The 2016 Michigan baseball team has all the makings of a perfect storm.
It’s just the fourth year under Michigan coach Erik Bakich and his staff, but it’s shaping up to be one of the most successful yet, after the best season start since 2009 with five straight wins.
The 2015 Michigan team went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. Though the Wolverines lost at the NCAA Regionals, this year could potentially see national play beyond that point.
Michigan will be playing its home opener this weekend against Illinois-Chicago. The team’s first conference matchup won’t be until next Friday against Northwestern.
At the start of the 2016 season, Michigan was picked by a committee of conference coaches as the favorite to win the Big Ten Championship. This prediction could play out well for the Wolverines, who were the only nationally ranked team in the conference.
But, Michigan State has started to show signs of a greater opponent in the making than initially projected. The Wolverines’ rivals even managed to snag the No. 23 slot in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll recently — one rank ahead of Michigan. However, as of March 21, both the Wolverines and the Spartans have dropped off the top-25 list.
The Wolverines have a strong pitching staff — sophomore left-hander Oliver Jaskie has won Big Ten Pitcher of the Week twice and junior left-hander Brett Adcock has won it once — and show strong defense highlighted by sophomore infielder Jake Bivens, junior catcher Harrison Wenson and senior outfielder Cody Bruder.
Despite much speculation about where the season will bring Michigan, Bakich and his players seem unconcerned about future conference games, citing focus on improving by one percent each day instead. The culture that Bakich has built within the team takes the day-by-day approach to the extreme, and so far, it has been paying off. During Bakich’s tenure, the team has steadily outperformed themselves each year.
But for those who are eager for a look at what lies ahead, the Daily breaks down the teams that will compete for the coveted Big Ten title.
Michigan State (15-3)
Michigan State — ranked sixth in the Big Ten preseason polling — has started to shed its historic underdog coat and make significant program strides. This year, the team was ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1988 by Baseball America. To start off the season, the Spartans had a hot start with a 14-win streak, the best in program history.
The Spartans are currently the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in the country for both batting averages (.333) and earned-run average (2.28), good for sixth and eighth, respectively.
Despite averaging 7.1 runs per game and allowing just 16 earned runs in 55 innings, the team managed to rebound off a losing streak that might be the difference in beating out the Wolverines for the top spot in the conference. Their first contest will be Friday, April 29.
Michigan State has the third- and fourth-best players in the conference in junior infielders Dan Durkin and Jordan Zimmerman, respectively. Durkin has a .421 batting average and, like Zimmerman, has started all 17 games this season. Zimmerman boasts a .418 batting average and is in his first season with the Spartans after transferring from Mesa Community College.
Michigan State did not earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the 2015 season, nor did it advance past the third round of the Big Ten Tournament.
This year, the Spartans don’t look like they’ll let that happen again.
Ohio State (12-6-1)
The Buckeyes are on a four-game winning streak heading into conference play, led by senior infielder Nick Sergakis, who ranks fifth in Big Ten with a .419 batting average. Sergakis will be a player to look out for when he’s on the basepaths as he’s scored in all 19 games.
One player does not a great team make, as the Buckeyes didn’t even make it onto any preseason polls. The 2015 Ohio State team couldn’t make it out of the second round of Big Ten Tournament play and lost in the NCAA regionals.
The 2016 Ohio State team has one of the largest senior classes with a total of 10 players — the majority were starters or key reserves on the 2015 team. The experience and maturity on the team will definitely help the Buckeyes, but won’t guarantee them a strong season finish.
The team is in the top five for many Big Ten offensive statistics, including first in home runs — 21 in 19 games so far — and runs batted in.
The Huskers finished the 2015 season without an NCAA bid and just scraped out of the first round of Big Ten Tournament before losing quickly in the second.
Nebraska hasn’t made any national polls, but might have an ace up its sleeve with left-hander Ben Miller or left-hander Jake Meyers. The junior and sophomore, respectively, have led the Huskers on a four-game winning streak and don’t show signs of slowing down. Nebraska potentially could be a formidable opponent for Michigan.
Minnesota has the two top individual players for batting averages in the Big Ten, but hasn’t showed signs of improving its win percentage. At the top are junior pitcher and outfielder Matt Fiedler (.443) followed by his classmate catcher Austin Athmann (.434).
The Golden Gophers failed to enter the 2015 NCAA Tournament and the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota is on a losing streak and doesn’t seem to be picking up momentum on its defensive end.
While under Bakich’s reign, the Terrapin program was highly regarded for bringing in the top recruiting classes in the nation. Since Bakich left, the team has managed to keep afloat despite some trouble with consistency. The 2015 Maryland squad advanced to the Super Regionals in the NCAA Tournament.
More importantly, the Terrapins faced Michigan in the final game of the 2015 Big Ten Tournament before succumbing to defeat. They were ranked just behind Michigan in preseason polls and should be one of the Wolverines’ top competitors if Maryland’s winning streak continues.
The team eventually finished fourth in the conference and is returning four starters, three standout starter pitchers and three relief pitchers. The Terrapins lost their key catcher, Kevin Martir, who boasted a .342 batting average, seven home runs and 45 RBIs.
Players to look out for include first-team All American junior pitcher Mike Shawaryn and sophomore infielder Kevin Smith. Shawaryn, in particular, is considered one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers have earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive years and are hoping to make it four. The key to the program is junior left-hander Kyle Hart, who led the 2015 team with a 1.21 earned-run average.
Preseason polls put Indiana third in the Big Ten, so these next few weeks will be crucial if the Hoosiers want to live up to expectations.
Illinois was ranked fifth in preseason polls by the Big Ten after a disappointing end to the 2015 season. Though the Illini posted a school-record 50 wins, the team couldn’t push past the NCAA Super Regionals and lost in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
This year, the loss of multiple key players seems to be hurting Illinois. The team’s best player is senior catcher Jason Goldstein. According to Perfect Game, the MLB draft prospect is the No. 11 catcher in the nation and No. 12 senior.
However, even Goldstein is batting just .370.
Penn State (8-10)
The Nittany Lions boasted the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week following their home opener. Infielder Willie Burger is just one of many freshman on the underclassman-dominated team.
The lack of experience might hurt Penn State, but its current three-game winning streak might put the Nittany Lions on a much-needed upward trajectory.
Rutgers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament or the Big Ten Tournament last year. Unfortunately for the program, it doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact this year either.
The Scarlet Knights might have their own knight in shining armor with senior catcher R.J. Devish, who is currently batting .404, How effective he is at leading the offense, however, remains to be seen.
The 2015 Hawkeye season was the best they’ve had in 25 years after a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Iowa finished second in the conference with an overall record of 41-18.
The team returns two of its three starting pitchers, but doesn’t seem to be off to the best start. Senior infielder Nick Roscetti holds the team’s best batting average of .405.
Unless the Hawkeyes turn their game around, they won’t only go from having one of their best years to one of their worst, but they’ll also struggle to be a contender in the Big Ten Tournament.
Northwestern didn’t have much to live up to according to preseason polls, and its performance seems to be fulfilling that prediction. The Wildcats are on a five-game losing streak and don’t seem to be in any position to improve.
One key player is left-hander and outfielder Matt Hopfner, whose batting average is .405. But unless the rest of his team starts to work on its offensive end, the Wildcats won’t make a splash in conference play.
The Boilermakers finished last in the league in 2015 and didn’t miss a beat going into the 2016 season. The only thing going for Purdue is the return of most of its roster, but even that seems insignificant at this point.