Big Ten Conference Preview

Michigan the favorite in conference and perhaps Omaha


Feb. 13, 2008

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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Okay Big Ten, you're on the main stage now. You've got your common start date, you've got three bids to the NCAAs, you've got conference-wide facility upgrades, you've got a nationally ranked team in the preseason polls and you've brought a team to the brink of Omaha for the first time this millennium. With momentum coming out of the wazoo, what are you going to do now? We can't wait to find out. Readyyyyyy... action!

 


 
 

Favorite: Michigan

Contenders: Ohio State, Minnesota

Darkhorse: Penn State

 

Illinois (31-27, 16-14)

 

The Good News:

Things are looking up in Champaign. OF Daniel Webb (.332) and 2B Ryan Hastings (.332) are senior leaders and Infield studs Brandon Wikoff (.286) and Joe Bonadonna (.318) were both Northwood League All-Stars last summer. All four weekend starters return on the mound.

 

The Bad News:

Illinois got out to a rough 2-8 start and found it hard to gain traction in '07. The 6.46 team ERA can't happen again. Reliever Jake Toohey was the most effective pitcher and he's gone. The top three hitters, including Lars Davis (.400) are also gonzo.

 

The Intangible:

Sudden emphasis on the sport.

 

Illini Field received it's shipment of field turf as the new playing surface in the off-season. But also, Illini Field may soon be the home of a Frontier League baseball team. If that pulls through, look for even more big money upgrades to the stadium and to Illinois baseball in general.

 

Schedule Note:

The University of Texas at Champaign? The Illini will play their first 10 games of the season in the Lone Star State, including a four-game series at Texas Tech.

 

Indiana (19-35, 8-23)

 

The Good News:

Last May alone, Indiana beat both Louisville and Minnesota, proving they have some ability. Six starters are back including fleet-of-foot CF Andrew Means (.369, 27SBs) and SS Evan Crawford (.333, 18SBs). The two best pitchers return as well in Tyler Tufts (3-9, 4.21) and Matt Bashore (4-7, 4.33).

 

The Bad News:

The Hoosiers are becoming entrenched in the dungeon of the Big Ten, finishing in last place four straight years now. There's a power outage at IU as you'll note the Hoosiers hit more triples (9) than home runs (8) last year. Reliable pitching depth needs to be found.

 

The Intangible:

Instant influence.

 

The biggest buzz has been the influx of a pair of infield transfers Michael Earley, who hit .320 at Cincinnati, and Tyler Rogers, who hit .287 at Ball State. Both should be immediate impact players.

 

Schedule Note:

Starting out at LSU and at the Pepsi Johnny Quik Tournament in Fresno State is no small task. The Hoosiers also finish up league play with roadies to both Northwestern and Michigan State.

 

Iowa (31-23, 17-13)

 

The Good News:

Coach Jack Dahm has turned this program around, and it didn't take too long either. Nothing wrong with the offense as five .300+ hitters are back led by OF Caleb Curry (.354, 11SBs) and 2B Justin Toole (.367), both All-Big Ten types. The recruiting class has been well-lauded, Collegiate Baseball rated it the third-best in the Big Ten.

 

The Bad News:

Most of the important pitchers return, but a conference-worst 6.72 ERA and opponents average of .315 must shrink for the Hawks to join the Big Ten elite. Departed weapons Travis Sweet and Jason White combined for 18 of the team's 30 home runs and 42 stolen bases.

 

The Intangible:

Changing the culture.

 

Coach Dahm has brought an aggressive approach to Iowa City. Last year's squad had 18 triples and 95 stolen bases (2nd in the conference). This year's team looks to have the same qualities.

 

Schedule Note:

Tough non-conference slate. Plus, note how big the Hawkeyes could figure into the Big Ten race, with series vs. Minnesota, Penn State and Ohio State to close the season.

 

Michigan (42-19, 21-7)

 

The Good News:

The college baseball world got a cold slap of reality when UMich ousted top-ranked Vandy last June in Nashville. Despite still getting ranked in the preseason in the low 20s, this team can play. It's Omaha or bust for the Wolverines this year with All-Americans like Zach Putnam (8-5, 3.87/.330-8-59, hard-to-forget near no-hitter at Oregon State), OF Derek VanBuskirk (.384), 1B Nate Recknagel (.352-12-61), 2B Kevin Cislo (364), SS Jason Christian (.328-7-44) and 3B Adam Abraham (5-1, 2.97/.320) being just the tip of the talent iceberg back this spring. Leif Mahler, a team captain and .320 hitter, returns from an injury that kept him out all of last season.

