New series format highlights Big Ten

Tim Klobuchar

It might not be as revolutionary as the major league’s adoption of interleague play, but the Big Ten is making a scheduling change of its own this year.
Now, the first (Friday) and last (Sunday) games of every Big Ten series will be nine innings. Doubleheader games on Saturday will still be seven innings. Previously, every conference game was seven innings, and occasionally the entire series would be played on Saturday and Sunday with two doubleheaders.
The make-up day for postponed games was Monday, which created problems with changing travel plans and more class conflicts for students.
Now that there is a more concrete schedule and more nine-inning games, which teams prefer, the concern has shifted to the pitching. Already adversely affected by the aluminum bats, pitchers must also now endure an extra four innings per weekend.
“We’ve forced ourselves to probably use more pitchers than in the past,” said Illinois coach Richard “Itch” Jones. “In the past, some teams would use a guy Friday and bring him back on Sunday. You still might be able to do that, but in the long run, that’s not good for a pitcher’s arm. And that’s all a pitcher has.”
Consequently, the sheer number of quality pitchers a team has might determine the race.
“Pitching depth is going to be more of a factor,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “A lot of teams will have to use pitchers they normally wouldn’t use in that situation.”
Although players might have missed class on Monday before, they’re now sure to miss it Friday.
“I like the format,” said Purdue coach Steve Green. “But you worry a little bit about academics. The new system shortens the week.”
Whatever the consequences of the change on the players, one aspect of the Big Ten will likely stay the same — the race for the title will go down to the wire.
“Five or six teams have an opportunity to win it,” Iowa coach Duane Banks said. “Let’s wait and see. I’m sure it’ll come down to the final weekend again.”
That’s what happened last season, as Penn State won three of four against Ohio State during the last weekend to finish a half-game in front of Indiana. The Hoosiers then beat the Lions in the Big Ten tournament on their way to the title.
Similar balance can be expected this year, as six teams have a good shot at making the four-team tournament in mid-May. Here’s a capsule look at all the Big Ten teams, in order of last season’s regular season finish.
1996 record: 32-24-1 overall, 19-8 Big Ten
Top returnees: 2B Scott Boruta, Jr., .374, 22 RBIs; 1B Carl Albrecht, Jr., .313, 11 HRs, 44 RBIs; P Nate Bump, Jr., 8-5, 3.63 ERA
Outlook: Collegiate Baseball ranked the Lions 34th in its preseason “Fabulous 40” poll, the highest of any Big Ten team. Penn State then struggled to break .500 in a very tough non-conference schedule, which included four games against 1996 NCAA tournament teams.
The strong competition early figured to prepare the Lions for the Big Ten season, but they received another jolt when they were swept at Michigan last weekend.
Penn State’s troubles are even more puzzling, considering it returns seven of nine starters and eight experienced pitchers, including Bump, the 1996 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.
Those wanting to count out the defending champions already should be aware the Lions are no strangers to comebacks. Boruta, the team’s leading hitter last year, tore his anterior cruciate ligament before fall practice. In December he had elbow surgery, but he has yet to miss a game this season.
Also, Penn State got off to a horrid 3-14-1 start last season, but finished with its first-ever Big Ten title.
1996 record: 43-18, 18-8
Top returnees: 1B Kyle Kramer, Sr., .371, 4 HRs, 44 RBIs; 3B Mike Crotty, Sr., .314, 10 HRs, 52 RBIs; P Brian Partenheimer, Sr., 9-2, 3.05 ERA
Outlook: Anderson said he thinks the Hoosiers have the most pitching depth in the Big Ten. That makes Indiana a strong contender to win its second straight tournament championship.
The Hoosiers return three of their four starters from the third-best pitching staff in the Big Ten last season. Partenheimer, junior Kyle Boyd and senior Ryan Graft all have earned run averages under 4.00 this year.
Almost every starter in the infield is back, but the one missing is a key loss. Catcher Matt Braughler led the Big Ten with a .444 average last year, and he will be missed by the team that finished just seventh in the conference in hitting.
Senior second baseman Micah Nori has been a surprise so far, hitting .398 with nine home runs and 36 RBIs, all team highs.
1996 record: 37-22, 17-10
Top returnees: RF Danny Rhodes, Jr., .340, 5 HRs, 40 RBIs; CF Dusty Rhodes, Jr., .339, 5 HRs, 34 RBIs; P Brett Weber, Jr., 9-6, 3.82 ERA
Outlook: The Illini lost Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American Josh Klimek (.400, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs) and Brian McClure (.418, 16 and 66) but still have plenty of offense left over.
The Rhodes twins head the returnees. Dusty, the less-heralded of the two, has already been named Big Ten Player of the Week this year. So has freshman third baseman Craig Marquie, who is leading the team in all three major offensive categories.
“The team’s been pretty consistent so far,” said Jones, now in his 31st year of collegiate coaching “We’re hitting about .300 as a team, and that’s helped keep us in games. Overall, we’ll be ready for every weekend.”
Illinois had the worst team ERA (6.00) of any team in the Big Ten last year, despite having Weber, who had the lowest (1.84) in the conference.
Two other starters, Tom Zidlicki and Travis Rehrer, have gotten off to good starts, and the staff also includes third-team all-Big Ten member Brian Hecht. If the pitching holds up, Illinois has a good shot at the title.
