Last year, the Michigan baseball team had an impressive start to the season and was pegged to finish high in the Big Ten. But by the end of the 2015-16 campaign, the Wolverines hopes of the postseason quickly vanished after dropping nine of their last 11 games.
This year, Michigan has had much of the same start to its season as last year. Now, it is eager to erase the sting of barely missing out on the NCAA Tournament and has made a point to rest key players when the opportunity arises. But with the Wolverines entering the heart of the Big Ten season, they will need to focus on staying consistent all season.
In the preseason coach’s poll, Maryland was selected to finish atop the Big Ten with Michigan following right behind – a matchup fans didn’t have to wait long to see.
The Wolverines opened Big Ten play against the Terrapins last weekend, wrecking a sweep for Maryland by taking Sunday’s game in College Park.
Despite Michigan’s impressive season thus far, coach Erik Bakich doesn’t care about preseason rankings or even in-season rankings. All that matters to him is the result at the end of the year.
For those who want a glimpse at what the end of the season could hold, the Daily breaks down the teams that will compete against the Wolverines for the Big Ten title.
Michigan State (3-0 Big Ten, 15-6 overall)
Fresh off one of its best seasons in program history, Michigan State improved one spot from last year’s preseason poll, moving into the fifth slot. The Spartans shine the brightest on offense, leading the Big Ten in team batting average with .303 and hits with 233. Michigan State currently has nine batters batting over .300, with its most consistent threat being sophomore infielder Marty Bechina. Bechina is batting .338 and has started every game this season.
The Spartans nearly lost four players to the MLB draft, but senior catcher Matt Byars decided to remain in East Lansing and finish his college career. Byars appeared in all but one game for Michigan State last year and finished the season batting .284 with 26 RBI — a feat he is well on his way to achieving again this year with a .254 batting average and 11 RBI.
The Spartans ended their season in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State in extra innings, a loss it is sure to try and redeem this year.
Indiana (3-0, 14-9-1)
The Hoosiers are sitting comfortably in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. They were picked to finish fourth in the conference, and their season is shaping up to follow suit.
While Indiana is strong offensively, its pitching may cost it some games down the stretch. Its regular starters on the mound include junior right-hander Brian Hobbie, sophomore left-hander Tim Herrin and freshman left-hander Andrew Saalfrank, each with a 4.50, 4.97 and 6.08 ERA, respectively.
The Hoosiers’ pitching staff allows a lot of hits and cannot counteract that with many strikeouts. The trio of starters has just 53 strikeouts on the year. For comparison, Michigan’s junior left-hander Oliver Jaskie has 42 alone.
Fortunately for Indiana, it returned its offensive most valuable player in Craig Dedelow, who decided to stay with the Hoosiers even after being drafted in the 34th round.
Indiana will host the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season, but if it cannot strengthen itself on the bump, the Hoosiers may be looking at a worse finish than fourth place.
Maryland (2-1, 15-8)
Picked to finish first in the Big Ten and taking two out of three games against Michigan was a promising start to the Terrapins’ conference campaign.
Junior right-hander Brian Shaffer currently has the most impressive statistics in the Big Ten. He leads the conference with a 1.77 ERA and has 48 strikeouts on the year. His teammate, freshman right-hander Tyler Blohm, also joins him near the top of the Big Ten, currently boasting a 2.86 ERA.
The pair has already received Big Ten honors, with Shaffer taking home Pitcher of the Week and Blohm sharing the Co-Freshman of the Week two weeks in a row.
Shaffer was dominant against the Wolverines, pitching 8.0 innings and allowing just five hits and two runs.
Two players were added to the Preseason Honors list, including sophomore outfielder Marty Costes. He leads the Terrapins with a .359 batting average, 33 hits and 15 RBI. Costes has only improved since his 2015-16 campaign in which he batted .263 and led his team with 37 RBI. As a sophomore, he still has plenty of time to make his mark for Maryland.
Minnesota (3-0, 15-8)
Minnesota boasts the best two hitters in the conference in redshirt freshman infielder Jordan Kozicky and junior infielder Luke Petterson, hitting .400 and .397, respectively, and the rest of the Golden Gophers’ lineup isn’t far behind.
