It's been a banner year for Big Ten baseball. The conference has seen a resurgence, with as many as seven teams in the mix to make the NCAA tournament, and eight ranked in the top 100 in the national RPI rankings. When the conference tournament begins on Wednesday at Target Field in Minneapolis, the stakes will be higher than they have been in years.
With the field set, let's take a look at who the favorites are, and who could catch fire at the right time and shock the world.
#1 Illinois Fightin' Illini (45-6-1, 21-1 in Big Ten play)
Illinois proved itself to be the class of the Big Ten in 2015, with just a single loss in conference play. The Illini come into the tournament riding a 26-game winning streak, and a near lock to pick up a national seed for the NCAA tournament. Head coach Dan Hartleb's squad does everything well, leading the Big Ten in both batting average and ERA. This is a team that doesn't make mistakes, and pounces when the opposition does. On the mound, Friday starter Kevin Duchene (10-1, 1.19 ERA) is a candidate for conference Pitcher of the Year, and closer Tyler Jay (5-1, 0.67, 12 saves) is likely to be among the first dozen picks in June's MLB draft. Six Illini regulars are batting .300 or better, led by senior first baseman David Kerian, who leads the Big Ten in batting average (.383), home runs (13), slugging (.661), and on-base percentage (.467). Illinois is a veteran ballclub and a strong contender to make it to Omaha. The tournament is theirs to lose.
#2 Iowa Hawkeyes (38-14, 19-5)
A solid second place finish for Iowa, five games better than third place, is a testament to the attention to detail head coach Rick Heller's team plays with. The Hawkeyes are not spectacular at any one thing, but solid in all three facets of the game. Iowa does come into the tourney having lost its final series to Rutgers in Piscataway, but prior to that had not lost a series in conference play. The Hawkeyes are led by do-everything junior Tyler Peyton, who leads the team with a .360 batting average and also went 6-4 with a 3.32 ERA in 14 starts on the bump. Junior right-hander Blake Hickman went 9-1 with 2.75 ERA as the team's Saturday starter, and senior center fielder Eric Toole hit .321 and stole 27 bases from his leadoff spot. Iowa is in contention to host a regional, and a strong showing in Minneapolis would go a long way towards solidifying its bid.
#6 Indiana Hoosiers (32-20, 12-10)
Though only the sixth seed in the tournament, the two-time defending Big Ten champions are the hottest team in the conference not named Illinois. The Hoosiers are fresh off sweeps of Maryland and Ohio State in their final two Big Ten series, and have won nine of ten overall. First year head coach Chris Lemonis is seeing his team gel at the right time, adding much improved starting pitching, led by junior Kyle Hart (4-0, 1.85), to a bullpen that was already a strength. Sophomore Craig Dedelow (.317, six homers, 32 RBIs) and freshman Logan Sowers (.268, five home runs, 32 RBIs)have been raking of late, complementing the steady production of seniors Scott Donley (team-high .333, 33 RBIs) and Brad Hartong (.296, 26 RBIs). Indiana lost a lot from the squad that was a national seed a season ago, but this year's Hoosiers are hungry to prove the program won't fade away.
#4 Maryland Terrapins (36-20, 14-10)
Entering its first season in the Big Ten, many predicted Maryland to be at the top of the conference. A key injury to the pitching staff and some offensive inconsistency led the Terps to fall short of that goal, but head coach John Szefc's squad has plenty of firepower and arguably the best starting pitcher in the Big Ten, and cannot be counted out. Friday starter Mike Shawaryn is perhaps the favorite to be named the conference's Pitcher of the Year, going 11-2 with a 1.68 ERA and a Big Ten-leading 115 strikeouts (10.74 Ks per 9 innings) in 96.1 innings of work. Sophomore second baseman Brandon Lowe should garner All-Big Ten accolades after hitting .352 with 17 doubles, nine home runs, 51 RBIs, and 56 runs scored in the regular season. Maryland led the conference in runs scored and tied Illinois for the lead in longballs (50). The Terps are on the NCAA tourney bubble, so a strong showing in Minneapolis is a must if they are to return to the postseason just a year removed from being one win away from a trip to the College World Series.
