Chris Webb covers Big Ten baseball for SB Nation, as well as his own website B1GBaseball.com. In the past, Webb worked as a columnist for the Scout.com network and covered baseball for ESPNHS.com. One of the most well-traveled reporters in the Big Ten, Webb has covered the conference as a whole for three years for B1GBaseball.com, and will be on hand in Omaha for the tournament.
For a lot of folks around here, I think the big questions is, what are Nebraska’s chances at making a run like last year to contend in the finals? What will the Huskers have to do?
CW: Just continue to do what they’ve done all year. Not to rely on coachspeak, but for Nebraska it really is a matter of doing what they’ve done all year to be successful. I spoke on this after watching their game in East Lansing and a similar sentiment has been echoed from coaches in the conference –they don’t beat themselves. Not only do they lead the conference in fielding, Erstad has a club that knows the right base to throw to, how to run the bases, where to align in the field, and they possess an offensive approach that wears on a pitcher up and down the lineup.
TD Ameritrade Park plays big, and with the collective speed in Big Ten outfields, I would guess the park is going to suppress offenses. Nebraska has a line-drive approach where they shouldn’t be affected too much offensively, and in the event they find themselves in a tight game, you should feel fairly confident they won’t give the opponent extra bases and outs.
With the tournament expanding to eight teams this year, what are some new challenges?
CW: Two issues jump to mind, pitching and fatigue. Where a six-team field required only three wins for the top two seeds to sweep through, a minimum of four wins is needed in the eight-team bracket, up to six if a loss is encountered. Going from running out your usual rotation to needing to include a midweek guy on top of possibly asking the Wednesday starter to come back on short rest, is asking a lot.
The second is fatigue. In addition to the prior comment, In an effort to get games on TV, the last two weeks have seen Monday games for four of the competing schools, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State. The Big Ten Tournament already forces pitchers to return on shorter than normal rest, adding a Saturday-Monday series for those four teams produces multiple occurrences of pitchers on short rest which produces pitchers not in top form.
Nebraska saw last weekend how salty Illinois’ pitching staff can be. TD Ameritrade is undoubtedly a pitcher’s park. Which staffs do you like heading into Wednesday?
CW: Illinois doesn’t throw balls, they attack the zone and force you to put the ball in play. The same for Michigan State. Neither roll out starter after starter, with what a scout would call a plus pitch, either fastball with velocity or secondary pitch with a strong break or life, though they both have multiple relievers that do. Indiana has a little more swing and miss with their staff, and they showed last year in the College World Series how on they can be in that stadium. Given what they did last year in the venue, and putting together a season with a historically low ERA — (Indiana’s) 1.53 ERA is the lowest in conference-only games since a 1.17 mark by Iowa in 1965 — it’s hard to go elsewhere than Indiana, with the other two mentioned next in line.
Obviously in tournament play, quality pitching depth is so important. Which teams have depth advantages that you’ve seen?
CW: Not mentioned above is Ohio State who may be in a better position than any. Ohio State unfortunately and tragically lost freshman left-hander Zach Farmer when it was discovered he has acute myeloid leukemia, but the Buckeyes still have four capable starters in freshman LHP Tanner Tully, sophomore RHP Jake Post, junior LHP Ryan Riga and senior RHP Greg Greve. There have been times over the course of the season that the four have been lights out. In the Ohio State-Nebraska series, Tully carried a no-hitter into the seventh after Greve pitched six scoreless, Post received the tough-luck loss in the series finale, pitching 8.2 innings of two-run baseball.
With closer Trace Dempsey starting to show the form that made him an all-american last year, it allows Ohio State to have another standout freshman in right-hander Travis Lakins. He can be used as a long relief option or even start, he made his first weekend start this past weekend as Ohio State rested Riga.
Michigan has six guys that have started at least once in the weekend rotation and finished with the third-lowest ERA at 3.13. You also include the Hoosiers, Illinois and Spartans, where they may not go five-deep in starting options, they have a fourth with experience and can match up in the bullpen.
Indiana is the odd-on favorite, as it should be. What’s different from the Hoosier squad that made it to Omaha last summer? What’s similar?
