10 Takes: Big Ten Tournament Day 3

With two teams eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament and two more set to go home after action on Friday, day three of action from TD Ameritrade Park was full of intense, breath-taking, post-season defining moments.

When the final outs where recorded, after Ohio State and Michigan resumed their rivalry, the Buckeyes turned back the Wolverines, 5-3, to stay alive, before Illinois knocked off Indiana for the second time in three days, winning 5-4.

Here’s a round up of the 10 leading storylines from action on Friday.

Big wins for Bucks and Illini

Although NCAA Tournament projections to begin the week had them in a regional, wins on Friday will mean Illinois and Ohio State leave Omaha with at worst 2-2 records. And with the .500 week, both teams have all but locked up an opportunity to continue their season next weekend. Ohio State’s 5-3 victory over Michigan was their 14th win over an RPI top 100 team, with Indiana’s 5-4 walk-off win against Indiana giving the Illini the season series in five games against the Hoosiers and evening their record to 7-7 against RPI top 50 teams. Ohio State’s 1-3 finish to the season, and dropping their first tournament game to Purdue caused slight concern, as well as a marquee series victory for Illinois. Both potential resume red flags have been alleviated as spots in the field of 64 have been secured.

It’s hot in Omaha

The first-pitch temperature for Michigan and Ohio State at 3:14 was 95 degrees. It was hot. It has been hot. It will continue to be extremely hot in Omaha. There’s nothing else to really add to that, it’s been blistering.

Call on Kinker

Ohio State head coach Greg Beals viewed a win over Michigan as being so vital to his team’s NCAA Tournament aspirations that after a three-inning, 50-pitch save on Thursday, Buckeye closer Seth Kinker was called on to get the final five outs on Friday. As he has done time and time again, showing why he has the unbridled trust from Beals, Kinker struck out four batters in 1.2 innings of scoreless work to record his 15th save of the year. The allowing just two hits over 4.2 innings, with seven punchouts, Kinker lowered his Big Ten-leading ERA to 1.49.

Coolen continues late-season flourish

A day after going 2-4 in OSU’s elimination game against Iowa, Coolen collected his first home run of the season, a solo blast in the sixth inning, to continue to pay dividends as a late-season lineup fixture for Beals. Highlighted by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy, changes to find a fix to Ohio State’s underwhelming infield defense created an opportunity for Coolen to take over at first. And now, as the Bucks close in on a second regional in three years, Coolen’s bat has helped add depth to an already impressive offensive attack.

Michigan’s tough ends promises for bright future

In his postgame press conference, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said he wasn’t going to try to make a case for the Wolverines to be in next week’s NCAA Tournament, that his team didn’t finish strong enough to warrant a spot nor grabbed enough marquee wins. But Bakich said his team will watch Monday’s announcement of the tournament field, with the thought in mind this will be the last time Michigan’s name is not announced on Memorial Day, as a team ticketed for a regional.

There is good reason for Bakich to be optimistic about the future.

Outside of senior first baseman Brock Keener, and center fielder Jonathan Engelmann, a likely high-round draft pick, Michigan’s starting lineup should return intact next year, as well as the Wolverine weekend rotation of Tommy Henry, Ben Dragani, and Karl Kaufmann, a sophomore-freshman-sophomore trio. A team that entered the final five games of the regular season atop the Big Ten standings, and were in contention for a regional berth a year after losing 11 players to the draft and five seniors to graduation, what would have been a major rebuilding year for many programs, wasn’t for Michigan.

“We put ourselves in a position, and as a coach you hope that all those pieces coming back next year will see, and remember that feeling of what it was like to be in first place and understand that championships and Michigan are synonymous — they go hand in hand. That’s the goal here is to win the Big Ten first before we start talking about things on a national scale. But the future is gonna be very bright because of the foundational year that we had, the toughness that went along with it.” -Erik Bakich

Indiana plays “soft”

Indiana held a 2-1 lead after two innings, then saw the score sit 3-1 in their favor through the first four innings. But even with a bullpen that is the perceived strength of the club, Indiana couldn’t hold on and fell to Illinois for the second time in Omaha to bow out of the tournament. It was a defeat that didn’t sit well with head coach Chris Lemonis nor senior outfielder Logan Sowers.

More than any team in Omaha, there wasn’t as much on the line for the Hoosiers. Their spot in a regional was safely set, a near-miracle was needed for them to be in a position to host. While other teams entered the week on the bubble, needed the auto-bid to continue their season, and Minnesota looks to secure their spot as being regional host, Lemonis thought he team could be relaxed, have fun, and just play, as their pursued the tournament title.

