Weekend preview March 3-5

The calendar has turned over to March which means the college baseball season is starting to pick up steam. The Big Ten didn’t have the best showing in February, seeing its lone ranked team, Maryland, stumble to a 1-5 start,  as the conference went 2-16 against ranked teams. But it’s a new month and there’s a new leaf to turn over as teams hit the mid-way point of pre-Big Ten play.

From California to the Carolinas, up to Minnesota and down the Texas, there’s noteworthy tournaments throughout the country with a Big Ten team in the fold, spotlighted in this week’s weekend preview.

Aggressive, clean play leads to Michigan’s hot start

Michigan’s 2017 season is off to a strong start, sporting a 7-2 record heading into the third weekend of play. Set to take part in a strong Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic field, joined by San Diego (4-2) and co-hosts UCLA (4-3) and USC (6-2), the Wolverines will take to the diamond in Los Angeles riding a five-game winning streak.

So far it’s been a complete effort for Michigan. Behind seniors Michael Brdar and Harrison Wenson both batting .371, the team boasts a .282 average, third-best in the Big Ten. Wolverine pitching also ranks third in the conference with a  4.22 ERA. Committing only four errors, the team’s .988 fielding percentage trails only Minnesota, with their 26 stolen bases in 27 attempts 10 clear of the conference’s second-best effort.

From the outside, it appears everything has come together for Michigan to be playing good baseball, ready to take on a weekend with quality competition. But, according to MLB’s once long-time home run king, what Michigan has done means little.

“We’re very fortunate with some of the speakers we’ve had in the fall, but Hank Aaron came and spoke to our team,” said Michigan head coach Erik Bakich. “One of the quotes he told our team is that ‘what you did yesterday is only good for wrapping a dead fish.’ That’s something that stuck with our guys. They know the games we’ve already played out here have no impact on the next game.”

What has made an impact on the game is Michigan’s ability to throw strikes, hit with power, run the bases and play clean defense, Bakich speaking to the completeness Michigan has shown thus far.

“We’ve gotten good performances, good efforts from our starting pitchers since we’ve been in California…The lineup is balanced, there’s speed at the top and bottom, there’s power in the middle, really the area that I would say as a coaching staff we’re most impressed with is the defense.”

For Bakich, the defensive showing is due to the team fielding a veteran lineup. Michigan returned its entire starting infield and two of three outfielders. The lone newcomers being junior DH Nick Poirier, a transfer from San Joaquin Delta College and outfielder Miles Lewis, a redshirt-sophomore transfer who was the Western Atheltic Conference Freshman of the Year at North Dakota last year.

“To come out and play on natural grass and dirt surfaces, you don’t always know how it’s going to go in the early part of the year in terms of securing the ball. The position players have shown their experience. They’ve done a nice job of not only making routine plays but making the web gem plays as well. That’s been a good sign.”

Michigan’s ability to field the ball, limit the opposition to chance, pairs nicely with an aggressive style of offense, continually putting the opposition in pressure situations. The Wolverines’ 26 stolen bases are tied for the most in the country, the fruits of an everyday-labor in the fall.

“The investment in the running game was made in the fall,” Bakich said. “We worked a lot on it. The running game isn’t something you can put in in the spring, that was something that we trained for every day in the fall. There wasn’t one day where we didn’t work on baserunning.

“I would say very rarely do I give the steal sign. The guys that have earned the green light, they knew who they are. They’ve become savy baserunners where they look for opportunities to run, they know the situations they should run and shouldn’t.”

The stolen base tally catches the eye, but to the fifth-year head coach, it is just a byproduct of how his team is playing.

“I just like the aggression with which our guys are running. It’s aggressive but it’s also smart,” Bakich said. “They’re taking good chances, they’re taking the extra 90, they’re moving up, they’re looking for any opportunity to advance, it’s put some pressure on teams where we’ve had big innings because of it.”

With each of Michigan’s three weekend opponents having winning records through three weekends, big innings may be hard to come by. But the way the Wolverines play will not change throughout the season, regardless of facing a college blueblood or mid-week regional opponent.

