Alex is out again this week, so it falls to me to preview the weekend series against Michigan as Purdue baseball winds its season down. Last year our Boilermakers finished a game out of first place in the Big Ten behind Illinois and Michigan State, going 1-5 against the co-champs. In 2010, they were three games back in fifth place after getting swept the final weekend of the season by Iowa. In 2008 Purdue was second to Michigan in the conference, but the Wolverines ran away with it by five games. In 2005 Purdue was second to Illinois by a game. In 2001 it was a half game as a game at Michigan State was snowed out, and Purdue won the other three in that series.
As you can see, our Boilers have been agonizingly close to a Big Ten championship on the diamond over the last 11 years, but they have not broken through. In fact, you have to go back to 1909, when there were only 46 states, the Chicago Cubs were the defending World Series Champions, and Hugh Nicol coached Purdue to an 11-2 record and 7-2 record in Big Ten play for Purdue's only Big Ten baseball championship. Purdue lost at Illinois 5-0 and at home to Chicago 7-2, but won the second games with Illinois and Chicago in addition to two wins over Northwestern, two over Wisconsin, and a win over Indiana.
It is safe to say that every member of that team is long dead, so there can be no honoring them this weekend as Purdue can finally end the 103 year drought since its last Big Ten championship. Our ladies softball team can also win its first Big Ten championship at Michigan if it sweeps all three games, but baseball is playing the final big Ten series at Lambert Field with a big enough cushion that the streak should soon be over.
Purdue, at 14-4 in the Big Ten, currently holds a three game lead over Indiana with six to play. Michigan State, Minnesota, and Penn State are all four games back and Purdue holds the tiebreaker with series wins over the Spartans and Nittany Lions. That makes the magic number three. If Purdue wins three times this weekend, Indiana loses three times at last place Northwestern, or any combination of Purdue wins and IU losses adds up to three, Purdue will win the title.
I'll be at Saturday's game, which is televised on Big Ten Network at noon. Indiana plays at 4 p.m. on Friday and 2 p.m. on Saturday, so if they lose Friday night we can have the proverbial beer on ice. No word on if it is Old Style, which after tasting one last weekend, was clearly last brewed in 1908 and they are still selling at Wrigley Field.
Michigan Wolverines (20-29, 6-12 Big Ten)
Friday Pitching Matchup:
Joe Haase (7-1, 3.47 ERA) vs. Brandon Sinnery (4-4. 3.74 ERA)
Haase pitched decently last week at UCLA, but given Tyler Plutko's mastery of our lineup he could not avoid his first loss of the season. Purdue is still 6-0 against the Big Ten when Haase pitches. Sinnery is coming off of his best outing of the season when he had a complete game 11-0 shutout of Iowa with eight strikeouts and six scattered hits on 110 pitches. He also scattered nine hits and gave up no runs in 8.1 innings against Michigan State earlier this year. He's been a feast or famine pitcher. Before shutting out Iowa, Indiana tagged him for 10 hits and seven runs in six innings.
I like for Haase to get back on track this week. Again, he didn't pitch poorly last week, giving up just three runs in six innings. He just had no offensive help. Michigan bats just .259 as a team, so as long as the offense gets to Sinnery, Purdue wins tomorrow.
Saturday Pitching Matchup:
Lance Breedlove (6-4, 2.92 ERA) vs. Alex Lakatos (0-5, 2.76 ERA)
I am going to assume Lakatos, who got his first start of the season last week. He is still 0-5 with a decent ERA out of the bullpen. He has 33 strikeouts in 42.1 innings, but Bobby Brosnahan (3-3, 3.48 ERA) could also get the start. Brosnahan has a complete game on the season, but their strikeout totals are nowhere close to Breedlove's.
Depending on what Indiana does Friday night, Purdue can go into this game knowing that a win gives it the title. I like our chances to get the business of clinching the Big Ten title out of the way early. I'll also be watching the scores of the Indiana game once it starts at two in case it factors into our title chances.
Sunday Pitching Matchup:
Connor Podkul (2-1, 3.63 ERA) vs. Ben Ballantine (1-3, 4.35 ERA)
Podkul was going to be the hard luck loser in game three of the UCLA series because of a four-run error until the ninth inning rally got him off the hook. He'll be going against a pitcher in Ballantine that leads Michigan in starts, but has only lasted 62 innings in 13 starts and has one win to show for it. Ballantine has surrendered five home runs and 30 earned runs in 62 innings with just 38 strikeouts. We should be able to hit him.
The return of the offense has been a very pleasant development. In the three game losing streak Purdue managed only three runs in 27 innings. Even against Michigan State two weeks ago the offense benefited from a Barrett serrate grand slam on Friday and a two-out, two-run single by Eric Charles on Saturday to help take those games. Purdue opened it up by scoring 32 runs in the last 19 innings it has played.
Only Michael O'Neill and Patrick Biondi are batting better than .300 for the Wolverines, but Coley Crank is a dangerous hitter with 11 homers and 40 RBI. Biondi gets on base at a .422 clip, and he has stolen 31 bases in 49 games this year.
Fortunately, Purdue's offense busted out in a big way against an excellent UCLA bullpen on Sunday, and everyone is hitting again. As long as that happens, we should expect a sweep. Haase and Breedlove have been dominant in Big Ten play, as Purdue is 11-1 against the conference when they pitch. If they get this thing to Sunday I like our chances of pounding them into submission and getting the sweep.
And honestly, the sweep should be the goal here. Purdue finishes with nine straight games against sub-200 RPI teams and has already beaten two of those with ease. We're still likely going to host, but only by finishing strong can we get back in the national seed discussion. A sweep, no matter what Indiana does, clinches at least a share of the Big Ten. I would just as soon finish that off by Saturday evening so we can get on to bigger and better things.