For the second straight year, the Michigan baseball team enters the season as the favorite to win the Big Ten title. With a top-20 ranking and just one loss to start their season, there’s no reason to believe that the Wolverines won’t live up to the expectations being placed on them.
However, with COVID-19 canceling last season, the unknowns make virtually every team a contender this year. In the following section, The Daily breaks down the biggest Big Ten threats to Michigan’s top spot.
Indiana stood atop the Big Ten with a title in 2019 and is currently ranked second in the Big Ten, right behind Michigan. The Hoosiers were favored entering last season as well and claimed a win in their sole Big Ten game against Purdue before the season was later canceled. Considering their consistency over the last three seasons, it only makes sense that they place at the top of the Wolverines’ concerns. However, Indiana has yet to face a team with a record above .500, so time will tell if the Hoosiers are performing due to a soft schedule.
Player to watch: junior left-hander Tommy Sommer
Sommer is the current Big Ten Pitcher of the Week and had an impressive game against Minnesota, striking out 10 and allowing just two hits. In 2020, Sommer registered 17 strikeouts in 20.2 innings, and held opponents to a .177 batting average against him. His dominance on the mound will be one of the Hoosiers’ biggest strengths — and potentially one of Michigan’s biggest challenges.
Nebraska also floated at the top of the Big Ten two seasons ago and currently ranks third with quality wins against Ohio State and Iowa on its resume. Since the Cornhuskers didn’t play any Big Ten teams early last year, it’s difficult to say how they will fare against the field this season. However, their Big Ten championship appearance two seasons ago and a 10-4 win against Ohio State last week prove that they rank among the top in the conference. Michigan will be Nebraska’s last regular-season series — a highly anticipated matchup that the Wolverines may rehash in the Big Ten Tournament.
Player to watch: freshman right-hander Max Anderson
Despite being a freshman, Anderson leads the Huskers with a .367 batting average and two home runs, in addition to eight RBI. One of Michigan’s biggest strengths is its pitching which will be tested against Anderson going into late May.
Ohio State (5-3)
Ohio State has arguably played the most difficult schedule so far in the Big Ten. It won three of four against Illinois and split wins with Iowa and Nebraska, teams that all have a case to be in the top five in the Big Ten. The most difficult portion of the Buckeyes’ schedule is at the end of the season with back-to-back series against Indiana and Nebraska, a stretch that could show its viability against the best of the Big Ten. They face Michigan in April, a matchup between bitter rivals that could prove pivotal in both teams’ preparation for the postseason.
Player to watch: sophomore outfielder Mitchell Okuley
Okuley provided a much-needed offensive spark for the Buckeyes against Iowa and Nebraska. He hit two solo home runs, pushing his tally to three on the year with 25 at-bats on the season. Okuley’s abilities as a strong hitter will be another test of Michigan’s pitching and defense, which is all the more reason to look forward to this matchup.
Out of the top five teams in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s schedule has been the easiest so far. The Wildcats dropped two of four against Penn State and lost just one game to Michigan State, but none of those games were decided by more than three runs. However, they have turned around from two seasons ago where they finished ninth in the conference, and are now trending in the right direction. Northwestern faces Michigan in early April, and the Wildcats’ ability to keep games close will be another test of the Wolverines’ consistency.
Player to watch: junior infielder Shawn Goosenberg
Goosenberg was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Third Team two years ago and has provided the Wildcats with a solid start this season, including a three-run home run to close out a win over Michigan State last week.
Iowa has already played Michigan in a four-game series and handed the Wolverines their only loss of the season. The Hawkeyes have also split games with Nebraska and Ohio State, teams that are all top five in the Big Ten. They play another series against Nebraska and Ohio State this week and may jump out above the rest to solidify their place in the rankings. Iowa has the ability to lean on its defense and keep games close, something that could prove problematic for Michigan if the two teams play again in the Big Ten Tournament.
Player to watch: Redshirt freshman Tyler Snep
Snep currently ranks third in batting average in the Big Ten at .455 and second in on-base percentage at .625. Considering these numbers include his performances against Michigan, he will likely pose a problem in a potential tournament matchup.
