The Big Ten Tournament begins Wednesday in a winner takes all double-elimination weekend. The winner goes to the NCAA Tournament, the other 5 teams go home.
This season has been by far the craziest Big Ten regular season in quite some time. Just two weeks ago, all 10 teams were within just 2 games of each other. Things shook out over the last week of the season, seeing preseason Omaha dark horse Ohio State dropping completely out of the Big Ten Tournament picture, and perennial bottom dwellers Iowa and Northwestern led some spectacular last week surges to secure their spots.
Being a 6-team tournament, two teams have byes. The regular season champion Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-9 in conference) won the title outright this past weekend, taking 2 of 3 from Ohio State. They will play the lowest seed winner advancing from Wednesday’s games. The second bye went to Michigan (14-10 in conference), and they’ll play the highest seed of the Wednesday winners.
The Golden Gophers were preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, but youth and experience caught them early. They went only 9-15 before the conference season started up, losing some extremely embarrassing games along the way. Things did get better come Big Ten time, as the starting rotation finally reached stride.
The Gopher starting three is easily the best of the Big Ten, anchored by junior right hander Seth Rosin. Rosin may not have had his best year on the mound, but his leadership was invaluable as the Gophers broke in two new weekend starters this season in junior lefty Phil Isaksson, who had the best statistical year for the Gophers, and freshman righty T.J. Oakes.
Offensively, the Gophers definitely have enough to get by. Their .303 batting average was just above average in the Big Ten this year, and they have two of the better hitters in the league with OF/C Michael Kvasnicka and 1B Nick O’Shea. Both have had what could be called down years, but both are hitting over .340 on the season with 7 and 13 home runs respectively.
The Wolverines had a huge set back to start the season when Preseason All American Ryan LaMarre suffered a fractured thumb at Texas Tech. The offense went ice cold for the following three weeks before some sort of semblance began to emerge.
That semblance was on the shoulders of team captains Chris Berset and Mike Dufek. Berset, a Johnny Bench semi-finalist, was hitting over .400 for most of the season, but has finished the year at .377, 7 homers, 49 runs, and 49 RBI. Dufek has been the silent leader. Following his break out junior season to lead the conference in home runs, he’s relied more on the double this season, racking up 51 RBI on 19 doubles and only 6 homers.
With LaMarre back, the offense has been on quite a pace, mounting tremendous comebacks, such as the 14 run comeback that graced ESPN just over a week ago.
But, as any 14 run comeback would suggest, the Michigan pitching staff hasn’t been there all season. Despite stellar work during LaMarre’s absence, since his return, several players have been wildly inconsistent. Michigan lacks a true ace, but throws Alan Oaks as their #1. After that, Michigan has a ton of more than capable arms, just none that have been 100% dependable. Even junior closer Tyler Burgoon is showing signs of fatigue, blowing two games late out of the last 3 weekends.
There was a time during last off season that the Big Ten bloggers that be were feeling pretty high on Northwestern. Despite their abysmal offense the previous year, and losing one of the top weekend starters, the Wildcats returned a few starters that showed a lot of promise.
When the season started, that promise was no where to be found. The Wildcats started the season 6-18, dropping their RPI into the 210 range. From there, their starting rotation, much like Minnesota’s, came together nicely. Not only did they return their ace in Eric Jokisch, but they were pleasantly surprised with the control of Francis Brooke. Brooke finished the season with only 7 walks in 87.1 innings pitched, going 5-4 in 12 starts. Not bad for Northwestern.
The big player on the Wildcats is definitely Paul Snieder. Snieder is the every day first baseman who finished second on the team with a .359 batting average and 7 homer runs, including the 3 run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth last weekend to beat Michigan State 8-6. Snieder is also the teams closer with 12 saves in 25 appearances on the season. His ERA is just 1.79 in his 40.1 innings.
The big surprise in this year’s tournament field has to be the Hawkeyes. Despite some early season struggles, they held the Big Ten’s best win for quite some time with a win over then ranked Kansas in Manhattan. Even their losses were better than some teams, as they took Texas to the brink in an extra inning game in Austin.
