On deck: Big Ten baseball

On deck: Big Ten baseball

With Illinois set to host Purdue in its Big Ten opener at 4 p.m. Friday, beat writer Jeff Huth's take on the conference:

Change on horizon
This will be the final season for Big Ten baseball as an 11-team league.

The conference will add Maryland and Rutgers to its ranks in 2015.

Given the constraints that early-spring weather places on northern leagues, the Big Ten will not expand its conference schedule.

Instead, each team will continue to play eight league series during a nine-week period.

A bye week continues to be necessary because there still will be an uneven number of teams (13).

The most significant change is that instead of not playing against two league members each season, that number will rise to four — making schedules even less similar from team to team than they are now.

“It’s just luck of the draw from year to year whether your schedule is a little tougher, maybe is a little weaker,” UI coach Dan Hartleb said. “We’re all going to deal with the same thing. We talked about (creating) divisions, but then you’d have uneven numbers, and that wasn’t going to work.”

Illinois will play host to Rutgers in 2015 and travel to Maryland in 2016.

Maryland has won at least 30 games in three of the past six seasons and enters the weekend 16-6 overall and 5-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Rutgers won 42 games in 2007 but finished with losing records in four of the past six seasons.

The Scarlet Knights currently are 8-12, 1-2 in the American Athletic Conference.

Hoosiers face hurdles
Nationally, all eyes are on an Indiana team that last season became the first Big Ten program since 1984 to reach the College World Series.

After winning 49 games, including one in Omaha, the Hoosiers were ranked seventh or higher in four different preseason polls.

No surprise there, considering that Indiana remained stocked with four preseason All-Americans and the preseason Stopper of the Year in its bullpen.

Or that, as a team, the Hoosiers returned 82 percent of their pitching wins, 80 percent of innings pitched and 83 percent of RBI.

But this season hasn’t started out as the Hoosiers fans might have expected. Playing a challenging preconference schedule, Indiana went 10-8 before winning two of three last weekend against Michigan.

“I know they’ve played in some big ballparks where the power they have may not have helped them,” Hartleb said.

More concerning was the huge blow the Hoosiers took when all-time saves leader Ryan Halstead suffered a season-ending knee injury on March 5.

The towering right-hander notched a school-record 11 saves last season.

In his place, Indiana has turned to sophomore Scott Effross, a 2013 Freshman All-American.

“It’s tough to replace a guy like that, but they also have three left-handed starters, which presents a lot of problems for people,” Hartleb said. “And they still have a guy or two out of the bullpen. I think they’re a solid team and I think they’ll do very well in the conference. They can’t afford to have any more injuries on the mound, though.”

New blood
There are two new head coaches in the conference this season — Rick Heller at Iowa and Rob Cooper at Penn State.

The former turned heads last weekend when the Hawkeyes won two of three from a Nebraska team picked by league coaches to finish second.

Except for a trip to Kansas State — where they were swept in a three-game series — the Hawkeyes played a modestly challenging preconference schedule.

Thus, it was difficult to put too much stock in Iowa’s 12-5 record before the Cornhuskers arrived in Iowa City.

It’s still far too early to say the Hawkeyes will be the Big Ten’s surprise team, but it’s also not unheard of for a first-year coach to immediately inject life into a moribund program.

Certainly, Heller arrived with impressive credentials from Indiana State, where his 2012 Sycamores won 41 games and earned an at-large NCAA bid.

“It happens sometimes, just that freshness,” Hartleb said. “I have great respect for Rick Heller. Rick Heller will really help their program. I think he’ll help them recruitingwise. I think he’s a very good coach and has a good demeanor and will get a lot out of his players. So them having success right now doesn’t surprise me.”

Armed and dangerous
It only seems like an Ohio State pitcher wins a Big Ten award every week.

Actually, it’s happened four times during the six weeks the conference has handed out honors so far this season.

Junior left-hander Ryan Riga, who has made the transition from reliever to starter, has twice earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors.

Then there are right-hander Travis Lakins and lefty Tanner Tully — each recipients of a Big Ten Freshman of the Week award.

The two newcomers have appeared in a combined 16 games, and each has an ERA under 1.00.

Imagine how tough Ohio State might be on the mound if 2013 third-team All-American reliever Trace Dempsey (1-2, 8.49 ERA) ever gets his act together.

Or if redshirt junior Josh Dezse, who missed all of 2013 following back surgery, is cleared to pitch again. In his first two seasons in Columbus, he earned 13 saves.

The Buckeyes certainly don’t have the deepest pitching staff in the Big Ten, but there are enough promising arms to ask whether an already-highly regarded team — they were picked third in the coaches’ preseason poll — might soon take a run at the title.

It should be clearer where the Buckeyes stand after this weekend, when Indiana visits.

“They continue to improve,” Hartleb said. “I know they’ve had some good recruiting years.”

A native of Hamilton, Ohio, Hartleb well knows the pull Ohio State can have on that state’s best high school athletes and even beyond.

“It’s a place that most kids in Ohio and that area, it’s a destination for them, and (Buckeyes teams) have taken advantage of that,” he said. “They’ve pulled some really good players out of the state, and then they’ve gone outside, where they have a large group of alumni around the country, and they’ve taken advantage of some things.”