 

The Bad News:

Still don't think Michigan - or the Big Ten in general - gets its due. In Omaha last year, I had a fellow Southern-based writer (name withheld to protect the guilty) tell me the Wolverines had "no business beating Vanderbilt" last June. Huh?! The departed Eric Rose and Brad Roblin were base stealing experts and team leaders. How will this team play while wearing a much larger bull's eye?

 

The Intangible:

They've gussied up the Fish.

 

Ray Fischer Stadium got a significant upgrading and now is (finally!) a state-of-the-art, post-season-ready facility. Unlike last year, if this year's team reaches the Super Regionals again, it will be at home, not in the Pacific Northwest against the nation's best team.

 

Schedule Note:

As usual, the Maize and Blue will criss-cross the country playing plenty of good teams, like Arizona State, Hawaii, East Carolina and Coastal Carolina. Maybe when they win some of these games this year, more of the national media will take notice and not be so shocked in the postseason.

 

Michigan State (25-26, 15-16)

 

The Good News:

The Spartans have one thing going for them, they're going to field a senior-laden team, including four of the five top hitters: Steve Gerstenberger (.368), Dennis Jones (.322), Evan Friedland (.312) and Brandon Doherty (.310). Also watch for senior bullpen ace Mike Monterey (2-2, 5.33, 8svs), who will help keep MSU in close games.

 

The Bad News:

A full 39 of the team's 51 starts on the mound are no longer around. Kyle Corcoran (2-1, 6.87) is the only weekend starter returning. As is usually the case, a young staff will probably bring roller-coaster results.

 

The Intangible:

Top ranked recruits.

 

Baseball America named the Spartans' incoming frosh class as the best in the Big Ten. Two of the players were drafted last June, SS Jonathan Roof (39th round, Boston) and P/OF Tyler Newsome (49th round, Baltimore).

 

Schedule Note:

State will play pre-conference games in Florida, Texas and South Carolina against stiffer competition than normal (Stetson, Missouri, Kansas State, LSU, Rice, Creighton). The youngsters toeing the rubber will have to grow up quickly.

 

Minnesota (41-18, 18-9)

 

The Good News:

As the steadiest program in the conference, the Gophers are never far away from Big Ten contention. Two Wallace Award candidates will lead the team with power and speed: 3B Nate Hanson (.338-10-51) and CF Matt Nohelty (.367, 24SBs). 2B Derek McCallum (.340) has great upside. Two starters on the mound return in Dustin Brabender (5-1, 4.40) and Tom Buske (5-2, 3.43), and have oft-used reliever Kyle Carr (5-2, 3.95, 8svs) behind them.

 

The Bad News:

Hopefully the weather won't screw the Gophers vs. Michigan series again. For the first time since the fall of 2003, team heart-and-soul Mike Mee won't be around to supply the key hit. Two starters, Gary Perinar and Marcus McKenzie, and key save-man Josh Oslin have all departed.

 

The Intangible:

Finally... finally, some facility upgrades.

 

When I talked to coach John Anderson last May, he was distraught over the fact that the school administrators haven't ponied-up to improve Siebert Stadium. Well, in the off-season it was announced that there will indeed be renovations in the near future after all. Not bad.

 

Schedule Note:

This year, the U will host two early tournaments in the Baggie Dome. The Dairy Queen Classic will have TCU, Tulane and Pepperdine, making for a very tough field. The next week, the Metrodome Tournament will have New Mexico, Cal and UNI.

 

Northwestern (18-36, 9-23)

 

The Good News:

Team MVP Jake Owens (.385, 18SBs) and fellow senior Aaron Newman (.300, 13SBs) provide offensive pressure and leadership. The lefty-righty combo of Cole Livermore (2-9, 6.45) and Joe Muraski (4-4, 6.25), along with reliever David Jensen (1-4, 3svs) will all grow as sophomores.

 

The Bad News:

Like Indiana, NU has been stuck in a rut, without a winning record since 2000. The two best starting pitchers, Ryan Myers and Dan Schwartz, moved on. As you can see, the ERAs of those returnees aren't so hot either, but they should improve.

