The first weekend of the season came to an end on Feb. 18. And, after eight more weekends of play, the calendar rests on April 18. Before looking ahead to what the final month of the regular season has in store for Big Ten teams, we take a look back at the first two months, and note the ten players, teams, trends, and stories which have put the conference in a position to have a frantic fight to finish as the conference tournament’s return to Omaha comes into view.
The new normal
In 2015, the Big Ten set a conference-record with five teams in the NCAA Tournament. That total was one less than the combined total of the prior three seasons. The following year produced three regional teams, a slight step backward, but noteworthy in that neither Minnesota, Nebraska, or Ohio State were a part of the quintet of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan which reached a regional in 2015, giving the conference eight different teams to have a reached a regional over a two-year window. Last year, the conference all but squashed any doubt of its status as a premier conference, again placing five teams in a regional. Now the Big Ten may yet again take a step further with six potential NCAA Tournament clubs.
According to the NCAA’s latest RPI figures, through games played on April 17, the Big Ten has six teams in the top 55 of the RPI.
Ohio State- 40
It may still be a few weeks before the RPI has enough data to truly represent the quality of teams throughout the country, but that’s not stopping national outlets D1Baseball and Baseball America from taking stock of where teams standing in the ratings, and publish projected NCAA Tournament fields. Bot where the conference has five teams that make the cut in D1’s projections (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota) and four teams in Baseball America’s version (Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State) those not in the field among each outlet’s first teams out of the field, making it an even half-dozen clubs with realistic regional odds.
If there are any lingering skeptics of Big Ten baseball, it’s time to let go of past perceptions and expect a handful or more of teams to be among the best in the country.
Hoosiers continue to roll
At 27-6, Indiana has its best record through 33 games since 1987. Indiana’s ability to run over nearly everything in sight is propelled by a 2.27 team ERA, the best in the country. Entering the season as the Big Ten favorite in the eyes of conference coaches, viewed by head coach Chris Lemonis as his deepest team in four-year tenure, so far Indiana has lived up to every expectation and billing. In additional to leading the country in pitching, Indiana is batting .300, the third-best clip; has slugged 38 home runs, second to Illinois; while posting a .970 fielding percentage, good for fourth in the conference. Indiana’s core of returning veterans like Luke Miller, Pauly Milto, Logan Sowers, and Johnathan Stiever, have produced as expected, with newcomers like Elijah Dunham, Logan Kaletha, Connor Maous, and Tommy Sommer stepping into supporting roles and flourishing. Yet to drop a weekend series, only once losing consecutive games, Indiana is showing a completeness and ability to take care of business that merits its current position as one of the 10 best teams in the country.
Michigan fights to buck recent trend
Over the last decade, there’s been a familiar life cycle to Big Ten programs. Any sustain period of success, capped with a superb season, usually is followed by a large roster turnover, either due to graduation or Major League organizations plucking away the talent that was at the core of a team’s success.
Following their 2012 Big Ten championship, Purdue saw seven players drafted from a team that hosted the Gary Regional. Purdue went 6-18 the following year to finish 10th in the Big Ten. After earning a national seed and hosting regional and super regional play, Illinois has nine players drafted from its 2015 50-win team. The Illini finished in a three-way tie for eighth in 2016. In 2016, Ohio State ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, finishing third in the Big Ten before winning the conference tournament. Six Buckeyes were grabbed in the MLB Draft, players who were not a part of last year’s 11th-place finish for the Buckeyes.
So what would happen when Michigan lost nation-leading 11 players to last years draft, after winning 42 games? Through the teams first 15 games, it appeared the Wolverines would go down the same path as those before them. At 4-11, including a midweek loss to NAIA Lawrence Tech, a long spring appeared in store for Michigan. Michigan hasn’t lost since that March 14 loss to Lawrence Tech, currently owning a 17-game winning streak. Prior to this weekend, each win was against a team with an RPI lower than 200, making pollsters hesitant to buy into Erik Bakich’s team. But give a young U-M credit for taking care of business against lesser teams, before taking both games in a weather-shortened series against Maryland to lend more validity to Michigan’s run.
Spillane draws a national spotlight
The lone Big Ten player on the midseason Golden Spike Watch List is Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane. While a few other Big Ten first baseman are having seasons which would stack up to any player in any conference, see Ohio State’s Noah McGowan, Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, and Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, Spillane’s production over the first two months would have caused a riot in Champaign if he was not included among the list of 40 amateur players. Here’s Spillane’s numbers without much comment, because there isn’t many words that are proper to describe how eye-popping they are.
Games- 29 Avg.- .457, Doubles- 15, Triples- 2, Home Runs- 14, RBI- 43, Runs- 34, Total Bases- 109, Slugging- 1.038, On-Base- .540, Stolen Bases- 12.
Spillane became the first player in Big Ten history to earn three consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week honors. An undisclosed injury, which Illinois reports has his status day-to-day, has kept Spillane out of the Illini’s last three games. That may be the only thing that can contain Spillane this spring.
Inconsistency dooms Maryland and Purdue
It’s been a head-scratching season for the two newest Big Ten coaches.
After guiding Purdue to a surprising eighth-place finish in his first season leading the Boilermarkers, Mark Wasikowski has seen his club play very well for extended stretches, then not so well. Here’s Purdue’s season:
Start 8-1, lose nine of ten, win five straight, lose five consecutive contests. All told, Purdue is 16-15, an even 4-4 in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers did grab a game in Bloomington before the series’ rubber match was decided in extras, showing when they’re on, they’re a tough out. Currently Purdue is one game ahead of ninth place in the conference, which is where Maryland sits.
