By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 26, 2011
With four series gone, the Big Ten baseball season has reached its midway point. But even with 12 games down, the standings are hardly clearer than when the season started.
Three teams are tied atop the conference at 7-5, and five teams, including Michigan, trail by a game at 6-6. With just one game separating the first- and eighth-place teams, very little has been established in the first half.
As the Wolverines close the book on April, the Daily baseball beat's Neal Rothschild breaks down each team’s prospects heading into the final month of the season.
The Top Dogs:
Michigan State (7-5 Big Ten, 24-13 overall): The Spartans entered Big Ten play with the most impressive non-conference résumé. They swept the season-opening Big Ten/Big East Challenge and jumped out to a 15-7 start behind Brandon Eckerle’s bat.
The senior center fielder carried a .500 batting average into the 18th game of the season when Michigan State came to Ann Arbor — the Spartans swept the non-conference series. And his average hasn’t come down by much. He’s the Big Ten’s leading hitter at .391 and has a team-leading 18 stolen bases.
If Eckerle provides the finesse, Jeff Holm brings the power. The first baseman is tied for the conference lead with six home runs and leads the Big Ten with a .620 slugging percentage.
The next two weekends will play a large part in determining the Spartans’ chances of winning the regular-season title. They will host Penn State and Purdue, the other 7-5 teams.
Penn State (7-5, 24-13): A pair of sophomore aces has pulled the Nittany Lions to the top of the conference standings. John Walter and Steven Hill have accounted for five of the team’s conference wins and have a combined four complete games.
The right-handed pitchers have paved the way for Penn State to lead the conference in ERA and batting average against. Walter and Hill are second and third in the Big Ten in ERA at 2.26 and 2.56, respectively.
Purdue (7-5, 27-13): After the Big Ten/Big East Challenge, the Boilermakers played only one team from a power conference before the conference season began — they lost 9-0 to Vanderbilt.
But the lack of preparation hasn’t hurt Purdue, as it has come out of the gates with the conference’s best batting average.
Shortstop David Miller would be Billy Beane’s dream. Though the junior is hitting just .287, he leads the conference with 30 walks, which has translated into a .486 on-base percentage — also tops in the Big Ten.
Middle of the Pack:
Michigan (6-6, 13-25): In what has easily been the Wolverines’ worst season in years, they have done well to not let their non-conference failures carry into the Big Ten season. Michigan treaded water for the first two Big Ten series of the year, squeaking out one-run wins against Indiana and Purdue, but it has risen to the occasion the last two weeks after it took two-of-three contests from Illinois and Iowa.
There has been no standout player for the Wolverines — their top hitters are freshman right fielder Michael O’Neill and sophomore center fielder Patrick Biondi, who are hitting identical .303 (46-for-152) averages.
Much of the season has been characterized by trying to get Michigan’s top hitters out of slumps as returning starters Anthony Toth, John Lorenz and Coley Crank have all spent large portions of their seasons hitting in the low .200s. Crank has been able to break out and boost his average up to .259 while knocking in 19 runs. Toth has started to show signs of life in the past week after flirting with the Mendoza line for the last three weeks.
Junior Brandon Sinnery has given the Wolverines a boost on the mound. He has thrown complete-game victories in his last two outings — 3-0 and 5-2 wins over Illinois and Iowa. After getting rocked in the first weekend of the season, he earned his way into the conference rotation with a stellar relief outing in a 6-5 victory over Purdue.
Indiana (6-6, 25-16): Alex Dickerson is the big name that comes up when talking about the Hoosiers, and he’s lived up to his billing this year. The left fielder is hitting .359 with five home runs and is among the top 10 in the Big Ten in almost every offensive statistic.
But first baseman Jerrud Sabourin made history this year as he became Indiana’s all-time hits leader when he recorded his 306th hit against Iowa on April 17.
Illinois (6-6, 15-21): Similar to Michigan, the Fighting Illini also overcame a rough non-conference stretch to stay afloat in the Big Ten. Illinois’s season has been marked by inconsistency, as it has alternated winning and losing weekends for almost the whole spring.
Third baseman Brandon Hohl has been the Fighting Illini’s top player both in the field and at the plate. He is hitting .323 and leads the team with four home runs and 29 RBI.
Minnesota (6-6, 14-15): Picked by many before the season to be the conference champions, the defending Big Ten champs have struggled to find their footing this season.
But the Golden Gophers can take solace in the fact that three of their toughest series are behind them, after playing Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana. Scott Matyas has been the conference’s most dominant closer, as opposing hitters are just 8-for-62 against him. He leads Minnesota's regulars with a 1.47 ERA and six saves.
Ohio State (6-6, 16-18): The Buckeyes have also emerged from the brunt of their Big Ten schedule unscathed and look to make a run at the top of the conference. They have weathered series against Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana and have the luxury of missing out on Purdue on their schedule this year.
Ohio State plays its remaining four series against teams with overall losing records, with Michigan this weekend and then Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota to follow.
Northwestern (5-7, 13-22): First baseman Paul Sneider has been the Big Ten’s best two-way player. Sneider leads the team with a .368 average, four home runs and 31 RBI. And as the Wildcats’ closer, he has four saves with a 2.81 ERA and a .217 batting average against.
Iowa (4-8, 15-23):: The Hawkeyes’ small ball has been a little too small. Their 61 sacrifice bunts — 22 more than second-most in the conference — haven’t kept them from losing each Big Ten series this year.