The Big Ten Tournament gets underway at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska on Wednesday morning. The top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers will look to capture their first conference tournament title since 2014, when Kyle Schwarber led the club to its second consecutive title.
The tournament gets underway early on Wednesday morning with perhaps the most intriguing first-round matchup as No. 3 Illinois takes on No. 6 Maryland. The Terps snuck into the dance with a sweep of Iowa over the final weekend of the season, finishing one game ahead of ninth-place Northwestern, who will watch the tournament action from home. But that was good enough to force a three-way tie for sixth, and the Terps took the tie-breaker thanks to that sweep of Iowa.
What makes the game interesting, though, goes beyond Maryland’s hot finish. Instead, it’s a quality club like Illinois (with a higher RPI and Top-25 ranking than Indiana, even) facing such a buzzsaw in their first contest. That buzzsaw is Hunter Parsons, who is 9-3 on the season and is much better than the Third-Team All-Big Ten honors he received on Tuesday.
The second game of the day also carries some intrigue as Michigan, despite finishing just half a game out of first place in the conference, may find itself on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament if they go 0-2. If Parsons works his magic in game one and Ohio State can knock off the Wolverines in game two the Wolverines could be playing for their entire season in an elimination game on Thursday against a very good Illinois team.
The Hoosiers start their postseason run in Wednesday’s third game and will take on the No. 8 Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hoosiers and Hawkeyes opened the conference season against each other in March and after Pauly Milto led Indiana in a 3-2 pitcher’s duel in the first game, the cream and crimson exploded for 20 runs while holding Iowa to two in the final two games of the series.
Wednesday’s nightcap will feature the most evenly-matched contest of the day as No. 4 Minnesota faces a red-hot Nebraska team that finished the season with back-to-back series wins over Arizona State and Michigan. Indiana would face either Minnesota or Nebraska on Thursday.
Pre-Tournament Power Rankings
- Indiana Hoosiers
- Illinois Fighting Illini
- Nebraska Cornhuskers
- Minnesota Golden Gophers
- Maryland Terrapins
- Michigan Wolverines
- Iowa Hawkeyes
- Ohio State Buckeyes
Road to the Championship
For Indiana, the draw wasn’t a great one. The Big Ten’s unbalanced baseball schedule generally doesn’t keep one of the top eight teams out of the tournament, but it can often jumble the top eight seeds in an order that doesn’t reflect the quality of the clubs.
That may or may not be the case when it comes to Iowa. The Hawkeyes are hard to peg. They started the conference season by getting swept in Bloomington and then sweeping Illinois in back-to-back weekends. Iowa stayed hot over the next month and a half, winning every series they played until they unfathomably dropped a series to lowly Michigan State—perhaps the worst team Indiana played this season, which saw teams such as Canisius and Butler on the schedule—and got swept by Maryland. If the Iowa team that bookended the Big Ten slate shows up, Milto and the Hoosiers should have no problems notching their first victory. If the other Iowa comes to Omaha, Indiana could be in for the toughest 1-vs-8 matchup this tournament has seen in a long time.
Indiana’s reward for winning the first game? A date with either the preseason favorite to win the conference, Minnesota, which found its stride late in the season winning its final three series, or Nebraska, whose blazing hot finish has already been detailed.
From there, it wouldn’t get any easier regardless of whether the Hoosiers find themselves at 2-0 or 1-1, with Illinois lurking on the other side of the bracket and potentially presenting a serious threat to derail Indiana’s smooth sailing if Maryland is able to knock off the Illini on Wednesday and a 2-0 Indiana has to meet a 2-1 Illinois on Saturday or vice versa.
What’s at Stake on Wednesday?
A whole hell of a lot, actually. Since the Big Ten expanded the baseball tournament to include eight teams in 2014, no eventual champion has lost on Wednesday and only Ohio State, in 2016, lost before playing its third game on Saturday.
2018: Minnesota went 4-0
2017: Iowa went 4-1, but didn’t drop its first game until Saturday in its third game
2016: Ohio State went 4-1, lost on Thursday
2015: Michigan went 4-0
2014: Indiana went 4-0
Why is this the trend? Because a loss on Wednesday or Thursday means you have to win an extra game to both get to the title game and to win the championship. This is explained more below.
How Will Indiana Proceed?
Pauly Milto will get the ball on Wednesday, which will make the Hoosier ace available if Indiana finds itself in a winner-take-all game on Sunday. Presumably, Tanner Gordon will get the ball on Thursday regardless of Wednesday’s result. Then Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Andrew Saalfrank will take the bump in the club’s third game.
This is where Wednesday and Thursday become so important. Indiana has struggled in midweek contests this season and it’s not often been for a lack of offense. Rather, it’s inconsistency from a fourth or fifth starter. Those fourth and fifth starters, as it stands going into the Big Ten Tournament, are Tommy Sommer and Gabe Bierman in one order or another.
Ideally, the Hoosiers will find themselves at 3-0 and skipping the third or fourth starter and jumping right to Milto on Sunday for the title. If Indiana were to drop the first game on Saturday to fall to 2-1, Bierman or Sommer would start game four, with the other of the two as the first guy out of the bullpen. But even if the fourth game takes place with the Hoosiers at 2-1 it would be far more important that the two in the 2-1 be the first two. Why?
Because winning on Wednesday and Thursday gets the Hoosiers a day off on Friday and means that they only have to win one out of two on Saturday against whichever team swapped brackets — that is to say, Indiana could advance to the final at either 3-0 or 3-1 if they win on Wednesday and Thursday. However, a loss in either of the first two games would require Indiana to win on Friday and then win twice on Saturday just to find their way into the title game on Sunday; Indiana would have to win four games just to get to the title game and then a fifth game to grab the crown, a much tougher row to hoe.
Also in the scenario where the Hoosiers lose on Wednesday or Thursday it prevents Jeff Mercer from going with Bierman and Sommer, in either order, in the same game because one would need to be saved for the second game on Saturday, the fifth game for Indiana.
Is there any reason to be concerned?
Indiana hit 90 homers this season and the ball never leaves the park in Omaha. If those would-be homers turn into outs instead of doubles, the Hoosiers could be in big trouble.
Wednesday will determine it all for Indiana. If Pauly Milto is able to shut down Iowa and the Hoosiers can get off to a 1-0 start, Gordon and Saalfrank will give Indiana a substantial pitching advantage in their second and third games and set Indiana up for a lot of success. If Iowa pulls off the opening game upset, the Hoosiers won’t be able to recover and may find themselves falling to the three-seed line in the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland 4 - Illinois 2
Ohio State 6 - Michigan 4
Indiana 7 - Iowa 3
Nebraska 5 - Minnesota 4
Maryland 7 - Ohio State 4
Illinois 8 - Michigan 5 (eliminated)
Indiana 6 - Nebraska 4
Minnesota 5 - Iowa 1 (eliminated)
Illinois 12 - Ohio State 5 (eliminated)
Nebraska 8 - Ohio State 2 (eliminated)
Nebrsaka 6 - Maryland 4
Indiana 4 - Illinois 3 (eliminated)
Nebraska 5 - Maryland 2 (eliminated)
Indiana 4 - Nebraska 2