The Michigan baseball team entered this season leading its conference in expectations. The Wolverines are currently the only Big Ten team –– and the only Northern baseball team at all –– to be ranked nationally. But that doesn’t mean competition in the Big Ten won’t be fluid.
At the team’s media day before the season began, junior outfielder Jordan Nwogu was quick to remind everyone that Michigan, whose College World Series run has been cited as a sign of Northern and Big Ten baseball’s vitality, didn’t even win the conference title last year. Indiana, led by Big Ten Coach of the Year Jeff Mercer, claimed the outright conference championship in a title fight that endured until the last weekend of the regular season.
In last May’s Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State upset No. 1 seed Indiana and Michigan to win its second title in four years. Five Big Ten teams reached the NCAA Tournament.
So while the odds may seem stacked in Michigan’s favor this year, nothing is guaranteed. Below, the Daily takes a comprehensive look at the Big Ten and the teams that could potentially pose a threat to the Wolverines (ranked in order of finish last season):
As mentioned, Indiana took the outright Big Ten title last season off of a 17-7 Big Ten performance, barely edging out Michigan in the final weekend of play. The Hoosiers went on to lose in the semifinal of their regional to Louisville and endured significant losses in the offseason. They’ve had to replace their entire weekend rotation at the mound. Unsurprisingly, their start to the season has been somewhat touch-and-go, but Indiana has the talent for another formidable season if the right pieces fall into place.
Player to watch: junior infielder Cole Barr
Barr decided to return for his junior season despite being drafted. He was the only Hoosier to start in all 60 games last year and impressed scouts with a team-leading 17 home runs. He has notched 11 runs and seven RBI in the first 13 games of this season.
Last year, the Fighting Illini’s 35-19 regular season record and third place finish in the Big Ten left them on the right side of a tie with Minnesota –– on account of their strength of schedule –– to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015. In the offseason, however, they have seen a substantial amount of roster turnover with 18 new additions, as seven of their best performers were drafted. Illinois will have to rely on its sophomores, ranked last year as the best recruiting class in the Big Ten, to step up and fill these gaps.
Player to watch: junior right-hander Garrett Acton
Acton joined the team as a junior college addition last season. He notched the Big Ten record for saves last season and received numerous All-American accolades. Despite that, he elected to remain with the Fighting Illini for his senior season –– a rarity for players of his caliber. His poise as a closer will be a valuable asset for the team.
The Cornhuskers entered this season under new leadership after Darin Erstad’s surprise announcement that he would retire after eight years. Their 32-24 season last year culminated in an NCAA tournament appearance and a loss to Ohio State in the final of the Big Ten Tournament. New coach Will Bolt is lucky to have most of its talent at the plate returning, including its top four hitters, but the team must adjust to having a completely overhauled pitching staff. Its start this season has been rough, but offers glimmers of an improvement ahead –– the unranked Huskers managed a thrilling 18-10 over No. 12 Arizona State to avoid a sweep on March 1.
Player to watch: junior outfielder Aaron Palensky
Palensky led the team in most offensive categories last season and boasted a .320 batting average, eighth in the Big Ten, in his first season out of junior college. His performance so far, with 14 runs and 14 RBIs, has helped offset the team’s offensive inconsistency and suggests he will continue to impress this year.
The Golden Gophers entered last season leading the Big Ten preseason poll and finished the season tied for third in conference standings. Even with that finish, this left them on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. This year they have a chance to make more of a splash, and expectations are still high with a No. 3 ranking in the Big Ten preseason poll. But their somewhat rocky start still raises the question of whether their performance can meet the hype.
Player to watch: junior outfielder and right-hander Max Meyer
Meyer, who made the Baseball America’s Preseason All-American first team, is arguably the conference’s best pitcher. He’s found success both as a starter and a reliever, and he brings power to the pitching mound as well as the plate. After offseason training, his fastball now registers at around 100 mph.
Ohio State (4-7)
Coming off their surprise Big Ten Tournament win in Omaha last year, the Buckeyes –– ranked No. 2 in the coaches’ Big Ten preseason poll –– are widely thought to pose the biggest challenge to Michigan’s supremacy. The team does not have the same personnel issues faced by many of their conference competitors, with a lineup of veterans and its entire pitching rotation returning. Despite these high expectations, they’ve gone largely unmet so far. A series loss against Lipscomb (9-5) earlier this month was particularly disappointing.
