I feel like I am still in mourning for the basketball season. Between the fact that the tournament is still going on, we have made it at least this far the last two seasons, and being surrounded by IU fans that point out that we once again didn't even come close to a Final Four, much less a national title, I've been really, really bummed since Sunday evening. Seeing the player back active on Twitter is almost as depressing, because it is yet another reminder.
So, here is my first attempt at a distraction by changing the subject. Today is Purdue's home opener for baseball, and it is the final home opener at the current Lambert Field. After playing the first 19 games away from home The Boilers come back to West Lafayette with one of their most promising starts in recent memory. The 2001 team began the season with upsets of #1 Rice and #24 Wake Forest before losing the Big Ten by a half game. That team finished 32-24 overall, 19-7 in the Big Ten, and likely would have made the NCAA Tournament if not for two things: First, they lost both Big Ten Tournament games when one victory would likely have been enough. Second, they lost nine of ten around spring break and were just 4-14 after 18 games. That included a 4-12 start before their first home game.
This year's team has beaten three ranked teams (Pitt, Louisville, Connecticut) and was receiving votes in the USAToday top 25 like that 2001 team (which was even ranked #25 for a week after that 2-1 start against ranked teams). Purdue comes home today at 13-6 overall, tops among Big Ten teams in wins. They also have a legitimate chance of making the NCAA Tournament with a strong finish. Their spring break trip did not go as well as hoped. They took two of three each from Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin, but lost midweek games to Belmont and Vanderbilt.
The loss to Tennessee-Martin was disappointing, as Purdue held a four run lead going into the bottom of the ninth. That is the second time this season Purdue has lost a ninth inning lead. The other four losses (Notre Dame, Belmont, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee Tech) are not bad at all.
Purdue has 37 games left this year, and 19 of those will be at home. With the Big Ten being relatively weak, I think Purdue probably needs to win about 25 of those remaining 37 games to have a legitimate shot at making the NCAA Tournament. If they can somehow get to 40 wins (which is like the magic number of 20 wins in basketball) they will likely be safe. Mostly, they will be helped by the work they have already done.
Today's home opener is against Illinois State comes against another team that would be a good win. The Redbirds are 13-6 and likely an NCAA Tournament team out of the Missouri Valley Conference. They pounded Ohio State 12-1 and they also own a very nice 9-2 win at Miami when the Hurricanes were struggling. They have split four games with Belmont in terms of having a common opponent.
Purdue is getting it done with a senior ace pitcher and a sophomore class that is performing ahead of expectations. Senior Matt Morgan is 2-0 on the mound as our top starter with a 1.29 ERA. He needs to be this year's Matt Bischoff. Bischoff, if you'll remember, was an automatic Friday win in Big Ten play last year.
Brad Schreiber was an all-Big Ten Freshman selection last season and is 3-0 in five starts with a 4.50 ERA. Teams are batting just .216 against Schreiber and .195 against Morgan. Joe Haase seems to be the third starter so far with a 2-1 record and the big midweek win at Louisville a few weeks ago. Nick Wittgren has been the definition of erratic closer with three saves, but a 1-2 record and ERA over 5.
Purdue is making up for some up and down pitching with solid hitting at the plate. Nine players are batting better than .300 with over 50 at bats. Angelo Cianfrocco leads the way with a .425 average. Cameron Perkins and Barrett Serrato each have at least 18 RBI. Stephen Talbott and Eric Charles have been getting on base regularly and lead in runs scored, while Charles is the team's top base stealer.
Purdue has improved by cutting down on fielding errors too. They have just 27 miscues in the field, compared to 40 by opponents. They have also gotten off to hot starts by scoring 45 runs in the first two innings. They have held opponents to just nine runs in the first two innings.
Today's first pitch is set for 4pm, and Purdue is undefeated against non-conference opponents in home openers since 1996. Here is some information on Illinois State from Purdue's official preview:
ISU leadoff man Kevin Tokarski was a preseason All-American after winning MVC Player of the Year and Tournament MVP honors as a redshirt-sophomore. While he may be hitting only .260 so far this season, he has managed to steal 12 bases and draw 17 walks. Tyler McNeely (.375, 5 HR, 18 RBIs) and Ryan Court (.362, 10 XBH, 14 RBIs) have led the way at the plate.