Last year at this time Purdue fans were dreaming of Omaha. The Boilers had recently clinched their first Big Ten championship in 103 seasons and were a lock to host a regional. While that regional did not play out as well as we would all like because of a Kent State team that got hot at exactly the right time, the 45-14 season shattered all kinds of records as Purdue went on to win the Big Ten Tournament and was in the national discussion all year.
Unfortunately, for a northern school that much attention and success is very hard to replicate. The Purdue roster was gutted due to a combination of graduation, the MLB Draft, and injuries. Of the roster that started Purdue's first NCAA regional appearance in 25 years only Stephen Talbott and Sean McHugh returned. The top two starting pitchers, top two relievers, and most of the starting position players were either drafted or graduated and No. 3 starter Connor Podkul was lost for 2013 with an arm injury.
The result was a crash, as Purdue was swept at home this past weekend by Iowa to finish at just 17-34. Last year Purdue got its 17th win in the first home game of the year when it beat Louisville 2-1 to move to 17-4. This year Purdue was only above .500 after the first five games. A 3-2 start gave way to a seven game losing streak. The potential was there early as Purdue played preseason top 5 Mississippi State to a pair of one-run games, but it quickly went downhill.
Even the debut of Alexander Field as the beautiful new home of Purdue baseball didn't help. Purdue had great crowds all season long, but was a paltry 5-14 at home and went only 1-11 in Big Ten home games.
Part of that came from the Big Ten being its best, as a whole, in decades. Indiana won the Big Ten outright for the first time since the Truman administration in a similar season to Purdue's last year by going 40-13 and 17-7 in the league. They will likely host a regional next week at their new facility and are at the very least an NCAA lock.
Illinois is also a likely NCAA team with an RPI of 30 and a 33-16 record. Nebraska would be with an RPI of 42, but is 25-28 overall and likely needs to win the Big Ten Tournament just to get over .500. Ohio State is 34-21, but did not close well against a tough slate and has an RPI of 61. Michigan State went 33-17, but since they had an entire series at Minnesota cancelled due to snow they actually will miss the Big Ten Tournament and have to sit and wait for a week to see if their RPI of 36 is enough or if their late loss to Penn State torpedoed their chances. Michigan State was 12-9 in the Big Ten, but lost once each to Penn State and Purdue at the bottom of the standings and twice to 10-14 Iowa. Had they just beaten 4-20 Penn State last Friday they would likely be safe.
The Big Ten could still get five teams into the NCAAs, which is unheard of for what is usually a one-bid league. Indiana and Illinois should be locks. Ohio State and Michigan State are on the Bubble. Minnesota, Nebraska, and Michigan could steal the automatic bid too (likely hurting Michigan State's case). Purdue did not fare well against any of those teams, getting half of its six wins in conference play in an early sweep at Penn State before only getting one each against Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State.
The Big Ten also was helped by the new RPI multiplier that gives more weight to winning true road games as a way to balance the schedule, so now playing the first 15-20 games away from home has a big bonus if you start well. Indiana won a series at perennial power Florida. Illinois swept Baylor in Texas. Minnesota won a game at UCLA and Michigan State at Kentucky.
All this combined with Purdue's youth painted a brutal picture. Purdue batted a Big Ten worst .256 at the plate and had the worst pitching staff by far with a 6.46 ERA. By comparison, Nebraska's staff was the 10th best out of 11 teams with a 4.87 ERA. When you're giving up two extra earned runs per game compared to everyone else on top of being the worst hitting team it is very hard to win.
There were some bright spots that could allow for a quick turnaround in 2014:
Kyle Wood - The promising freshman did a lot of good, leading the team with five home runs as he often played DH. He also made eight appearances on the mound, seven as starts, and had an ERA of 5.00 with an 0-2 record.
Jordan Minch - Another freshman, Minch was Purdue's most consistent pitcher as he threw 81.1 innings and went 5-5 in 14 starts. He struck out 63 batters and with the return of Podkul next season Purdue should have a decent 1-2 starting punch.
Josh Estill - Estill spent time between catcher and third base, but started 34 games and batted a promising .281 with 22 RBI.
Jack Picchiotti - This freshman drove in 26 runs and batted .268 in 38 starts as Purdue continually shifted lineups trying to fins something that worked.
Kyle Johnson - Johnson started 42 games as a freshman and batted .266 with a pair of home runs and 25 RBI.
Sean McHugh - The senior-to-be led Purdue in batting average (.298) and RBI (31).
Purdue says goodbye to seven seniors in Pat Gannon, Angelo Cianfrocco (who had a staggering dropoff from two seasons ago), Brett Andrzejewski Stephen Talbott, Jake Hansen, Kyle Bischoff, and Robert Ramer. The biggest losses are Andrzejewski who was just about the only effective relief pitcher and Ramer, who finished with a career record of 16-6 in 32 starts on the mound but was 3-5 this year. Talbot also batted .347 last season but with much of the rest of the lineup gone he dropped to .201 this year.
There is promise that Purdue can start hitting better, but holy crap was the bullpen a disaster this year. A total of three pitchers (Andrzejewski, Ramer, and Minch) had an ERA under 5 this past season. That's out of 18 pitchers that made at least one appearance on the mound. There were a total of six double-digit ERAs on the roster as the bullpen often got shelled and could not maintain the leads Purdue managed to scratch out. It won't get any easier with Ramer and Andrzejewski gone, either.