“Whatever the other jersey name says on the front of their chest really doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to fight, it doesn’t matter who you play. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day so we’re going to have to play well, compete, fight, execute. It’s a great tournament, we’re looking forward to it but it’s going to come down to our ability to execute.”

DQ Classic returns to Minneapolis

Get ready for free dilly bars as the Dairy Queen Classic is back. After a four-year hiatus, the Dairy Queen Classic, which started in 1987, returned to Minneapolis as the host Gophers welcome Hawaii, Oral Roberts and Big Ten brethren Iowa to U.S. Bank Stadium. Since it’s inception, the Dairy Queen Classic has had 145 Major League players participate in the tournament, and it was one of the first televised regular-season college baseball games on ESPN in 1989.

Minnesota entered the classic 4-2 after suffering a midweek loss to North Dakota State on Tuesday. The Gophers boast the second-best offense in the Big Ten, batting .339, led by Luke Pettersen’s .667 average through 21 at-bats. Four other Gophers are batting .300 or better as Minnesota sports a .463 slugging percentage behind 11 doubles, five triples and two home runs. Minnesota has yet to receive a quality start from a pitching staff that has a collective 5.26 ERA. As starts Lucas Gilbreath and Toby Anderson look to return to their 2016 form, as Minnesota weekend opening and closing tandem, young Minnesota pitchers have shined. Freshmen Nolan Burchill and Brett Schulze have combined to pitch 13.1 innings, allowing four runs.

Not scheduled to meet in the conference season, Iowa will take on their neighbors to the north on Sunday. The Hawkeyes enter the weekend 4-3 on the season, winning three of their last four games after going 1-2 at South Florida to start the season. Senior shortstop Mason McCoy, the Big Ten Player of the Week, leads Iowa with a .407 average, using three doubles, a triple and a home run to carry a 1.204 OPS through two weekends. The Hawkeyes .245 team average is in the middle of the Big Ten, but their 3.84 team ERA ranks second. Junior right-handed pitcher Nick Gallagher is Rick Heller’s ace and is performing at that level. In two starts Gallagher has a 1.93 ERA over 14 innings.

Oral Roberts is the hottest team entering the tournament, sitting 7-1 on the season. Last weekend, Oral Roberts went on the road and swept Alabama, before returning home to take a midweek contest against Kansas, turning back the Jayhawks, 12-1. Oral Roberts is led offensively by junior outfield Noah Cummings. Cummings has a .469 average with two doubles and four home runs. On the mound, Oral Roberts is pitching to the tune of a 3.32 ERA.

Hawaii heads to the Twin Cities with a 3-4 record. The Rainbow Warriors don an impressive 2.69 ERA on the season, but the opposition has pitched to a 1.69 ERA and .202 batting average against. Hawaii and Minnesota will play a Thursday night game, before the tournament kicks off.

All times Central, the rest of the weekend’s schedule follows.

Friday

  • Iowa vs Hawaii – 12:15 p.m.
  • Minnesota vs Oral Roberts – 6:30 p.m.

Saturday

  • Iowa vs Oral Roberts – 12 p.m.
  • Minnesota vs Hawaii – 6:30 p.m.

Sunday

  • Hawaii vs Oral Roberts – 11 a.m.
  • Minnesota vs Iowa – 3 p.m.

Around the conference

Florida Atlantic (4-3-1) welcomes another Big Ten opponent to Boca Raton as Illinois takes on the Owls a weekend after the Indiana Hoosiers split a three-game set. Illinois enters the weekend 2-5, behind an all-underclassmen weekend rotation. Taking their lumps early in the season, Illini pitchers have a 6.82 ERA spurred by walking 6.97 batters a contest. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Luke Schilling will take the ball on Friday night, to be followed in the rotation by freshmen righties Ty Weber and Ryan Thompson to round out the weekend. At the plate, the Illini are holding their own, batting .277, featuring six batters with a .300 average or better, led by Jack Yalowitz (.393) and Ben Troike (.385). Behind two doubles and a pair of home runs, senior first baseman Pat McInerney is the team’s leading run-producer with 10 RBI.