That didn’t happen, instead, Lemonis thought he team played soft. Both he and Sowers spoke to IU being better than they showed, with Sowers insisting there will be words shared in the locker room to get the team in gear, while Lemonis alluded to sharing a few words in their postgame huddle. After entering the week on the heels of a six-game winning streak, a 1-2 showing isn’t going to sit well with Indiana on their return to Bloomington, but it may be the shock to the system the team needs to turn the intensity up a notch to return to Omaha in two weeks.

Kaletha leaves Omaha with

A catalyst atop Indiana’s lineup for much of the season, junior center field Logan Kaletha saw his production tail off during May. Kaletha did draw three walks against Michigan State, but went six at-bats without recording a hit over the first two games, to drop his average to .271, down from .331 when Indiana was 28-6 prior to their series against Ohio State. A 2-for-5 effort against the Illini, including a game-tying solo home run to right field in the seventh, his eighth of the year, allows Kaletha to head into a regional with a little momentum, where he can be the ultimate table-setter in front of Matt Gorski, Sowers, and Luke Miller, creating a dynamic lineup capable of running through a regional, and beyond.

Spillane’s big blast

Following strikeouts in his first two at-bats, one wouldn’t have been wrong to wonder if it just wasn’t Bren Spillane’s week. At some point, even the best of the best have a slump. But then Spillane stepped to the plate with two on in the fifth and made all forget about his prior whiffs. In a 10-pitch at-bat, Spillane show a Tim Herrin fastball left-center, clearing the 375-foot mark, for his 23rd home run of the season, tying the contest. Now just three home runs shy of Illinois’ single-season mark, with his team’s back against the wall, Spillane showed why he was the Big Ten Player of the Year, potentially giving Illinois the hit they needed to not only play on Saturday, but next Saturday as well.

A total team effort the Illini

Where Spillane has been the linchpin to Illinois’ offense, and had the big blast the team needed to get back into the ball game, the winning run was a total team effort; from a team Dan Hartleb praised for their togetherness and desire to play for each other.

The bottom of the ninth started with a Jack Yalowitz single, a sacrifice bunt from Zac Taylor, before the game-winning double to deep center from Ben Troike. Where Yalowitz and Taylor entered the season as Illini’s top two draft prospects, not Spillane, the outfielders are respectively batting .221 and .228. While it isn’t atypical for the draft to be heavy on the minds of juniors and a lull in production occur, Hartleb stated any pressure the two placed upon themselves was due to wanting to be there and produce for the whole of the team. In a game which may have solidified their case as an NCAA Tournament, manufacturing the winning run, and doing whatever the team needed, was accomplished.

Optimism for different reason

Postseason press conferences can be tough when they follow an elimination game, but each coach who spoke on Friday expressed optimism for different reasons.

Even though their season has wrapped up for all intents and purposes, it was clear Bakich saw an incredibly bright future for the Wolverines, running off the players returning and the positions which will have the depth necessary to see Michigan return to the top of the conference table.

For Beals, the win over Michigan was an exclamation point on a resume which has the totality of showing a strong team from the start of the season to the end. Where prior years have seen the Buckeyes fall short of an at-large bid, there was confidence Ohio State has earned their spot, explicitly expressed when Beals said their usage of Kinker will be dialed back, in preparation of next week.

Similar to Beals, Dan Hartleb believed his club’s Friday win earned them the right to play another weekend. A spot in the NCAA Tournament is necessary for a return trip to Omaha in late June, but Hartleb’s joy in coaching this specific club, and that they will likely have another week together shone through.

And for Lemonis, there was disappointment in his team’s performance, but he knows the quality of his team and there was a hint of wanting to get back on the horse as soon as possible. Indiana didn’t play their best baseball, but with no concern of not making the NCAA Tournament the resiliency they have the opportunity show is something the fourth-year coach is looking forward to.

It wasn’t too long ago when the end of run at the Big Ten Tournament meant the end of a team’s season. But as this year’s affair is down to the final four teams, that’s not the case, which means very good teams are playing against each other, making for very good games.

What to watch for in Omaha

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

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

The Bren Spillane Show

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

Spartan speed

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

Luke Miller’s power surge

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

Ohio State’s reliance on Seth Kinker

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

Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers

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

Attendance

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

Hellerball

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

Who has a fourth starter?

