From all account Alexander Field is a beautiful new baseball facility for your defending Big Ten Champion Boilermakers. Unfortunately, it appears to repel Purdue actually winning there. The extremely young Boilermaker baseball team enters this weekend at 10-16 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, but after two midweek losses this week it is 0-5 at the new Alexander Field.
It is clear that this will not be an NCAA Tournament year unless Purdue wins the Big Ten Tournament, and even Purdue's long streak of qualifying for that event in jeopardy, making this weekend's series with Northwestern (12-9, 2-4) huge for those prospects. The Boilers have played some good teams and have had some good baseball, but they are struggling mightily in close games. Purdue lost a pair of one-run games to No. 17 Mississippi State. It has lost twice to No. 14 Louisville 9-4 and 3-1. This week alone they dropped an 8-4 game to Butler after giving up seven runs in the second inning and a 4-3 game to Indiana State giving up two in the ninth.
With a ton of freshmen playing all over the field Purdue is naturally struggling. The pitching rotation has not been as set as past seasons and the offensive losses of guys like Kevin Plawecki and Barrett Serrato is really hurting.
Still, Purdue has 18 Big Ten games remaining and sits in sixth place, holding the last BTT spot down. Indiana has already run out to a 22-3 overall record and 6-0 mark in conference play. They are ranked in the top 15 nationally and are basically mirroring our season last year. They are even on a current 16 game winning streak. Nebraska is 5-1 in the Big Ten but only 11-16 overall. Ohio State is 4-2 on the strength of sweeping Purdue two weeks ago. The only teams in a deep hole so far are Iowa (1-5) and Penn State (0-6) who have both been swept by IU.
As bad as the opening weekend of Big Ten play was, where the Buckeyes swept Purdue 10-1, 8-3, and 7-0, Purdue made up for it by sweeping Penn State last weekend 6-1, 5-4, and 7-5.
Friday: Jordan Minch, Fr. (3-3, 5.21 ERA) vs. Zach Morton, Sr. (3-0, 1.12 ERA) 7pm
Saturday: Robert Ramer, Sr. (2-2, 4.40 ERA) vs. Luke Farrell, Sr. (1-1, 1.83 ERA) 2pm
Sunday: Brad Schreiber, Jr. (1-3, 5.29 ERA) vs. Brandon Magallones, So. (3-2, 3.35 ERA) 1pm
As you can see, Northwestern has a significant advantage in starting pitching. Purdue's weekend rotation has been all over the map with Schreiber moving from Fridays to Sundays, Ramer moving into the weekend rotation after a lengthy career as a midweek guy, and guys like Kyle Wood flushing out of the rotation entirely.
Minch has pitched very well of late though. He went 8 innings in the 6-1 opening win over Penn State last week and gave up just one run on five hits and three walks. That run came in the first and he clearly settled down after that. Already 3-3 as a freshman, he has the potential to be an ace for years.
Ramer was a big reason that Purdue won 17 straight midweek games before the streak was snapped this week. The crafty veteran is 15-3 in his career, but just 2-2 this season and has even been making some relief appearances. He received a no decision last week after giving up four runs (three earned) over seven innings. Purdue won 5-4 in 10 innings, but Ramer was in line for the win before the Boilers blew a 4-2 9th inning lead.
Schreiber's return from injury this year has been rough. He was supposed to make Purdue's formidable rotation last season even better, but he missed the entire year. His ERA has jumped nearly a point and a half and because he is operating on pitch counts he isn't making it past the fifth in most games. Last week he gave up five runs, but only two were earned.
It is at the plate, however, where Purdue is struggling more. Last season's team batted .316 as a unit and had 34 home runs as it went 45-14 and could have been even better. This year Purdue is a paltry .236 at the plate with just five homers. Teams are batting .302 against Purdue after batting .253 last year. A total of seven regulars batted over .300 last year. Only Jake Hansen, at exactly .300, is there this year. This is from a guy that had one plate appearance all last year.
Even the returning players are way down. Angelo Cianfrocco is batting .175 after batting .308 two years ago. Stephen Talbott is batting .226 after being at .347 last year. Sean McHugh leads the team in at bats, but is just .257 after being .317 last year as a top reserve.
It is really hard to say what has gone wrong. It is a combination of youth along with Purdue losing some really special players that helped everyone else play better.
Fortunately, Northwestern is hardly a juggernaut. Kyle Ruchim leads them with a .453 average and Jack Havey is pretty good at .373, but they have not played a very strong schedule at all. They have had a ton of games cancelled due to weather and they are coming off of being swept at Nebraska. They gave up 26 runs in those three games, so the potential is there for Purdue's bats to wake up.
This needs to be a series win for Purdue if it is to keep pace and at least make the Big Ten Tournament. The rest of the league schedule is favorable with Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois all behind Purdue in the standings. The two toughest series against Nebraska and at Michigan State are later. Purdue does not have to play Indiana (unless they could schedule a non-conference game with an opening midweek somewhere), which this year is a very good thing.
The past has shown that 11-13 is usually good enough to make the conference tournament and given Purdue's remaining schedule that is a reasonable goal. Last season the conference got two NCAA bids with Michigan State earning a surprise at large bid, but this year's league is tougher from top to bottom. Indiana is a lock unless they fall apart and they are even being discussed as a regional host with their new facility. Michigan State and Ohio State could enter the at large discussion while Nebraska played a tough schedule and could easily win the auto-bid. Illinois even has an outside shot at an at large.