The Hawkeyes have a trio of sophomores in their starting rotation lead by Jarred Hippen. Hippen may be the best left handed starter in the league, but the victim of poor run support. It was Hippen who threw the first 8.1 innings of that Texas game, spreading just 5 hits and giving up a lone run. In 14 starts (statistically a 15th that rained out before he threw a pitch), he owns a 3.62 ERA and a 5-4 record. Behind Hippen, Nick Brown and Phil Schrieber are decent pitchers, but aren’t tremendous.
It wasn’t pitching that got Iowa into the tournament anyway. In their weekend sweep of then second place Purdue, the Hawkeyes capitalized on the hot bat of leadoff hitter Kurtis Muller. The junior centerfielder currently sports a .384 batting average with 49 runs scored and 24 steals. Last weekend, he hit .714 with a 2.000 OPS, driving in 6 runs and scoring 5.
The Boilermakers have to be the biggest disappointment over the last week. With a solid chance of earning a bye, Purdue gave all three games away to Iowa and fell to 5th place.
The Boilermakers have one of the few candidates to really set themselves apart in the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year race in Matt Bischoff. The senior righty went 9-2 on the season with a 3.45 ERA, posting 87 strikeouts in 86 innings pitched. Behind him, Matt Morgan and Drew Wurdack really finished the season nicely, but if this last weekend showed anything, they aren’t quite ready for the big time.
At the plate, the Boilermakers aren’t a very imposing team at first glance, but several batters are having great years. Freshman catcher Kevin Plawecki is the leading hitter with a .335 batting average with 8 homers and 44 RBI, and his defense has really sold over the pitching staff. Senior short stop Nick Overmyer leads all Big Ten short stops with a .333 batting average.
The Hoosiers have by far the most potent offense in the Big Ten, with the centerpiece of the team being Big Ten Triple Crown winner Alex Dickerson. The sophomore hit .415 with 73 RBI and 23 home runs on the season, which has him as what one must assume is a lock for Big Ten Player of the Year.
To make opposing pitchers that much more worried, hitting in front of Dickerson is another of the Big Ten’s most feared bats in Jerrud Sabourin. Sabourin owns a .410 batting average with 53 runs and 44 RBI on the season. Early in the season when Dickerson was "struggling" with a batting average in the .370s, Sabourin was mashing around the .420 range.
On the mound, Indiana has one great starter and one great reliever. The starter is Drew Leininger, a sophomore lefty out of California. Leininger is 8-3 on the season with a 4.45 ERA. He started the year on fire, with an ERA around 1.00 into the Big Ten season, but he’s cooled somewhat lately.
The primary reliever for the Hoosiers is Chris Squires. Squires has been one of the better relievers in the Big Ten for the last few years, but this season, he’s lost a lot of the buzz around him. In his 30 appearances, he’s accumulated a 5-3 record with 9 saves. Part of the loss of the buzz is the higher work load (52.1 innings) leading to quite a few more walks (25). His strikeout totals are still impressive with 64, but his 1.64 WHIP has been costing him dearly.
Things to Watch on Wednesday
With the entire tournament being broadcast live on the Big Ten Network, there’s plenty to see from Big Ten country. Things start off big with a rematch from this weekend against Iowa and Purdue. Iowa’s Hippen threw a complete game victory against Purdue’s Bischoff and Purdue will be looking for revenge. Hippen worked quite a bit last week, so if he tires quickly, it could be a trip to the loser’s bracket for the Hawkeyes.
In the second game, Northwestern will be looking to carry it’s late inning dramatics against the big hitting Hoosiers. The Wildcats will have the luxury of throwing the lefty Jokisch against a very left handed heavy Hoosiers team, something that helped quite a bit in their season series. Jokisch pitched the lone win for Northwestern in the series, and spread just 8 hits over the complete game 11-4 victory.