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

Does momentum matter?

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

The out of town scoreboard

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

The Weekend 10

It’s starting to be crunch time in the Big Ten, with teams entering the back-half of their conference schedule and the postseason picture becoming clearer. The weekend saw many stout performances, so strong in fact that the Big Ten’s top sluggers, Bren Spillane and Scott Schreiber, didn’t make the cut, even though both connected on two home runs this weekend.

Here’s the standouts who did.

Northwestern Jr. 1B Willie Bourbon

Bourbon collected five hits in 10 at-bats, in additional to drawing three walks in Northwestern’s weekend series against Michigan State. The Wildcat picked scored a pair of runs and drove in teammates.

Iowa Sr. C Tyler Cropley

Cropley continued his strong season in the heart of the Hawkeye order, going 6-for-12 over three games in Minneapolis. Against the nationally-ranked Gophers, Cropley roped two doubles, and picked up a home run, driving in three runs.

Michigan Fr. 1B Jesse Franklin

A leading force in Michigan’s now 20-game winning streak, Franklin scored seven runs and drove in another seven, as the Wolverines defended their home turf with a weekend sweep over Penn State. In 13 at-bats, Franklin picked up two singles, a double, and two home runs.

Minnesota Fr. RHP Patrick Fredrickson

The race for Big Ten Freshman of the Year continues to be a tight one, with Fredrickson, this week’s 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week, continuing a stout season in the Gopher rotation. On Saturday, Fredrickson held Iowa to six hits and two walks over 7.2 innings, striking out a pair of Hawkeyes, en route to improving to 5-0 on the year in Minnesota’s 3-0 victory.

Ohio State Sr. RHP Seth Kinker

Ohio State head coach Greg Beals relied on Kinker to keep the Buckeyes in tight contests this weekend against Indiana, and did not take the ball out of the hand of his best reliever. On Saturday, Kinker, this week’s Pitcher of the Week, pitched two innings of scoreless baseball, holding the Hoosiers without a grab his ninth save in securing a 5-4 victory. In Sunday’s rubber match, Kinker pitched the final 5.1 innings, scattering two hits, and again kept the Hoosiers off the scoreboard, as the Buckeyes grabbed another upset victory with a 6-5 win in 12 innings.

Purdue Jr. 1B Jacson McGowan

In a weekend critical to the team’s postseason hopes, Purdue went on the road and swept their weekend series at Maryland, improving to 7-4 in conference play. Guiding the Boilermakers to three wins, McGowan, this week’s Player of the Week, recorded a multi-hit game in each contest. The slugger’s 6-for-12 weekend was highlighted by a game-tying, ninth-inning home run on Saturday, before connecting on the game-winning shot in the 11th.

Ohio State Sr. 3B Noah McGowan

Ohio State’s athletic communications department was unable to find the last time the Buckeyes won a weekend set against a top 10 team. Leading the Bucks to the big weekend win was McGowan, responsible for the game-winning hits in both of OSU’s victories. Going 6-for-12 with three RBI, McGowan connected on a solo home run on Saturday, before hitting an opposite-field double to drive in Ohio State’s sixth and final run on Sunday in the 12-inning thriller.

Michigan State Sr. 1B Zach McGuire

A second-half surge continued for Michigan State, with the Spartans sweeping Northwestern. Running their conference winning streak to six games, MSU got a big weekend from first baseman Zach McGuire, who picked up two home runs on the weekend, half of his four hits in 11 at-bats, as he scored four runs and drove in five.

Michigan Jr. 3B Blake Nelson

No player drove in more runs over the weekend than Nelson, responsible for driving in nine of the 41 runs the Wolverines scored. Over 13 at-bats, the junior third baseman grabbed six hits, half of which were doubles on Saturday. Nelson reached base twice more by way or walk and scored two runs.

Indiana Jr. RHP Jonathan Stiever

Starting Indiana’s weekend off on the right foot, Stiever held a high-powered Ohio State offense off of the scoreboard on Friday. In seven innings of work, the righty surrendered only five hits, walked four Buckeyes and struck out six batters, improving to 5-1 on the year with a 2.53 ERA.

March 22 Power Rankings

With the exception of Maryland, Purdue, and Ohio State, Big Ten play starts this weekend. With teams tending to non-conference schedules in hopes of positioning themselves for an NCAA Tournament berth, the focus now turns to the conference crown.

