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Baseball Opens Big Ten Play In The Twin Cities

Uh oh, it's non-Painter news! That means there are still going to be 11,000 visits to the site today, right?

I'm kidding of course. It's baseball time again and the Purdue Nine has slipped a little by losing 6 of 11 after an 11-2 start. They are now 16-8 overall, good for a tie with Indiana for the third best record in the conference going into the start of league play this weekend. The next eight weeks will make or break Purdue's season, but they are still off to one of their best starts in quite some time. They will be tested early as three of the first four conference series are on the road.

They open this weekend at Minnesota (8-8), who was the Big Ten's lone representative in the NCAA Tournament last season. So far this season it has been hectic for the Golden Gophers. They were scheduled to play their home games at the Metrodome since no one else was using it, and htat was going to allow them multiple early season home games. Unfortunately, the roof collapse has thrown their season into chaos. Their on-campus home of Siebert Field is getting completely rebuilt, so it is only available for weekday games. If you thought Purdue's season was bad with just 19 home games, Minnesota had to shift things around and they get just 16, the first of which are this weekend.

Our new baseball facility is underway.

Purdue and Minnesota will open at Target Field, home of the Twins. The Golden Gophers will be well rested, as their planned west coast spring break trip last week saw four games get cancelled due to weather. They have played just four games since March 14th, while Purdue has played 11. Here is a quick look at the Gophers from The Daily Gopher:

Gopher baseball is the defending Big Ten regular season and tournament champions. They went on to the NCAA Regionals as a 4-seed (out of four teams) and quickly jumped out to 2 consecutive upsets.  All they needed was one more win in the double-elimination bracket, but Cal-State Fullerton flexed their muscle and beat Minnesota twice to advance.  The good news is that the Gophers return a good chunk of their roster to defend those titles as they look to get back to the NCAAs and advance to the SuperRegionals this year.

This year they are the preseason favorites to repeat mostly due to their pitching staff and solid young nucleus of position players.  If you are looking for a 1,000 ft overview and only want a few bullet points here are a few players to pay attention to.

Power Hitter - Nick O'Shea, 1B - 13 HR last year (4th in Big Ten), 60 RBI (3rd in B10)

Best Outfielder - Justin Gominsky, OF - Big Ten preseason player to watch

Best Defensive player - A.J. Petterson, SS - named him best defensive player in B10

#1 Starter - T.J. Oakes, SP - Big Ten preseason player to watch

Closer - Scott Matyas, RP - Big Ten preseason player to watch

But it takes so much more than that to win another Big Ten title.  Gone is #1 starter Seth Rosin, 1st round draft pick Michael Kvasnicka and longtime starting catcher, Kyle Knutson.  Those are all three significant losses but the good news is we have the Gophers are returning 24 kids from last year's team so this team has great depth and balance. 

Here are your likely starting pitching matchups:

Matt Morgan (Sr, RHP)  2-0 1.29 ERA vs TJ Oakes (So, RHP) 1-3 3.54 ERA

Joe Haase (Jr, RHP) 2-1 4 3.86 ERA vs Phil Isaksson (Sr, LHP) 1-1 2.55 ERA

Brad Schreiber (So, RHP) 4-0 3.75 ERA vs Austin Lubinsky (Jr, RHP) 2-3 7.84 ERA

(Note: Saturday will be a double-header)

Schreiber is coming off of a week where he was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. It is a record fifth time that a Purdue baseball player has been named Pitcher or Player of the Week this season since the Big Ten started handing out awards in 1990. Previously the season high was four, done twice. The boilers should have an edge with starting pitching this weekend, while the hitting continues to be strong. From Purdue's preview:

Purdue staff ace Matt Morgan aims to return to the rotation this weekend. The senior right-hander has not pitched since the March 11 victory at Tennessee-Martin. He left the opener of the spring break trip in the third inning due to a finger injury. The Boilermakers will also send Joe Haase and Brad Schreiber to the mound, with both right-handers slated to make their first career Big Ten starts.

Schreiber enters Big Ten play as the league leader with 38 strikeouts in 36 innings pitched. He is also second with a .207 batting average against. Having surrendered only 28 hits and issued just nine walks, Schreiber has tallied more punchouts than walks and hits allowed over his first six starts. The Menasha, Wis., native has pitched at least six innings and left the game with Purdue leading in five of his six starts.

Kevin Plawecki and Tyler Spillner have been swinging the hot bats for the Boilermakers. Plawecki has emerged as the toughest player to strikeout in the Big Ten, ranking eighth nationally this week after fanning only three times in 92 at-bats (109 plate appearances). The catcher feasted on Gopher pitching last season, hitting three home runs in a 6-for-11 showing at the plate in the series. Unfortunately for the Boilers, the bases were empty each time Plawecki went deep against Minnesota.

Spillner has been on base early and often over the last nine games, posting eight multi-hit efforts during the longest hitting streak of his career. The junior has registered 11 extra-base hits while going 25-for-50 during his streak.

Spillner and the rest of the Purdue outfield will also be tested this weekend by the spacious dimensions of Target Field. Though just 328 feet to the right field foul pole, left center measures 377 feet and center field as deep as 411 feet. Spillner, Stephen Talbott and Andrew Dixon have proved themselves as Purdue's top defensive outfielders. But Payton Bieker has seen more action in right field as of late thanks in part to a productive 5-for-10 showing at the plate over the last four games.

This could be a tough series, as Purdue is just 1-11 at Minnesota since 2003. Purdue took one of three last season in West Lafayette, wining the Friday game in extra innings. They were swept two seasons ago in the Metrodome. As usual, winning the series is critical since Purdue needs to get off to a good start in league play. Minnesota has not played too well of yet, but they were the preseason favorite in the league and they are the most successful program historically.

In terms of common opponents they too beat Connecticut in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge, but they lost to Louisville. Purdue has played a slightly tougher schedule in terms of ranked teams, but Minnesota's west coast trip was tougher than Purdue's spring break trip through Tennessee.

Be sure to check out the series action on the Big Ten Network's new baseball show Diamond Report, premiering this weekend.