The Wild, Wild (Mid)West

Remember the 70-degree early March days? The joy of being able to take long, leisurely walks under a high sun and blue sky without fret of frost and freeze? But as we traded in the frostbite for sunscreen didn’t we unfortunately know that it was too good to be true, that Mother Nature would not tend to us in such a manner for the entire baseball?

As we have rudely been greeted to seasonal or sub- temperatures, dodging raindrops and rainouts, with a week left in April all is right in the world of Big Ten baseball. We’re back to normalcy.

Which means chaos.

With four weeks left in the conference season, outside of Purdue’s historic pace, the Big Ten standings are tight and compact, just like they always are. As we preformed a mid-way rundown, with teams having either nine or 12 games remaining, the stage is set for B1G baseball to be a big shootout.

Hold on to your hats boys and girls.

Where we are at

Entering action Wednesday here is a look at the Big Ten standings by conference record

Purdue 12-3, 32-6

Michigan State 7-5, 26-13

Minnesota 7-5, 23-19

Nebraska 8-7, 27-15

Indiana 6-6, 18-23

Penn State 6-6, 19-21

Ohio Sate 7-8, 22-18

Illinois 5-7, 22-18

Iowa 5-7, 16-20

Michigan 4-8, 17-24

Northwestern 5-10, 14-23

The three-and-one-half game gap between the Boilermakers and Sparty and the Gophers is equaled to the gap those two have over last-place Northwestern. It’s not exactly Ricky Bobby’s “if you’re not first, you’re last” mantra, but second-place being equal distance from first and last isn’t exactly comforting for the non-Schreiber Big Ten coaches.

Before we breakdown what to expect of each team going forward in the race for a Big Ten Tournament berth, or Purdue’s quest to host a regional at hosting site to be determined, we take a look back at the top storylines, news and notes of the first five weeks of Big Ten play.

What have we learned?

1) Purdue is really good. Remember as a kid you incessantly asked your parents for them to allow you to stay awake past your bedtime? No matter the forthcoming result, it was always no, you kept thinking that one time might be different. As Purdue sits with the nation’s top winning percentage, it is human nature to expect a slip, for someone to trip the Boilermakers and take a weekend set. Wrong. We knew Purdue was talent, we know they were upperclassmen-heavy, we knew they had a no-nonsense coach. Sorry to doubt your club Schreibs but we did not know they would win 32 of their first 38. Purdue went into the season embracing their position as conference favorite. They embraced their hot start, the national-ranking. They’ve welcomed every Big Ten team taking their best shot at them. They keep brushing it off and perform at as high of a level that any Big Ten team has played at in the last 10 years. With the attention growing one may think so too does the pressure. But, as Schreiber told me in the preseason “pressure is when those outside have greater expectations than you do of yourself.” This is a team on a mission and the Boilermakers are full steam ahead.

2) The Big Ten may be a bit tougher than Nebraskans realized. The Cornhuskers have a solid 27-15 mark in the first season with Darin Erstad at the helm. In conference play however, Nebraska sits 8-7, just one game ahead of seventh-place and out of the Big Ten Tournament. Those familiar with the conference did not expect Nebraska to waltz in and claim conference championship from the get-go, that they would settle in the 3-5 range given the talent of the conference this season and the fact Nebraska wasn’t exactly lighting the Big XII on fire. With three series remaining, trips to Bloomington and Ann Arbor sandwich a Minnesota trip to Lincoln, Nebraska will have its work cut out if they are to make a return trip to Columbus. One that could would probably Erstad in his quest to change the culture of the Big Ten.

3) Great expectations have been met with great results from the Indiana freshman. Going into the season I thought I may have raved a bit too much about the baby Hoosiers. In hindsight, I don’t think I talked them up enough. As catcher Kyle Schwarber and third baseman Sam Travis battle for the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year honor, southpaw Kyle Hart has been strong on the mound emerging as IU’s number-two. Coach Tracy Smith has routinely received big seasons from Hoosiers in year one be most notably Alex Dickerson and Joey DeNato. But Dickerson’s debut came in IU’s 2009 when the program had an elite junior class led by Josh Phegley and Eric Arnett and it was Dickerson and Jerrud Sabourin who were the upperclassmen for DeNato and Dustin DeMuth last year. With a void of seniors and juniors, Schwarber and Travis have been anchored the heart of the Hoosier lineup. The focal points of the Indiana attack have not welted, combining for 42 extra-base hits and 70 RBI with four weekends to go.

