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2021 Indiana Baseball Preview: The Big Ten

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Probably everything you need to know about the conference all in one place

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Michigan v Vanderbilt
Michigan Wolverines head coach Erik Bakich at the post-game press conference after game three of the championship series of the 2019 College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Bakich and his Wolverines figure to be key players in the Big Ten once again this season.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Another year of college baseball is upon us, with everybody else starting in recent weeks and the Big Ten finally getting underway on Friday evening. We’ve done all the work to get you up to speed on the Hoosiers with the rest of our preview series, so in this installment, I wanted to brief the masses on the rest of the conference.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2020 Record: 8-5

2019 B1G Finish: 3rd

Notable Losses: RHP Ty Weber (SF Giants), RHP Garrett Acton (Oakland A’s)

Key Players: RHP Andrew Hoffman, LHP Cole Kirschsieper, RHP Aidan Maldonado, INF Branden Comia, OF Danny Doligale

This, from all appearances, is a wildly different Illinois team than the one IU fans most recently saw back in 2019 when the Illini took a series off of the Hoosiers in Urbana-Champaign. Pretty much all of the major contributors from that team — Grant Van Scoy, Michael Massey, Ben Troike, Jack Yalotwitz, etc. — left before the 2020 season. Despite that, Illinois managed to open 2020 with an 8-5 record, beating some excellent teams like Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Coastal Carolina. Then the season got canceled and whatever important holdovers left from that 2019 squad departed as well. Because of all the turnover, it’s hard to say how good — or not good — Illinois will be. For now, I’d lean toward the former considering the presence of a couple of guys who are considered legit draft prospects in Andrew Hoffman and Aidan Maldonado. There’s also a 2020 Freshman All-American in Cole Kirschsieper. There’s Danny Doligale, another guy who got off to a good start last season, hitting .316 as a freshman, and there’s one of the better shortstops in the conference — Branden Comia.

Iowa Hawkeyes

2020 Record: 10-5

2019 B1G Finish: 8th

Notable Losses: RHP Grant Judkins (Oakland A’s)

Key Players: LHP/OF Trenton Wallace, OF/1B Zeb Adreon, INF Izaya Fullard, LHP Jack Dreyer, RHP Grant Leonard

The Hawkeyes had a few departures ahead of last season but kept their core together for the most part. It showed in their 10-5 start, as they picked up nice wins over Arizona, North Carolina and Duke before taking a pair of games off of Kansas in Iowa City to unknowingly close out the season. As far as I can tell, they bring back everybody this season except for Grant Judkins, who’s a very good pitcher but, at the end of the day, is just one key guy. Trenton Wallace figures to be one of the most dangerous two-way threats in the Big Ten. He’s starting to gain serious attention from pro scouts as a hurler and also hit .529 with a 1.501 on-base plus slugging through 17 at-bats last season. Outside of him, Jack Dreyer returns to the rotation as a steady hand after tying Judkins for the team lead in wins last season. Grant Leonard is back after chalking up all four of the Hawkeyes’ saves in 2020, Izaya Fullard, who hit .400 with two homers last season, should be back in the middle of the order and Zeb Adreon figures to be another significant bat for Iowa. The Hawkeyes should, at worst, be a solid team within the conference, likely a top-half team behind programs like Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State, and they may have an impact on the title race even if they don’t win it themselves.

Maryland Terrapins

2020 Record: 10-5

2019 B1G Finish: 6th

Notable Losses: Signee Alex Santos (Houston Astros) (seriously that’s it. Maryland’s biggest loss was a guy who never even suited up as a Terp.)

Key Players: INF Maxwell Costes, OF Randy Bednar, RHP Sean Burke, LHP Tyler Blohm, LHP Sean Fisher

Maryland’s been a bit down for a few years now, slumping after making the NCAA Tournament three times in four years including a pair of super regional trips in 2014 and 2015. This spring appears to be a promising one for the Terrapins, as they very well might break back into the postseason for the first time since 2017 thanks to their wealth of depth and some of the Big Ten’s brightest stars.

