Trending Topics: Week 1

It was quite the weekend for Big Ten baseball teams, as action spanned the country from Miami, Fla., to Riverside, Calif. There were outstanding individual honors, like pitchers Grant Judkins of Iowa and Ohio State’s Garrett Burhenn, respectively logging a no-hit outing and flirting with perfection. A handful of teams sport spotless records: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. And there were also a few surprises on the not as pleasant side, such as Minnesota losing to New Mexico and Oregon State by a combined score of 24-2 and Purdue and Rutgers concluding the opening weekend without a win.

Going beyond the scoreboard and box scores, the first of a weekly staple, Trending Topics, looks at five observations from the weekend that are either sending a team to success or holding them back.

Seniors stepping up

It’s hard to quantify, but ask any coach and there is something to draftitis affecting players over their junior year. Players who aren’t slam dunk draft picks, players with premium tools whose stock depends on production, time and time again press and scuffle, ultimately playing their way out of the draft. Then, when seniors, and facing the possibility of playing baseball competitively for the last time, no longer worrying about the draft just embracing the moment, an all-conference season unfolds.

The opening weekend showed there may be a few players who have strong senior seasons after watching their draft stock come and go, relaxed and just having the game come to them. Here’s a look at a few of those players, players who may end up having a significant say in how their team fares with them in the heart of the order.

Illinois OF Zac Taylor: 6-for-13, 2 2B, 1 HR, 5-5 SB-ATT

Indiana OF Logan Kaletha: 4-for-11, 2B

Maryland 3B Taylor Wright: 4-for-11

Michigan 1B Jimmy Kerr: 4-for-13, 2B, HR, 4 RBI

Ohio State LF Brady Cherry: 7-for-14, 2 2B, 2 HR

Buckeyes limit freebies

Although Ohio State went 36-24 and participated in the Greenville Regional last year, the Buckeyes were far from a well-oiled machine.

In 60 games, Ohio State’s defense committed 94 errors, more than 1.5 per contest and a whopping 20 more than the next closet team, leading to a Big Ten-worst .959 fielding percentage. The extra outs the Buckeyes gave the opposition were in addition to Ohio State hurlers hitting 77 batters, the most in the Big Ten, stood alongside surrendering 590 hits, also the most in the conference. A team that gives up a lot of hits, hits a lot of batters and routinely falls to play a clean game is far from the way Greg Beals wants his team to perform, regional or not.

Through the first weekend of the 2019 season, the Buckeyes have cleaned up their act.

Opening 4-0 for just the third time since 2010, Ohio State’s defense committed just two errors, for a .986 fielding percentage. Ohio State pitchers plunked only two batters, while walking just five hitters. As Ohio State breaks in an entirely new rotation, eliminating free passes, extra bases, and forced to record extra outs will go a long way in helping the Bucks reach back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002-03.

Huskers on the attack

Although Nebraska batted .274 in 2018, good for sixth in the conference, and scored 6.48 runs per contest, there was notable chatter on social media around the Huskers revolved around the offense. It is true Nebraska will no longer have the services of Scott Schreiber and Jesse Wilkening, the team’s two leading batters who combined for 56 extra-base hits and 27 of the team’s 47 home runs. So on paper there is a noticeable void in power, but when looking back at Nebraska’s best teams under Erstad, they were never ones to so much power.

Take 2014, when Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten and participated in a regional. The Huskers batted .293 with only 19 homers. By comparison, Schreiber hit 18 by himself last year.

In 2016, another year in a regional, Nebraska batted .281 with 43 home runs.

Then, in 2017, when the Huskers won the Big Ten, the team held its .281 average but this time with just 25 home runs.

With Erstad leading the way, when Nebraska’s offense is at its best, it’s when every batter, 1-9, has a methodical approach of fouling balls off until one can be barreled, puts consistent pressure on the opponent, are aggressive with dirt ball reads, takes the extra 90 feet and squeezes the life out of the opposition.

In taking three of four games from UC Riverside, it appears Nebraska’s offense is getting back to that.

While it’s unlikely the team will bat .347 for the course of the season, there were 27 walks drawn in four games, 10 doubles, nine stolen bases and the team was able to generate 47 runs without needing to drop a sacrifice bunt, relying on three sac flies.

The key to Nebraska in 2019 isn’t necessarily who replaces the thump of Schreiber and Wilkening, it’s more who becomes the next Chad Christensen, Pat Kelly, Jake Meyers or Michael Pritchard, guys who did all of the little things that added up to a potent offense.

Did Minnesota’s superb defense graduate, too?

Picked by conference coaches to defend their Big Ten title, a lot of Minnesota’s expected success stems from their pitching staff. Last year, Minnesota pitched to a 3.20 ERA, a mark lowered to a conference-best 2.64 in Big Ten games. With the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson back in his Saturday role for his sophomore season, fellow all-american and classmate Max Meyer resuming his closing duties, and many capable high-ceiling arms back, such as Joshua Culliver, Jeff Fasching, Bubba Horton and Brett Schultz, there’s a lot to like about the Golden Gophers on the mound.

