We’re in the heart of basketball season, but yes, Purdue baseball is about to kickoff. College baseball always feels compressed. After decades of it being the wild west where southern and western teams could take advantage of their locations and weather to start as early as mid-January the Uniform Start Date has been in effect since 2008. This was a compromise between the NCAA and the northern schools (ahem, THE BIG TEN) in an effort to level the playing field a bit.
Gone are the days of southern teams hosting northern teams for months, starting early, and playing 70+ games (San Diego State played a record 91 games in 1982). Now the season starts for everyone on the third Friday in February (just two weeks away) and the regular season is limited to 56 games. Sure, teams like Purdue still need to head south for a few weeks, but it is not as pronounced. We even have one of our earliest home openers ever as we are scheduled to host Milwaukee on March 12, just the 14th game of the season.
And there is reason for optimism as we approach the 2019 season. The Boilers are coming off of one of the best seasons in program history. Purdue made and amazing run from 16-16 following a 2-1 home loss to Indiana State on April 18 to 37-18 heading into the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota. The 21-2 stretch pushed Purdue into the NCAA tournament for only the third time in program history. The Boilers would lose the Big Ten title game and two NCAA games to Houston, but the 14-4 win over North Carolina A&T on June 2nd was only the second NCAA Tournament win in program history. It was also only the second time ever Purdue won as many as 38 games in a single season.
It is going to be hard to top that. Reaching the College World Series as a Big Ten team is really, really hard, as Indiana in 2013 is the only school to do it in the last 35 years. Having a good run and doing a little damage in the NCAAs is the goal of any Big Ten program. Anything beyond that is gravy. In year three under Mark Wasikowski Purdue should still be quite competitive.
What We Lost
Purdue doesn’t quite have the significant talent dropoff that it did after the great 2012 season. That year we lost three Major Leaguers, several other draft picks, and a ton of experience. We still lost a lot, however. At the plate Jacson McGowan and Nick Dalesandro were both drafted and left to pursue minor league opportunities. Alec Olund, Harry Shipley, Evan Kennedy, and Evan Warden also either graduated or departed the program as top 8 hitters. Shipley was very effective at the top of the lineup in getting on base and scoring runs. He scored 48 runs, while McGowan led the team with 13 home runs and 59 RBI.
On the mound we also lost our top two starters and best reliever. Tanner Andrews was our Friday ace with a 7-5 record and 2.94 ERA. Gareth Stroh was a solid No. 2 with a 5-2 record and 4.93 ERA. Ironically, we can likely see Stroh later on as he transferred to Nebraska. Finally Ross Learnard, who was lights out for two years out of the bullpen and finished with a program best 15 saves last season, is gone after graduation. He was a Third Team All-American in his career and one of the best pitchers in school history.
Purdue still has some solid contributors in the lineup. Ben Nisle is expected to step into the McGowan role as our top power hitter after an excellent freshman season last year. He was a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American and member of the Big Ten All-Freshman Team in 2018. His performance in the Regional (7 for 11 with two doubles, a home run, and five RBI) earned him All-Tournament honors as well. He was third on the team with a .304 average and second with 7 home runs and 43 RBI.
Skyler Hunter, a junior outfielder, will also play a big role. He was second on the team with a .333 average and led the team with 78 hits and 49 runs scored. He will be an important table-setter with Shipley gone.
Other key contributors figure to be Charlie Nasuti (.254 average in 37 games), Nick Evarts (.250 with 23 hits in 44 games and 30 starts), and Tyler Powers (.235 average in 50 games and 38 starts). Bryce Bonner, who was a freshman All-American in 2016 before Dalesandro took over as the lead catcher last season, should also have a bounceback season. Bonner was kind of positionless last year with Dalesandro playing so well, but should move back behind the plate.
On the mound the situation is not as grave as we originally thought. Senior Ryan Beard started 11 games last season and was 5-3 with a 4.26 ERA. Trent Johnson (3-1, 1.76 ERA) and Andrew Bohm (2-0, 4.50 ERA) should also figure into the weekend rotation. Trevor Cheaney and Bo Hofstra were the top arms out of the bullpen last season with 29 and 28 appearances, respectively, and Hofstra was 5-3. Dalton Parker will likely be the closer as he was 5-0 with a 3.21 ERA. He did not have a save last season, but he had six saves as a freshman in 2016.
Purdue brings in a large number of freshman this year. Hayden Wynja redshirted last season, but was a 30th round selection in the 2017 MLB draft out of Heritage Christian high school. He is a 6’8” left-handed pitcher with a lot of promise. All told there are 14 true or redshirt freshmen on the roster looking to make an impact. I don’t know much about many of them, but I do know that Kyle Wade from Kokomo is a very promising right-hander out of the bullpen. He was a 4-year starter on Kokomo’s football team and established pretty much every passing record there. He was also the state’s Mental Attitude Award winner as he led KHS to the football state championship game in 2017. He was also a four year starter for baseball and part of a very talented pitching staff that sent players to Ohio State and Louisville.
It was announced this week that 9 games would be televised on various ESPN networks even before BTN announced its baseball coverage. ESPNU will have the April 7th game at Nebraska and the Longhorn Network will televise all four games at Texas. The March 3rd game at Oral Roberts and March 15-17 games at Jacksonville State will be available on ESPN+.
In the very early preseason rankings Purdue plays a few top 25 teams. After opening with three games at Southern Miss February 15-17 Purdue will play four games in three days at #23 Texas February 22-24. No. 17 Michigan is not on the schedule, but we could play them in the Big Ten Tournament in May. Southern Miss is ranked 21st by Baseball America and Texas is 19th, so the first seven games of the year are against Baseball America top 25 teams.
Overall Purdue has home weekend series against Southeast Missouri State, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. There are also home weekday games against Milwaukee, Bowling Green, Valparaiso, Indiana State, Butler, Chicago State, Purdue-Fort Wayne, Ball State, and Xavier. In terms of 2018 NCAA teams on the schedule we play Southern Miss 3 times, Texas 4 times, and Oral Roberts 4 times in the first 11 games of the year. Indiana (1 game) and Ohio State (3 games) also are NCAA teams on the schedule. Purdue will play at TD Ameritrade Park (home of the College World Series) against Creighton in a three-game series March 8-10 and the Big Ten Tournament will also be there.
D1Baseball.com predicts Purdue to finish 7th in the Big Ten, with Michigan, Indiana, and Minnesota picked as NCAA Tournament teams. If you thought the old 18-game men’s basketball schedule with 14 Big Ten teams was unbalanced, however, you haven’t seen the Big Ten baseball schedule. Each of the 13 teams (remember: Wisconsin does not have a program) plays just eight 3-game series, so who you DON’T play can be just as important as who you do.
Purdue does not play Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, or Maryland in conference play. Dodging the projected top 3 teams is huge. We do play a single non-conference game at Indiana on April 10th, but that will only serve to help any postseason profile. Last season Purdue set a record for 3-game sweeps in a season when it swept Maryland, Penn State, Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan. We’re in great shape to contend for the regular season title simply by winning a lot of games against the bottom of the league.