The big name to watch is Maxwell Costes. He’s a bad man. Like, to the point where pitchers conference-wide should see the dude standing at the plate and have a shiver run up their spine. He’s All-Everything heading into the season, even nabbing a spot on the Golden Spikes Award Watch List. Costes should be Grant Richardson’s main competition for Big Ten Player of the Year, and by this time next year, he should be getting geared up for his first full professional season. As a freshman back in 2019, he had 15 home runs, not enough to make him the Big Ten’s best slugger — that honor belonged to IU’s duo of Matt Lloyd and Cole Barr with 17 dingers apiece — but he was certainly up there. Last season he got off to a ridiculous start, hitting .432 with four bombs through 15 games. He very well may be the best first baseman in the nation this spring.

Costes aside, Randy Bednar figures to be a key piece of the lineup for Maryland as a senior. The outfielder was hitting .387 before the stoppage last year and has consistently shown improvement over the course of his Maryland career. This will be his fourth year as a starter.

The Terrapin pitching staff should be anchored by Sean Burke, who’s expected to be one of the better arms in the conference this spring. Last season was his first after an initial redshirt year in College Park and he shined early, going 2-0 across four starts with a 1.99 earned run average. He racked up 35 strikeouts in just under 23 innings and walked only 11. Opposing batters hit merely .183 against the righty.

Sean Fisher should be the guy helping Burke lead the rotation, potentially giving Maryland one of the better 1-2 punches in the conference and, at worst, the best 1-2 punch that shares a first name. He was the Friday guy last season and managed to go 3-1 despite logging a 5.66 ERA. He struck out 20 in about 21 innings, but only walked seven. His batting average against was .288.

Tyler Blohm should also be a significant piece for Maryland on the mound., He had a great start to his career, spurning the Baltimore Orioles to play for the Terps and parlaying that into Freshman All-American/Big Ten Freshman of the Year nods in 2017. Since then, the southpaw’s been a bit quieter and he didn’t play at all last season as he was rehabbing an injury when the season was canceled, but there’s certainly the potential for him to come back and play well this season.

Another player to potentially be on the lookout for is right-hander Jason Savacool. He’s a true freshman, but received national recognition as a prep player and has played for Team USA at the 18U level. Also, there’s a freshman catcher on the roster named Blake Badman. No idea if he’ll even see the field or not this season, but he at worst makes the Big Ten All-Name Team.

The Terps should figure into the Big Ten title race somehow this season, vying for their first-ever championship in the conference after coming over from the ACC for the 2015 season. Maryland may not be in the top tier, picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, but expect a solid season nevertheless.

Michigan Wolverines

2020 Record: 8-7

2019 B1G Finish: 2nd

Notable Losses: OF Jordan Nwogu (Chicago Cubs), RHP Jeff Criswell (Oakland A’s), INF Jack Blomgren (Colorado Rockies) OF Jesse Franklin (Atlanta Braves), C Joe Donovan (Cleveland), INF Matthew Schmidt (Kansas City Royals),

Key Players: LHP Steven Hajjar, RHP Cameron Weston, C/IF Jimmy Obertop, INF Riley Bertram, RHP Blake Beers

Back in The Before Times, the Wolverines were just about on top of the world. After finishing as the national runner-up in 2019, losing to Vanderbilt in the College World Series, Michigan had picked up some good early wins despite being just 8-7 when the season was canceled. The Wolverines knocked off Vandy in the opening game of the season, then knocked off Cal Poly and Arizona State the next day. They also beat California in Berkeley. They figured to be one of the premier teams in the Big Ten with another NCAA Tournament run in the cards thanks to the presence of guys like Jordan Nwogu and Jeff Criswell, who were major parts of that 2019 squad and two of the better players in the nation.

Now the building blocks of the CWS team are gone with loads of guys headed to the professional ranks. Despite that, Michigan is once again favored to be one of the best teams in the conference, picked to finish at the top of the league in the preseason coaches’ poll.

