The Big Ten Baseball tournament gets underway tomorrow and for the first time in five years, Purdue is in it! For a long time only the top 6 teams in the standings qualified for the conference tournament. That dates back to the days when there were only 10 baseball schools too. Even once Nebraska joined it was a 6-team affair, but once Maryland and Rutgers were added it expanded to 8 teams. This seems like a good amount, as the bloated 12-team ACC Tournament is a freaking nightmare to follow.
But this is now like a mini-CWS. There are 8 teams, it is double elimination, and the winner receives the conference’s automatic bid tot he NCAA TOurnament. We have also seen vast improvement from the old days when the Big Ten would only get one or two teams into the NCAA Tournament. Just two years ago the Big Ten sent a record five teams to the NCAAs, and as of last week D1 Baseball had Michigan, Maryland, Nebraska, and Indiana not only as in the field, but all as No. 2 seeds in their 4 team regionals.
This year’s tournament is hosted by Indiana. The conference experimented with larger venues for a while, as Huntington Bank Park in Columbus, Target Field in Minneapolis, and TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha (home of the College World Series) have all hosted in recent seasons. It used to be that the regular season champion would host, but the conference moved it back to a campus and chose Indiana as it has a nice, new facility and the Hoosiers have been the league’s premier team since 2013. If this is a sign that the Big Ten is going to move the tournament around it would be nice for Mike Bobinski to get Alexander Field as a host soon.
Here is the full schedule for the week:
All games on BTN
Game 1 — No. 3 Minnesota vs No. 6 Indiana, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 7 Northwestern, 1:30 p.m.
Game 3 — No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 8 Purdue, 5 p.m.
Game 4 — No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 5 Iowa, 8:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 5 p.m.
Game 6 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10 a.m.
Game 7 — Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 8:30 p.m.
Game 8 — Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, 1 p.m.
Game 10 — Loser Game 8 vs. Winner Game 6, 5 p.m.
Game 11 — Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 10 a.m.
Game 12 — Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, 1:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 5 p.m. if necessary
Game 14 — Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 8:30 p.m. if necessary (5 p.m. if Game 13 does not take place)
Championship, 2 p.m.
And now, a brief preview of each team:
Nebraska Cornhuskers (34-18-1, 16-7-1)
With an RPI of 42 and a Big Ten regular season championship already locked up the Cornhuskers are probably in the field of 64 already. Even if they go 0-2, the regular season title likely makes them safe. They have a nice non-conference win over Arizona and series wins over Indiana and Maryland. It was their tie at Indiana due to a travel curfew that allowed them to finish a half game ahead of Michigan for the regular season title.
Purdue will likely face off against Jake Meyers, who is 8-1 on the season with a 3.09 ERA. The Cornhuskers are hitting .280 as a team and have a team ERA of 3.48, good for second in the conference. They can have a bad game, however. Last week they lost to last place Penn State in their opening game, but Purdue’s win over Minnesota kept them alive for the title.
Michigan Wolverines (42-13, 16-8)
Michigan is probably the best overall team in the conference and with a strong run in Bloomington they might even be able to grab a hosting spot for the NCAA Tournament as one of the top 16 teams nationally. They are ranked 15th in the coaches poll and 29th in the RPI. They closed the year by going 9-3 in the conference in their last four series, and that included a sweep of Purdue. Unfortunately, a 6-1 loss to Michigan State last Thursday ended up costing them the conference title. They have a very nice sweep of Oklahoma to their credit, but their 9-3 closing stretch came against Ohio State, Rutgers, Purdue, and Michigan State. Three of those four didn’t make the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan has the best pitching staff in the conference and the tandem of Jackson Lamb and Mac Lozer have combined for 46 appearances, 13 saves, 51 1/3 innings pitched, and not a single earned run given up. Basically, if Michigan has a lead you’re playing a 7 inning game against them if not shorter.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (33-19, 15-8)
The Gophers won the conference title last year and were favored to repeat. Purdue ruined those hopes last weekend by taking two of three in Minneapolis. It also dropped Minnesota’s RPI down to 82 and thus eliminated them from at large consideration. This is still a team good enough to get hot and steal the automatic bid, however. They have the best batting average in the conference at .293 and Lucas Gilbreath is a solid No. 1 starter that Purdue small-balled to death last Thursday. Also, they are the second best fielding team in the conference, but a ton of errors against Purdue was the difference.