From a standout newcomer, to veterans with multi-year track records, this week’s power rankings takes a look at each team’s closer, examining the first five weeks of the season for the pitchers responsible for nailing down the victory as Big Ten teams begin to fight for the title.

Previous power rankings: Week 1Week 2Week 3, Week 4

#1 Indiana (15-4) Last Week: 1

Jr. RHP Matt Lloyd– A preseason All-American at the utility position, the two-way talent has done his job at the back of the IU bullpen. Appearing in four games, Lloyd has pitched six scoreless innings. Saving two contests, Lloyd has surrendered five hits, walked two batters and struck out seven hitters.

#2 Ohio State (14-6) LW: 3

Sr. RHP Seth Kinker– A 3-1 record stands next to four saves for Kinker, as the Buckeye provides Greg Beals with security to keep games close and lock down Ohio State victories. In 17 innings, Kinker has struck out 19 batters against three walks, and holds a 1.06 ERA.

#3 Illinois (12-5) LW: 2

Jr. RHP Joey Gerber– Conceding only four hits in 27 at-bats, Gerber sports an impressive .148 batting average against, With a 3.58 ERA, the Illini has recorded four saves over eight outings, picking up 11 strikeouts and issuing three walks in 7.2 innings.

#4 Minnesota (14-8) LW: 6

Fr. RHP Max Meyer– Trough the first five weeks of the season Meyer has delivered on high expectations. After the graduation of All-Big Ten second-team selection Brian Glowcki, Meyer, has filled in nicely, recording five saves over nine outings. Meyer has picked up 19 strikeouts to four walks in 14.1 innings and holds a 3.14 ERA.

#5 Rutgers (11-7) LW: 5

Jr. RHP Serafino Brito– Brito has transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen in his third season in Piscataway. Making nine relief appearances, Brito has recorded two saves for the upstart Scarlet Knights. Brito has struck out 17 batters in 14.2 innings, sporting a 6.14 ERA.

#6 Michigan (9-11) LW: 11

Soph. RHP Jack Weisenburger– It’s been bullpen by committee for Michigan, but more and more Weisenburger’s number is being called later in tight contests. With all seven appearances coming in relief, Weisenburger has logged 14.2 innings and has a save under his belt. The second-year pitcher has struck out 17 batters, walked 11, and holds a .176 batting average against.

#7 Iowa (12-7) LW: 9

Jr. RHP Zach Daniels– Three Hawkeyes have recorded saves this year, but Daniels has been the most consistent. The converted infielder has a 2.03 ERA over 13.1 innings, with two saves and a 2-1 record. Daniels has recorded 16 strikeouts, tied for third most on the team, responsible for nine hits and five walks.

#8 Nebraska (12-9) LW: 5

Sr. RHP Jake Hohensee– Injuries have depleted Darin Erstad’s pitching staff, but Hohensee has been a rock in a move to the bullpen. Hohensee’s five saves have come over eight outings, as he’s allowed one run over nine innings. Hohensee has stifled the opposition, allowing just four hits in 32 at-bats with one walk, while striking out seven.

#9 Northwestern (7-8) LW: 12

Sr. RHP Tommy Bordignon– Bordignon’s power arm is starting to turn in the production Spencer Allen has believed the senior held. Enjoying his best season in Evanston, Bordginon has recorded three saves in five outings. Logging 11.2 innings of work, Bordginon’s ERA stands at 3.09.

#10 Maryland (10-11) LW: 7

Jr. RHP John Murphy– Murphy has been a strikeout machine out of the Terrapin bullpen, picking up 19 strikeouts in 10.1 innings. Nine walks have contributed to a 2.61 ERA, as Murphy has only allowed four hits in 34 at-bats. The junior has two saves on the season.

#11 Penn State (6-9) LW: 13

Soph. RHP Eric Mock– Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Mock has shown flashes of promise for Rob Cooper. The redshirt sophomore has recorded three saves, as he’s toed the rubber six times this year. Mock’s 5.86 ERA is the result of 10 hits in 11.1 innings, two being home runs, but he has struck out 16 batters to four walks.

#12 Purdue (9-9) LW: 8

Sr. LHP Ross Learnard– A preseason All-American, Learnard has pitched well, although save opportunities have been limited. Appearing in seven games, Learnard has pitched eight innings, and holds a 2.25 ERA. The lefty’s .143 opponent’s batting average continues to be one of the best in the conference.