Steven Hajjar gives Michigan one of the best arms in the conference, if not the nation, as a serious contender for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. He went 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA through four starts last season, even throwing six shutout innings with seven strikeouts against Arizona State. He also had a quality start against a good Pepperdine team, going six innings, striking out 10 and giving up just two runs. He’s on the Golden Spikes Award Watch List for good reason.

Also be on the lookout for Blake Beers and Cameron Weston, a pair of right-handers who should play a role for Michigan. The former is a senior who managed to crack the rotation last season, going 2-2 with a 3.13 ERA and putting together a great outing at Cal Poly. The latter was a freshman last season, but still managed to put together a team-best 0.90 ERA through seven outings, mostly from the bullpen, and also had a pair of saves.

If you’re only going to watch a select number of college baseball games this season, circle May 14-16 on your calendar. That’s when the Hoosiers go to Ann Arbor — and there just might be a Big Ten championship on the line when they do so.

Michigan State Spartans

2020 Record: 9-6

2019 B1G Finish: 11th

Notable Losses: RHP Caleb Sleeman (Graduation)

Key Players: RHP Mason Erla, C Adam Proctor, INF Bailey Peterson, OF/LHP Bryce Kelley, RHP Adam Berghorst

While Michigan State has some historically successful programs on campus, this ain’t one of them. The Spartans most recently made the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and prior to that they hadn’t made it since the Carter Administration. In recent years, MSU has been more concerned with merely qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament, making it as a bottom-two seed in 2016 and 2018 while not making it at all in 2017 and 2019.

On the bright side, the Spartans bring back basically everybody from last season including redshirt junior Mason Erla, who received an All-American nod last season after going 2-0 through four starts, posting a very strong 2.04 ERA and striking out 42 batters in 26 innings. Michigan State also returns two-sport athlete Adam Berghorst, a 6-foot-7 tight end/right-handed pitcher combo who earned six appearances including a start last season, posting a 1.17 ERA as a freshman.

Bryce Kelley also figures to be a big piece for the Spartans. He’s the program’s second-leading base stealer of all-time, just eight off of the career record of 79 entering this season. Last season, he was hitting .400 at the stoppage, and the year before he was the team’s defensive player of the year. He’s listed as a two-way player on MSU’s roster which is interesting considering I personally can’t find evidence of him pitching before at the college level.

Bailey Peterson and Adam Proctor figure to be a couple of other big bats for MSU. Peterson raked last season, hitting .441 with a team-high 15 RBI. He’s also got a tremendous ‘stache/chain combination in his team photo. Proctor didn’t get off to a good start last season but led the club in dingers in 2019 with nine.

Michigan State should be a middle-of-the-pack squad at best this season, maybe sneaking into the top eight.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

2020 Record: 8-10

2019 B1G Finish: 4th

Notable Losses: RHP/OF Max Meyer (Miami Marlins), RHP Sam Thoresen (Chicago Cubs), INF Jordan Kozicky (Graduation)

Key Players: RHP/1B Sam Ireland, INF Zack Raabe, INF Jack Wassel, RHP Patrick Frederickson, OF Easton Bertrand

Fans around the Big Ten rejoice! Max Meyer is up outta here after being one of the most electrifying pitchers the conference has seen in recent years. Even without him on this year’s squad, though, Minnesota figures to be pretty competitive again.

After missing out on the NCAA Tournament in 2019, the start of last season wasn’t a great one for the Gophers. They did beat Oregon, Arizona and North Carolina while going 8-10, though.

Meyer’s hole as a star two-way player is filled by Sam Ireland, who was one of the conference’s top freshmen last season. He hit .303 with four doubles and four RBI in 33 at-bats and also got the job done on the mound, tying for the team-high in saves with two and striking out 10 batters in eight innings.

There are also a few returning hitters who should provide Minnesota with a solid core to build around. Zack Raabe hit .463 last season and put together an on-base plus slugging of 1.138, Jack Wassel hit .364, tied Raabe with a team-high seven doubles and led the Gophers with 16 RBI and Easton Bertrand hit .302 with four home runs in 43 at-bats.