Players to watch: junior catcher Dillon Dingler and senior shortstop Noah West
Dingler impressed last year as sophomore captain and was Listed as the No. 7 prospect in the Big Ten for 2020 by Perfect Game. West missed the final 44 games of last season due to an injury and will deliver some needed defensive ability to the Buckeyes’ infield this season.
The Hawkeyes broke even last season in conference play with a 12-12 Big Ten record, and as the season dragged on, its once-high hopes of regionals bid faded away just as they had in 2018. They’ll look to change the narrative this season, but that will be difficult. The team faces an even more challenging schedule than it did last season.
Player to watch: Redshirt sophomore left-hander Jack Dreyer
Dreyer missed all but two starts last year on account of a shoulder injury. He was ranked as the 17th-best draft prospect by D1Baseball.com and promises to be a major force if he can replicate the strength he exhibited during his blockbuster freshman year in 2018.
The Terrapins broke fully even with a 29-29 overall and 12-12 Big Ten record last season. Despite a few big personnel losses, Maryland delivered an impressive class of recruits in the fall and has started with a strong record so far.
Player to watch: Sophomore first baseman Maxwell Costes
Costes was named 2019’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year and led the team with 15 home runs, including three in the Big Ten Tournament. This season, he currently boasts a team-leading .439 batting average.
With a 9th-place conference finish in 2019, the Wildcats missed out on the both the NCAA Tournament and Big Ten Tournament. They largely lack the tools needed to make this season much different. In the offseason, Northwestern lost its two best hitters as well as key reliever Nick Paciorek.
Player to watch: sophomore righthander Tyler Uberstine
Uberstine transferred from USC this year and hadn’t officially faced a batter since high school, but has the strongest arm on the team and has been dominant in his four appearances so far with an ERA of 2.86.
A disappointing 20-34 2019 overall season led Rutgers to fire its coach Joe Litterio and install Steve Owens as his replacement. Since joining the Big Ten six years ago, the Scarlet Knights have yet to appear in a Big Ten Tournament or earn a bid to a regional. The team was last in the Big Ten in runs last year but its pitching staff, led by starters Harry Rutkowski (4.08 ERA), Tevin Murray (3.01) and Tommy Genuario (3.14) offers a chance to compensate. Their roster is largely unchanged from last year, but Owens’s leadership may change things for the better, albeit probably only slightly.
Player to watch: junior shortstop Danny DiGeorgio
After missing last spring on account of a torn ACL, DiGeorgio will return some necessary hitting and fielding power to Rutgers’ lineup.
Michigan State (9-6)
The Spartans are motivated for a bounce back to relevance this season. Entering April of last year almost bottomed out at 4-20, Michigan State rallied to play above .500 for the rest of the season and finish 20-34. So far, it appears such a bounceback might be possible. The Spartans have a decent record and have seen useful improvements on the mound. A Big Ten Tournament berth is possible if not likely, but their gains will still be tempered.
Players to watch: senior infielder and outfielder Bailey Peterson and junior centerfielder Danny Gleaves
Gleaves’s season-ending knee injury last year put a damper on the Spartans early in the season and his return adds a fast presence to their lineup. Peterson has posted a .464 batting average so far this season and helped Michigan State’s offense catch up to its pitching staff.
The Boilermakers fared a little better than Penn State with a 7-16 conference record last season. It was a far cry from their NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018. New coach Greg Goff has rejiggered the team’s schedule and approach in hope of a more aggressive offensive presence.
Player to watch: junior outfielder Ben Nisle
Nisle has returned from his difficult back injury last season to lead the team in batting average so far. He has attained 14 runs and a .313 batting average so far.
Penn State (10-4)
Big Ten play proved to be the Nittany Lions’ foil in their last-place 2019 season. They entered conference play with a 13-3 record and ended the season 22-27 with just four wins against Big Ten teams. It was a continuation of a frustrating trend: The team has gone 11-59 in the conference the last three years. They now have to work without their best hitter and ace pitcher without clear replacements. But they have shown offensive power in their early games that suggests at least a modest improvement might be in the cards.
Player to watch: sophomore third baseman Justin Williams
Williams’s freshman season was a bright spot for Penn State and he was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. He is a staple at the plate as well as at third base.