#13 Michigan State (6-12) LW: 10

Soph. LHP Mitchell Tyranski– The Spartans as a whole may be off to a tough start, but the sophomore southpaw has been a consistent weapon out of the bullpen for Jake Boss. Tyranski’s 1.15 ERA leads Michigan State pitchers who have at least two appearances. In eight games, Tyranski has allowed nine hits, issued eight walks, and struck out 15 batters.

The 10 Spot: Webb’s Wonders

A wild Big Ten season is set to come to an end in nine days, with the final two weekends of play set to bring high drama and tense moments as six teams battle for the conference championship. Gearing up for a frantic finish, this week’s 10 Spot takes a look at 10 thoughts 10 Innings’ Chris Webb has on the season thus far.

Maryland’s Jekyll & Hyde Act

While it may not please head coach John Szfec, it is quite impressive how Maryland can be two different teams based on where a game is played. When playing in College Park, Maryland has the country’s best home record at 19-1. But away from Bob “Turtle” Thomas Stadium, the Terrapins are just 8-12 in road games. Avoiding home losses has helped Maryland keep a stout RPI, but the inability to play at the same high level looks to have cost the program a shot at its first Big Ten championship, dropping their last two series, at Indiana and at Illinois.

Gilbreath’s Pitcher of the Year claim

Minnesota junior left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath entered the season with much attention, moving into the Gophers’ Friday role after excelling in relief last year and boosting his prospect stock in the Cape. Strangely, Gilbreath hasn’t received a lot of attention as the year has gone on, even though he’s performing at a Big Ten Pitcher of the Year season. Overall, Gilbreath is 5-0, with a 2.30 ERA, third-lowest in the Big Ten, with 74 strikeouts in 62.2 innings, and the conference’s stingiest batting average against at .167. In conference play, Gilbreath’s 1.86 ERA is second among starters, his batting average against drops to an incredible .141 with 47 punch-outs in 39.2 innings. Maryland’s Brian Shaffer and Michigan State’s Alex Troop have also had strong seasons and garner more attention in respect to prospect status, but Gilbreath is right there and it’s undeniable he’s having one of the best seasons among pitchers in the Big Ten.

Standout freshman

Quite the race is unfolding for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, with several players, not only having strong debut seasons, leading the way for their teams. Minnesota infielder Jordan Kozicky stepped into the lineup due to injury and has not relinquished a spot on the Gophers’ lineup. The redshirt freshman is second in the Big Ten with a .357 average. On his heels is Ohio State right fielder Dominic Canzone, leading the Buckeyes with a .356 average and 10 stolen bases. Illinois second baseman Michael Massey is batting .321 with 10 doubles and six home runs, adding a superb glove up the middle. Michigan State left fielder Bryce Kelley is batting .347 with three triples and 10 stolen bases and Purdue center fielder Skylar Hunter sports a .325 average. Each of the five players have shown the skill and ability to be a force in their teams lineup for the next few seasons.

Harris’ prospect status primed to climb

The back-half of the Big Ten season has not been kind to Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights have dropped five consecutive conference games after reaching .500 in Big Ten play through 10 games. But the season has seen center fielder Jawuan Harris continue to climb as one of the conference’s top draft prospects for the 2018 season. As a freshman, Harris’ used elite speed to lead the conference with 35 stolen bases. But as a two-sport standout for Rutgers, starring at wide receiver on the gridiron, Harris was more athlete than baseball player. With a year of at-bats under his belt, as well as year of collegiate strength and conditioning, Harris’ overall game has blossomed. He’s still the Big Ten’s premier base stealer, with 23 swipes in 29 attempts, but he is now adding power with the speed. Batting .279, Harris has connected on eight home runs. Being a two-sport player does limit Harris’ ability to take on the summer circuit and engage in fall ball, but what he has done this spring has been noticed and could force a decision on which sport to pursuit a year from now.

Kinker a bright spot for the Buckeyes

It’s been a tough year for Ohio State. After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years, leading the Big Ten with 45 wins a year ago, it’s been a step backward for the Buckeyes, all but looking on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament. Injuries have hampered OSU pitching to go with an offense needing to retool after the graduation or drafting of seven starters. But there’s been a bright spot in right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker. The junior has been a rock for Greg Beals, closing, providing long relief and now emerging as a starter. In his first career start, Kinker tossed six innings of two-run baseball in the series finale at Michigan, leading the Bucks to a 4-2 win. In conference play, Kinker has the sixth-best ERA of qualified pitchers at 2.21, striking out 20 batters in 20.1 innings, giving Beals and the Buckeyes an anchor in the pitching staff to build around next season.

