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First place on the line in Champaign

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As dramatic as the title sounds, you can say that about any Big Ten baseball game from here on out. the future of Purdue baseball looks good as Morgan Burke announced yesterday that the Lambert Field of Dream project should finally move forward with completion set for the 2012 season. The present is promising as Purdue controls its own destiny for its first Big Ten baseball title in 101 years. Here are the current conference standings heading into this weekend:

Team Overall record Big Ten Record
Michigan 29-18 10-8
Purdue 28-18 10-8
Minnesota 22-27 10-8
Northwestern 21-27 10-8
Ohio State 26-19 9-9
Indiana 24-22 9-9
Michigan State 30-16 8-10
Illinois 23-22 8-10
Iowa 21-25 8-10
Penn State 21-25 8-10

 

As you can see, the race is up for grabs. Purdue heads to Illinois this weekend, while Indiana is at Michigan State, Northwestern is at Michigan, Ohio State is at Iowa, and Penn State is at Minnesota. A few of these games will be on Big Ten Network over the course of the weekend. Today the Network will have Indiana at Michigan State at 2pm. Tomorrow IU and Michigan State will be on at noon while Purdue at Illinois will be on at 7pm. Sunday at 1pm they'll have the final game of the series between the Spartans and Hoosiers.

This race is so interesting because of its closeness. Coming into the season it was thought that Minnesota and Ohio State were way ahead of the pack. Minnesota has struggled mightily, while Ohio State's Alex Wimmers, an All-American who threw a no-hitter last year, has been injured lately. No one can seem to gain any separation in league play. Purdue is far from the only team that has blown a big lead in multiple games.

Purdue needs to take care of business in each of the next two weekends as well. Currently, the Boilers would lose the tiebreaker with all three teams they are tied with. Michigan, Northwestern, and Minnesota all won series against Purdue. Since the top two teams receive a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament Purdue needs to finish a game clear of at least two of them. That bye could be critical, as it means a three game winning streak assures an NCAA Tournament berth. Given also that Matt Bischoff has been lights out in Big Ten play, a win by him in game one would put Purdue into the winner's bracket final.

That is still two weeks away, and no one is currently guaranteed a spot in the tournament. This weekend Purdue must face an Illinois team that struggled in Big Ten play to start, but they recently took two of three at Ohio State. They will be playing their final home series of the year as well. First pitch times are 7pm tonight, 7pm tomorrow (on BTN) and 2pm Sunday (all times Eastern).

In game one Bischoff (8-1, 3.45 ERA) will be facing off against Lee Zerrusen (2-5, 6.35 ERA). Illinois has had a mixed bag of results in the first game of a series during Big Ten play. They are 3-3 and they have alternated wins and losses. Last week Zerrusen lasted only an inning on the mound before being pulled, but Illinois went on to win 6-3. Purdue, meanwhile, is 6-0 in Friday games during Big Ten play. This should favor the Boilers.

Saturday Calvin Gunter (1-0, 4.88 ERA) will take the hill for Purdue against Kevin Johnson (4-2, 5.60 ERA). This will likely be the critical game of the series. Johnson leads the Illini in wins on the mound, so if Bischoff is his usual self on Friday a win in game two would be huge. Illinois has performed a little better on Saturdays in conference play, going 4-2 while Purdue is 2-4. Most of Purdue's record has been accumulated before Gunter took over the #2 slot in the rotation. He gave up only two runs in 5 2/3 innings last week, but got a no decision as the bullpen surrendered the lead before Purdue won it in the 8th.

The Sunday game has been bad for both teams. Purdue is only 2-4 on Sunday with one win coming in extra innings, while Illinois is a dreadful 1-5. Their only game three victory came in the first series of the year against Penn State. Purdue will go with Drew Wurdack (4-3, 5.44 ERA), while Illinois has yet to announce a starter. Wurdack was cruising against Michigan State this past Monday with a 4-0 lead before giving up five runs with two outs in the fifth. That was enough for a 5-4 loss. Illinois has been ineffective on Sundays as they have had a committee of starters to little effect. Matt Milroy, Will Strack, Kevin Manson, and Zerrusen have all been Sunday starters in league play this year. Milroy got the nod last weekend, but last only two innings in an 8-4 loss.

Offensively, Purdue should have a major advantage. Illinois has just three hitters batting better than .300 with Casey McMurray leading the way at .338. By contrast, Purdue has nine players batting over .300 and Payton Bieker, with only 51 at bats, is batting .412. Purdue has also hit 47 home runs as a team to Illinois' 27. Much of Illinois' scoring has come early in the year too. In the past 18 games the Illini are averaging only 4.8 runs per game. That average is skewed with a 19 run outburst against Butler.

Purdue will need to keep an eye on Willie Argo, who is one of the top base stealers in the conference with 37 swipes this year. He has a .435 on-base percentage, so he can spark the Illini offense. Illini is the lone Big Ten team that plays on FieldTurf, and their speed shows as they are one of the top base-stealing teams in the country.

Historically, Illinois has owned this series. The Illini have a 151-73-1 edge in the all-time series, but Purdue has won seven of eight against Illinois. The Illini also haven't won a series against Purdue in 11 years, as Purdue is 5-0-3 in series dating back to then (last year was the first year of the three-game series as opposed to the old four game format).

History aside, I really like Purdue's chances for a sweep if they can take game two. Illinois has been awful on Sundays without a consistent third starter. Zerussen hasn't been great as a number one, and he even started the year in the bullpen as Illinois' closer. I'll take Bischoff in game one until he loses, and I like Purdue on Sunday because of the Illini pitching situation. That makes Saturday's televised game the key to the weekend. If Purdue is going to win at least a share of the Big Ten they must win two of three this weekend. A sweep would help immensely. If you assume that neither Northwestern or Michigan sweeps that series Purdue can be in first place all by itself as long as Penn State take at least one from Minnesota. That would mean taking two of three next weekend at Iowa would earn at least a share of the conference.

Rooting interests for a Big Ten title:

1. Cheer for a Purdue sweep

2. Cheer that both teams win a game in the Northwestern-Michigan series

3. Cheer for Penn State against Minnesota

4. Cheer for Iowa to knock a dangerous Ohio State team out of a Big Ten Tournament slot

5. Cheer for Michigan state over Indiana since it is Indiana and they are closer to us in the standings.