Patrick Frederickson figures to once again be an important arm for Minnesota, although it’s tough to say what he’ll bring, exactly. As a freshman, the big righty was dominant, going an impressive 9-0 across 15 starts with a 1.86 ERA. It seemed like he’d be a star for years to come. Then, in 2019, his numbers took a turn for the worse. His sophomore campaign ended with a 2-5 record in 11 starts, a 5.59 ERA and a batting average against exactly 50 points higher than the previous season’s. Last season, though it was a small sample size, wasn’t much better. He threw 13 innings across six appearances including three starts, picking up a pair of losses and posting an 11.08 ERA. He struck out 13 batters, walked 11 and opponents hit .300 against him. Despite all of that, one would think there’s still something there. D1Baseball listed him as the Big Ten’s Preseason No. 7 MLB Draft prospect, and if he can reclaim his freshman form, he should be deserving of that.

Though they weren’t picked by the coaches to crack the top six in the preseason poll, expect them to be solidly in the second-tier of the conference.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

2020 Record: 7-8

2019 B1G Finish: 5th

Notable Losses: OF Aaron Palensky (New York Yankees), INF Luke Boynton (Transfer, NW Florida St. College), RHP Kyle Wisch (Transfer, Southern California)

Key Players: INF/RHP Spencer Schwellenbach, RHP Chance Hroch, LHP Cade Povich, OF Joe Acker, INF/OF Leighton Banjoff

The first season of the Will Bolt era in Lincoln got cut short, but the Huskers bring back most of their crew from last season and should, at worst, be competitive this spring. Spencer Schwellenbach is the big dog on this team, being named a captain after spending the last two seasons as Nebraska’s starting shortstop. He also received Preseason All-American nods from multiple publications. So far in his career, he’s been more of an on-base guy than a big bopper, sitting with a career .407 on-base percentage and six career home runs. He should be a steady hand for this team.

Joe Acker and Leighton Banjoff got off to a good start last season, the former hitting .306 and the latter going .341 at the plate. They also combined for five home runs. Banjoff had an OPS of 1.153 and three stolen bases. Expect them to be solid pieces around Schwellenbach.

Nebraska also has a pair of former transfers on its pitching staff who should be pretty important. Chance Hroch (pronounced Roach) joined the program over the offseason as a grad transfer from New Mexico State, where he was an all-conference contributor in 2019. During that season he went 10-1 with a 2.74 ERA in 15 starts, striking out 69 batters in just over 85 innings pitched. He’s Nebraska’s No. 2 starter, at least for the opening weekend.

Cade Povich opens the season as the Huskers’ ace. Last season was his first with Nebraska after transferring in from South Mountain CC, and before the season ended he made four starts, putting up a team-high 26 strikeouts in a team-high 21.1 innings of work. He ended up with a 1-2 record and a 5.06 ERA.

Look for Nebraska to hang out in that second tier of the conference with the likes of Iowa, Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota. If the Huskers aren’t at that level, they’re probably at the top of the conference’s third tier of teams.

Northwestern Wildcats

2020 Record: 6-7

2019 B1G Finish: 9th

Notable Losses: INF Charlie Maxwell (Graduation), RHP Josh Levy (Graduation)

Key Players: INF Shawn Goosenburg, RHP Michael Doherty, RHP Tyler Uberstine, LHP Sam Lawrence, OF Leo Kaplan

There was a time when it felt like Northwestern was a scrappy underdog perhaps on the cusp of taking a step up and becoming a solid program. That time, specifically, was the 2017 Big Ten Baseball Tournament, when the Wildcats entered as the 7 seed and made a shocking run to the championship game before losing to Iowa. Since then, however, they’ve gone 47-66 and failed to make a return to the Big Ten Tournament.

2020 was a weird season, as Northwestern lost a series to Omaha at home, then took a series off of South Carolina in Columbia, and ultimately never got a chance to prove whether it was good or bad because of the pandemic.

