Snow and baseball are not two things that people commonly associate with one another, but that’s typical in the world of Big Ten baseball. It is difficult for the conference to reach a level of national success when many of its schools still have weather below freezing in mid-March. Despite this, the Big Ten is coming off a season in which five conference teams made the NCAA Tournament — tied for a conference record — and an impressive 35 combined players were drafted. The Big Ten has developed into one of the better leagues in the nation, and looks poised to continue its recent success in the upcoming season.
Michigan (4-11) has kept up with the rest of the conference in recent years and has positioned itself near the top, though early returns hint that this year may be different. This season, like last, the Wolverines should see a plethora of tough conference competition, highlighted by defending Big Ten regular season champion Nebraska, defending Big Ten Tournament-champion Iowa and NCAA Tournament-participant Indiana.
Nebraska: Last season: (16-7-1, 35-22-1) This Season: (0-0, 10-7)
Following their Big Ten regular season championship — and a season that would ultimately end with a defeat in the first round of the tournament — 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year Darin Erstad and Nebraska look to bounce back from a disappointing end to the season. Following last year’s campaign, the Cornhuskers return all but seven players, including All-Big Ten First Team senior outfielder Scott Schreiber and All-Big Ten Third Team shortstop Angelo Altavilla. Erstad will rely on Schreiber and Altavilla to carry the offensive load come conference play. Schreiber, after hitting .330/.376/.494 last year, has followed up with another stellar season thus far, hitting .348/.436/.606. Altavilla, on the other hand, who posted a .316/.401/.406 stat line last year, has struggled at the plate, hitting only .246/.421/.298. The rest of the team has also struggled to hit the ball, as the team’s average is just .258 thus far, compared to last year’s team average of .281.
On the mound last season, Nebraska had the Big Ten’s second-lowest team earned-run averaged at 3.73, but lost its top two starting pitchers to the draft. This season, the Cornhuskers have registered a significantly worse team ERA of 4.92, good for fifth highest in the conference. Redshirt junior Jake McSteen, who recorded a 2.04 ERA in 39.2 innings of relief for Nebraska last season, has struggled with his transition to starter, posting a 6.00 ERA thus far. Senior Luis Alvarado, on the other hand, has excelled as the Cornhuskers’ top starting pitcher with a 2.70 ERA in 23.1 innings. If last year is any indication, this Nebraska team could become very dangerous if they can find their groove come Big Ten play. But for now, they are playing at just above .500 and have had their share of struggles.
Iowa: Last season: (15-9, 39-22) This Season: (0-0, 8-6)
After a good but not great regular season, Iowa entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 5 seed. Led by the Big Ten Player of the Year, All-American first baseman Jake Adams, the Hawkeyes scraped their way to an unlikely Big Ten Tournament championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. Adams and his impressive .335/.417/.747 stat line, 29 homers and 71 RBIs, as well as All-Big Ten Second Team shortstop Mason McCoy are gone, and Iowa has had to look for offensive production and leadership elsewhere. Junior outfielder Robert Neustrom (.321/.403/.415) and senior catcher Tyler Cropley (.300/.417/.420), both All-Big Ten Second Team selections last year, have stepped up to the challenge. Iowa, however, has not seen the same offensive success it saw last season overall. The team is hitting just .248 this season, as opposed to .284 last year. Iowa has salvaged a meager 8-6 record so far. It has remained above .500 due in large part to a weak schedule, playing only five games against over .500 teams, winning none of those contests.
The Hawkeyes’ pitching has been a different story from their hitting, taking full advantage of the weak offensive competition. Despite losing All-Big Ten Second Team pitcher Nick Gallagher to the draft, redshirt junior Nick Allgeyer — who has 24 strikeouts and a 1.82 ERA in four starts — and the rest of the roation have combined for the fifth-best team ERA in the Big Ten (4.20). While Iowa has players who can continue to produce all season, the team’s lack of success against above-average competition and offensive struggles signal red flags for the team heading into conference play. Repeating the success they saw last year seems unlikely, but still possible, at this point.
Indiana: Last season: (14-9-1, 34-24-2) This Season: (0-0, 12-4)
After placing a disappointing sixth in Big Ten play last season despite being showered with praise, Indiana, the only Big Ten team currently ranked, has made the NCAA Tournament in four of the past five years and is poised to further its recent success this season. Despite losing their top hitter from last season, Tony Butler (.314/.418/.454), the Hoosiers have started the season strong, holding the conference’s best record. Senior All-Big Ten Second Team outfielder Logan Sowers (.333/.413/.537) decided to return to school for his final season and has stepped into the role as team leader, helping Indiana obtain the fifth-best team batting average in the Big Ten at .275 thus far. Unlike other most other teams in the Big Ten, Indiana’s offensive focus is more on the big hit as opposed to stringing together multiple singles; it is second in the conference in both home runs (15) and doubles (38).
While the offense has been good for the Hoosiers, their true calling card is their pitching. With a miniscule 2.92 team ERA, Indiana’s pitching leads the Big Ten in ERA by nearly 0.3 points. All-Big Ten Third Team pitcher Pauly Milto has a 2.36 ERA in four starts to go along with a batting average against of only .216. All-Big Ten Freshman Team pitcher Cal Krueger has been dominant in his sophomore campaign, not allowing a single run thus far in 11 innings of relief. Indiana’s hot start does not appear to be cooling off anytime soon, and the Hoosiers should be successful in Big Ten play this year. They are serious contenders, if not favorites, to win the Big Ten title.