It’s been a long time since the Big Ten was considered one of the top baseball conferences in the nation, but the league has made some improvements in recent seasons.
Indiana reached the College World Series in 2013, which was the first trip to Omaha for a team in the Big Ten since 1984. The Big Ten put four teams in the NCAA tournament in 2015, and Maryland reached the super regionals. There were three Big Ten teams in the big dance last year, and Minnesota was one win from reaching the super regional round.
In the past five years, the Big Ten has put 15 teams in the NCAA tournament, an average of three per year. From 1999-2011, the first 13 years of the 64-team format, the conference had 24 invitations, or less than two per season.
The 2017 baseball season began this weekend, with Big Ten teams spread across the southern United States. Which Big Ten teams could make a run at an NCAA tournament bid?
2016 record: 37-22 (16-8 Big Ten)
Coach: Darin Erstad (sixth season)
Last NCAA appearance: 2016 (0-2 at Clemson regional)
Top returning players: OF Scott Schreiber (.325, 16 HRs); OF/SP Jake Meyers (.326, 6-1, 1.42 ERA in 50.2 IP); SP Matt Waldron (7-3, 2.87 ERA, 56Ks in 75.1 IP)
Erstad’s club has reached the NCAA Tournament twice and the eight-team Big Ten tournament every season with him in charge. The Cornhuskers have yet to win the league, though. They also went 0-4 in postseason play in 2016, going two and out at the Big Ten tournament and then again a week later in the opening round of the NCAAs.
Waldron, Meyers and Derek Burkamper combined to start 32 games last season, and should be one of the best weekend rotations in the conference. Returning the three hitters who hit .317 or better last year is also a nice place to start on offense.
Watch out for pitcher Paul Tillotson, who Baseball America named the preseason Big Ten freshman of the year. He’s another option in the rotation.
2016 record: 30-27 (13-11)
Coach: John Szefc (fifth season)
Last NCAA appearance: 2015 (won UCLA regional, lost to Virginia in super regional)
Top returning players: SS Kevin Smith (.259, 8 HRs); 2B Nick Dunn (.300, 16 doubles); SP Brian Shaffer (8-3, 2.60 ERA); SP Taylor Bloom (6-5, 2.46 ERA)
After back-to-back super regional appearances, Maryland took a step back in 2016. It was a young roster, which is now an experienced one. Big Ten coaches voted the Terps as preseason favorites in the league.
Smith’s offensive numbers weren’t great last year as a sophomore, but he had a huge summer in the Cape Cod League. He was an all-star and the championship series MVP for Yarmouth-Dennis, and is now considered a potential first-round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft.
Maryland struggled for years just trying to avoid the basement in the ACC, but Szefc helped build the program into a contender in one of the best baseball conferences, and the Terps should remain a top program in the Big Ten moving forward.
2016 record: 36-21 (13-10)
Coach: Erik Bakich (fifth season)
Last NCAA appearance: 2015 (Went 2-2, lost in final of Louisville regional)
Top returning players: C/1B Drew Lugbauer (.294, 7 HRs); SP Oliver Jaskie (7-3, 3.19 ERA); RP Brian Pall (3-1, 2.81 ERA, 4 saves)
If the Big Ten had earned a fourth bid to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Michigan would have been it. The Wolverines were one of the best teams omitted from the tournament field.
Big Ten coaches picked Michigan to finish second in the conference behind Maryland. The Wolverines opened the season with a four-game split against Seton Hall after the Pirates rallied with five runs in the ninth inning of the final game.
Second baseman Ako Thomas and outfielder Jonathan Engelmann are two of Baseball America’s top draft prospects among Big Ten sophomores for 2018. If they have breakout seasons, the Wolverines could certainly win their first conference title since 2008.
Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 record: 44-20-1 (15-9)
Coach: Greg Beals (seventh season)
Last NCAA appearance: 2016 (went 1-2 at Louisville regional)
Top returning players: C Jalen Washington (.249, 3 HRs); SP Ryan Feltner (3-4, 4.06 ERA); SP Adam Niemeyer (4-2, 4.31 ERA)
The Buckeyes had a great season last year, finishing third in the Big Ten and then winning the conference tournament. It was Ohio State’s first NCAA appearance since 2009, but the Buckeyes have to find some answers on offense.
Ohio State hit 57 home runs last year, but 49 were by players who are no longer on the roster. Senior Zach Ratliff only had 41 at-bats last year, but he hit two home runs in the opening weekend. The Buckeyes’ pitching staff returns a lot of experience and is the biggest reason they could surprise and still be one of the top teams in the Big Ten.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: The Gophers won the regular-season conference title and made the final of their regional, but also lost several key players. One interesting new wrinkle for this season: the Gophers will play their next 13 games indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Vikings, instead of spending their weekends in Florida, Texas or California like the rest of the league.
Indiana Hooisers: The Hooisers missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 last season but return two of the top hitters in the conference with outfielder Logan Sowers and third baseman Luke Miller. They don’t return much in the way of experienced starting pitching.
Michigan State Spartans: The Spartans knocked off Nebraska and Maryland to start the Big Ten tournament last season before losing to Ohio State twice. They scored 51 runs in a four-game sweep of Abilene Christian to start the season, and do return several key hitters from last year.
Iowa Hawkeyes: The Hawkeyes nearly pulled off an incredible run from No. 8 seed to Big Ten tournament champion last year, losing to Ohio State in the final game. Nick Gallagher could be one of the best pitchers in the league, while Robert Neustrom and Mason McCoy might need to carry a relatively inexperienced offense.
Best non-conference series to watch
Ohio State and Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Utah in Surprise, Ariz., Feb. 23-26
Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26
Michigan vs. USC, UCLA, San Diego at Dodger Stadium, Mar. 3-5
Nebraska vs. Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Arizona at Dr. Pepper Ballpark, Frisco, Texas, Mar. 3-5
Michgan State at South Carolina, Mar. 10-12