The final weekend before in-conference play beings was a good one for the Big Ten. There were seven home series, with Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio State all grabbing weekend sweeps, Penn State captured two of three, and Michigan State and Nebraska split their weekend sets. On the road, Minnesota grabbed national attention with their road victory at TCU and Rutgers picked up a pair of solid victories at Florida Gulf Coast. All told, only two of the 13 teams suffered weekend defeats.
What garnered the most attention from the strong weekend? Here’s the top weekend observations.
Spillane jumps to the front of POTY race
A lot of attention, and rightfully so, had been cast upon the law office-sounding duo of Ohio State’s Noah McGowan and Purdue’s Jacson McGowan. Both first baseman put together impressive first months at the plate, where numbers on pace to shatter school records helped lead their respective clubs to strong starts. But there’s been an offensive eruption over the last three weeks by Illinois first baseman Bren Spillane that has him on track to be Illinois’ third conference player of the year in six years. Following an 8-for-16 weekend, where the series opener at Southern Illinois produced three home runs, before a two-double, 4-for-4 effort capped the Saturday doubleheader, Spillane is second in the Big Ten in hitting (.419), first in slugging (.887), first in doubles (nine), second in home runs (six), second in total bases (55), fifth in on-base percentage (.471), fifth in RBI (21) and fifth in stolen bases (five). Putting himself in line to be an All-American over the first month, the next two months will show if Spillane can follow the feats of former Illini who were named Big Ten Player of the Year, Justin Parr (2013) and David Kerian (2015), and lead Illinois to a regional.
Kaletha is Indiana’s catalyst
With Matt Lloyd, Luke Miller, and Logan Sowers returning, Indiana was expected to have a strong offensive club. And through 19 games, Indiana is batting .286 with 42 doubles and 19 home runs, Chris Lemonis does indeed have a potent team at the plate. But it isn’t Lloyd, Miller, nor Sowers who is the driving force behind the high-powered Hoosiers offense, its newcomer Logan Kaletha. A transfer from John A. Logan College, the junior outfielder led Indiana in runs created heading into last weekend. As Indiana swept Northern Illinois, Kalthea went 5-for-13 with a double, home run, two RBI, three runs, a walk, and a stolen base. Atop Indiana’s lineup, Katleha has settled into being a dynamic leadoff batting, offering with hitting ability (.319 average), power (.580 slugging percentage) discipline (12 walks to 15 strikeouts), grit (12 plunkings) speed (five stolen bases). and for good measure sports a perfect fielding percentage.
Ohio State continues regional trajectory
Indiana has done nothing to dissuade any belief they are the Big Ten’s top team. Checking in at No. 15 in this week’s NCBWA poll, the first five weeks for the Hoosiers have justified their preseason top billing by conference coaches. But the Hoosiers aren’t the top rated Big Ten team by RPI, that would be Ohio State. According to Warren Nolan’s RPI formula, Ohio State’s RPI is 25 heading into Wednesday play. With only one-third of a season’s data in place, the RPI is very fluid and drastic fluctuations are common in March. But at 14-6, if the season ended today, the Greg Beals’ team would be in a regional. Riding a six-game winning streak, Ohio State has not suffered a losing weekend yet, the Buckeyes have picked up a pair of wins which figure to stand out on their resume (Coastal Carolina and Southern Miss), and started their home slate with three wins in three games. A solid win total, grabbing marquee victories as they come, and protecting the home field is the path to the postseason, and with their sweep of Cal State Northridge, the Buckeyes stayed on course.
Rookie Gophers grow up on big stage
Speaking of postseason resumes, Minnesota’s weekend victory at then No. 11 TCU will surely help the Gophers’ case to be in the field of 64 for a second time in three years. For those who have watched Big Ten baseball over the past few seasons, the upset may not have been that shocking. Minnesota is a game from being two-time reigning Big Ten champions, the Big Ten has equaled the Big XII’s 13 teams in a regional since 2015, and Minnesota has a very deep and veteran-laded lineup, But what was eye-opening, and may have a lasting effect beyond May, was the performance of Minnesota’s freshmen pitchers. In a weekend where TCU saw more than 4,000 fans turn out for each game, Patrick Fredrickson, Bubba Horton, Max Meyer, and Sam Thoresen combined to pitch 15.2 innings and allow just seven hits, striking out 17 batters. Minnesota will experience heavy roster turnover following this season with the graduations of Alex Boxwell, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson, and Luke Pettersen, but those four pitchers, along with classmate Joshua Culliver and Ryan Duffy give the Gophers a foundation to continue the program’s ascend on.
Whelan provides a spark
Iowa had lost five straight games before Evansville came to town. The Hawkeyes started this week on a three-game winning streak. While it would be tough to give him all credit for halting the team’s skid and starting a run, the return of Chris Whelan had to be comforting for Rick Heller. With Whelan back in the lineup, Iowa had a true leadoff batter, something that was missing the first four weeks. In addition to someone who can get on base, Whelan can drive the ball and be a run-producing taking a little pressure off Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom. While Whelan’s UCL injury will limit him to just DH duties, his first weekend of action saw little rust. The 2017 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player went 5-for-12, drew two talks and scored four runs.
Michigan freshmen find comfort at home
No school in the country produced more MLB Draft picks last year than Michigan did with 11. While a noteworthy accomplishment, having that many players leave a program tends to cause a step back the following season as newcomers and role players are thrust into prominent roles. For the first four weeks of the season, Michigan did scuffle, the Wolverines entered last weekend’s series against Bowling Green at 4-11. But during their first home series, the emergence of a few freshman, part of a recruiting class ranked 10th by Baseball America, spurred a turnaround and should bring optimism to Ann Arbor ahead of conference play. Earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, outfielder Jordan Nwogu post a triple-slash of .362/.692/1.097, with a home run, two double and eight RBI. 10 Innings’ Freshman of the Week accolades went to Michigan left-handed pitcher Ben Dragani, after he pitched seven shutout innings on Sunday, striking out six batters without issuing a walk. Another freshman, shortstop Jack Blomgren reached base five times, picked up a double and stole two bases.