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Previewing the Big Ten Baseball Season

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Let’s take a look at what to expect from all of the Big Ten schools for the upcoming season.

Greetings fellow CN-ers! That’s right! Brutus has Kate Middleton-ed all you peasants and joined the royalty that is the Corn Nation writers’ room to help cover Husker Baseball. Which let’s be honest, you should be used to me taking over those threads anyway. So, let me be the first to welcome you to the 2021 College Baseball season! (Hopefully it lasts a little longer than the 2020 season.)

I’ll be your guide to give a brief rundown on where each team currently sits in the Big Ten, since teams are only allowed to play conference teams anyway. Which makes sense, right, what with baseball being the most socially distanced sport there is and everything. This will only hurt the league in a year where a lot of talent either returned or signed on that wouldn’t normally be here, due to the MLB draft only being 5 rounds instead of the usual 50 last offseason. What could have been a year that challenged the record of five teams making the tournament a few years ago, will probably be closer to three, maybe four tops. Sigh… But let’s get to it!

Illinois Fighting Illini

2020 Record: 8-5

Players to Watch: Branden Comia, SS

Cole Kirschsieper, LHP

Illinois has long been one of the best defensive teams year in, year out in the B1G. That still is the case heading into 2021. In fact they have a SS in Branden Comia who was voted as the best defensive infielder in the conference by Baseball America. And as if that wasn’t enough for him, he was one of the top 2 or 3 hitters in the conference in the short 2020 season, hitting .426 with 7 extra base hits and 10 RBIs in their 13 games. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of production last year around him.

Their leadoff hitter, Taylor Jackson was 2nd in hits and runs scored, but I’ll attribute that to benefiting from hitting right in front of Comia. On the mound, they are led by Fr./So. (That’s how Illinois lists all their players on their website, because who the hell knows what class any player actually is right now?) Cole Kirschsieper. He went 3-0 as a true freshman starter last year, after being their biggest haul recruiting. The other starters are two potentially high pro prospects that will look to add to their “pitching and defense” philosophy.

Indiana Hoosiers

2020 Record: 9-6

Players to Watch: Grant Richardson, OF

Gabe Bierman, RHP

Indiana probably has the best mix of star power on offense and pitching of any team in the B1G. Generally picked right behind Michigan in the standings, they have made their way into a few preseason polls. Prior to last season being called, Grant Richardson was one of the hottest hitters in the country. He hit .424 while leading the B1G in HRs, runs, slugging %, and total bases. You will find him on quite a few 1st team All-American lists.

Indiana also added a transfer and former 34th round pick to their OF, so expect them to continue with the hot bats. The Hoosiers also have a stud “Friday night” guy in Gabe Bierman who struck out 24 in 22 innings last year, and closer Connor Manous, who did not allow a run in the 8 innings he pitched last year on his way to 2 saves.

Iowa Hawkeyes

2020 Record: 10-5

Players to Watch: Trenton Wallace, LHP/OF

Izaya Fullard, IF

The Hawkeyes return pretty much everyone of consequence from 2020. Their only real loss was a weekend starter in Grant Judkins, who like Aaron Palensky signed an undrafted free agent contract after the draft. So the program is loaded with experience with multiple 5th (or even 6th!) year Seniors. One of their leaders will be Trenton Wallace, a 2-way player who should end up on the top of the weekend starting rotation, with the loss of Judkins and due to an injury to their Friday night starter Jack Dreyer.

Another two way player that had a good showing last year after coming over from JuCo was SS and relief pitcher Dylan Nedved. He hit .308 and had a 1.35 ERA in 5 appearances. The leader on offense will be Izaya Fullard. After a good start his Iowa career from JuCo (see a trend with Coach Heller?) in 2019, Fullard was tops in the B1G in 2020 with 21 RBIs, 2nd in runs (19), all while hitting .400. If this team figures out its starting rotation, they could easily break into the top 4 of the conference.

Maryland Terrapins

2020 Record: 10-5

Players to Watch: Maxwell Costes, 1B

Sean Burke, RHP

Maryland is loaded with some top end stars! Their 1-2-3 in the batting order is the best in the B1G. Chris Alleyne, Randy Bednar, and Maxwell Costes (the frontrunner for B1G Player of the Year) hit .333, .387, and .432 respectively last year. They will have to do the majority of the heavy lifting though with a lot of question marks in the remainder of the lineup. The top of their rotation has its own star power to match.

Sean Burke is a giant on the mound at 6’6” 230 lb, and regarded as maybe the 2nd best pro pitching prospect in the conference after Michigan’s Steve Hajjar. Last year in 22 ⅔ innings, he had 35 strikeouts! They return a couple of weekend starters that were serviceable last year, but have little if any bullpen to speak of. So if you can catch the Terps on an off day by one of their big talents, it should bode well for your chances to win.