In the lineup, Northwestern has a pair of upperclassmen leading the way. Shawn Goosenburg (Big Ten All-Name Team) was a monster at the dish last season, hitting .444 with a 1.204 OPS through 10 games and recording seven RBI in just 27 at-bats. Leo Kaplan was also pretty solid last season, hitting .324 in 11 games and stealing a pair of bases.

They also return their entire rotation from a season ago, headlined by Michael Doherty and Tyler Uberstine. Doherty went 1-0 through four starts, pitching 21 innings, striking out 20 batters and finishing with a 0.86 ERA. Uberstine was pretty darn good as well, going 2-0 with a 2.86 ERA through four starts, striking out 15 batters in 22 innings and holding opposing hitters to just a .160 batting average. Sam Lawrence also returns after a solid six appearances out of the bullpen in 2020. He had a perfect ERA and a .158 batting average against while striking out 14 batters in just under 11 innings.

Expect the Wildcats to be one of the lesser teams in the conference this season. They may vie for a top-eight spot, but given the depth of the conference’s middle tier that may be tough.

Ohio State Buckeyes

2020 Record: 6-8

2019 B1G Finish: 7th

Notable Losses: C Dillon Dingler (Detroit Tigers)

Key Players: LHP Seth Lonsway, RHP TJ Brock, RHP Garrett Burhenn, C Brent Todys, OF Nolan Clegg

Ohio State’s had a pretty solid stretch over the last handful of years, making the NCAA Tournament a few times and proving to be pretty competitive in the Big Ten. This season, they should be pretty serious title contenders alongside Indiana and Michigan.

Seth Lonsway leads the way for the Buckeyes as a true ace with one of the best individual pitches in the conference — his curveball is legit. Last season he got four starts before all hell broke loose and went 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA, but struck out an astonishing 42 batters in 18 innings compared to just 18 walks, and opposing hitters put up just a .175 batting average against him. He should contend for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and is a surefire pro prospect.

Joining Lonsway at the front of the OSU rotation is Garrett Burhenn, an Indianapolis native who made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team back in 2019. Last season he struggled a bit, going 2-2 with an 8.02 ERA, but that was a little inflated by a nightmare of a start against Georgia Tech (3.0 IP, 14 H, 11 ER, 2 SO). He rebounded nicely after that and managed to put together a heckuva performance against Harvard, throwing seven innings of one-run baseball and striking out 13.

TJ Brock also figures to be a significant arm for the Buckeyes, but he should be appearing out of the bullpen. Last season he took the mound five times, striking out 11 batters in just over eight innings and holding opponents to just a .194 batting average.

The lineup will be without star catcher Dillon Dingler this season after he signed with the Detroit Tigers, but Brent Todys — another catcher — should be able to provide some power and Nolan Clegg was hitting .333 with three doubles when last season came to an end.

The Hoosiers get to take on Ohio State on a pair of occasions, the first coming in the form of a four-game series from April 2-4 in Columbus, and then the other coming on May 23 and 24 when the Buckeyes come to Bloomington. Those should be pretty important games for both the Big Ten title race and each team’s pursuit of an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2020 Record: 10-5

2019 B1G Finish: 13th

Notable Losses: OF Mac Hippenhammer (Transfer - Miami (OH))

Key Players: INF Gavin Homer, RHP Bailey Dees, LHP Tyler Shingledecker, OF/RHP Johnny Piacentino, C Matt Wood

Rob Cooper’s got a gritty little program put together over in State College. The Nittany Lions haven’t seen the NCAA Tournament since 2000, but back in 2019 they came to Bloomington and gave the Hoosiers a handful, taking the Friday game and forcing IU to scramble to salvage the series. Last season, however, they got off to a pretty good start, going 10-5 even if the competition they were facing wasn’t great.

Gavin Homer returns for his third go-round at Penn State. A couple of years ago he was very solid and then last season he exploded early, hitting .400 with a 1.189 OPS, tying for a team-high in doubles (six) and triples (two) while only striking out nine times and drawing eight walks. He also swiped eight bags and drove in 17 runs, both team-highs as well. Expect him to lead the charge for PSU in the lineup.

