Today was a beautiful spring day, so I packed up the family and headed north to take in a game at Alexander Field. It is the second season for the Boilermakers at the state-of-the-art facility, but it still feels brand new when you walk in. The Boilers are still at a disadvantage strictly because of latitude, limiting them to roughly 16 home dates in a 50+ game schedule, but for those few home dates we could not ask for a better facility.
This was the first time I could make it up to a game this season and I felt like I was checking in on the program as a whole. As you know, two seasons ago Purdue had its best season in school history. Purdue went 45-14, won the Big Ten for the first time in 103 seasons, won the Big Ten Tournament for the first time ever, made just its second NCAA Tournament and first in 25 years, and won its first ever NCAA game while consistently being among the top 15 teams in the nation.
Unfortunately, a team that good lost quite a bit. The top two starting pitchers, the top two relievers, and the vast majority of the batting order was drafted and went pro. The likes of Kevin Plawecki, Nick Wittgren, and Cameron Perkins are currently trying to make the majors. While our neighbors to the south had a similar year last year (and did one better by reaching the College World Series), they returned quite a bit. Purdue returned virtually nothing, and struggled to a 17-34 record and 6-18 Big Ten finish, only ahead of 4-20 Penn State.
A huge reason for that was that Purdue was the worst hitting AND worst pitching team in the Big Ten. Purdue batted only .256 as a team, allowed opponents to bat .321. The team ERA was 6.46 and six different pitchers had an ERA north of 10. Purdue lost a lot, and often got shelled in the process. Some examples:
- Purdue lost 32-8 in a three-game sweep by Nebraska
- Illinois scored 40 runs in a three game sweep
- Purdue was 1-11 at home in big Ten play and gave up 10+ runs in six of those losses.
- A late season loss to Eastern Michigan was a 20-2 debacle.
Basically, Purdue gave up a lot of runs, and could not score many. After today's 6-2 win over Michigan the record is not a lot better. Purdue is 9-25 and 4-7 in the Big Ten, but judging by what I saw it feels like the program is coming back around.
First of all, there was a fantastic crowd for baseball on a beautiful day. Fans are coming to the new Alexander Field and I feel like much of that stems from what the guys did two seasons ago. More people at the gate means more money for the program, which is always good.
Second, this team is far more competitive and just looks better. Hidden in the 9-25 record are a few things:
- This is still an extremely young team, only Conner Hudnall, Connor Podkul, Brandon Krieg, and Sean McHugh played regular innings two seasons ago. Most of the roster is freshmen and sophomores.
- Purdue could not have played a more difficult schedule to start the season. It opened with three games at Tennessee (No. 27 in the RPI and currently 24-13). Purdue then played Rice (28-13, No. 11 in the RPI) for three games in Houston before going to LSU (30-10, No. 11 in the RPI) for three. There were also four games against San Diego State (28-12, No. 45 in the RPI). Purdue went 0-13 in those games, where a 6-7 record would have had them solidly in contention for an at large NCAA bid.
- Of the 25 losses, 12 have been by two runs or less. These include 3-1 to Rice, 4-2 to LSU, 8-7 and 5-4 to SDSU, 3-1 to Louisville (No. 26 in the RPI at 28-11 and a CWS team last year), and the last five conference losses
- Purdue has lost double-headers to Michigan State and Penn State, all four games by a single run.
- Between LSU, Louisville, and a later three-game series at Indiana Purdue will have played three of the eight CWS teams from 2013.
So basically, Purdue has played a tough schedule, but is far more competitive than last season. The hitting is worse, as it is only batting .232 as a team (worst in the Big Ten), but the pitching is at least oing a little better. The staff ERA is down to 5.65 and the Friday-Saturday battery of sophomores Jordan Minch and Gavin Down have a lot of promise. Minch is 1-5, but has had the unfortunate circumstance of facing the opposing team's ace in Friday games. Downs pitched a solid game today with seven strong innings for his second victory.
It was a solid victory for Purdue today, as the Boilers looked good. Downs was solid on the mound and his battery-mate Sean McHugh w2as 4-for-4 at the plate with four singles and 3 RBI. Mike Lutz earned his third save with two innings of quality relief.
On the season, the injury bug has been biting hard. Connor Podkul, who was the No. 3 starter two years ago as a freshman, was slated to be the ace of the staff, but missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and has only four appearances this year (three starts) with a 20.25 ERA in just 5 2/3 innings. Kyle Wood and Patrick Kinney have also battled injuries as pitchers expected to contribute a lot.
I feel like this team is starting to come around a little. It has played much better in Big Ten play than in non-conference play, and the Big Ten was a surprisingly tough conference last year. A reasonable goal for this year is a return to the Big Ten Tournament. The top eight finishers in the regular season will make the tourney for the first time, unlike the past where only the top six qualified. Once there, anything can happen really.
Indiana is the only team with at large chances for the NCAA tournament, so there are seven teams in a new format battling for the automatic bid that Indiana likely does not need. Purdue currently sits in 9th place a game and a half behind Minnesota and Iowa, who are tied for seventh at 6-8. Purdue finishes the year with series against both. Purdue hasn't been swept in a series this year, but has yet to win one, so Illinois, Michigan State, and Penn State would hold any potential tiebreaker with a series win over Purdue.
Purdue isn't going to become a baseball school any time soon, but there were nearly 1,000 in attendance today to watch a 9-25 team. That's a step forward for a program that is still trying to build on the magic of two seasons ago.