Michigan Wolverines

2020 Record: 8-7

Players to Watch: Steve Hajjar, LHP

Willie “Whiney” Weiss, RHP

The 2019 National Runners-up, (but champion whiners!) are the only team being consistently ranked in multiple top 25s, and are the current favorites to win the conference, despite having to replace their top 3 hitters who were all selected in the 2020 draft. I watched them a ton in 2019 at NU, at the B1G tourney, and in the CWS, and I only recognize 1 of their hitters’ names that made any impact, and that was Christian Bullock. You may remember his 3 hit, 3 runs-scored game vs Nebraska in the 2019 B1G tournament, when Michigan blasted NU 18-8. Luckily NU avenged that loss later that same day behind Robbie Palkert’s career performance.

The Wolverines make up for their lack of offensive experience though with their talented and deep pitching staff, led by All-American Steve Hajjar, who went 3-0 last year with a 2.70 ERA. Willie Weiss returns as their closer, so you can bet he will be on the top step of the dugout, screaming at every ump he can find for the first 7-plus innings of each game. (Can you tell how much the 2019 team rubbed me the wrong way? I tried to put in a few subtle hints.)

Michigan State Spartans

2020 Record: 9-6

Players to Watch: Mason Erla, RHP

Bailey Peterson, 2B

Michigan State has had a rough past few years after being in the upper half of the conference for almost a decade under coach Jake Boss (a personal favorite). They benefit from the shortened draft by keeping 2nd team All-American pitcher Mason Erla. He had 42 strikeouts in 26 innings in 2020, walking only 6 and having an ERA of 1.04. If you get through him, your reward the next day is Jarret Olson, and his 2.02 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. Team that with their solid bullpen and it’s easy to see why they won so many games in early 2020.

They are similar to Maryland in that there is a significant drop after their 1-2-3 hitters. Their stud is 2B Bailey Peterson. He is the 2 hole hitter, where coach Boss always puts his best hitter. He led the team hitting .441 with 26 hits. Right behind him hits Peter Ahn, and his power leading the team with 8 extra base hits and tying Peterson with 15 RBIs. After him, you are lucky to find anyone that hit over .230 last year.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2020 Record: 8-10

Players to Watch: JP Massey RHP

Jack Wassel, 3B

Minnesota got off to a rough start before the 2020 season was called, giving up a lot of runs along the way. Luckily they worked in a sweep of Creighton just before the season ended, so it wasn’t a complete waste! Gone is #3 overall pick and staff ace, Max Meyer. They are looking to slide JP Massey into Max’s spot. He has the stuff, but was average like the rest of the staff last year. They bring in Utah transfer Jack Liffrig, and hope Patrick Frederickson can regain his form that made him 1st team all B1G, Pitcher of the Year, and Freshman of the year way back in 2018. His ERA after that 1.86 year has been 5.59 and 11.08(!!!) the last 2 seasons.

Where Minnesota gets it done is at the plate. 8 of the 9 usual everyday players return from a team that averaged 5.3 runs a game. They have 5 guys who hit over .300 and 2 that hit over .400 last year, including Zack Raabe who actually led the NCAA in hits in 2020 while hitting .463! Jack Wassel provides the pop, with 10 extra base hits in the 18 games, hitting .364.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2020 Record: 7-8

Players to Watch: Spencer Schwellenbach, SS/RHP

Chance Hroch, RHP

Year 2 of the Bolt era is about to commence. Depending on who you look at Nebraska will probably be somewhere in the 5-8 range in most preseason B1G polls. Should be a potent offense, led by All-American SS and future RHP Spencer Schwellenbach. He will join quite a few arms that are highly regarded, but lacking in experience in their presumed roles. Check back over the next few days to see more in depth previews for Nebraska, including each position group.

Northwestern Wildcats

2020 Record: 6-7

Players to Watch: Mike Doherty, RHP

Tyler Uberstine, RHP

The Wildcats had A LOT of production to replace from one of their most talented teams of recent memory in 2019. It didn’t go all that well in 2020. That being said, the front end of their rotation is as solid as we’ve seen at Northwestern in a long time. Mike Doherty and his 0.86 ERA, and Tyler Uberstein (2.86 ERA, 0.86 WHIP) are the headliners of the entire roster. The bullpen was great last year as well. The Cats only gave up more than 3 runs in 5 of their 13 games in 2020. As far as the bats go, there is nothing really to write home about.

Charlie Maxwell was their most consistent bat, but that was hitting .315 with only 9 RBIs. That means they will have to play spectacular defense to stay in games. When you look up the middle of the defense (C/SS/CF), they only had one error in 2020. But they have to shore up a couple other positions, because in those games where opponents scored more than 3 runs, they often got up to double digits by way of multiple errors.

