outing as any Big Ten pitcher has this season, leading Northwestern to its first Big Ten victory in the Wildcats’ series-opener at Maryland. Tossing a shutout, Lavelle scattered four hits and struck out eight batters to one walk in Northwestern’s 4-0 win. This week’s pitcher and freshman of the week, Lavelle sports a 3-2 record alongside a 2.10 ERA over 34.1 innings.

Ohio State Sr. 1B Noah McGowan

McGowan helped lead a high-powered Buckeye attack to 25 runs in their weekend victory over Nebraska. In Greg Beals’ cleanup spot, the senior notched six hits, drove in five runs, and scored four runs. McGowan picked up a double in each game and ended hit his sixth home run of the season in the finale.

Indiana Jr. RHP Pauly Milto

After Indiana eeked out a 6-5 victory in their series opener against Butler, Milto made sure the Bulldogs had no bite as IU cruised to a 13-0 victory. Over six innings, Milto scatted six hits, issued two walks and struck out three batters. The victory moved Milto to 4-2 on the year and lowered his ERA to 2.25.

Nebraska Sr. 1B Scott Schreiber

A big weekend at the plate from Schreiber wasn’t enough for Nebraska to leave Columbus with a series win, but it was impressive enough for Schreiber to earn this week’s player of the week nod. Schreiber hit a home run in each of the Cornhuskers three games against the Buckeyes as part of an 8-for-14 weekend. The senior first baseman added a double as he drove in six runs and crossed home five times.

Illinois Jr. 1B Bren Spillane

Iowa was the latest team to run into a scorching hot Spillane. Though the Hawkeyes grabbed the weekend series in Champaign, Spillane was hard to contain, picking up two singles, a double, and three home runs over nine at-bats, before drawing four walks in the weekend finale. Spillane added five RBI and six runs to his eye-popping season statistics.

The Prospect Junkie: Q&A with Mike Rooney

In this week’s edition of The Prospect Junkie, I spent some time chatting with ESPN College Baseball Analyst Mike Rooney as he provided perspective on the strength of the Big Ten Conference, and thoughts on some of the prospects within. In addition to providing in-game commentary on ESPN throughout the season, Rooney provides insight as a writer for Perfect Game.

BG: Which Big Ten teams have you had a chance to see thus far this season?

I’ve seen Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State, and then I watched recently caught one of the Michigan State and South Carolina games last weekend on the Watch ESPN App. I also feel like I have a good feel for Maryland because I covered their Regional in 2015 when they upset UCLA, and I also sat on them for a series against Cal State Fullerton last year which was a very good series for them.  I feel like I know their roster pretty well.

BG: What are your general thoughts on the strength of those teams?

Michigan looked really good, they stack up with anyone, anywhere. I loved everything about Michigan. I loved their style of play. I loved that they had seniors in center field, at shortstop, and at catcher. I love that they’ve got a little mojo. They were in the Regional a couple years ago and then they faltered last year so I actually like that they have a little scar from last year. So Michigan I think is a threat anywhere or anytime, I love that club.

I had really high hopes for Nebraska, and I feel like I just didn’t see them well. I’m sure with any of the Big Ten teams, you need to temper yourself when you see them in February and early March. I think that league is notorious for clubs playing differently at the end of the year. I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

I think for Nebraska in particular, their older guys weren’t going yet. The junior year is a tough year for a college player and I think a couple of their guys were pressing a little bit, but there was a lot to like. I saw Luensmann struggle, but I still wrote him up as a heck of a prospect. There’s still a lot to like, he just performed poorly. I love Jake Meyers as a college player, [Scott] Schreiber is a monster and I saw Angelo Altavilla was tremendous all weekend. Mojo Hagge is a really good college player; he disrupts the game.  I just saw them on what will ultimately end up being one of their worst weekends all year.

BG: Ohio State’s Tre’ Gantt got off to a hot start, in particular in the Big Ten PAC-12 Challenge. Tell me what you saw out of him.

He was good in that weekend. He’s a left-hander who has a feel for his game and a very handsy swing, which I like.  He used the entire field and ran well. I understand he hasn’t played a ton of baseball, but he’s very intriguing. He moves well and has a good feel for how to play the game. He wasn’t really tested in CF in the games that I saw, but he’s definitely a name that you write down because’s he’s left-handed, and he can really run.

BG: Indiana has one of the better pro prospects in the conference in outfielder Logan Sowers. Did he make an impression on you?

Yeah, he was really interesting because while he didn’t play great, he so strong. He was stiffer than I anticipated, but he ran into two breaking balls. They play that tournament in Surprise (Ariz.) which is a Spring Training park that is massive in order to showcase outfield range. He hit a double in the gap and another ball to the base of the wall in centerfield. He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

He was a little nicked up and limping around, but he was very intriguing to me. He’ll play every day and he’ll accumulate stats because he’s so physical. His physical presence is large. He was very competent in the outfield, but I felt like he was not 100%. I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

I’m curious how he will handle real good velocity because he’s not rifling the bat through the zone. But boy, he’s super strong; crazy strong! Even when he’s hitting .167, he gets your attention because the two balls he hit were the loudest contact of the day so even his bad day is enticing.

