College Baseball is back! Last season Purdue got in 14 games before everything shut down, and that included a promising 6-1 start and tournament title in the Campbell Invitational. Things went south when Purdue stepped up in weight class and lost to top 25 teams Duke, NC State, North Carolina, and Indiana in consecutive games, but the first year of Greg Goff’s tenure, though abbreviated, was promising at 7-7.
Now we begin a very strange season. Much of college baseball started two weeks ago with the big guns in the ACC and SEC fully underway. They are playing a somewhat limited season of 50 games or so and they are playing regional non-conference games. The Big Ten is limiting itself to conference-only play with a lot of neutral site games. Purdue will play 44 games this season with no Big Ten tournament. Fans will be limited, at least early on, but given some of the positive vaccine news Purdue baseball could be one of the first on campus sports that allows fans later in the spring.
It all starts this weekend in Round Rock, Texas as Purdue will take on Nebraska in a four game set.
March 5: vs. Nebraska 4pm
March 6: vs. Nebraska 11am & 3pm (Game 1 is 7 innings, game 2 is 9 innings)
March 7: vs. Nebraska 11am
All games at Dell Diamond (closed to the general public) and carried on BTN+.
Purdue has a lot of returning experience this year and it starts at the top of the rotation with Jett Jackson. The sophomoree starter was solid last year with a 1-0 record and 1.89 ERA in 19 innings pitched during the abbreviated season. Coach Goff, like many college coaches, was careful with him and limited his innings in four starts. His longest outing was against North Carolina where he only gave up one hit and struck out five in six innings against a team that is regularly among college baseball’s best. Unfortunately Purdue went on to lose the game 6-5 in 10 innings.
Junior Cory Brooks is the likely No. 2 starter, as he started three games last season. He led the team with 19 1/3 innings pitched and finished 2-2 with a 5.2 ERA. When he was good he was very good, giving up 1 hit in five inning in the win over Maine. He also struck out 7 in 5 innings against a really good NC State team. In his next start Western Kentucky tagged him for 8 runs on nine hits.
Trent Johnson might be the most experienced starter on the roster. The senior has a 7-5 career record with 17 starts and a 3.56 ERA. He has made 44 appearances in his career and pitched 116 innings with 125 strikeouts. He was also the winning pitcher in Purdue’s 14-4 NCAA Tournament victory over North Carolina A&T back in 2018.
That is a decent 1-2-3 for most weekends, but with a compressed schedule Purdue is going to likely need a fourth starter to emerge. There are several newcomers to the roster, including Cam Thompson (Oklahoma State) and Avery Cook (St. John’s) who were at Division I programs. There are also a handful of JuCo transfers too.
There are a lot of questions in the bullpen, especially with the departure of Bo Hofstra. Hofstra was great at the back end in 2019, sporting a 1.92 ERA with seven saves and 47 strikeouts in 39 innings. The loss of him is big. Kyle Wade, Jackson Smeltz, and Eric Hildebrand all saw significant time out of the bullpen in last year’s shortened season.
Purdue struggled at the plate at times last year, but did close with a 19-1 win over Western Kentucky. They continued the tradition of lacking power. In the 2019 season Purdue hit just 11 home runs as a team in 54 games. Last year the Boilers had only four homers in 14 games. This is very much a small ball team that has to string hits together to win.
Purdue does benefit from getting back most of its best bats. Evan Albrecht was red hot last year, batting .364 with 14 RBI in just 44 at bats. Ben Nisle’s return from an injury in 2019 was huge, as he is probably Purdue’s best power hitter. He batted .320 with a home run and 6 RBI while leading the team with 16 runs scored. As a freshman in 2018 he had 7 home runs and 43 RBI.
Skylar Hunter will continue to be a huge piece of Purdue’s offense. He is taking advantage of the NCAA giving everyone an extra year to come back for a fifth season, and he will challenge some all-time Purdue records as a result. He has been a career .321 hitter with 221 hits and 100 RBI. Over his career he has also started 176 games. By the time he leaves Purdue he can break the school record for at bats (820, he has 688), hits (279), runs scored (178, he has 122), and triples (13, he has 11).
There is plenty of experience throughout the lineup too. Zac Fascia, Tyler Powers, Kyle LaPlante, and Ryan Howe are seasoned veterans that have been long time contributors. If you’re looking for a newcomer to have an impact infielder Justin Walker Jr. is one. He played at Indiana for two seasons and had 65 starts over 83 games. The Hoosiers made the NCAA Tournament both years and won the Big Ten in 2019 with him as a major contributor. Now he has joined the good guys.
Overall this is a a team that has experience up and down the roster, and there are a ton of JuCo recruits that coach Goff brought in. Eight of Purdue’s top nine hitters from last year are back and having three pretty decent starters at the top of the rotation will help.
In terms of the conference, it will be tough. Michigan is once again expected to be very good and still has pieces left over from its 2019 National Runner-up team. Indiana has been the class of the conference over the last 15 years and will once again be very good. Both are top 25 caliber teams and Purdue will get tested early by facing Michigan next weekend and the Hoosiers a week alter. Maryland starting pitcher Sean Burke is a high draft prospect as well as Ohio State’s Seth Lonsway and Michigan’s Steven Hajjar. Most expect Purdue to be a middle of the pack team with Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio State as NCAA contenders. For Purdue to break into that group it must have a good showing in the first ten games here against Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana.