Purdue's once promising baseball season took a drastic wrong turn last weekend when the Boilers were swept by Iowa. Even worse, a disaster scenario nearly unfolded where Purdue would have been in a four-way tie with Northwestern, Michigan State, and Indiana for the final three tournament spots. I am not sure who the odd team out would have been in that case, but Paul Snieder's 3-run walk off homer for Northwestern gave the Wildcats an 8-6 victory over Michigan State, a 13-11 conference record, and knocked the Spartans out with an 11-13 record.
That sets up one of the most interesting and wide open Big Ten Tournaments ever this weekend at Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus. Ohio State, the conference preseason favorite, will not be there even as hosts. The Buckeyes stumbled to an 11-13 conference record and didn't qualify for the tournament. Michigan State, the team with the best overall record in the conference at 34-19 will also not be there. The Spartans started the year 22-5 and 4-1 in the Big Ten. They were even getting some top 25 national votes, but a loss to Minnesota on April 11th started a four game losing streak and led to a 12-14 finish.
What's left is a field that had no real separation until the final weekend of the season. All games will be televised on the Big Ten Network and the schedule can be found here. Here is a quick look at all six teams playing for the conference's NCAA berth:
1. Minnesota (27-28, 15-9) - This just shows you how weird this season was. The team with the best overall record didn't even qualify for the conference tournament, but the conference regular season champ has a losing record overall. Go figure. Minnesota was a co-favorite coming into the season and had a tough enough non-conference schedule to warrant some at large consideration if they got through it. The advantage of the Metrodome also meant they could play at home from day one. The start did not go well. The Golden Gophers dropped games to Louisville and Connecticut (both top 15 teams) in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. They also lost every game against a quality non-conference opponent including Oklahoma State, Alabama (twice), and Kansas State (a split).
The Gophers did turn it on in Big Ten play, especially late. Minnesota won 11 of 15 down the stretch to take the conference title. They eliminated Ohio State last week and they had series wins over Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, and Purdue. They went 2-2 against Northwestern (one game was non-conference), giving them a solid record against the tournament field. Nothing about Minnesota is dominating, but they are playing the best baseball of anyone right now.
2. Michigan (34-20, 14-10) - The Wolverines have a bye past the first round along with Minnesota, allowing both teams to save their ace for a game against a team that already has a game under its belt. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Wolverines don't have a defined ace. This is a team that is a little dicey, as they dropped game 2 to Penn State last weekend in come from ahead fashion in the ninth. Michigan's record is solid, but they also lost every non-conference game that could have built their resume. They were swept at North Carolina, lost two to Coastal Carolina, lost two to Texas Tech, and lost a game to Louisville. Had they gotten a couple of those games they would probably be in the at large discussion, but I doubt it now.
Against fellow tournament teams Michigan won series 2-1 against Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern but dropped to Iowa and Minnesota. Since Michigan or Minnesota will be Purdue's second round opponent with a Purdue win this does not bode well. No starter for Michigan has more than six victories on the season, so there isn't a true ace to fear. This is a team that is all over the map offensively and defensively.
3. Northwestern (24-30, 13-11) - This is probably the surprise team of the year in that they kept pulling off dramatic, last at bat wins much like their football team. The Wildcats' overall record is terrible, but they got it done within the conference and will play Indiana tomorrow in game 2 at 3:30. They have perhaps the best non-conference win on the whole Big Ten resume with a 6-5 win over Connecticut in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. The Huskies are currently 43-12, ranked 19th, and had a 22 game winning streak at one point.
That doesn't cover up a host of other bad losses though. Northwestern was 1-2 against the Hoosiers, dropping the third and final game of the series 1-0. The following week they blew a 14-0 lead at Michigan in a 15-14 loss. Nothing is as brutal as that. Statistically the Wildcats are the weakest of the six teams in the tournament (4th in team ERA of the six teams, fifth also in batting). Their pitching staff will also be facing the best hitting team in the conference in game 1.
4. Iowa (27-26, 13-11) - Iowa is a team that comes in on fire, having taken control of their destiny in the final six games of the conference season to play their way into the tournament. The Hawkeyes took two of three from Ohio State before sweeping Purdue to go from last place to fourth in a week. This is the first time Iowa has made the tournament since 2007, while Northwestern just ahead of them last made it in 2006.
Iowa has a very promising young pitching staff led by Jared Hippen. Hippen and #2 starter Nick Brown shut down the Boilers last weekend, as Iowa became the first team to beat Matt Bischoff in Big Ten play. Bischoff will get another chance at noon tomorrow against the weakest hitting team in the conference tournament.
5. Purdue (31-22, 12-12) - Purdue is a good team, but they have absolutely fallen apart at times this season. The 31-22 record has come against one of the nation's weakest schedules, but they have probably the best pitcher in the Big Ten in Matt Bischoff. The Boilers come in second only to Minnesota in team ERA and third to Michigan and Indiana in hitting among tournament teams. Kevin Plawecki and Cameron Perkins have been outstanding freshman contributors to the offense, but errors and the bullpen have resulted in about half of Purdue's losses.
For Purdue to advance to the championship round they will likely have to beat three teams they went a combined 2-7 against (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota). The advantage they would have, however, is the possibility of throwing Bischoff again in a winner-take-all game on Sunday. I like Purdue's chances if they don't beat themselves. Unfortunately, they have had too many innings this season where the wheels have come off suddenly.
6. Indiana (27-25, 12-12) - If the Big Ten Tournament devolves into gorilla ball, pick the Hoosiers. They were dead last in the conference in pitching, but #1 in hitting. They are also the defending champ in this event, taking last year's tournament and NCAA bid. Indiana hit 83 home runs on the season, by far the most of any Big Ten team. Purdue was second with 55. They own a sweep of Iowa and a series win over Northwestern, but they dropped 2-1 series to Purdue, Minnesota, Michigan. Purdue's collapse in game 2 of that series has Indiana in the tournament right now instead of Ohio State.
Because of the way they hit the ball Indiana will be dangerous if they can just get a little pitching. They recently won an 18-17 slugfest over Kentucky and earlier had a 26-6 win over Michigan. Against Purdue, however, they gave up 33 runs in three games. The offense comes in hot, having scored 10 or more runs in the last four games.
Game 1: I like Bischoff to rebound and get Purdue a win over Iowa.
Game 2: I think Indiana's offense is too much for Northwestern.
Game 3: Iowa rebounds to eliminate Northwestern with solid pitching.
Game 4: Indiana and Michigan engage in a slugfest with Michigan winning due to last at bats.
Game 5: Purdue beat Minnesota with Bischoff, but blew a ninth inning lead in game 3. Minnesota stays hot and wins.
Game 6: Iowa and Purdue meet again. Iowa won last week 12-9 with the #3's, this time Purdue gets it.
Game 7: Purdue and Indiana get a rematch. I'll give the edge to a fresher Indiana team.
Game 8: Minnesota has the hot hand lately and Michigan has no defined pitching. I pick Goldy
Game 9: Michigan and Indiana get round two for what should be another fun one. I'll go with Indiana.
Game 10: With an NCAA berth on the line Minnesota has a huge edge against an Indiana team in its fifth game. I like Minnesota to advance. They are playing too well right now.