CW: Really, the only thing different is a few names on the mound. Indiana is still led by Joey DeNato, Dustin DeMuth, Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis. Then you have Scott Donley, Scott Efforss, Will Nolden as good complimentary pieces. Indiana lost Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Aaron Slegers to the draft, closer Ryan Halstead to a torn ACL and left-hander starter Kyle Hart to a torn UCL. But they just rolled out guys in near identical former. Effross is the closer and he has a fastball/slider combo in the form of Halstead, though with better velocity. Christian Morris has stepped in for Slegers, and if you want a physically imposing presence in Slegers’ likeness, towering righties Jake Kelzer and Evan Bell work in the low-90s attacking the bottom of the zone with 6-8 plus frames.
While not an exact carbon copy of last year’s club, Indiana performs and plays baseball in a similar fashion. Pitchers are aggressive and throw strikes, led by DeNato who just wins. The thump in the middle of the order rivals any in college baseball. And they just know what it takes and find a way to win.
If trying to find true differences, they have a better base stealing threat this year in JUCO transfer second baseman Casey Rodriguez. They’re also putting Schwarber around the diamond more, throwing him in the outfield. Junior college transfer Brad Hartong, a catcher/left fielder, also finds his way into the lineup.
In your opinion, which team has the best lineup to give Indiana a run? Do you think there’s a lower-seeded team that could make a run this week?
CW: It depends if it’s in the championship or in bracket play. On their side of the bracket it’s Michigan, the Wolverines have lefty after lefty that can try to take away some of the prowess Indiana has with a left-handed hitting heavy lineup. And Michigan’s top five hitters are left-handed bats to face a right-handed pitcher in either Morris, Bell, whoever they use after the lefty DeNato you assume goes in game one.
If later in the tournament, though they swept them, as did Illinois and Nebraska, I’d pick Michigan State. The Spartans have a lineup that I think fits TD Ameritrade Park to a tee. Their outfield is going to cover as much grass as, if not more than, anyone. They have a fourth guy they can go to in Joe Mockbee or Anthony Misiewicz, both lefties. They have guys at the top of the lineup to get on base and steal, both Hartong and Schwarber aren’t the top gunners from behind the plate where MSU’s Joel Fisher is. They have enough thump in Jimmy Pickens, Blaise Salter, Fisher to run into one.
But the Spartans went 1-8 against the teams on their half of the bracket. Will they have the chance to meet up with them? If the bracket holds true to form, I just don’t know what shape the Huskers arms will be in a fourth game to face the daunting IU lineup.
You were in Lincoln to see Nebraska sweep Ohio State thanks to complete games from the entire weekend rotation. What are the keys to Nebraska’s first matchup of the tourney against the Buckeyes?
CW: Getting ahead early in the count. Ohio State has struggled to consistently collect base hits. Giving the Buckeyes free runners helps them play a bit a small. Ohio State has seen Josh Dezse come on at the plate as he is now a full year removed from back surgery, he brings a bat with extra-base potential. Working carefully against him will be key.
Going against Tanner Tully, Nebraska needs to be ready to jump on pitches early. The freshman walked only 6 batters in 86.1 innings this year. Falling behind 0-1, 1-2, don’t expect a series of balls to come.
Christian DeLeon’s status is still uncertain with arm soreness. With DeLeon, where does Nebraska’s top three rank among the eight tournament teams?
CW: Similar to the answer above, somewhere around fourth in the mix with Michigan and Ohio State, above Minnesota and Iowa. Even with DeLeon healthy, Bummer as the third-best option trails what Illinois, Indiana and Michigan State have as a solid 1-2-3. Illinois having 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene solidifies their 1-2-3 as one of the best.
Lastly – the million-dollar question. How do you see this week playing out? How deep can Nebraska go? Who’s your winner?
CW: The only two teams I would be shocked to see on Saturday are Iowa and Minnesota, with their respective pitching units being below par, Iowa is well below and Minnesota’s paired with a weak offensive club. After that, Michigan State and Ohio State won’t be favored, but they both lost incredibly gut-wrenching road series, respectively at Illinois and Nebraska. With the Illini and Huskers eking out three last at-bat wins, they can’t be too comfortable as favorites. Indiana should roll their bracket, I think that side is notably weaker. I think because their at-large position is squarely on the bubble, and how the series in Lincoln ended, Illinois has whatever advantage you can attribute to desire/focus.
All of that said, as much as I think it would be great to see Indiana-Nebraska for a championship, I think we may see a wild ride in that Husker-half of the bracket. Ultimately Nebraska is bumped on Friday with a 1-2 showing before Indiana knock off Illinois.