A tough Coach of the Year call

With two weeks to go, it’s shaping up to be a tough call for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Nebraska’s Darin Erstad has been a calming and steady force in guiding the Huskers through a turbulent start to their perch atop the Big Ten standings. Purdue’s Mark Wasikowski has overseen the best turnaround in the country, taking last year’s last place Boilermakers into an all but Big Ten Tournament participant with a winning season. Considering where teams where a month ago, Indiana’s Chris Lemonis and Illinois’ Dan Hartleb deserve recognition for in-season coaching, and Northwestern’s Spencer Allen has the Wildcats competitive, fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in seven years. There’s still two weeks to go and the standings are sure to have a final shakeup or two, but there’s been several outstanding jobs done by coaches in the conference this year.

Meyers is MVP, but Player of the Year?

Nebraska junior left-handed pitcher and center fielder Jake Meyers isn’t the best position player in the conference, nor is he the most dominant or outstanding pitcher. But in being able to take the mound on Sunday, leadoff Nebraska’s lineup, play defensively up the middle and be a terror on the bases, it’s hard to argue a player is more valuable than Meyers. On the mound, Meyers is 7-1 with a 2.96 ERA, striking out 45 batters against just eight walks in 70 innings. At the plate, Meyers sports a .301 average, a .422 on-base percentage and has stolen 18 bases in 19 attempts. Last year, Minnesota’s Matt Fiedler was named the top player, serving as the Gophers DH and Friday starter. He wasn’t the best player on the mound nor at the plate, but he helped Minnesota to the conference championship as a two-way force. Meyers may not jump out as the top player, but the precedent is there for him to take home the honor.

IU the new OSU?

The Hoosiers are rocking and rolling hitting mid-May with a head full of stream. From scuffling near .500 to being the top Big Ten team by way of RPI, the Hoosiers have caught fire. The run of Indiana is not unlike what the Big Ten saw last year with Ohio State. At one point, the Buckeyes were 2-5 in conference play before controlling their championship destiny in the last weekend. The Buckeyes blitzed through the Big Ten Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament, a thought unfathomable two months prior. Ohio State slugged their way through the 2016 season, hitting a conference-best 57 home runs. Indiana leads the Big Ten in home runs, also at 57, reaching the total in just 47 games, 18 less than last year’s Buckeyes. With Craig Dedelow, Matt Lloyd and Luke Miller, IU has a trio of players with at least 10 home runs, giving Chris Lemonis the Big Ten’s most dangerous lineup, one never out of a game.

Travel curfew madness

The Big Ten season has already experienced one tie, Nebraska and Indiana playing to an 11-inning, 1-1 tie on April 2. The game ended in a deadlock due to Nebraska’s travel curfew. The conference nearly saw a second tie due to a travel curfew this past Sunday, when Illinois and Maryland were in the bottom of the ninth, tied 6-6, as Maryland’s travel curfew hit. A tie was averted as Illinois hit a two-out, two-run walk-off home run, to avoid needing a new half-inning, which would not have played. But, the close call came a week after Maryland did not play nine innings, as a travel curfew ended their Sunday final in Bloomington, after eight innings. That game did experience a weather delay, but it may be time the Big Ten goes to 11 a.m. starts for select Sundays, when teams on the boundaries of the Big Ten border, Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland have to get away from locations without easily accessible airports. The games deserve a just completion.

Rebuilds continue Big Ten’s competitiveness

There’s no set blueprint to rebuilding a program, each task is different. How a rebuild unfolds hinges on the dynamics of a roster, is it an underclassmen-heavy roster or one that will experience a significant turnover with the graduation of a large senior class. How scholarships are allocated throughout the roster and things such as recruiting budgets, admission requiring and scheduling can slow or expedite a change in win-loss fortune. This year, the Big Ten is home to quicker-than-expected competitiveness from two clubs. Behind Wasikowski, Purdue is leading the country in improvement from 2016 to 2017 winning percentage, sitting in the middle of the Big Ten after finishing last two of three years. Northwestern hasn’t fared much better of late, and to be just a tiebreaker from inside the Big Ten Tournament’s field heading into the weekend, is a testament to the job Allen has done. The last five seasons have witness the top of the Big Ten compete with any team in the country. Now, those who have lagged are stepping up creating an ultra-competitive conference top to bottom.