Illinois’s start to the season has been up-and-down. They won just one game against Ohio State, but followed that up by winning three of four against Minnesota. The Fighting Illini’s strength comes from their pitching staff, with freshman right-hander Riley Gowens and sophomore Ty Rybarczyk leading the way with 10 strikeouts between them. They face Michigan this weekend and may prove to be an issue if the Wolverines’ offense doesn’t come up big against a proven defense.
Player to watch: junior infielder/outfielder Cam McDonald
McDonald went four-for-five with two doubles and three runs against Minnesota. He will test Michigan’s defense this weekend should he continue to perform how he has so far this season.
Rutgers handed Indiana its only loss in its season opener and has had some major offensive explosions throughout its season so far. The Scarlet Knights are also looking to appear in their first Big Ten Tournament since joining the conference seven years ago, and are currently in a position to finally break that streak. Rutgers plays Michigan in late April, and if it can continue its offensive play while finding a rhythm on defense, the Scarlet Knights may cause issues for the Wolverines just as they did against Indiana.
Player to watch: Redshirt freshman outfielder Josh Rodriguez
Rodriguez was just named Big Ten Freshman of the Week coming off two games in which he registered two doubles and two home runs. Should he continue to put up the numbers he has so far this season, he and the Scarlet Knights would be a threat to Michigan’s standing.
Michigan State (4-4)
Michigan State opened its season strong with three straight wins against Maryland but dropped four of the next five and sank to the middle of the pack. Relative to previous years, the Spartans remain stagnant in Big Ten rankings and could earn a Big Ten Tournament berth if they’re able to find the consistency that they had at the beginning of this season. They face Michigan this weekend looking to prove that they can go beyond the expectations of previous seasons.
Player to watch: freshman pitcher Nick Powers
In just his first season, Powers has already struck out six in just five innings pitched against Northwestern. Should he pitch against Michigan, the Wolverines will need to have quality at-bats to come out on top.
Maryland hasn’t faced a considerable opponent so far this season, with wins coming over Michigan State and Rutgers. The Terrapins were .500 two seasons ago and look to match that projection again this year. They play Michigan in early April, but shouldn’t pose many problems considering the near-absence of offensive production that turned several of their losses into blowouts.
Player to watch: junior infielder Benjamin Cowles
Cowles was named Big Ten Player of the Week coming off of a five home run and eight RBI performance against Rutgers in four games. Beyond Cowles, Maryland has struggled to score, but could pose an issue for Michigan if the Terrapins pull out a hot streak.
Penn State (2-6)
Penn State is in an interesting position following its first two series against Northwestern and Indiana. The Nittany Lions split wins with Northwestern, but were swept by Indiana. Considering the strength of schedule and the up-and-down offensive production, Penn State somewhat resembles Michigan’s struggles in the first three games of the season and may pose a problem once the two teams face off next week. If Penn State can replicate its performance against Northwestern and come up big on offense, it may create issues for a Michigan team that has faced similar challenges so far.
Player to watch: junior pitcher Kyle Virbitsky
Virbitsky notched 18 strikeouts in 15.2 innings last year and already had five strikeouts in a start against Indiana. His strength on the mound alongside Penn State’s other quality pitchers will be a sticking point for Michigan.
Purdue was recently swept by Michigan and has just one win on its season, against Nebraska. The Boilermakers have an argument for playing one of the toughest schedules so far this season, but inconsistent offense and an inability to capitalize on defense have led to several blowout losses. The rest of its season may have room for a turnaround, but we’ve yet to see consistency on both sides of the ball that could cause Michigan any legitimate issues.
Player to watch: senior outfielder Ben Nisle
In an offensive struggle against Michigan, Nisle managed to hit home runs in back-to-back games and provide the Boilermakers a spark that eventually came up short.
Minnesota was among the top teams in the Big Ten two seasons ago but has yet to live up to those expectations. The Golden Gophers have faced a few difficult teams and kept scores close this season, but haven’t won a quality game thus far. They play Michigan in mid-April, in between two other tough series against Iowa and Indiana. Considering Minnesota has kept games within reach, the Wolverines will need to rely on its offensive production to close out the series.
Player to watch: junior infielder Zack Raabe
Raabe was named a 2020 All-American and led the NCAA in hits. He continues to be the Golden Gophers’ biggest strength on offense.