1996 record: 24-30, 17-11
Top returnees: LF Jason Alcaraz, So., .356, 3 HRs, 29 RBIs; LF Derek Besco, Jr., .331, 7 HRs, 26 RBIs; P Brian Steinbach, Sr., 4-3, 5.00 ERA
Outlook: The Rhodes aren’t the only brother act in the conference, or even the only twin brother act. Outfielder Derek Besco and first baseman Bryan Besco have both excelled for the Wolverines. The two have combined for 11 of Michigan’s 22 home runs this season.
Former Minnesota Twins pitcher Geoff Zahn led the Wolverines into the Big Ten tournament in his first season and, thanks to a strong outfield and a legitimate ace pitcher, has a good chance to do the same this year.
1996 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Alcaraz, Besco and Brian Bush are all hitting over .400 so far this season. Putz, after struggling through the non-conference season, has been very effective in his first two starts in the Big Ten.
A concern through the first part of the season is the rest of the staff. Michigan finished first in the Big Ten in pitching a year ago, but is hovering around 6.50 so far this season.
1996 record: 30-26, 15-12
Top returnees: C Bryan Guse, Sr., .367, 4 HRs, 39 RBIs; DH Phil McDermott, Sr., .342, 3 HRs, 28 RBIs; P Justin Pederson, Sr., 7-4, 4.20 ERA
Outlook: Last year the Gophers missed the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 1989, and lost their two leading home run hitters in Rob Smith and Steve Huls.
Still, Minnesota is off to a 4-0 start in the Big Ten and has still hit for much greater power (20 home runs in 25 games, compared to four last year).
The Gophers are experienced: six of the starters are seniors, as are their top two pitchers (Mike Diebolt and Justin Pederson). That makes a return to the tournament a strong possibility, and Anderson has said Minnesota has a good shot at the title. But with the balance in the conference this year, Anderson knows nothing is guaranteed.
“My view all along has been that there are five or six teams that have a realistic shot of winning,” he said. “And the teams below them are still capable of moving up there.”
1996 record: 36-20, 15-13
Top returnees: 2B Alex Eckelman, Sr., 13 HRs, 61 RBIs; 1B Dan Seimetz, Jr., 8 HRs, 52 RBIs; P Justin Fry, So., 7-3, 3.55 ERA
Outlook: Starting this year, the Big Ten’s team of the ’90s will have the conference’s ballpark of the ’90s as well. The Buckeyes, who have averaged 42 wins this decade, moved into the $4.7 million Bill Davis Stadium. The stadium has, among other amenities, an automatic underground irrigation system and an elevator leading to an enclosed press box.
Ohio State hopes the new surroundings lead to familiar results. The Buckeyes, after finishing first in the Big Ten in the regular season from 1991-95, sank to sixth last year.
They have most of their top hitters back from the team that led the Big Ten in hitting last year with a .326 average, a big reason why Baseball America is forecasting Ohio State to return to the top this year.
1996 record: 25-22, 13-13
Top returnees: 1B/P Nate Frese, So., .333, 4 HRs, 28 RBIs, 3-2, 5.70 ERA; LF Jeremy Heinen, Sr., .312, 6 HRs, 19 RBIs; 3B Brian Mitchell, So., .296, 7 HRs, 27 RBIs.
Outlook: The Hawkeyes, who lost three of their top five hitters from last year, have struggled to score runs thus far. They’ve already scored just one run in a game six times this season.
“College baseball is such an offensive game,” Coach Banks said. “You should be able to hit, especially when pitchers aren’t throwing 90 miles per hour every time out.”
Iowa was in the race for the last spot in the 1996 Big Ten tournament until the last weekend, when the Gophers knocked them out. Unless their bats heat up, the Hawkeyes won’t have to wait as long for the disappointment this year.
1996 record: 26-29, 10-18
Top returnees: 1B/OF Mike Stritch, Sr., .310, 10 HRs, 38 RBIs; C/2B Ollie Dunn, Jr., .317, 3 HRs, 24 RBIs; P Brad Brasser, 6-2, 1.93 ERA
Outlook: The losingest team in Big Ten history can take some solace in its connection with the most prolific winning team in big league history.
Sophomore third baseman Frank DiMaggio is the third cousin of New York Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio, and former Wildcat Joe Girardi was a catcher on last year’s World Series-winning Yankees team.
But the Wildcats (4-16 this year) annually bear more resemblance to the Washington Senators than the Yanks, and don’t figure to improve much this year. The Wildcats got more bad news when Stritch, their most productive hitter, was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
1996 record: 22-32-1, 8-19
Top returnees: 2B Rod Metzler, Sr., .304, 7 HRs, 32 RBIs; 1B Mike Rothstein, Jr., .336, 2 HRs, 15 RBIs; P Mike Hedman, Sr., 8-5, 3.39 ERA
Outlook: Hedman and Chris Bloomer form a solid top half of the rotation, but as the Gophers showed in scoring 30 runs in the final two games of the series last weekend, the rest of the rotation and the entire bullpen is suspect.
Metzler, 1996 team MVP and captain this year, is the Boilermakers’ steadiest performer.
1996 record: 14-41, 4-24
Top returnees: SS Tom Grigg, Jr., .306, 3 HRs, 23 RBIs; LF Chad Marshall, Sr., .319, 3 HRs, 27 RBIs; P Brian Murphy, Jr., 3-9, 2.81 ERA
Outlook: A ray of hope arrives this year in sophomore Mark Mulder. He sat out last year but has already established himself this year at first base, and is one of the team’s top pitchers (1-1, 3.48 ERA).
The Spartans also return seven starters and its top three starting pitchers, making a break-out from the Big Ten cellar possible.