In recent years, the Michigan baseball team has seen both highs and lows. Even with a record of 111-59 over the past three years, only two of those wins came in postseason games.
Last season, despite a thrilling 20-game win streak, the Wolverines were eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament with only one victory and failed to clinch an NCAA Tournament spot.
This inability to break through in the past, however, has motivated this year’s team to strive toward making a deep run in the postseason. With improved offensive strength and an ideal combination of youth and experience, expectations are high. And as of now No. 23 Michigan is the only ranked team in the conference. The Daily takes a look at the other teams in the Big Ten and those who could potentially pose a threat to the Wolverines.
After their euphoric 2018 season, the Golden Gophers placed first in the 2019 Big Ten preseason poll of conference coaches. Last year the team posted a 44-15 record, winning the Big Ten Tournament and advancing to NCAA Super Regionals. Despite those achievements, however, Minnesota has had a rocky start to its season, and it remains to be seen whether the Golden Gophers can reclaim last year’s magic.
Player to watch: Sophomore Outfielder/Right-hander Max Meyer
Meyer competed for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer, bringing his strengths as a two-way player. He boasts a .333 batting average and an equally strong 1.17 ERA so far.
Illinois has had a strong start to its season and has high expectations after making it to the semifinals in the Big Ten Tournament, just missing the NCAA Tournament field as the second team out. While they are reckoning with the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year Bren Spillane as well as reliable closer Joey Gerber, the future looks promising with a D1Baseball.com Top 25-ranked recruiting class. Keep an eye on the Fighting Illini.
Player to watch: Freshman Right-hander Aidan Maldonado
Maldonado –– ranked the No. 4 newcomer in the Big Ten by Baseball America and drafted in the 38th round of the 2018 MLB draft by the Milwaukee Brewers –– promises to deliver an impact on the mound but has yet to be heavily utilized by the team, with only eight innings pitched in five games.
The Hawkeyes, who were on the NCAA Tournament bubble last year, lost their top four hitters in the offseason. The team has endured significant losses since its 2017 run to NCAA Regionals, with only three offensive starters remaining from two years ago. The overhauled team has exhibited some strengths which were on display in its two wins against California State Northridge –– who bested the Wolverines during their swing through California earlier this month. But with so many key offensive players missing, Iowa will find it difficult to replicate what it’s done in the past.
Player to Watch: Junior Right-hander Grant Judkins
Judkins, with a 1.52 ERA, has had a strong season so far and was key in the Hawkeyes’ doubleheader victories over Cal State, even demonstrating an ability to contribute at the plate with a two-run double to win the second game.
Penn State (13-3)
The Nittany Lions posted an abysmal 15-34 record last season and an even worse Big Ten record. Their relatively strong start this year has thus been a pleasant surprise for a team almost completely excluded from preseason prognostications. The offseason saw a lot of turnover and the team has added seven freshmen, a sophomore and four upperclassmen transfers to the lineup, who the coaching staff hopes will shift things in another direction. Despite its strong start, resetting a team can be a long process, and Penn State likely poses little threat to the conference heavyweights.
Player to watch: Junior second baseman Gavin Homer
Homer, a transfer from Kellogg Community College and part of the team’s attempt to reinvigorate its offense, hit a .386 batting average last season and promises to add more offensive efficiency to the lineup.
The Hoosiers have only missed out on one NCAA Tournament berth over the six years since their College World Series appearance in 2013 and have been a consistent regional presence in the conference. Their performance so far this season –– the first under new manager Jeff Mercer –– however, has been anything but consistent. In the first 15 games of the season, Indiana had difficulty producing consistent pitching or hitting. Strikeouts also plagued the offense. Junior outfielder Matt Gorski was the only hitter making significant contributions.
Players to watch: Junior Outfielder Matt Gorski and Senior Right-hander Pauly Milto
Gorski, a Big Ten preseason honored player, has been moved into the leadoff spot thanks to his team-leading .329 batting average. Pauly Milto, meanwhile, has established himself as the team’s leading pitcher, and the team enters its first conference series against Iowa coming of a five-game win streak. Don’t count them out just yet.
