Last season was a banner year for Big Ten baseball. Three teams (Minnesota, Ohio State, and Indiana) received bids to the NCAA Tournament. A fourth team, Illinois, was on the wrong side of the bubble, but the Fighting Illini had a huge series win at eventual National Champion LSU. This year isn't so good. Preseason favorites Minnesota and Ohio State have struggled, Michigan State started hot but has faltered of late, and no one has truly asserted themselves in Big Ten play. As a result, most tournament projections have the Big Ten as a one bid league. The competition for that bid will be one of the most fascinating races in the country during these final four weeks of the regular season.
The winner of the Big Ten Tournament in Columbus will likely be the conference's sole representative in the NCAA Tournament, but that will be a wide open tournament as all ten teams are within three games of each other. the key is being one of the top six teams that makes that tournament. Michigan and Northwestern lead the conference at 9-6. Purdue, Ohio State, and Minnesota are a game back at 8-7. Indiana, Michigan State, and Penn State are all 7-8 in league play, while Iowa and Illinois are 6-9. Purdue is hurting somewhat int hat it would lose a tiebreaker with Michigan, Northwestern, and Minnesota because it lost those series, but it holds the tiebreakers over Penn State and Indiana.
Purdue's opponent this weekend is Michigan State, who was an at large candidate for most of the season before stumbling big time lately. Last weekend the Spartans (28-14 overall) were swept by Penn State. Purdue swept the Nittany Lions just a few weeks ago, so the Boilers should have some confidence. Purdue also took three of four from Michigan State a year ago, winning the series in East Lansing before taking a game in the Big Ten Tournament.
This is also Purdue's final home series of the season. Purdue finishes the year at Illinois and Iowa, with a road game at Ball State and home game against Butler scattered in there. At 26-17 Purdue has already bettered last season's record.
This should be a good series for Purdue, as they are one of the best hitting teams in the Big Ten. Purdue has 45 home runs as a team and 12 different players have 10 RBIs or more. These are great numbers to have against a starting rotation that has struggled in Big Ten play. All three of Michigan State's weekend starters have an ERA over 5 in conference play.
Kurt Wunderlich (7-2) has the best overall record and he will likely go against our own Matt Bischoff on Saturday. Purdue is 5-0 in Big Ten play when Bischoff pitches, so he is obviously the table setter for the weekend. With bad weather coming in it will be even more important for him to have a good outing in Saturday's opener.
A.J. Achter (4-2) and Tony Bucciferro (6-4) will start the other two games for the Spartans. Purdue's rotation has been up in the air beyond Bischoff of late, as Matt Jansen has moved to the bullpen. Drew Wurdack was a starter last weekend against Indiana. You can probably consider Purdue's Sunday and Monday starters as game time decisions.
The biggest issue Purdue has had in conference play is the bullpen. Purdue would be in first place by itself right now if it could just hold a lead. Last week they blew a four run lead with two outs in the ninth before losing game two against Indiana. They also had a blown ninth inning lead against Minnesota. Purdue has to finish what it starts, and errors have played a huge role in that.
Michigan State has a potent lineup led by Eli Boike. Boike bats .395 with six home runs and 38 RBI. Jeff Holm is another dangerous hitter, batting .381 with two homers and 40 RBI. Those two are the major producers for Michigan State, but the Spartans have seven regular who hit better than .300.
Freshmen Cameron Perkins and Kevin Plawecki have been outstanding for Purdue so far. Perkins has 13 doubles on the year, while Plawecki has been a force at the plate with seven home runs and 40 RBI. Ryan Bridges has also been hot of late, batting .500 in the last seven games with a huge two-run homer in game three against Indiana.
As usual, we should be able to count on Bischoff to deliver in Game 1. He is one of the top candidates for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Indiana knocked him around a bit, but the offense backed him up to give him his seventh win of the year. From there, Purdue needs to take advantage of a team that is reeling a bit. For most of the season Michigan State looked like the Big Ten's best team. They were rattled in a "prove it" home series against Ohio State before getting swept by Penn State. If Purdue can take at least two of three this weekend they have an excellent chance to finish strong against the bottom two teams in the conference.