In addition to the spring game this weekend we get a huge baseball series. The Big Ten finally remember that Indiana and Purdue are rivals and will have them ply in West Lafayette this weekend. It is the first time Indiana has visited since 2011. Here are the results between the schools since then:
2011: Purdue sweeps Indiana in West Lafayette
2012: No regular season meeting, but Purdue beats Indiana twice in the Big Ten Tournament.
2013: Did not play
2014: Indiana sweeps three games in Bloomington (They were a National Seed this year with Kyle Schwarber)
2015: Did not play
2016: Indiana sweeps three games in Bloomington, all by 1 run
So yes, Purdue and Indiana are finally playing again. In lieu of our usual preview Crimson Quarry reached out to me for a Q&A. my answers went up live there this morning, but here is what Alex Robbins had to say about Indiana baseball
T-Mill: I have often thought that Indiana 2013 was Purdue 2012. The Hoosiers have mostly sustained that success from that team, while Purdue fell off a cliff. What was the biggest difference? Was it the one run to Omaha?
Alex: I don’t think it was that the appearance in the College World Series spurned sustained success by creating a recruiting advantage or anything like that as much as it was that the team had a lot of young guys on it and they fed off that for a couple more years. I mean, Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Joey DeNato, Dustin DeMuth, and Ricky Alfonso are guys who contributed to the CWS team that spent one more year in Bloomington. (In my opinion, that 2014 team was much better than the 2013 team. If not for the rain delay in the final game of the regional against Stanford, I think they get back to Omaha.) Then there were guys like Christian Morris, Scott Effross Kyle Hart, Ryan Halstead, and Luke Harrison who, if they didn’t get experience in those 2013 or 2014 seasons, were around guys who had been there and done it, and they made it happen in 2015. That’s why it was somewhat seamless when Chris Lemonis took over for Tracy Smith. If I recall correctly, that 2012 team for Purdue had a lot of juniors and seniors who contributed. But for Indiana, they got two years of Schwarber and co. at the peak of their respective games and that allowed the younger guys to come along slowly, learn, and develop rather than having to step in the very next season.
T-Mill: Overall what do you think of the overall state of Big Ten baseball nationally? It certainly seems like the conference as a whole has greatly improved since Indiana went to Omaha.
Alex: I think the middle of the pack is better for sure. There are probably five or six teams in the league right now that could make the NCAA Tournament without the automatic bid (at least two or three of those aren’t in good position, but could be with a little bit of a run). In reality, Indiana in 2014 and Illinois in 2015 were probably flashes in the pan for this conference. It’s going to be very rare, still, when the Big Ten has a national seed. So, barring the rare occasion when they get one, I think this is about as good as we can expect the conference to be. I think what i would attribute it to, though, isn’t the successes of individual programs in that stretch from 2012-2015. Rather, I’d credit the additions of Nebraska and Maryland. Those are two quality programs that made the league much deeper.
T-Mill: Indiana has played all over the map so far, from Cincinnati on March 1 to Hawaii. What has been the biggest strength? Is it still NCAA Tourney or bust for this team?
Alex: The biggest strength, though they aren’t hitting right now, is the offense. Starting last weekend with Nebraska, they’ve struggled to score runs over the last four games. But this lineup in long and tough to get through. Alex Krupa, Matt Lloyd, and Luke Miller are all hitting well over .300. Ryan Fineman and Matt Gorski both seem to have a knack for coming up with timely hits. Those five guys have really picked up the slack as Logan Sowers and Craig Dedelow have struggled mightily this season. I’m convinced, though, that both of those guys are on the cusp of breaking out and pulling their averages up about 30 or 40 points each, near their averages.