Ohio State Buckeyes

2020 Record: 6-8

Players to Watch: Seth Lonsway, LHP

Zach Dezenzo, SS

Much in the same model as Michigan (I bet both rivals love where this comparison is going!), Ohio State returns a lot of experience on its pitching staff, but little in terms of offensive firepower. They have their own ace in Seth Lonsway. He led the B1G, and all freshmen nationally, in strikeouts as a Fr in 2019, and followed that up with 42 Ks in 18 innings last year. That last stat was not a typo. I double checked it on 3 websites. Bananas!

Lonsway can lose the zone at times, though, as he also had 18 walks in those 18 innings. The Buckeyes also return solid options at their other 2 weekend starter spots as well as closer. TJ Bock will be used routinely as their “stopper” and can hit the radar gun at 97-98 mph, getting him a lot of looks from the next level. The Buckeyes’ lineup is very raw, but has some pop, especially in their 6’4” 225 lb. shortstop Zach Dezenzo. A former top recruit and Freshman All-American, he struggled at the plate last year, but 4 of his 10 hits went for doubles. Look for him to rebound and be one of the top pro-prospects in college heading into this year’s MLB draft.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2020 Record: 10-5

Players to Watch: Bailey Dees, RHP

Johnny Piacentino, OF/RHP

Penn State was having a turnaround season in 2020 before it was canceled. They actually finished 8th in team ERA in the entire NCAA. Bailey Dees is the leader of the staff, and an imposing one at 6’8”, 250 lb. His 1.88 ERA was 2nd best among their starters to Connor Larkin’s 1.69. Larkin also led the team with 28 strikeouts in 21 innings. If you ever want to just gaze in wonder at a collection of bullpen stats, just head over to the Penn State page and check out all the sub-2.00 ERAs they brought to the table last year. The Lions had a pretty consistent attack on offense last year, with a couple of guys having strong starts to the season and hitting .400 in Gavin Homer and true Freshman Johnny Piacentino.

Piacentino also tied for the team lead in HR (2) while leading the team in walks (10). Look for him to be on the mound a more often this year as well. All that being said, Penn State has had a couple strong starts to seasons recently, but faded big time when conference play started. But with the experienced pitching staff this year, it may be able to right the ship while other teams are still figuring out their roles.

Purdue Boilermakers

2020 Record: 7-7

Players to Watch: Calvin Schapira, RHP

Evan Albrecht, SS

Purdue has been struggling to find success since their breakout 2018 season. You may remember Nebraska having its best series in 2019 by sweeping them 17-0, 13-4, and 9-5. In trying to fix this, Purdue is hitting the JuCo market HARD the past couple of years. Expect to see at least 2 of their starting pitchers to be JuCo pickups from this last season (I think I counted 5 in total, plus a grad transfer). Calvin Shapira and Calvin Starnes are both over 6’4” and come with superb resumes in the JuCo ranks.

Jett Jackson is the top returning arm and will remain somewhere in the rotation. The offense was led unexpectedly by SS Evan Albrect last year. He led the team in both batting avg (.364) and RBIs (14). He added over .200 points to his batting avg from 2019 to 2020. Skylar Hunter returns as their most consistent position player, playing out in CF. He could be well on his way to breaking the Boilermakers career records for hits and games played by the time the year is over.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2020 Record: 6-9

Players to Watch: Ryan Lasko, OF

Harry Rutkowski, LHP

Rutgers hasn’t qualified for the Big Ten Tournament since joining the league in 2015. In trying to reverse that trend, they hired a new coach prior to last year in Steve Owens. All he did at his previous stop at Bryant College was win 8 straight conference championships in his 9 years at the helm. Owens has wasted no time in trying to remake the roster to his liking. Good luck finding many guys that were on the team in 2019 still there. He has 14 newcomers this year, with a mix of Fr, JuCo, transfers, and grad transfers.

The overwhelming majority of these recruits hail from either New Jersey or New York, including the top player in NJ in Ryan Lasko, picked by multiple outlets to be the B1G Freshman of the year. Harry Rutkowski is their most accomplished returning arm, but nothing spectacular to report on. These guys are the biggest unknowns in the league, but will it be enough to break into the top 8?

Wisconsin Badgers

Taking Covid a little too seriously, they suspended team activities in 1991.

Brutus’ Ballsy B1G Breakdown

So if you kept track, the league separates, IMO, to basically 5 groups to start the season.

Studs: Michigan, Indiana

Next level: Maryland, Ohio State

Middle of the pack: Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Penn St

Probably wouldn’t make a theoretical Tourney: Purdue, Michigan St, Northwestern, Rutgers

WTF: Wisconsin

But it’s baseball (FINALLY!!!) and Big Ten baseball at that, so who knows what to expect? I look forward to discussing more with you this season, which will hopefully end in an actual College World Series this year.