Indiana heads to West Lafayette (click that link for the hater’s guide) for the first time since 2011 to face the Purdue Boilermakers this weekend. We spoke with Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails about the Boilermakers and what to expect from the home team.
Crimson Quarry: We are effectively at the halfway point for the season and Purdue already has five more wins than they had all of last season. They are fresh off of their first Big Ten series win in nearly two years (taking two out of three from Ohio State). I don’t think there’s any risk of being incorrect in saying that this is the best season Purdue has had since going 45-14 in 2012. What was it, exactly, that was wrong with the program over the past few years and how much of this first step to turning it around should be credited Mark Wasikowski?
Travis Miller: I have often wondered what happened because Doug Schreiber was a solid coach. He holds the record for program wins and was in West Lafayette for a long time. Sure, 2012 was his only NCAA team and Big Ten winner, but he had several near misses. 2001 comes to mind where he began with an upset of No. 1 ranked Rice and would have probably won the Big Ten if not for a snow-out at Michigan State. I just think the program lost too much talent from that 2012 team and never recovered. I think there were 7 draft picks from that team. Two players have sense made the Majors (Kevin Plawecki and Nick Wittgren). A third, Cameron Perkins, is at Triple-A and will probably get his call this year.
Coach Wasikowski has worked wonders with this team. It is not that Purdue was just bad. It was woefully behind every other team in the conference for many years. It was last in pitching, hitting, and fielding, which are all kind of important in the game of baseball. The hitting has greatly improved, Tanner Andrews has been solid on Friday nights, and we have a few pitchers coming forward in the bullpen. Many of these are newcomers as either freshmen or JuCo transfers too. This team seems to be playing with some confidence, it is being aggressive on the bases, and the pitching is much, much better.
CQ: Thus far in conference play, the Boilers are 3-3, having taken one from an Iowa team that is probably better than Purdue and two of three from an Ohio State team that is unquestionably worse than Purdue. Now, with 18 games left in Big Ten play, Purdue has six games left against what I deem to be clearly inferior opponents (Northwestern and Illinois) and three more with Rutger, with whom the Boilers are probably on par. Given the number of definitively winnable games left on the schedule and the seemingly huge gap between the top of the conference and the bottom of the conference, is there a feeling in West Lafayette right now that Purdue could qualify for the Big Ten Tournament just one year after winning only two conference games?
Travis: I think that is definitely the goal. What’s impressive to me is that Purdue has a conference leading 14 road wins. Sure, they weren’t exactly over powerhouse teams, but Southeast Missouri State is a three-time defending conference champion that was in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Purdue took two of three from them. Texas State is playing well and Purdue took a pair from them. Purdue also beat Kent State, the likely favorite in the MAC. The Boilers have at least shown they can compete with teams this year. If they can get over playing at home (1-2 so far with losses to Valparaiso and Indiana State midweek) making the Big Ten Tourney is achievable.
Crimson Quarry: Indiana’s offense has had some real ups and downs. They were probably the hottest team in the country offensively for a two week period and then went ice cold last weekend against Nebraska. What are the strength and weaknesses of Purdue’s pitching staff and do you see them keeping the Hoosier bats in check?
Travis: Tanner Andrews is hit or miss on Friday nights. Twice he has been the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Week and has looked great. He is 4-2 on the year and he got shelled in his two losses. He gave up 10 earned runs at Cal State Northridge in three innings and 6 earned runs in 3 innings at Ohio State. He has given up only five earned runs in the remaining 35 innings pitched.
In the bullpen Ross Learnard has been excellent with a 0.44 ERA in 20 1/3 innings. Dalton Parker has four saves and a 1.83 ERA. They have been solid in the late innings of many of Purdue’s close wins. I like Purdue’s chances if we can get to them with a lead. Gareth Stroh has also pitched much better of late as Purdue’s No. 2 starter.
Crimson Quarry: Indiana’s pitching has also had its ups and downs. One positive is that it seems Jonathan Stiever is healthy and ready to be dominant again on Friday night matchups. But the bullpen has a lot of problems and can’t seem to close out weekend games. How can Purdue’s offense get the job done against Indiana?
Travis: Well, we can actually hit the ball this year. Skyler Hunter has been one of the best hitters in the Big Ten this year and is 4th in the league with a .364 average. Nick Dalesandro is also in the top 15 in the league at .330. Jacson McGowan was red hot to start the year and is 4th in the league with 26 RBI. We’re not hitting as many home runs as last year when Kyle Wood led the conference in that category, but Purdue has been decent at getting guys on and moving them around.
Crimson Quarry: If we’re writing on Sunday night that Purdue took two out of three from Indiana, how did they do it? What went right for the Boilers?
Travis: I can see this is Andrews returns to form after an awful Friday outing at Ohio State and pitches well on Friday. He pitched extremely well in the 2-0 win at Iowa and had a complete game shutout in the 4-0 win at SE Missouri State. I don’t see Purdue winning the series without a solid outing from him on Friday.
On Saturday and Sunday Purdue’s offense needs to get going at Alexander Field. It has scored only 6 runs in three home games so far. It scored more than that in the first four innings of the season at Texas State. In its only win of the year at home (3-2 over Kent State) it needed a two-out balk and an infield single in the ninth to get the comeback win. The offense has to be better at home.
Crimson Quarry: Finally, what do you see happening this weekend?
Travis: I think Purdue takes at least one game. This is a much, much better team and Indiana looks like it is not the fantastic team it has been the last few years. The Hoosiers are good, but not quite the juggernaut they were in 2013 and 2014. It would be nice to get at last one win. Get two and we’re definitely thinking Big Ten Tournament.
Big thanks to Travis for answering our questions. Check back tomorrow for a full series preview and over the weekend for coverage of the series.