After the Cornhuskers earned their first Big Ten title in 2017, their 2018 season with a 24-28 record was a disappointment stemming from injury problems within the pitching staff as well as offensive inconsistency. Having lost its two leading hitters, Chad Luensmann and Connor Curry, Nebraska will have to find a way to fill gaps in its offense. The Cornhuskers’ mixed record thus far indicates this will be a challenge.
Player to watch: Freshman Infielder/Right-hander Spencer Schwellenbach
Nebraska is fortunate to have Schwellenbach –– who turned down an opportunity to join the Cleveland Indians after being drafted in the 34th round. He has the team’s second highest batting average so far this year at .333.
Ohio State (10-10)
The Buckeyes had a strong 36-24 record last year, making it to the semifinals in the Big Ten Tournament and nabbing the at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. A return to play at home has helped Ohio State win three out of its last four games and perhaps gain momentum going into Big Ten play.
Player to watch: Freshman Third baseman Zach Dezenzo
Dezenzo was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday after four runs scored, three homers and five RBI last week alone. He has a .290 batting average so far.
The Boilermakers look to replicate last season’s success which brought them to second place in the Big Ten. That might be difficult, though, as Purdue has lost its two starters and main reliever since last season –– the team has shown it is quite prone to conceding runs in its 15 losses so far this year. The Boilermarkers are fortunate to return their two highest producers from last year, junior outfielder Skyler Hunter and sophomore outfielder Ben Nisle, but a turnaround will be needed soon to come anywhere close to last year’s excitement.
Player to watch: Junior Outfielder Skyler Hunter
Hunter, who was selected to the 2018 Big Ten All-Tournament Team, once again leads Purdue with a .323 average and consistency at the plate –– something sorely needed up and down the lineup. This is complemented by strong fielding, including 39 putouts so far this season.
After high hopes for last season and making NCAA Tournament appearances in the three preceding years, the Terrapins faltered and failed to even qualify for the Big Ten Tournament. Their four leading hitters must all now be replaced, hampering their hopes to return to postseason play. Maryland hopes some improvements to the pitching staff can even things out.
Player to watch: Senior Third baseman Taylor Wright
With more playing time, Wright could emerge as a key player in the offense with the loss of so many heavyweights in the offseason. His .289 batting average is the team’s second-highest so far this year.
The Wildcats finished last year with the second-worst record in the Big Ten. They risk slipping further after losing their leading hitter Jack Claeys. There are some new faces who could potentially catalyze the offense, but it looks unlikely that Northwestern will fully climb out of the trough in which it finds itself.
Player to watch: Freshman Infielder Shawn Goosenberg
Goosenberg is one of the Wildcats’ strongest recruits and has so far been consistent at the plate with a third-best .297 batting average.
In the four seasons Rutgers has spent in the Big Ten it has largely failed to break through. Last year it posted its fourth-consecutive losing conference record. One high note was improvement made on the mound, where it lowered its team ERA from 6.11 in 2017 to 4.82 in 2018. So far this year, however, the team’s ERA is back up to 6.16. The Scarlet Knights’ win over an offensively-strong Florida Gulf Coast shows some signs of promise which could bring them into the middle of the conference pack this year.
Player to Watch: Freshman Catcher Peter Serruto
Serruto was drafted by the Cinncinati Reds in the 22nd round of the 2018 draft and has so far lead the team with a .323 batting average.
Michigan State (3-15)
The Spartans have dropped every series they’ve played so far, both against powerhouses No. 17 Coastal Carolina and No. 15 Arizona State, as well as against mid-major opponents such as New Orleans. Their 7-1 win over Ohio State on March 9 showed some signs of promise with right-hander Mike Mokma allowing just one run throughout his complete game. But Michigan State’s offensive weaknesses and difficulty in scoring runs –– it scored one run or less in five games so far –– make any chances at a breakthrough seem unlikely.
Player to watch: SophomoreInfielder/outfielder Justin Antoncic
Antoncic, who stole 14 bases last year, is a dynamic part of the team’s lineup and currently has a .292 batting average.