Johnny Piacentino and Matt Wood both made their respective debuts last season and found success in doing so. Piacentino, a New Jersey product, hit .400 with an OPS of 1.197 and slugged a team-high two home runs to go along with four doubles. He also struck out just four times in his 35 at-bats and stole four bases. He only pitched a third of an inning last season, giving up a pair of hits in the process, so there’s not much to go on with regard to his acumen as a hurler, but he can be called upon when needed. Wood should be behind the dish for Penn State after hitting .314 across 13 starts and 14 total appearances last season.

Bailey Dees got the nod as the Nittany Lions’ opening-day starter and figures to be big for them on the bump. In 2019 he made 11 starts, posting a 2-1 record and a 4.27 ERA while also striking out 60 batters in just under 53 innings. Last season he showed some improvement, recording a 1.88 ERA across five starts with a .149 batting average against. He also struck out 27 batters in just under 29 innings.

Tyler Shingledecker should be a key piece of the bullpen. Last season he took the ball five times, throwing 14 innings, giving up just one earned run and three hits while striking out 20 and walking two.

Another player to watch is Braden Halladay, the son of the late Roy “Doc” Halladay, who made his collegiate debut last season. As a true freshman, the younger Halladay made a pair of appearances, pitching four innings and giving up just two hits — holding opposing hitters to a .133 batting average and allowing zero runs.

The Nittany Lions finished dead last in the Big Ten in each of the last three seasons before the pandemic and haven’t made the Big Ten Tournament since 2012, so maybe a top-half finish is a bit too much to ask. But they should once again be pesky cellar-dwellers at worst, using their brand of stout defense and aggressive baserunning to pull off a few upsets throughout the season.

Purdue Boilermakers

2020 Record: 7-7

2019 B1G Finish: 12th

Notable Losses: C Bryce Bonner (Transfer - Texas State), LHP Matt Moore (Graduation), RHP Andrew Bohm (Graduation), RHP Bo Hofstra (Graduation)

Key Players: OF Skyler Hunter, OF Ben Nisle, RHP Trent Johnson, INF Evan Albrecht, RHP Jett Jackson

Purdue’s got a scrappy program and managed to find some recent success under former head coach Mark Wasikowski, who led the Boilermakers to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2018. That was just the third time in program history the Boilers had made the big dance and just the second time they’d done so without a conference title under their belts. Unfortunately for Purdue, Wasikowski turned that success into a new gig at Oregon, where he’d previously been an assistant coach.

The first year of new head coach Greg Goff’s tenure didn’t exactly turn out as planned and, because of that, it’s still tough to say what Purdue will/could look like with him at the helm.

One thing Goff’s got going for him is a pair of pretty good outfielders in Ben Nisle and Skyler Hunter. The former hit .320 and the latter his .315 last year in the shortened season. Hunter also managed to accumulate 11 RBI and five doubles, while Nisle finished with the team’s second-best OPS at .873.

Evan Albrecht should be a solid presence as well. He served primarily as Purdue’s starting shortstop last season and hit a team-best .364 with team-highs in RBI (14) and stolen bases (three). He may make the move to second base this season.

That would be because an old friend of ours, Justin Walker, is finally eligible to compete for the Boilermakers after transferring up north after the 2019 season. Walker should provide Purdue with an experienced, slick-fielding shortstop, and if he spent some time over the past year and a half or so figuring out how to turn the flashes we saw at the plate into consistent production, he could be a lot more than that.

On the bump, Purdue returns a pair of starters from a year ago — Trent Johnson and Jett Jackson. Johnson broke into the Boilermaker rotation back in 2019 as a sophomore, becoming just the seventh pitcher in program history to reach 100 career strikeouts in their sophomore year. In 2020 he was off to a decent start — making three starts and four appearances, posting a 3.68 ERA in just under 15 innings, and striking out 13 batters. He allowed just a .220 batting average.

