Can Purdue baseball win the Big Ten?
It is a bit of a longshot to be sure, especially with closing series against Minnesota and Michigan, but before that Purdue faces a Northwestern team that is fighting to reach the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue enters on its second 7-game winning streak of the season and as the most improved team in America after last year. They are +15 wins from last season, and only two other teams in the country (South Florida and Butler) are even +10. Purdue was a solid 12-6 in the month of April and is in position to do a little more than just reach the Big Ten Tournament.
As for winning the league, if Purdue sweeps the Wildcats this weekend it is possible. Purdue trails Maryland by one game in the loss column in the Big Ten standings. Maryalnd is 13-5 with heir Big Ten bye weekend coming the last week of the year. They are at Illinois and host Northwestern in the next two weeks, and would need to lose at least one of those games for Purdue to have a chance. More likely they would have to drop 2-3 games because Purdue still has nine league games left to their six.
Even then, Purdue is in a jumbled 4-way tie for third place and Nebraska is slightly ahead in second at 9-5-1, so a decent seed in the Big Ten Tournament (and, therefore, an easier path to the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid) is up for grabs. Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa are all 9-6. Iowa holds a tiebreaker over Purdue with their series win back in March, but Purdue’s remaining series with Michigan and Minnesota loom large. Indiana, sitting at 10-7-1 in advance of their bye this weekend is also in the race.
In looking at the Big Ten standings it looks like 11-12 conference victories will be enough to reach the league tournament in Bloomington. Michigan State holds the 8th and final spot at 7-8, while Rutgers is in ninth at 5-7 (and Rutgers holds the tiebreaker over Purdue since they won the series with us). If Purdue takes care of business this weekend and at least wins the series it should be in good shape to reach the conference tournament.
WEEKEND SERIES INFORMATION
Northwestern (17-26, 6-9 B1G) at Purdue (25-17, 9-6 B1G)
Friday to Sunday, May 5 to 7 at 6, 6 and 1 p.m. ET / BTN Plus on BTN2Go
Alexander Field / West Lafayette, Indiana
All-Time Series: Purdue leads 110-92-2 / All-Time in West Lafayette: Purdue leads 58-41-1
2016: Northwestern swept a 3-game series (May 6-8 in Evanston)
Last Series in West Lafayette: Northwestern won 2-of-3 (April 2013)
Purdue Last Series Victory: Purdue swept a 3-game series (April 2012 in Evanston)
Purdue’s Last Series Victory vs NU in West Lafayette: Purdue won 3-of-4 (March 2008)
First Meeting: Northwestern 10, Purdue 3 (May 1900 in Evanston)
PROBABLE PITCHING MATCHUPS
Friday: Tanner Andrews (Jr, RHP) vs. NU’s Cooper Wetherbee (Sr, LHP)
Saturday: Gareth Stroh (So, LHP) vs. NU’s Hank Christie (Fr, RHP)
Sunday: Mike Kornacker (So, RHP) vs. NU’s Matt Gannon (Fr, LHP)
A good comparison for Purdue and Northwestern is lowly Santa Clara. The Broncos are only 11-33 on the season, but they hosted both Purdue and Northwestern for a four-game series in March. Northwestern split their series with wins of 3-2 and 8-1 while losing 7-1 and 15-9. Purdue came in two weeks later and swept all four games 12-4, 3-0, 8-7, and 10-5. In terms of common Big Ten series, Indiana swept Northwestern in Evanston while Purdue took two of three from the Hoosiers (Purdue’s most impressive series win to date). Northwestern took two of three from Iowa and Iowa took two of three from Purdue. Purdue swept Illinois and the Illini took two of three from Northwestern.
Purdue did not have a midweek game this week due to finals, so we should be rested. Northwestern lost 3-2 at Notre Dame.
Lefty Cooper Wetherbee (1-2, 2.90 ERA in 5 starts) takes the mound tonight against Tanner Andrews. Andrews (7-2, 4.31 ERA) has been great on Fridays for Purdue and has a real chance at a 10-win season. The last pitcher to do so was Joe Haase in 2012, when he was 11-1. A 10-win season at the college level is fantastic achievement, especially when Purdue only won 10 games period last year. Overall, Purdue is an impressive 9-2 on Fridays this year, losing only 16-8 at Cal State Northridge and 13-2 at Ohio State (Andrews’ only losses).
On Saturday Northwestern will throw Hank Christie (3-3,4.94 ERA in 11 starts) against Gareth Stroh. Stroh had a slower start to the year, but of late has been excellent. Stroh is now 4-3 with a 4.45 ERA and two weeks ago had a complete game against Illinois. On Sunday Mike Kornacker, who has settled into Purdue’s Sunday role with a 1-2 record and 5.11 ERA, will face Matt Gannon (0-3, 4.54 ERA). Purdue has been weaker on Sundays this year (just a 2-7 record), but its last time out on a Sunday they did win against Illinois. Kornacker is also well rested after last Sunday’s game against St. Louis was rained out.
Overall Northwestern is one of the weakest hitting teams in the conference. Their .246 team average is only better than last place Penn State. As a team they have a 5.38 ERA, good for 10th in the league and slightly worse than Purdue’s 4.95. Skyler Hunter and Nick Dalesandro from Purdue are among the best nine hitters in the Big Ten. Evan Warden has been a great table setter too, as he has scored a league high 43 runs. The only player Northwestern has among the league leaders is Matt Hopfner, who is second with 13 doubles.
Purdue’s bullpen cannot be overlooked, either. Ross Learnard is one of the best relievers not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country. He has appeared in 20 games for Purdue and thrown 31 innings. In that time he has given up only 6 walks and just one earned run for a stunning 0.29 ERA. He is also 4-0 with three saves. He hasn’t thrown quite enough innings to be recognized among the national ERA leaders, but only Oregon State’s Luke Heimlich, who has thrown 80 1/3 innings, is on that list with an ERA under 1 and it is at 0.78, so what Learnard is doing is really impressive. It looks like you need to throw at least 41 innings to be on the national ERA list. He has gone 28 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run.
Learnard is not the only one doing well out of the bullpen. Dalton Parker has earned 6 saves for Purdue in 11 appearances. Cameron Williams is also 1-2 in 18 appearances with three saves. Those three have given Purdue a big advantage in the late innings with a lead.
That’s what has been most impressive during this 7-game winning streak for Purdue. Aside from the 18-0 drubbing of IPFW the Boilers have been clutch in the late innings. The streak started with a late comeback win at Indiana State where Purdue got 7 runs in the 7th inning and one in the ninth for a 10-7 win. Purdue had three close wins over Illinois, including a 2-1 walk-off in the ninth on the Sunday. Purdue added another walk-off 4-3 over St. Louis last week.
It certainly looks like Purdue is peaking at the right time. There are 12 games left in the regular season and Purdue should eclipse the 30 win mark. In 130 years of baseball at Purdue there have only been 17 30-win seasons. If Purdue ups it to 35 wins with a strong finish and a few wins in Bloomington in the Big Ten Tournament it would only be the 8th time the team has reached 35 victories. Anything more than that would have Purdue in NCAA at large consideration. Purdue reached the NCAAs in 1987 with 36 wins and in 2012 with a program-record 45 wins. The only times Purdue has had 37 or more wins were in 1986 (37-27), 2011 (37-20, but flamed out in the Big Ten Tournament too early to get an at large NCAA bid), and the 2012 season (45-14).