Minnesota baseball team is on roll as Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha

Minnesota baseball team is on roll as Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha
The Big Ten Tournament looks to be wide open as it returns to TD Ameritrade Park for the third time since 2014. (World-Herald News Service)

The Big Ten baseball tournament will open a five-year run at TD Ameritrade Park on Wednesday with a wide-open field featuring two of the nation’s hottest teams in Minnesota and Purdue and a defending champion Iowa club that’s looking to reach a third straight title game.

This will be the third time the tournament is held at the 24,000-seat home of the College World Series.

The Big Ten signed a deal for the tournament to be played in Omaha through 2022, a move that coincides with the conference’s rising baseball profile. Host Nebraska didn’t make the eight-team field after finishing 10th in the regular season, but advance ticket sales assure crowds will dwarf the total turnout of 6,712 last year at 2,000-seat Bart Kaufman Field on the Indiana campus.

“The thing about Omaha, the people value baseball with the World Series,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “We’ll get a lot of people who come to the tournament just to watch the baseball. It’s a no-brainer to be here.”

The tournament opens with Bracket 1 day games pitting No. 3 seed Michigan (32-19) against No. 6 Iowa (33-18) and No. 2 Purdue (34-18) against No. 7 Ohio State (34-20). In Bracket 2 night games, No. 1 Minnesota (37-13) plays No. 8 Michigan State (20-30) and No. 4 Illinois (31-18) meets No. 5 Indiana (37-15).

Bracket winners meet for the title Sunday, with the champion earning the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Minnesota has won 21 of its past 24 games to put itself in position to host an NCAA regional for the second time in 20 appearances under 37th-year coach John Anderson.

“The biggest mistake we can make right now is to look ahead,” he said. “I think we’re interested in playing good baseball, competing and trying to stay in this tournament as long as we possibly can.”

Purdue has won 18 of 20, with the two losses coming against Ohio State two weeks ago. The way the last game against the Buckeyes unfolded provides motivation. Purdue led 6-1 in the fifth inning before giving up 15 straight runs and losing 16-6.

“I know when the bracket came out,” Boilermakers coach Mark Wasikowski said, “our guys were pretty excited we get a chance to play Ohio State right away.”

NCAA implications

The Big Ten is on track to have five teams make the NCAA tournament — Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois — and possibly a record sixth if Michigan makes a run. It would be the second year in a row the Big Ten has had five make the national tournament. Wasikowski said the Big Ten’s facilities improvements and increased competitiveness made the Purdue job attractive to him after 17 years as an assistant in the Pac-12. Ten years ago, he said, no one on the West Coast would have imagined the Big Ten possibly having more NCAA teams than the Pac-12.

“Everybody said, ‘Let’s schedule a Big Ten team early in the year and just beat the snot out of them,’ ” Wasikowski said. “And you’d schedule three wins, more or less.”

Splendid Spillane

Big Ten player of the year Bren Spillane of Illinois won the regular-season triple crown with a .407 batting average, 22 home runs and 57 RBIs. His .944 slugging percentage leads the nation.

Hawkeyes at home

Iowa is the de facto home team because of Nebraska’s absence. When Iowa made it to the 2016 Big Ten title game against Ohio State, a crowd of 10,350 showed up.

“Three years ago we played Michigan in a non-championship game, and we got 8,000,” Heller said. “If we get marquee game times, the Hawk fans will be here for sure.”

Sparty sneaks in

Michigan State avoided missing the tournament for a second straight year by winning two of three against Ohio State last weekend. The Spartans had gone into their final series tied with Maryland for eighth place.

Buckeye turnaround

Ohio State also is back in the tournament after a one-year absence. The Buckeyes have won 12 more games than a year ago to mark the fourth-best turnaround in the country, according to Baseball America.

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No. 1 Minnesota

The Big Ten regular-season champs are the most well-rounded group in the field, finishing No. 1 in the league in scoring (6.9 runs per game) and in the top three in ERA (3.18) and fielding percentage (.976). The pitching staff is deep — led by pitcher of the year Patrick Fredrickson — and shortstop Terrin Vavra is one of the conference’s best hitters.

No. 2 Purdue

The Boilermakers were a league doormat for much of the past decade, finishing last in 2015 and 2016 with a combined 8-39 Big Ten record in that span. Coach Mark Wasikowski entered last season to help the program make the league tournament as the 8 seed. Now Purdue — without anyone on the All-Big Ten first or second team — will play in Omaha having finished just 11⁄2 games behind Minnesota.

No. 3 Michigan

The highest-ranked recruiting class ever by a Big Ten team — 10th by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper — has helped the Wolverines miss nary a beat following a 42-win season in 2017. Michigan enters the tourney having lost five of its past six games and is one of the worst fielding teams in the league, but boasts depth in its lineup and pitching staff.

No. 4 Illinois

Big Ten player of the year Bren Spillane has exploded for 22 home runs — good for third nationally — and is eighth in the country with a .407 batting average. He’s part of an Illini group that is the Big Ten’s second-best slugging unit and sits in the top 15 nationally in fielding percentage. Some strong starting pitching could push Illinois deep into the weekend.

No. 5 Indiana

The Hoosiers responded from losing nine of 11 games by winning six straight to finish the regular season. Starters Pauly Milto, Tim Herrin and Jonathan Stiever are all among the top 11 Big Ten ERA leaders, and Indiana hitters have backed them with a league-leading 60 home runs in 52 games. One of the preseason favorites is rounding into form at the right time.

No. 6 Iowa

Last year’s Big Ten tourney champion as the No. 5 seed, Iowa may have played its way out of an NCAA at-large bid with a series loss to Northwestern late in the season. But it has the pieces to make another postseason run with All-Big Ten first-teamers Tyler Cropley (catcher), Robert Neustrom (outfielder) and Nick Allgeyer (pitcher).

No. 7 Ohio State

OSU improved six games in league play from last season and has two of the Big Ten’s top players in third baseman Noah McGowan and reliever Seth Kinker. But it also dropped midweek games this month to Campbell and Cincinnati. Depth could be a factor for the Buckeyes, though about a dozen players remain from the group that stormed to the 2016 tourney title.

No. 8 Michigan State

No Spartan was among the 43 All-Big Ten selections announced Tuesday, but the team has been resilient all year. It took a pair of must-win games last weekend to qualify for the tourney and rebound from a 2-9 stretch. Led by Bryce Kelley and Danny Gleaves — the league’s top two base stealers at 32 and 24, respectively — MSU will force the issue if it gets a chance.

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