Jackson made his collegiate debut last season and did so to some serious success, earning a spot in Purdue’s rotation by the second weekend of the season. He ended the year with four starts under his belt, holding a 1.89 ERA and a 1-0 record through 19 innings of work. There was room for improvement, though — just as there is with any freshman — with his K:BB ratio standing at 13:12. Opposing batters hit .182 against him.

Tack on a pair of intriguing transfer pitchers who are expected to be rotation pieces in Calvin Schapira (formerly of Southern California and Central Arizona College) and Nick Alvarado (formerly of Illinois State and Illinois-Springfield) and it looks like Purdue’s got some pieces.

Those pieces should allow the Boilermakers to potentially be a bit of a dark horse this Spring, maybe not to win the conference, but to finish in the top half, for sure.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2020 Record: 6-9

2019 B1G Finish: 10th

Notable Losses: RHP Tommy Genuario (Graduation)

Key Players: LHP Harry Rutkowski, INF Danny Digeorgio, OF Richie Schiekofer, INF Tim Dezzi, LHP Ben Wereski

Since its addition to the Big Ten (thanks, Jim Delany), Rutgers hasn’t finished better than 10th in the conference in baseball. The Scarlet Knights hit that high-water mark in 2019. They also haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2007.

Steve Owens is entering his first (hopefully) full season on the job in Piscataway after leading his troops to a nice 6-9 finish last spring, and despite a lack of recent success, he does have a few seemingly solid pieces to work with.

Harry Rutkowski is among the conference’s top pitchers, having served as the Scarlet Knights’ ace for multiple seasons now. He’ll get the ball to open the season once again, pitching against IU this weekend. In 2020 he got off to a pretty good start, pitching 23 innings in four starts and recording a 2.74 ERA, though he only had a 1-2 record to show for it. He struck out 14 batters and opponents hit .225 against him.

Behind him in the rotation is former Columbia transfer Ben Wereski. Wereski, a former honorable mention All-Ivy Leaguer, will open the season as Rutgers’ No. 2 guy. The last time he took the field, back in 2019, he started 10 games, going 4-3 with a 4.18 ERA in 51.2 innings. He particularly shined against Yale, pitching nearly eight innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts to pick up a win.

Jayson Hoopes may be another name to watch. The redshirt freshman started his career at Virginia before making the move back to New Jersey, his home state, and is a former MLB Draft pick — a 36th-round selection by the Chicago Cubs.

The lineup sees its main cogs from a year ago return. Richie Schiekofer hit .375 with a 1.085 OPS, tied for the team lead with 11 RBI, and led the team with three stolen bases last season. A former Maryland transfer, Schiekofer should once again be a key piece for the Scarlet Knights.

Tim Dezzi’s coming off of a pretty good 2020, as well. He played mostly third base last season after slotting in mostly at second the year prior and managed to hit .313 with four doubles and five walks.

Danny DiGeorgio should also be a factor in the infield. At one time he was a Big Ten All-Freshman Team member, hitting .277 with 25 RBI and 17 stolen bases back in 2018. Since then, however, it’s been a tough road for the fifth-year senior. He suffered an injury the next Fall and missed the 2019 season, then returned in 2020 only to have the season yanked out from underneath him, ultimately finishing with a .259 average, seven RBI and a single stolen base. Maybe he’ll manage to get his feet under him this spring and play as he did as a freshman.

Then there’s Kevin Welsh, who’s seemingly been starting up the middle for the Scarlet Knights since the beginning of time — he’ll be a fifth-year starter this spring. He’s only a .246 career hitter and has just four career home runs, but IU fans will remember that he hit the first three of those in the same weekend — all at Bart Kaufman Field back in 2019 when he turned into an All-Star for a weekend, hitting .454 (5-11) with eight RBI thanks to the trio of dingers.

Rutgers should be a bottom-half team once again this season, probably duking it out with Penn State and Michigan State to see who can avoid ending the season in the cellar.