Minnesota currently sits second in the Big Ten after a sweep of Northwestern, and if the Golden Gophers can use the momentum from the top of their batting order to propel the offense, they may be able to remain in the upper-half of the standings.
Iowa (2-1, 14-9)
The Hawkeyes have some powerful hitters and a strong veteran squad leading them this season. Senior infielder Mason McCoy earned Big Ten Conference Player of the Week recently after hitting .438 and picking up six RBI over four games. McCoy and his teammate junior first baseman Jake Adams trade off leading the conference in offensive statistics.
McCoy leads the Big Ten in runs (26) and doubles (9), while Adams takes the top slot in RBI (31) and home runs (9).
At the beginning of the season, the focus for Iowa was on strong pitching and defense, but it has been in the box where the Hawkeyes have excelled — ranked second in the conference for team batting average with .286.
While Iowa’s pitching hasn’t been as stellar as anticipated, it has a deep staff that could easily pick up as the conference schedule gets going.
Nebraska (0-0, 13-10)
A trio of sophomore infielder Angelo Antavilla, freshman outfielder Mojo Hagge and junior outfielder Scott Schreiber make up the majority of Nebraska’s offense. They are currently batting .366, .333 and .326, respectively, and combine for 46 of the Cornhuskers’ 98 RBI.
Nebraska also possesses dual threats on both sides of the ball with juniors Luis Alvardo and left-hander Jake Meyers. Meyers has a .280 batting average, but also posts a 2.01 ERA and is 4-1 on the season, while Alvardo bats .270 but also records a 3.00 ERA.
The use of players on both sides of the ball allows them to gauge the strike zone better, allowing them to pitch in the zone and know when to hit.
With three well-established players on offense, the improvement of Meyers and Alvardo throughout the season will bring much-needed depth to the Cornhuskers’ lineup.
Nebraska has seven consistent starters, but otherwise often rotate the rest of its roster into the game, providing experience that could be crucial late in the Big Ten season.
Ohio State (0-3, 10-14)
Ohio State isn’t just responsible for ending the Spartans’ 2016 season, but the Buckeyes also defeated Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament last year, a loss that played an important role in the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The Buckeyes went on to clinch the Big Ten title, but this season, a championship may not be in Ohio State’s grasp.
The loss of 13 players, to the MLB Draft and graduation leaves the Buckeyes in a rebuilding year. Ohio State sits nearly last in the Big Ten in team batting average (.240) and in fielding percentage (.960).
The Buckeyes were forced to replace their entire starting infield as well, creating spots that their 17 newcomers would surely be glad to fill.
Still, Ohio State’s biggest strength is on the bump, but it sits in eighth place in the Big Ten.
Senior right-hander Jake Post has made the most appearances for the Buckeyes, but is just 1-1 on the year. Ohio State’s best reliever is redshirt junior right-hander Austin Woodby, who has a 2.45 ERA and is 2-0.
The Buckeyes began last season outside of the preseason poll, just as they did this year, but finished the season on top — proving that Ohio State can’t be counted out.
Purdue (1-2, 13-11)
While the Boilermakers currently sit in the middle of the Big Ten, they have made headlines through junior right-hander Tanner Andrews. He has already won Big Ten Pitcher of the Week twice and has a 3.55 ERA.
Purdue is fresh off a loss to Valparaiso where the pitching staff earned 13 strikeouts, but the offense couldn’t support them as they fell, 5-1.
The midweek game may not have brought the confidence the Boilermakers were hoping for, especially as they enter a weekend series against defending Big Ten champions Ohio State.
Penn State (0-0, 10-13)
The Nittany Lions will open their conference slate in Ann Arbor this weekend, and while their season has been relatively mediocre, senior catcher Alex Malinsky is back in the lineup and may provide the spark that Penn State needs.
Malinsky missed the beginning of the season after he took a ball off his face in practice, but since returning to his team he has wasted no time. Though he’s only had seven at bats, Malinsky’s hitting .429 and has a .714 slugging percentage. His injury has not slowed him down, an attitude that the Nittany Lions may need as they continue the rest of the season.