Unlike last season, when everyone in the conference had a chance to take home the title in the last week of the year, there is some separation in the Big Ten. A quarter of the way through the schedule Michigan State has the best record at 21-8 and a 5-1 mark in league play. Michigan and Northwestern are occupying the league cellar at 2-4 in conference and only nine wins each overall. That means there is likely going to be some gaps this year, making Purdue's series at Penn State this weekend very important.
Our Boilermakers come in at 22-11, leading the conference in overall wins after beating Ball State and IPFW this week,.They are only 3-3 in the league. A costly eighth inning collapse with a 5-1 lead against Michigan last weekend is preventing Purdue from being in a three way tie with Indiana and the Nittany Lions for second heading into the third weekend. The sheer number of wins that Purdue is piling up, plus a challenging non-conference schedule, may be enough to push them on to the at large bubble for the NCAA Tournament, however.
Purdue is not going to get in unless it finishes at least in second place in the league though, and for that to happen hey have to win this weekend's series at Penn State (20-10, 4-2). Penn State has been impressive so far, winning a series in ACC country (North Carolina State) and winning two of three at perennial power Wichita State. Because those are series wins, their strength of schedule would have them ahead of Purdue so far in terms of the NCAAs. Purdue's best wins (Connecticut, Louisville, and Pittsburgh) were all single games.
Penn State started league play by taking two of three each from Illinois and Northwestern. There weekend rotation is well established with Steven Hill (4-1, 2.20 ERA in 8 starts), John Walter (4-3, 2.38 in 8 starts), and Heath Johnson (1-1, 5.40 ERA in 8 starts). Purdue will counter with Matt Morgan (3-1, 2.59 in 6 starts), Brad Schreiber (4-0, 3.64 in 7 starts) and Joe Haase (3-1, 2.59 in 6 starts). That means some of the best starting pitching in the conference will face off this weekend.
Purdue is still hitting the ball very well with seven of the eight regular in the lineup hitting over .300. As a team Purdue is hitting .317 with 18 home runs and 222 RBI. Penn State does not have this balance throughout its lineup. Jordan Steranka is hitting .357 with six homers and 38 RBI. Sean Deegan is .323 with four homers and 20 RBI. Joey Debernardis is .333 with 24 RBI, but no homers. Penn State bats just .284 as a team, but they have 18 homers on the year.
The looks to be a pretty even matchup. I give Penn State the pitching edge, but Purdue has more balance throughout the batting lineup. Ryan Ignas has five saves as their closer, but a 2-3 record. He is not as dicey as Nick Wittgren for us (7 saves, but a 4.70 ERA). Our bullpen has definitely struggled, with three of our 11 losses coming when we had a multiple run lead in the 8th inning or later. That is a big difference because if we were 25-8 we would probably be an NCAA lock right now. That is how little margin for error we have in the Big Ten. We should also beware of Dave Walkling, a midweek starter/long reliever that is 5-0 with a 1.71 ERA.
Once again, a series win is imperative. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Saturday's game is scheduled to be televised live on the Big Ten Network. In our favor is that we have only lost a series twice to Penn State, and we are the best hitting team in the conference. If Purdue somehow sweeps we can really start dreaming of postseason play.