BG: The Big Ten may not have a top 10 overall talent like Tyler Jay or Kyle Schwarber this year, but Kevin Smith of Maryland might be the best bet at a first-rounder. What are your impressions of him?

I came out of that Regional in 2015 as the president of the Kevin Smith fan club. UCLA was the #1 overall seed, and this kid as a true freshman was so good. He handled every play, the game never sped up on him. And he had some really good at-bats, I think they hit him second in the order, so it was disappointing to see him have such a rough sophomore year.

When I saw him last year, you could tell he was trying to do too much. I was encouraged to hear about the summer. He’s off to a really rough start, and he’s not the first junior in the history of college baseball to have a rough time with the pressures of the draft year. Especially for a kid like him whose tools aren’t that loud but you start getting first round noise around you, I think that would be tough to reconcile mentally. I see he has 17 punch-outs in 14 games. Unless I’m whiffing on this, he’s a way better hitter than that. So to me, that screams that he’s trying to do too much. The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out

The things that I like about him is that he’s instinctual, he wore out right-center field, and he‘s a good baserunner. Also, really good pitching didn’t seem to phase him.

10 Innings Extra: Huskers need “screw it” moment

Nebraska exceeded expectations in 2016. The Big Ten’s western-most program was not expected to be among the top three contenders for the Big Ten championship in the preseason, the favorites being Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. But the team finished a half-game behind champion Minnesota and reached the NCAA Tournament. For head coach Darin Erstad and the Huskers, it was a second regional appearance in three years, after claiming their third second-place finish in four seasons.

A program with great tradition, Nebraska seeks consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2007-08. Through two weekends of play, the team has an uphill battle in their quest to be a part of the field of 64. The Huskers sit 2-4 on the season after a rain-shortened opening weekend resulted in a two-game split versus UC Riverside and a 1-3 showing in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge. Through the half-dozen games, Nebraska is batting .243 and the Huskers have crossed home plate only 20 times, averaging 3.3 runs per game.

A six-game start isn’t doom to a team’s postseason odds. But a year after exceeding expectations, the weight of what’s expected this season has Erstad waiting for his team to just play baseball.

Nebraska’s returned its top three hitters from its 37-22 club, a .281-hitting outfit a year ago. With juniors Jake Meyers and Scott Schreiber and senior Ben Miller, the top of the Husker order was expected to be potent. Meyers led the team with a .326 average, barely eclipsing Schreiber’s .325 mark, while Miller hit to the tune of .317. Schreiber’s 16 home runs were a Big Ten-best with Meyers and Schreiber combining for 28 doubles. Add junior left fielder Luis Alvarado and sophomore catcher Jesse Wilkening, a strong offensive core was expected to lead the Huskers.

But through six games, the abilities shown prior have yet to come through.

Alvarado is batting .308 with three doubles, a nice start to his third season in Lincoln. But he is the lone returning starter performing at an expected level. Schreiber is batting .250 without an extra-base hit, with Meyers and Miller a combined 8-for-48 on the season, a .166 average. Wilkening showed well as a freshman, batting .270 in 111 at-bats, but has only recorded two hits in 11 at-bats.

The sample sizes are small, it’s not unusual for a player to have a slump over the course of a half-dozen games, but when many key contributors are in a rut it’s hard for a team to get going.

What’s causing the funk? Did the returning players suddenly lose skill? Not to Erstad. Following Friday’s 7-5 loss to Utah, where the team left the bases loaded to end three of the first four innings, Erstad mentioned the slow starts may be a result of the players attempting too much to build off of the strong 2016 seasons.

“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”

For Meyers and Schreiber, as juniors, it is a draft year, while Miller opted to return to Nebraska after being a 32nd-round pick in last June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But while the offensive output yet to come from the heart of the lineup, the players stepping into the spotlight for the first time have had no such problems. Nebraska closed out the weekend with a 4-3 win over Utah, spurred by a new-look 1-2 punch.

Batting leadoff, freshman outfielder Mojo Hagge went 3-for-5 while sophomore infielder Angelo Altavilla added two hits in five at-bats in the two-hole. On the young season, the two have combined for 16 hits in 33 at-bats. Altavilla and Hagge can’t be expected to continue to hit at their respective .444 and .533 clips for the rest of the season, but their emergence and shown ability against very good pitching gives Nebraska seven capable bats in the lineup, welcomed contributions as Erstad says  “we’re going to need it from all different parts.”

Now it’s time for the veterans to do their part.

“The guys that have a track record haven’t started to hit yet,” Erstad said. “It’s one of those things where we’ll keep throwing them out there and they’ll do their thing. We just need to get back to the basics with a lot of those guys and quit trying to do too much.”

The parts are there for Nebraska to have a season which ends in the NCAA Tournament. Knocking off the defending Pac-12 champions shows what the Huskers are capable of. It’s just a matter of time for it all to come together, newcomers and returners alike to contribute up and down the lineup.

“Our returners are putting so much stinking pressure on themselves right now to have big years, and sometimes that happens. At some point, they’re going to hit the tilt button and it’s going to be ‘screw it, let’s just play baseball.'”

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: