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Baseball heads to Indiana

Purdue starts the second half of its Big Ten season this afternoon with a critical road series at Indiana. Even though Purdue has lost three of four series to this point, they have managed to take a game in each series loss. When combined with the sweep of Penn State, they are still only a game out of first place in the conference with a 6-6 league mark. Unfortunately, the conference is about as tightly packed as possible right now. Four teams (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern) are tied for first place at 7-5 in the league, while three more (Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota) are a game back at 6-6. Illinois and Iowa are two games back at 5-7. That makes every remaining game critical.

As usual, the Indiana series will also go a long way in deciding the Crimson & Gold Cup Final Standings. Both schools have 7.5 points heading into the weekend. Purdue won last year's regular season series, but the Hoosiers spanked Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament on their way to a conference tournament win and NCAA appearance.

Indiana comes in with a 20-19 record overall, as they have fallen off slightly after last year's NCAA appearance. They were expected to make some noise once they got to the tournament because of solid pitching, but they failed to win a game in the nearby Louisville regional. Indiana leads the all-time series 139-122-2.

As usual, Purdue has an excellent chance in the opener thanks to Matt Bischoff. Bischoff became Purdue's all-time strikeouts leader in last week's 2-1 over Northwestern. He pitched eight scoreless innings before giving way to the bullpen with a 2-0 lead. He is a big reason that Purdue is second in team ERA in the Big Ten at 4.47. Unfortunately, errors continue to be the story as multiple miscues cost Purdue the second and third games against Northwestern last week.

Indiana comes in having taken one of three at Minnesota. The Hoosiers lost games one and three of their series in Minneapolis by a combined score of 24-0, but they took game two 7-2. They also lost a midweek game this week to Indiana State 17-4. Though Indiana has a worse overall record than Purdue, the Hoosiers have played a much tougher schedule. They began the season at national power San Diego, losing three of four. They lost to Connecticut, one of the hottest teams in college baseball right now, in the Big Ten-Big East Challenge. They also lost a pair of games to Louisville, who has spent much of the season in the top 10 nationally. Like Purdue, they have three series losses and a sweep to get to 6-6. Their sweep was over Iowa.

In game one Bischoff will be facing off against another solid pitcher in the conference, Drew Leininger. Leininger is 6-2 with a 2.13 ERA against Bischoff's 6-1 record and 2.37 ERA. This is probably one of the premier pitching matchups of the season in the Big Ten. Leininger was rough up a bit at Minnesota, giving up seven runs in 3 1/3 innings, but he previously had a streak of 28 2/3 innings this year without a run.

Indiana has not announced their starters for the other two games yet, but Purdue is shaking things up a bit. Instead of Matt Jansen and Matt Morgan, Purdue is going with Calvin Gunter (1-0, 3.92 ERA) on Saturday and Drew Wurdack (4-2, 5.05 ERA) on Sunday. Wurdack has been in and out of the weekend rotation all season, but he has mostly been a midweek starter.

Naturally, Indiana has to be concerned that it was shutout twice in blowouts against Minnesota last week. Their offense has scored only four runs in their last three losses. We will have to watch out for left fielder Alex Dickerson, who is making a strong All-American campaign. He is hitting .411 and he leads the conference with 17 home runs and 55 RBI. According to Indiana's preview, he hit a home run seven rows deep into the upper deck at the Metrodome last week.

Indiana likes to live by the long ball. They have 50 home runs as a team on the season, and five players have hit at least six home runs. Purdue, by contrast, has been a bit of a speed team. Jon Moore had a straight steal of home last week in the win over Northwestern.

This series will be a close one. Friday's game will be very competitive, but I would give the edge to Indiana because they are the better fielding team. We have simply made too many errors to count on our defense in a close game dominated by pitching. Saturday could be pushed to Sunday because of weather, making for a doubleheader situation. Purdue has deeper pitching for the second and third games, but the error situation has cost them at least five games this year. I'll give Indiana the edge at home to get the series win, two games to one.