 

The Intangible:

Will the Yankee Spirit catch on?

 

The newest New York Yankee manager is Joe Girardi, a 1986 Northwestern grad. He was the keynote speaker at their preseason First Pitch dinner. Maybe that will be good karma to rub off on the team.

 

Schedule Note:

Gah! Talk about racking up the flight miles! The `Cats start in Northridge, Calif., then go to Orlando, Fla., then to Louisville, Ky. and finally down to Bradenton, Fla. You can't say this athletic program doesn't sink some major money into baseball.

 

Ohio State (38-24, 15-15)

 

The Good News:

OSU got hot at the right time and earned an NCAA bid last June. 1B Justin Miller hit .417 in Big Ten games last year and teams with 2B Cory Kovanda (.289), a frosh All-American. Well-armed Bucks Jake Hale (4-3, 4.25, 10svs, 20th round pick of Toronto), J.B. Shuck (4-4, 4.88/.342 batting), Dan DeLucia (10-2, 3.25 in '06) and Eric Best (3-1, 4.06) will provide for a deep staff. Keep an eye on frosh C Dan Burkhart, who got rave reviews for his play in the fall.

 

The Bad News:

To be honest, OSU didn't play particularly well most of last season until the week in the Big Ten tourney. Ex-Buck Cory Luebke was the only OSU pitcher to win more than four games last year and team leaders Matt Angle and Jacob Howell are gone.

 

The Intangible:

Power outage... must be the bats.

 

OSU hit only 21 home runs all last year. When I was at the OSU-Minnesota series last May, the hush-hush rumor was how much the team disliked their Nike bats and how they thought they were "dead." Here's to better technology guys.

 

Schedule Note:

Seeing how last year's non-conference slate was a little disappointing, it's good to see the Buckeyes take on teams like Memphis, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Kansas before Big Ten play. Should help them in the RPI run.

 

Penn State (31-26, 20-10)

 

The Good News:

With an impressive new stadium, a third place Big Ten finish and a lot of preseason pub this season, the last time the program was this hot was the 1973 CWS team. Reliever Drew O'Neil (4-2, 1.34, 11svs) didn't allow an earned run in Big Ten play and also spurned the Reds as an 8th round pick. Four of the top five hitters return including 1B Joe Blackburn (.347). Watch for RHP Mike Wanamaker, a J.C. transfer who was named the No. 10 prospect in the New York Collegiate League last summer.

 

The Bad News:

The Lions still had a losing mark out of conference. That must change if PSU is to get the respect they seek. Nittany Lions will miss their two best starters in Craig Clark and Scott Gaffney. 1B Cory Wine (.254) has great upside but needs to revert to his frosh form when he hit .305.

 

The Intangible:

Too smart to pick up trash.

 

Unlike their football brethren who had to pick up trash in Beaver Stadium for misconduct off the field, the baseball team finished with an APR rating in the Top Ten nationally and graduated 73-percent of their athletes. (See, as a general rule, smart guys don't do dumb off-field things.)

 

Schedule Note:

Penn State got a pretty poor draw in Big Ten play. The first three weekends they'll play at Ohio State, vs. Michigan and at Purdue. The Lions will also finish the season at Minnesota.

 

Purdue (22-32, 11-20)

 

The Good News:

It appears that Ryne White is all the rage in the preseason rags, with his .452-8-47 numbers. Easy to see. RHP Matt Bischoff (3-2, 2.85, 2svs) was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and is also a Wallace Award candidate. Three other .300+ hitters return including Alex Jaffee (.308) and Jordan Comadena (.340-5-20).

 

The Bad News:

Starter Josh Lindblom (3-4, 4.13) hasn't quite lived up to his 3rd round draftee status out of high school. With so many close losses last year, it seems that cutting down on the errors (87) and the number of strikeouts they suffered (345) might win the Boilers a few more games.

 

The Intangible:

The field of dreams.

 

At the conclusion of this season, Purdue has tentative plans to begin their $7million expansion of Lambert Field.

 

Schedule Note:

Everybody in the Big Ten is pretty much jealous of Purdue right now, seeing as how they've managed to avoid Michigan on the schedule this year.

 

 

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