Remember when I opened the baseball season excited about the opportunities in front of the Big Ten? No? Well here's a refresher. When we started the year, there was a strong possibility for at least three B1G teams to make the NCAA Tournament, which is a beautiful thing considering when Nebraska joined this fair conference, it wasn't unheard of to just have an automatic qualifier. 30 or so games later though? Now there are legitimately five teams that could make the tournament and quite a beautiful little thing. Let's take a look at how this has happened.
We Expected You to be Good
Indiana 18-11 (2-6) || RPI: 62
Look, Indiana is on a little bit of a slide right now, but as a whole they've still won a series at Stanford, swept Cal State Fullerton at home, and have a little name recognition because of what they've done the past few years. Unfortunately, that also ignores the fact that they've gotten bested by Michigan in a series and were swept by Iowa. Now, I'm willing to give them a little bit of a break. This is more or less a completely different team than the one that lost at the bitter end in the Supers last year to Stanford. Kyle Schwarber is in AA ball with the Cubs after being picked 4th overall, Joey Denato - he of 13-1 record last year - is gone, and the Hoosiers' have a new coach after Tracy Smith bailed for the warmer - and more storied - sands of Arizona State. Anyhow, this team still has proven it knows how to win and just needs to get out of this little slump and beat the teams it is better than.
Maryland 23-8 (7-2) || RPI: 22
This was supposed to be the star team of the conference, and honestly, if not for some upstarts below, the Terps would be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. Sporting a good record, strong RPI, and some good series wins - including a sweep of Nebraska. How are they going about this? Well, by scoring a lot of runs. Seems pretty straight forward, right? The Terrapins lead the B1G in runs scored and have been getting a ton of offense from Brandon Lowe who sits at 8 HR, 47 H, and 40 runs scored. The pitching has let them down at times, but hey, this team is still really good.
Nebraska 24-10 (3-3) || RPI: 17
While there has been a little bit of a letdown after going to Maryland and getting swept, this is still a ranked team with a lot of talent who unsurprisingly wins with defense and pitching. To date, they are sporting a collective 2.68 ERA as a team and their fielding percentage leads the B1G, just barely eking out Iowa with a .981. The Weekend starters - Kyle Kubat, Chance Sinclair, and Derek Burkamper - have been generally consistent this year, and this team will go as far as they can take them.
WHERE DID YOU GUYS COME FROM
Illinois 22-6-1 (5-1) || RPI: 29
So I know a lot of people expected Illinois to compete, but they've been outstanding so far this year. The obvious caveat is, "Well yeah, but who have they played?" The crazy 148th ranked SOS doesn't look great, but they did take a series from Oklahoma State earlier, and you can only beat the teams in front of you, right? I will be honest, I don't know much about the Illini, but stats give you at least a small view on what they're doing. Basically they lead the Big Ten in ERA, second in batting average, and are fourth in fielding percentage. So yeah, they're doing well on all three fronts of baseball, which sort of makes sense why they're winning. They don't exactly have it easy from here on out with series against Ohio State and Nebraska left, but hey, you never know. This team is setting itself up for a potential hosting scenario if they keep winning.
Iowa 21-8 (6-0) || RPI: 37
I mentioned them at the beginning of the year as a team I thought would progress quite nicely, but what Coach Heller has done in Iowa City is remarkable. This team was pretty much nothing for the past, well, forever? He comes in, asks them to play good defense, rely on great pitching, and hope for timely hitting. In turn? The Hawkeyes have their best start since sometime before I was born. Iowa looks very similar to Nebraska. They don't hit a lot of HRs, but they can win in spite of that due to solid pitching and elite fielding. It's also about to get real for the Hawkeyes as they have series against Maryland, Nebraska, and a sneaky feisty Michigan.
Ohio State 22-7 (7-2) || RPI: 18
The Buckeyes were another team we expected could be good at the beginning of the year, but losing two of your first series OOC doesn't engender a lot of good will. That said, the Buckeyes have quietly put up some really good games and are positioned quite nicely so far. They've won all three B1G series with an extra boost by sweeping Northwestern. They also arguably have the most difficult Big Ten stretch as well with Nebraska, Maryland, Indiana, and Illinois still on the docket.
Anybody else doing okay?
Michigan 19-13 (4-5) || RPI: 54
They were swept by Nebraska in Lincoln, but have won their other two B1G matchups with a series win against Maryland and Indiana. Sure, that Kansas series loss looks dumb right now, and they still have to deal with Oklahoma State to finish the season, but this team could make a move and the back end of the conference looks better than the insanity they started off with. @Penn State, Purdue, @Minnesota, Iowa, and Northwestern are what they need to get through and if they came out of Maryland, Indiana, and Nebraska with four wins, you almost have to say that things can only go up.
So yeah, think about that for a second. We have seven teams who could very well be tournament bound, and who at this very moment are at least in discussion to get there. Obviously we're not knocking on the SEC's door right now - they currently go 1, 2, 3, 10, and 20 in the rankings overall - but this is a far cry from where we were as a conference even five years ago. My advice? If you have a chance to get to your team's baseball games, you'll be surprised at the quality of baseball being played. And hey, you never know, you might even be catching onto the bandwagon early.