Big Ten Baseball Tournament Preview: No. 2 seed Michigan vying for NCAA berth

Marissa McClain/Daily
Sophomore Coley Crank in game against Iowa on Friday, April 24, 2010 at Ray Fisher Stadium. Buy this photo

Daily Sports Writer
Published May 25, 2010

After a disappointing 2009 season that saw the Michigan baseball team’s streak of three consecutive Big Ten regular season championships end, the Wolverines set one main goal heading into this year: reclaim their rightful spot atop the conference.

The conclusion of regular season play last weekend, though, saw Michigan (14-10 Big Ten, 34-20 overall) fall just short of that goal, as Minnesota won the title outright by one game.

But come Thursday, the Wolverines will still have an opportunity to win the Big Ten Tournament and the automatic NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it.

And the team will have a strong shot at doing so.

Michigan enters the tourney as the No. 2 seed, receiving a critical bye into the second round. That means the squad likely won’t have to face its opponent’s ace, since he will have already pitched the day before in the opening round.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to compete, and we’re thankful for the opportunity,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “We got a lot of great guys here who’ve worked very hard, and a lot of players who committed a lot of time to be in a position to play for a tournament championship. That’s what it’s about for the kids and certainly for the coaches.”

The Wolverines could potentially face one of four different teams, but if seeds hold, they will square off with Northwestern. The last time the two programs squared off, two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, resulted in a Michigan series win that came after a monster 14-run Wolverine comeback in the finale.

Offensively, Michigan comes into the tournament in decent shape, having averaged 8.875 runs in its last eight games. While freshman centerfielder and leadoff hitter Patrick Biondi has fallen off slightly from his early season form, bottom of the order hitters like redshirt senior rightfielder Nick Urban and sophomore third baseman John Lorenz have picked up some of the slack.

Meanwhile, senior catcher Chris Berset and junior leftfielder Ryan LaMarre remain their hot-hitting selves.

A key player to watch will be sophomore designated hitter Coley Crank, who leads the team with 13 home runs and 60 RBI but has been slumping as of late. A big tournament from Crank might just mean a championship for the Wolverines.

The pitching aspect is murkier, though. Senior ace right-hander Alan Oaks does seem to be rounding into form, winning his last two starts and allowing just three runs each time.

But beyond him lie question marks. The No. 2 and No. 3 spots have been so inconsistent that Maloney was unsure who would fill them heading into the Penn State weekend, even though it was the last series of the year.

Redshirt freshman Bobby Brosnahan pitched extremely well in his last start. He held the Nittany Lions to just five hits and one run in 6.2 innings last Friday, a good sign for the Wolverines.

An even better sign is the recent run of junior reliever Matt Miller. The talented right-hander frustrated Maloney with his poor performances most of the year. But he has been dominant in his last two appearances, keying the comeback against Northwestern and assuring the No. 2 seed for his team at Penn State. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Maloney turn to Miller in Michigan’s second game of the tournament.

Here’s a look at the field.

Favorite: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers emerged from what coach John Anderson called “the wildest (regular season) I’ve been a part of in my tenure in the league in 29 years” to claim the Big Ten championship. And they come into the tournament hot, having won their last five series.

Minnesota is led by the league’s best starting rotation. Righty Seth Rosin is one of the better pro prospects in the league, and he is joined on the All-Big Ten Second Team by lefty Phil Isaksson. Righty T.J. Oakes rounds out the staff, making the Third Team as just a freshman.

The Gophers are just seventh in the league in hitting, but pitching is what wins championships. They have to be considered the team to beat, though in such a wide-open tournament, they aren’t the heavy favorite by any means.

Watch out for: Northwestern. Lefty Eric Jokisch and righty Francis Brooke are a fantastic one-two punch, and the Wildcats’ closer Paul Snieder (who doubles as a first baseman/designated hitter) might be the best stopper in the Big Ten.

The team is extremely resilient, a vital attribute in a tournament like this. Less than a week after experiencing one of the most devastating defeats imaginable (the 15-14 loss to Michigan), Northwestern came right back to beat Michigan State via a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth, a win that sealed the Wildcats’ spot in the Big Ten tourney.

“All I can tell you is my kids believe,” Northwestern coach Paul Stevens said. “They have a lot of faith in themselves, they have faith in the people that play next to them. If you have that kind of faith … (it) can take you to some very interesting places.”

Dark Horse: Indiana. They enter the tournament as the No. 6 and last seed, but you can’t look past the Hoosiers.

They boast the best offense in the conference, led by Big Ten Player of the Year outfielder Alex Dickerson and fellow slugger first baseman Jerrud Sabourin. Indiana’s piching staff beyond ace left-hander Drew Leininger is a huge question mark, but the Hoosiers are more than capable of riding their lineup to a surprising tourney title.