Overall, Minnesota had an uncharacteristic weekend against Purdue last week. 11 of their 15 conference wins came in sweeps of Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Penn State though. Against the field of Big Ten Tournament teams they were only 4-8. That includes a random non-conference game against Iowa in early March, which is the only time they played the Hawkeyes.
Maryland Terrapins (34-19, 15-9)
The Terps are probably on the good side of the NCAA bubble right now with an RPI of 33, but they have done themselves no favors down the stretch. Last weekend they lost a non-conference season at High Point, and before that they lost series to Northwestern at home and at Illinois and Indiana. Like Minnesota, their record is built on beating up the bottom of the conference with nine wins against Penn State, Michigan State, and Rutgers. They have nice non-conference wins over West Virginia, North Carolina State, and a series win over Michigan.
Brian Shaffer is a definite ace in game one for them with a 7-3 record and 1.67 ERA, leading the conference with 97 innings pitched. Marty Costes is also third in the conference with 71 hits.
Iowa Hawkeyes (32-19, 15-9)
Iowa enters with an RPI of only 94, so they need the automatic bid to extend their season. They have a nice win at South Florida earlier in the year, but what hurts them is their last five conference series were against the five teams that did not make the Big Ten Tournament. Two of their other three series were against the bottom two seeds in Purdue and Northwestern, so they had the easiest conference schedule you could ask for.
That said, they did take two of three at Nebraska for their one challenging series, but followed that by losing two of three at home to Rutgers. Purdue played them back in March in the first series of the conference season and won the first game 2-0, but then lost 5-1 and 7-2. Jake Adams leads the Big Ten with 24 home runs and 65 RBI for them. His 24 homers are second nationally.
Indiana Hoosiers (32-20-2, 14-9-1)
The tournament hosts enter with a Big Ten best RPI of 29 thanks to a difficult schedule that featured two games against No. 1 Oregon State (45-4), Kentucky, and Louisville. They also went 1-1-1 at Florida Atlantic and played 6 of the 7 other teams in the Big Ten Tournament field, making them the opposite of Iowa. They went 0-2-1 against Nebraska, swept Northwestern, and won series against Minnesota, Michigan, and Maryland. Purdue, however, took two of three from them in early April in West Lafayette thanks to a bullpen collapse in the Friday game.
Indiana obviously gets the advantage of playing at home, but when they faced Minnesota’s Lucas Gilbreath in the regular season they lost 11-0. The Hoosiers have the firepower to play with anyone in the country as evidenced by a 1-0 loss to No. 1 ranked Oregon State and a 4-3 win over No. 5 ranked Louisville. They still struggled in series openers, however, going 3-5 in Friday Big Ten games.
Northwestern Wildcats (24-28, 13-11)
The overall record stinks, as they are the only team below .500 in the field, but Northwestern has been on a tear to reach the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010. They closed the year by winning five straight and 7 of 9 against Purdue, Maryland, and Rutgers to get in to this thing. They also had a nice series win over Iowa in early April.
Northwestern has the weakest lineup in the field, batting just .254 as a team, but they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. The series win at Maryland two weeks ago shows that they can play with field and spring an upset or two.
Purdue Boilermakers (29-25, 12-12)
Purdue might be just happy to be here after a dismal 2016 season. With one more victory the Boilers will triple their wins from last year, thus the first season under Mark Wasikowski has to be considered a huge success. Purdue won series over Minnesota and Indiana to get here, but was swept by Michigan and lost a home series to Northwestern in disappointing fashion. Consistency has been Purdue’s biggest problem all year. They have a pair of 7 game winning streaks, but they have also had the bats go silent for long stretches such as consecutive shutouts by Little Rock and the no-hitter against Butler.
Purdue managed to win four Big Ten games while scoring two runs or less, and the small ball clinic it put on against Minnesota was impressive. Tanner Andrews and Gareth Stroh, when on, give Purdue at least a chance against the conference heavyweights. There is virtually no starting pitching after them, however. Also, look for Ross Learnard out of the bullpen. He is 6-0 in 26 appearances with 3 saves and a 0.41 ERA. He has given up just two earned runs in 44 1/3 innings. Learnard, Stroh, and Andrews have combined to go 19-8.