What's at stake in the final weekend of the Big Ten baseball season
If free-for-alls are your thing, then the final weekend of the Big Ten baseball regular season is going to be right up your alley.
With 3 games left, there are 6 teams with a mathematical chance of winning the regular-season title and earning the No. 1 seed in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Omaha.
And just in case that isn’t spicy enough, none of those 6 teams face each other. Additionally, all 6 are on the road. We aren’t good enough at math to decipher whether this means the possibilities are literally endless, but there are a lot of them.
There’s also a significant race at the other end of the standings as only 8 teams reach the conference tournament.
Illinois, which already completed league play, seems safe as the No. 7 seed with a 12-12 mark in Big Ten games. But Michigan State and Purdue are tied for the 8th and final spot at 10-11 with 8-13 Minnesota still harboring hopes of getting in if it can sweep Rutgers and get some help.
In the NCAA Tournament picture, 3 B1G teams are considered safely in the field: Maryland, Indiana and Iowa. However, a bad weekend could push the Hoosiers or Hawkeyes toward the bubble.
On an individual level, the race for Big Ten player of the year feels fairly wide-open. The final series could be a difference-maker for a field of 5 legit candidates.
And though the pitcher of the year race feels closer to a done deal, there are a handful of pitchers who may take advantage of their final chance to turn some heads.
B1G title contenders
Maryland (15-6 in B1G, 35-18 overall)
Schedule: at Penn State (Thursday-Saturday)
The Terrapins are in the catbird seat for the No. 1 tournament seed thanks to their series win against Indiana. It doesn’t hurt that Maryland faces Penn State, which enters the final weekend on a 7-game losing streak and has already been eliminated from the conference tournament picture.
Maryland, which is ranked No. 23 nationally by Baseball America and is in line to host an NCAA Tournament regional, can’t afford to stumble against the Nittany Lions.
Indiana (15-6 in B1G, 38-14 overall)
Schedule: at Michigan State (Thursday-Saturday)
The Hoosiers will be tested against a Michigan State team hungry to make its first Big Ten Tournament appearance since 2018. The Spartans, led by B1G Player of the Year candidate Brock Vradenburg (.419/13/64), are capable of making a run in the tourney if they can just get there.
And given that Michigan State is a potential first-round opponent, Indiana would probably be happy to keep Sparty home.
Iowa (13-7 in B1G, 37-12 overall)
Schedule: at Northwestern (Thursday-Saturday)
The lowly Wildcats are 8-38, making them among the worst teams in all of Division I. Joe Girardi is not walking through that door.
With a sweep very much in play, the Hawkeyes could sneak their way to the title if Maryland or Indiana slip up. But due to a previous rainout against Penn State, Iowa could also finish a tragic half-game out of first.
Rutgers (13-8 in B1G, 32-19 overall)
Schedule: At Minnesota (Thursday-Saturday)
Snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last year, the Scarlet Knights will need to sweep this series and have a good week in Omaha if they’re to earn an at-large bid this year. Their RPI is No. 50. Last year, Rutgers climbed inside the top 40 but still didn’t make it. Rutgers is no doubt more focused on piling up wins than potentially earning some hardware.
Nebraska (13-8 in B1G, 29-20-1 overall)
Schedule: At Purdue (Thursday-Saturday)
There was quite a furor last year when Purdue called off its final game of the year due to a stormy forecast, which put the Boilermakers in the Big Ten Tourney ahead of Nebraska.
This year, the Cornhuskers can return the favor by keeping the Boilers out of this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan (13-8 in B1G, 26-23 overall)
Schedule: At Ohio State (Thursday-Saturday)
The Wolverines need to win the Big Ten Tournament if they are going to reach an NCAA regional for the 4th straight time. A series sweep over the Buckeyes might help Michigan earn a more favorable draw in that event. And if enough crazy things happen, even the top seed.
B1G Player of the Year candidates
- Brock Vradenburg, 1B, Michigan State: .419, 13 HR, 64 RBI
- Max Anderson, 2B, Nebraska: .409, 19 HR, 65 RBI
- Nick Lorusso, 3B, Maryland: .376, 21 HR, 90 RBI
- Matt Shaw, SS, Maryland: .362, 23 HR, 64 RBI, 17/18 SB attempts
- Brice Matthews, SS, Nebraska: .380, 20 HR, 65 RBI, 19/26 SB attempts
Vradenburg certainly looks like the man to beat, but will coaches be reticent to reward him if Michigan State doesn’t reach the conference tournament? We’ve seen Big Ten coaches apply that brand of logic in other sports when making all-conference picks.
And it’s not as if Vradenburg has a commanding lead in this compelling race.
Maryland stars Lorusso and Shaw benefit from the shorter fences at their home park, which is reflected in their power numbers. But the presence of each other makes their accomplishments all the more impressive.
Lorusso’s 90 RBI lead the nation and are 25 more than any other Big Ten player. And he’s done that despite batting behind Shaw in the Maryland batting order. Shaw robbed Lorusso of dozens of additional RBI opportunities thanks to his league-leading 23 home runs.
Shaw’s 17 stolen bases in 18 attempts are an additional argument in his favor. Maryland may have shorter fences than most parks, but it’s still 90 feet between bags.
Nebraska’s middle infield duo of Anderson and Matthews is similarly impressive. Anderson enters the final weekend behind only Vradenburg in batting average and slugging percentage. Matthews is second to Vradenburg in OPS while hitting the most homers of any non-Terrapin.
The final weekend could put the winner over the top in a very tight competition.
B1G pitcher of the year candidates
- Connor O’Halloran, Michigan: 8-4, 92.2 IP, 3.30 ERA, 98 K, 22 BB, .211 BA allowed
- Christian Coppola, Rutgers: 5-4, 58 IP, 3.10 ERA, 67 K, 20 BB, .229 BA allowed
- Jack Wenninger, Illinois: 6-3, 71 IP, 4.69 ERA, 70 K, 26 BB, .214 BA allowed
- Luke Sinnard, Indiana: 6-2, 72.2 IP, 4.21 ERA, 94 K, 21 BB, .245 BA allowed
- Emmett Olson, Nebraska: 6-3, 73.1 IP, 4.42 ERA, 74 K, 29 BB, .219 BA allowed
- Brody Brecht, Iowa: 4-2, 59.1 IP, 4.1 ERA, 87 K, 53 BB, .149 BA allowed
Barring a complete blowup against Ohio State, this award should be in the bag for O’Halloran.
The Canadian lefty is the workhorse of the entire Big Ten. He’s thrown 15 2/3 innings more than any other B1G pitcher despite having the same number of starts (13) as every other ace. And with 98 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings, it’s not as if he’s relying on his defense to get all the outs.
That said, he’s not the only good arm in the Big Ten.
In terms of pure stuff, Iowa’s Brecht is the pitcher who most intrigues big league scouts.
Brecht is averaging a preposterous 13.2 strikeouts per 9 innings, and opponents are hitting a meager .149 against him. But severe control issues — 53 walks — have limited Brecht to 59 1/3 innings and will likely take him out of pitcher of the year consideration.