First-year head coach Rob Vaughn hasn’t had the sustained highs and lows that Wasikowski has, his team’s ebb and flow has been rockier, changing course from game to game. Within a 16-20 record, and 3-5 mark in the Big Ten, are four wins against the teams in the RPI’s top 50. But they also have six losses to teams with an RPI worse than 150. A microcosm of Maryland’s season is their 3-7 record in midweek games, and back-to-back weekend series where they were swept in convincing fashion at East Carolina, before taking two of three against Stetson. A year after participating in the Wake Forest Regional, with two returning weekend starters and six positional players, Maryland is 11th in the conference in hitting (.229) and ERA (5.27).
Winter’s grip remains tight
This will be brief, certainly everyone in the Midwest is tired of. But their is no denying the affect snow, sleet, ice, and cold weather has had on Big Ten baseball this spring. It’s become nearly as common to see doubleheaders, as a scheduled Friday-Saturday-Sunday series. With series held to two games in Ann Arbor, Lincoln, and West Lafayette last weekend, five conference games have been lost due to weather this year, the most since 10 were cancelled in the 2007 season, a team when there were only 10 Big Ten programs, none with an outfield artificial field.
Freshmen pitchers show polish and poise
When Ohio State head coach Greg Beals announced freshman left-handed Seth Lonsway was ineligible this season, due to a matter from high school and the NCAA Clearinghouse, the 2018 season would come and go without the Big Ten’s top recruit participating. Two months into the season, Lonsway has been an afterthought, not only due to the success of Ohio State, but also with the impressive showings around the conference by fellow freshmen pitchers.
Michigan LHP Ben Dragani, (1.38) and Minnesota RHP Patrick Fredrickson (1.96), respectively rank first and third in the Big Ten in ERA. Rutgers has two freshman LHPs, Eric Heatter (4.40) and Harry Rutkowski (3.38) rounding out the weekend rotation. Gopher RHP Max Meyer has racked up eight saves next to a 2.61 ERA, southpaw Quinn Lavelle has emerged as the ace of Northwestern’s staff, and right-hander Trent Johnson has emerged as a stout Sunday starter for Purdue, boasting a 1.88 ERA over 24 innings. With the performances of these rookies, many coaches throughout the Big Ten have multiple aces in the awaiting.
Huskers in danger of postseason absence
One of the lasting memories of Big Ten baseball in recent years is the spectacle of 19,965 in attendance for the 2014 Big Ten Tournament title game between Indiana and Nebraska. The top two finishers in the conference, and two would-be NCAA Tournament participants, a sea of red filled TD Ameritrade Park as the Huskers fought for the crown. Indiana is on track to potentially have another regional-bound season, but to match their part in reliving history, Nebraska has a mighty uphill battle. With Big Ten series down and four to go, Nebraska is 3-7 in the conference, in 11th place. Injuries have depleted the Husker pitching staff, while the offense has had little to support the all-america campaign senior first baseman Scott Schreiber is having. The Huskers have shown they can beat good teams, only Iowa’s five wins against the RPI top 50 are more than Nebraska’s four, but the depth hasn’t been there for Nebraska to win a weekend against a quality team. Darin Erstad has led Nebraska baseball to highs only seen in the early 2000s, earning a conference title, three runners-up finishes and three NCAA Tournament appearances, but at 16-18, this may be the inevitable one step back that befalls all conference teams.
Rutgers makes its move
Even though Rutgers was swept in a three-game series last weekend at Illinois, it’s worth highlighint the turnaround season the Scarlet Knights are enjoying, spurred in part by the first-year success of Heatter and Rutkowski. Prior to their trip to Champaign, Rutgers had won five consecutive weekend series, including taking two of three at 25-9 Florida Gulf Coast. At the mid-way mark of the conference season, Rutgers is above the fold to make the eight-team Big Ten Tournament for the first time. At 19-14, with a 7-7 mark against teams in the RPI’s top 100, the on-field product for Rutgers is reflecting the change in culture head coach Joe Literrio focused on in the offseason, which included revamping his coaching staff with new assistants and a dedicated director of player development. With five series to go, Rutgers is only five wins away from tying the program’s best showing in conference play, a 9-15 season in 2016.
Minnesota remains an offensive juggernaut
The Big Ten’s best hitting team once again resides in Minneapolis. Through 33 games, Minnesota’s .311 team batting average leads the Big Ten, as does their 362 hits, 253 runs, 26 sacrifice flies, 25 sacrifice hits, and .416 on-base percentage. Last year, Minnesota’s .297 average paced the Big Ten, as did the team’s .322 clip during their Big Ten championship season in 2016. Junior shortstop Terrin Vavra’s .411 average leads six Gophers batting .300 or better, with each one having an on-base percentage of at least .422. The ability for numerous Gophers to reach base at a stout rate has lead to nine games of scoring at least 10 runs, while scoring less than three runs only five times. Once a program known to be led by pitching, it is worth mentioning Minnesota’s 3.68 ERA is third-best in the conference, the Gophers are once again establishing an identity at the plate as a team that will wear down a pitcher, drawing 179 walks to 215 strikeouts. Minnesota’s attempt to take home the Big Ten’s team batting title for a third consecutive season is on the heels of a three-year period where the team’s seasonal batting averages were .258, .256, .261., from 2013-15.