But the expected strength of the team falling on the pitching staff was also in part due to the graduation of multiple starters with at least three years of starting under their belt: Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, Luke Pettersen, and arguably the Big Ten’s best two-way player in Terrin Varva. Any concern regarding Minnesota would be on how John Anderson and staff would replace the key contributors at the plate,

After a rocky opening weekend, the real concern may be how does Minnesota replace the quintet in the field.

In addition to the second-best ERA, Minnesota had the second-best fielding percentage among Big Ten teams. With a .977 fielding percentage, Minnesota committed just 52 errors over 59 games. In 2017 Minnesota had a .978 fielding percentage, committing 47 errors in 57 games, and in 2016 the Gophers fielded at a .980 mark, with 43 errors in 56 games.

In four games in Arizona, Minnesota committed six errors, including four in Saturday’s 11-1 defeat to New Mexico. Each error in Saturday’s game came from a position where Minnesota last a starter, with the weekend’s six errors leading to nine unearned runs.

Now, it was opening weekend. It was Minnesota’s first time being outside on a baseball field since the fall, and young players need time to adjust to the speed of the game. But Minnesota’s pitchers are only as good as the defense behind them, and if too many extra bases and extra outs are provided to the opponents, it won’t matter what the Gophers do or don’t do at the plate.

Hawkkkkkeyes ring them up

When your former pitching coach is hired away by the Yankees for a position called Director of Pitch Development, a position created exclusively for him, chances are your pitchers were working with one of the best in the business as they perfected their craft. The results from Iowa’s three games over opening weekend would support that.

Although Iowa’s former pitcher coach Desi Druschel was behind the plate, taking in Saturday’s games as a bystander and not participant, his work with the Hawkeye pitchers was on display.

Against George Mason, Pitt and Marshall, Hawkeye pitchers were on the mound for 26 innings. In that time, Iowa struck out 41 batters. Jack Dreyer started the parade of eye-popping numbers with a 10-strikeout showing in 5.1 innings on Saturday against the Panthers. Less than 24 hours later, Grant Judkins grabbed the Big Ten lead in punch outs with 11, in six innings against the Thundering Herd. With relievers in tow, Iowa’s game totals for strikeouts were: 10, 15 and 16.

The 41 strikeouts helped Iowa hold the opposition to a .114 batting average, 10 hits in 88 at-bats. The 20 walks are an issue to address, but Iowa’s 14.19 K/9 showing through one weekend is impressive. In case you’re wondering, that would be 795 over a 56-game schedule. The Big Ten record is 549, set by Maryland in 2015.

Newcomers to know

More and more, freshman are entering Big Ten programs ready to produce from day one. Left-hander pitcher Tyler Blohm was a weekend staple for Maryland last year, making 16 starts, a year after Jawuan Harris stole a Big Ten-leading 37 bases as a rookie for Rutgers. Jake Bivens, Chad Luensmann and Logan Sowers are a few of the other players with big debut seasons in recent years.

But freshman aren’t alone as players who have made sizable contributions in their first year on a Big Ten campus.

The Big Ten has seen transfers make immediate marks in recent years. Matt Llyod was a two-way standout for Indiana last year, serving as a power-hitting closer. Purdue reliever Ross Learnard set multiple program records en route to All-America honors, while the accolades were seemingly endless for Jake Adams, the 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year, after the 29-home run season he put together as a driving force behind Iowa’s Houston Regional club.

Here’s a rundown of the players new to the Big Ten you need to know entering the 2018 season.

Freshmen

Maryland outfielder Randy Bednar

Baseball America’s preseason Freshman of the Year, and the publication’s top 2020 Big Ten draft prospect, Bednar was a 27th-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves before arriving in College Park. The Maryland staff believes Bednar can develop into an elite top-of-the-order threat and strong two-way player.

Michigan shortstop Jack Blomgren

Likely sooner than later, Blomgren is expected to emerge as Michigan’s everyday shortstop. Although he hails from Wisconsin, a state with a relatively short high school season and climate not conducive to year-round repetitions, Blomgren arrives in Ann Arbor with advanced defensive skills and a glove that’s college-ready at a premium position.

Michigan outfielder/infielder Jesse Franklin

Michigan saw 11 players drafted from its Chapel Hill Regional team, leaving Erik Bakich’s program with a fill holes to fill. One player who spurned a professional opportunity is Jesse Franklin, a Washington native who said no to more than $1 million from the hometown Seattle Mariners. Franklin will start his career as a first baseman/DH due to a labrum injury from high school, but when healthy, Michigan expects an elite, left-handed, center fielder who can run, throw and hit.

Michigan State catcher Adam Proctor

Few players, regardless of class, may be able to match the raw power Adam Proctor brings to the plate. Joining a program known for physicality and imposing figures, by the time Proctor’s career in East Lansing ends, he may have better numbers than those of former mashers Ryan Krill, Jimmy Pickens, Blaise Salter and company.