#3 Michigan Wolverines (33-23, 14-10)
Michigan almost feels like a forgotten team in the Big Ten this season, but they put together a conference slate in which it only lost two series. The Wolverines quietly benefitted from the struggles of Michigan State, Maryland, and Ohio State down the stretch of the season to ascend to the third seed in the tournament. Head coach Erik Bakich's team can straight up hit the baseball, and pitches well enough to win games. With a .300 team batting average, Michigan is led by sophomore Carmen Benedetti, who led the Big Ten with 65 RBIs and 23 doubles and placed second with a .364 batting average. Freshman Jake Bivens was sixth in the conference in hitting at .351, and senior Jackson Glines (.348, five HRs, and 33 RBIs) and junior Jacob Cronenworth (.333, 17 doubles, six homers, 42 RBIs) add punch to the order. Sophomore lefty Brett Adcock (8-4, 3.42) anchors the starting rotation, while Cronenworth (four saves and 10.84 Ks per nine innings) is a high quality arm that has both started and thrown out of the bullpen. Flying under the radar, the Wolverines have a chance to threaten if they stay hot at the plate.
#5 Michigan State Spartans (33-21, 14-10)
Michigan State came into 2015 believing it would rely on veteran pitching to get the job done, but head coach Jake Boss watched his senior ace Mick VanVossen (4-5, 6.00) struggle throughout the season while the offense took off. The Spartans arrive at Target Field having lost the final two games of the season to Minnesota, a fact that cost them the third seed in the tournament, but have the distinction of being the only member of the Big Ten to beat Illinois. Michigan State is led by senior first baseman Ryan Krill, who leads the team in batting average (.363), homers (12), RBIs (53), and slugging (.627). Junior left fielder Cam Gibson sets the table from the leadoff spot, hitting .301 with five home runs, 31 RBIs, and team-highs of 52 runs scored and 16 stolen bases. The pitching staff relies heavily on the bullpen arms of Jeff Finley, Walter Borkovich, and Joe Mockbee to preserve leads, and will need them to be at their best to make a run.
So you're saying there's a chance...
#7 Ohio State Buckeyes (35-18, 13-11)
A month ago, Ohio State would have been considered a solid contender to make some noise in Minneapolis, but a 1-8 finish to the Big Ten schedule has the Buckeyes limping into the tournament. Head coach Greg Beals has watched as his pitching staff, ranked in the top ten in the country in ERA at the beginning of the month, go into full meltdown mode over the final three weeks. During that stretch, the starters have a combined 8.70 ERA, while the bullpen is only slightly better at 7.31. Due to the woes on the mound, the performance of senior right fielder Pat Porter has been a bit overshadowed, as he leads the team with a .332 average, 10 home runs, and 48 RBIs, and should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors. Sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery has also come into his own, hitting .320, leading the conference with 35 steals and 38 walks, and placing in the top three in runs scored (54) and triples (6). For Ohio State to make a move in the tournament and solidify a regional berth, they will need to turn things around quickly.
#8 Nebraska Cornhuskers (34-21, 9-14)
It's been a disappointing season for Nebraska one year after qualifying for a regional. Head coach Darin Erstad's team started the conference schedule with a sweep of Michigan, but won just two more series the rest of way and suffered sweeps at the hands of Maryland, Iowa, and Illinois. The Huskers feature one of the most exciting, versatile offensive players in the Big Ten in sophomore Ryan Boldt. The center fielder and leadoff man hit .350 and led the team with 45 runs scored and nine stolen bases. Senior catcher Tanner Lubach had a nice final season in Lincoln, hitting .315 with four homers, 25 runs batted in, and a team-high .444 slugging percentage, but Nebraska as a team struggled to score runs, placing dead last in that category among teams in the tourney field. The Husker pitching staff kept them competitive, touting the third-best ERA (3.00) in the conference and highlighted by senior closer Josh Roeder and his 15 saves, 12.79 Ks per nine innings, and 13.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nebraska is on the outside looking in at the NCAA field of 64 this season, and will likely need to win the Big Ten tournament and secure the automatic bid to make a return trip.