4) Pitching, pitching and more pitching. In chatting with Iowa’s Jack Dahm prior to the season, the Hawkeye skipper alluded to the depth of the Big Ten, how a team picked eighth could finish at the top, an expected compacted standings due to the pitching each team returned. From Minneapolis to East Lansing, Iowa City to Happy Valley, it was expected that the talent and experience of the pitching staffs across the board would provide little margin of error. So far pitching has ruled the day. It was fitting that Penn State’s Steven Hill closed out the first half of the conference season, technically the first five-ninths but whatever, with the Big Ten’s first no-hitter since 2009 when Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers shutdown Michigan. Not only are their elite Friday arms, there are elite staffs with number-three pitchers that could succeed in the Friday slot in most years. Nearly a half-dozen pitchers have the right to receive be named Pitcher of the Year with another handful deserving of all-conference accolades.

5) The hot corners. Look at the corner tandem of each Big Ten program and you’re likely two find a standout, if not two. In at least the last five years, the Big Ten has not seen such a plethora of third and first baseman swing the bat the way they have this year. At third base you can find two strong draft prospects in Torsten Boss and Cameron Perkins who are showing their worth. Across the diamond, a 30th-round selection a year ago, Penn State’s Jordan Steranka is in a group that includes Nebraska’s Richard Stock, Michigan’s Brett Winger, Illinois’ Jordan Parr, Ohio State’s Josh Dezse, so on and so forth that are leading their respective offensive units. The Big Ten may have lost one of its most known first baseman in recent years in Dickerson, but this group has raised the level of expectations from Big Ten corner infielders.

The first-half’s top headlines

1) Penn State’s Steven Hill no-hits Iowa.

2) Minnesota’s John Anderson signs five-year extension.

3) Michigan losses Michael O’Neill to injury.

4) Indiana’s Micah Johnson has surgery.

5) Purdue’s Breedlove three-time Pitcher of the Week

Mid-way All-B1G Baseball Team

C-Jr. Kevin Plawecki, Purdue

1B- Jr. Richard Stock, Nebraska

2B-Jr. Ryan Jones, Michigan State

SS- Soph. Thomas Lindauer, Illinois

3B- Jr. Cameron Perkins, Purdue

OF- Soph. Michael Prittchard, Nebraska

OF- Jr. Jordan Keur, Michigan State

OF- Fr. Kyle Schwarber, Indiana

DH- Jr. Josh Scheffert, Nebraska

P- Sr. Lance Breedlove, Purdue

P- Soph. Jaron Long, Ohio State

P- Jr. TJ Oakes, Minnesota

P- Soph. Joe Kurrasch, Penn State

P- Jr. Nick Wittgren, Purdue

First-half Player: Plawecki

First-half Pitcher: Breedlove

First-half Freshman: Schwarber

B1G Honorable Mention: Illinois OF Willie Argo, Michigan State 3B Torsten Boss, Indiana LHP Joey DeNato, Ohio State 1B Josh Dezse, Purdue RHP Joe Haase, Iowa OF Phil Keppler, Nebraska SS Pat Kelly, Illinois 1B Jordan Parr, Illinois 2B Reid Roper, Northwestern SS Kyle Ruchim, Purdue OF Barrett Serrato, Penn State 1B Jordan Steranka, Indiana 3B Sam Travis, Michigan 1B Brett Winger and every Michigan State pitcher (but almost really).

National Honors Watch

National College Baseball Writers Association’s Stopper of the Year, Midseason Watch List (4/19): Wittgren

College Baseball Hall of Fame’s Pitcher of the Year, initial list (4/24): Breedlove, Oakes

Johnny Bench Award, 4/13 update: Plawecki, Iowa’s Dan Sheppard

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