Minnesota right-handed pitcher/first baseman Max Meyer

Minnesota produced one of the Big Ten’s best two-way players in recent years in 2016 Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler. A right-handed pitcher and outfielder, Fiedler is the comp the Minnesota staff places on Meyer, a good athlete with a power fastball and easy stroke, Meyer maky DH and come out of the bullpen as a closer in year one.

Nebraska outfielder Jaxon Hallmark

Jaxon Hallmark left an impressionable mark on the Husker staff in the fall, showing an ability to make an impact with his bat and versatility with his glove. As a senior, Hallmark earned District 3 6A Pitcher MVP and District 3 6A Defensive MVP honors. Media reports out of Lincoln give Hallmark glowing reviews, a likely starter from day one for the reigning Big Ten champions.

Northwestern outfielder David Dunn

Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen was able to head to the Peachtree State to pluck a talented prep. Able to clock a 60-yard spring time of sub-6.5 seconds, Dunn brings an explosiveness to the Wildcat lineup, expected to man center field while using his speed to provide a threat on the bases to compliment his developing hit tool.

Rutgers left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski

A 28th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds, left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski looks the part of a big league pitcher with a 6’2, 230-pound frame. He also possess the type of stuff that has Rutgers head coach Joe Literrio envisioning a big role in Rutkowski’s first season. Rutkowski pounds the strike zone with a fastball that touches the low-90s, with an advance feel and mound presence.

JUCO transfers

Iowa right-handed pitcher Brady Schanuel

A two-time MLB draft pick, Schanuel hopes to be the latest impact transfer for Rick Heller. After going 10-3 with a 1.83 ERA as a freshman at Parkland Community College, Schanuel went 10-1 with a 2.13 ERA, striking out 130 batters in 80.1 innings in 2017. Even after two dominant seasons, Schaneul arrives in Iowa City a bit raw, but with a big, mid-90s fastball the right-handed has a high ceiling and will open the season as the Hawkeyes #3 starter.

Maryland third baseman Taylor Wright

A native of Vancouver before attending Colorado Northwestern Community College, Wright enters his third year of college baseball as Maryland’s expected third baseman. With a lean 6’3, 180-pound frame, Wright is a strong athlete with good bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline, in two years at CNCC Wright drew 56 walks against 40 strikeouts.

Michigan State second baseman Bailey Peterson

A big hole was left for Michigan State at second base with the graduation of Dan Durkin. But the pain will be lessen if Bailey Peterson plays up to the potential Jake Boss sees in the Kellogg Community College transfer. Peterson has a bat-first skill set, similar to former Spartan and All-Big Ten selection Jordan Zimmerman, but isn’t a slouch in the field and brings above-average speed to the bases.

Ohio State outfielder Malik Jones

A two-year standout at Weatherford Community College in Texas, the Buckeye staff views Malik Jones as a top-of-the-order table setter, using speed to be a threat on the bases and cover plenty of ground as the everyday center fielder. In two years at Weatherford, Jones stole 47 bases, but also picked up 34 doubles for the Coyotes.

Purdue left-handed pitcher Ryan Beard

Mark Wasikowski knows it’s a tall task to expect a transfer to step in as a weekend starter, but that’s the role left-handed pitcher Ryan Beard will take on. From College of Southern Idaho Junior College, Beard pitched to a 1.04 ERA and .177 batting average against over 69.1 innings in 2017, using a commandable, low-90s fastball to attack hitters.

Division I transfers

Illinois outfielder Zac Taylor

An 10 Innings preseason All-Big Ten selection, Taylor, a native of Downers Grove, Ill., was a impact player in his two seasons at Houston before transferring to Illinois. Taylor stole 32 bases in 38 attempts in two seasons as a Cougar, before exiting the American Athletic Conference with a bang, batting .375 and slugged .813 with six hits and three runs, one triple and two home runs, while driving in four runs during the 2016 conference tournament.

Indiana right-handed pitcher Connor Manous

Indiana returned nearly every pitcher from its 2016 Lexington Regional team, yet a newcomer looks ready to step into the weekend rotation. Right-handed pitcher Connor Manous has shown outstanding stuff to Chris Lemonis in staff in the offseason. A native of Munster, Ind., Manous, the Chicago Post-Tribune 2016 Player of the Year, was a University of Miami recruit out of high school, but returned home after the fall semester last year as a freshman.

Rutgers right-handed pitcher Karl Blum

A graduate transfer from Duke, Karl Blum joined decided to head back to his home state and join younger brother Kevin as a Scarlet Knight over the season. From Toms River, N.J., Blum is expected to be a key reliever out of the Rutgers bullpen for Joe Literrio, a role he performed well in during his time in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 2017, Blum held a 3.18 ERA in 28.1 innings, striking out 20 batters in 21 outings.

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