The Hoosiers are looking for an offensive spark. Falling to 3-4-1 on the season, Indiana dropped a home midweek contest to Cincinnati, 6-1, the third time this season IU has scored one run or less. Sophomore catcher Ryan Fineman is picking up where a solid freshmen season left off, batting a team-leading .333. Junior outfielder Laren Eustace is hitting .320 with four stolen bases, but fellow outfielders Craig Dedelow and Logan Sowers have yet to find their stroke, respectively batting .176 and .129. IU’s .230 team average is curtailing the efforts of the Big Ten’s top pitching staff, Indiana pitchers holding a 3.21 ERA. Indiana travels to Samford for three games, the Bulldogs coming off of a 7-6 win over Auburn on Wednesday to run their record to 4-3. Kevin Williams is the big bat in the Samford lineup, already with four home runs under his belt next to a .409 average.

Michigan State heads to Greenville, S.C, to play in the First Pitch Invitation. With one of the nation’s most potent offenses, the Spartans are batting .368, best in the Big Ten, ranking third in the nation. MSU is led by four players batting .400 or better through seven games, senior second baseman Dan Durkin (.452), sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina (.429), junior DH Zack McGuire (.406) and freshman outfielder Danny Gleaves (.400). The Spartans are slugging a gaudy .588 on the strength of 29 doubles and nine home runs, averaging 7.2 runs a game. Gleaves ranks fourth in the country, scoring 1.86 runs per game. The slugging Spartans will play in a tournament field of four teams, none with a losing record. MSU opens the weekend against Furman (6-2), before taking on Presbyterian (5-5) on Saturday, closing the weekend on Sunday against Tennessee-Martin (5-1).

Nebraska went 1-3 in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge, dropping both games against #4 Oregon State while splitting two games against #24. As the Huskers look to get back on track, there is no dropping off in the competition. Nebraska heads to Frisco, Texas to play in the Frisco Classic, alongside #9 Arizona, #20 Arkansas and #30 Oklahoma State. Darin Erstad’s team is looking to get sluggings Ben Miller and Scott Schreiber going, as well as settle down a rotation which had difficulties with command and pitching beyond the fourth inning last week. Nebraska’s weekend rotation will go Derek Burkamper, who made his first start last week and was on a 50-pitch watch after a slight end-of-offseason arm issue, Jake Hohensee, who started Nebraska’s 4-3 win over Utah in his first action since May 2015 following Tommy John surgery, and two-way player Jake Meyers, resumes his Sunday role.

Northwestern and Penn State hopes to match Michigan’s undefeated showing in northern California, with Penn State taking on Pacific for three games with Northwestern travels to Santa Clara for four contests. Penn State’s showdown with Pacific in Stockon, Calif., is the start of a seven-game run in the Golden State for the Nittany Lions, while Northwestern returns home for their home debut on March 7 against Illinois-Chicago before heading out west for a three-game set at Portland. Penn State is looking to build off of a 2-2 showing against Xavier in Cary N.C., Northwestern is looking for their first win of the season, falling in their first six contests. Both teams hope weekend #3 is where the offense turns around, Northwestern enters March with a .167 average with Penn State sporting a .237 clip.

Rutgers was unable to take a road game at a ranked Atlantic Coast Conference foe for the second consecutive weekend, being swept at Virginia, after going 1-2 on opening weekend at Miami. A 9-2 midweek win over Wagner allowed Joe Litterio’s team to get back on track, in advance of returning to Virginia for three games at Old Dominion. Rutgers center fielder Jawuan Harris is stuffing the stat sheet, batting .346 with three doubles, a triple, three home runs and three steals. Milo Freeman and Mike Carter are contributing robust .375 and .370 respective averages. But as a team RU is batting .251 with a 7.14 ERA, hoping a step down in competition leads to better numbers and wins.

Required reading

Youth of Illinois baseball team continues to shine -Thomas Polcyn, The Daily Illini

Freshmen impress as Northwestern drops 3 in Mule Mix Classic -Evan Augeri, The Daily Northwestern

Connor Pohl’s Story All-Too-Familiar -Sonny Fulks, Press Pros Magazine

Penn State baseball’s offense sees significant improvement– Matt Martell, The Daily Collegian

Purdue’s Logan Poisall honors his father -Nathan Baird, Lafayette Journal & Courier

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