As for your other question, I think it is NCAA Tournament or bust. There are no misconceptions around this program that they should be competing to host regionals or go to Omaha every year. But in what is still a weaker baseball conference, there is absolutely no reason this team shouldn’t be competing for an NCAA Tournament bid every year. 2015 is the blue print of how they do it. They only went 35-24, but because they scheduled tough opponents and capitalized, taking two of three at Stanford and sweeping Cal State Fullerton, they got a 3-seed in the Vanderbilt regional. And they scheduled with that in mind this year. According to D1baseball.com, their non-conference SOS was 8th in the country. That’ll be good enough to keep them in the Top 50 of the RPI so long as they take care of lesser Big Ten opponents and hold their own against other contenders.
Like I said, there is no reason this club shouldn’t be competing for an NCAA Tournament bid every year. This year is no different.
T-Mill: How dumb is it that this is Indiana's first visit to West Lafayette in 6 years?
Alex: It’s really dumb. It’s part of the price we pay (or you guys pay, I guess) for inviting Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutger. I think more than any other sport, it’d be incredibly difficult to have every team play each other every season. I don’t know if there’s a solution that allows them to play every year. But surely the conference could do a better job of avoiding two years in a row where they don’t play like 2012-2013. They also could have, ya know, taken a quick look last year, for example, and realized that when they actually let the teams play, it’s been in Bloomington. Just add it the long list of dumb things the Big Ten does or has done.
T-Mill: What do you see the weekend's pitching matchup looking like?
Alex: Full disclosure: I have not seen Purdue play this season. When I looked at their season stats, I saw those ERAs for Andrews and Stroh and thought that surely spelled big trouble for the Boilers. Then I looked a little closer and saw that they’ve really been good enough as of late, save for Andrews’ start against Ohio State. If Andrews has another start like that on Friday, it’ll probably be a rough night for the home team because I think Jonathan Stiever has turned the corner from his injury and is much closer to the guy that held Oregon State to one run in the season opener than the guy who let Northwestern hang a crooked number. Other than that, the pitching matchup is effectively a crap shoot. Indiana’s starters have been fairly good except for a couple windy days in Chicago. But the bullpen has been trash just about every weekend. They’ve blown the following notable leads this season: a two-run lead they took into the Bottom of the 8th at Florida Atlantic (ended in at tie), a three-run lead they took into the Bottom of the 8th at Samford, and a six-run lead they took into the Bottom of the 8th at Hawaii. At Northwestern, they almost blew a seven-run lead they took into the Bottom of the 8th. And they gave up four in the 7th to lose to Nebraska last Friday.
But during the week, they have been tremendous, holding close leads in low-scoring games on a few occasions.
I say all of that to say that there is no way I can really predict what’s going to happen on the rubber, especially as far as Indiana is concerned. My gut feeling is that the bullpen has some serious issues at least once.
T-Mill: Finally, what is your prediction for the weekend?
Alex: This is a big opportunity for Purdue. They’ve got nine games left against bad Big Ten competition (Northwestern, Illinois, and Rutger) and nine games against three potential tournament teams (Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota). If they can take two from any of the latter group of team, including Indiana this weekend, it would almost certainly be enough to eventually get the Boilers into the Big Ten Tournament.
But this is a HUGE series for Indiana for a couple reasons. First, this is a club with conference title aspirations and, even though they sit at just 3-2-1 in the Big Ten, they have a clear path to the 1-seed in the conference tournament, which will be played in Bloomington. But that path, which still includes Minnesota, Michigan, and Maryland, will probably require Indiana to win at least seven or eight of their nine games that come against Purdue, Penn State, and Ohio State. Second, those series with Minnesota, Michigan, and Maryland are each of the next three weekends. This is the Hoosiers’ last chance to get right before they play the nine games that will more than likely decide whether they win the Big Ten title, whether they’ll need to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament, and any other questions that could possibly be answered.
That said, I can’t see Indiana losing more than one this weekend. My heart wants me to pick them to sweep Purdue. I really think we’re going to see this club as focused as they’ve been all season and the offense will be dialed in. But because I am nearly 100% certain that the bullpen will have a meltdown at some point, I say Purdue takes one game.