B10 baseball momentum could slow with no nonconference games

ERIC OLSON
·4-min read
FILE - In this June 8, 2019, file photo, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich gestures during an NCAA college baseball tournament super regional game against UCLA in Los Angeles. The Big Ten's decision to prohibit its teams from playing nonconference baseball games this season likely will cost the league when it comes to NCAA Tournament selections. Without nonconference games or a conference tournament this year, Michigan coach Erik Bakich said the only way to guarantee an NCAA bid is to win the regular-season title or finish second. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

The Big Ten's decision to prohibit its teams from playing nonconference baseball games this season likely will cost the league when it comes to NCAA Tournament selections.

The Big Ten season opens Friday with teams traveling to neutral sites where bad weather shouldn't interfere. Games will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as well as in Greenville, South Carolina, and Round Rock, Texas.

Of the 31 Division I baseball conferences, only the Big Ten and Metro Atlantic have barred nonconference games and the Ivy League is not playing.

Big Ten baseball has been on the upswing in recent years, with five teams making the field for three of the last five national tournaments and Michigan reaching the College World Series finals in 2019.

“It’s going to be harder for us to evaluate the strength of that conference relative to all the other conferences,” said NCAA Division I Baseball Committee chair Jeff Altier, the athletic director at Stetson. “Obviously, it’s not an issue with one or two of the teams, but it will be for teams beyond that.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Ten barred nonconference play in all but men's and women's basketball, men's and women's golf and women's rowing. The conference said last week it would release a statement addressing questions about the decision, but no statement had been issued by Monday.

Altier said the selection committee will rely more on regional advisory committee members who see games in person and less on statistical metrics to evaluate Big Ten teams.

Altier said he can't criticize the Big Ten for making a decision based on protecting the health and safety of athletes. Still, Altier found it puzzling.

“For me, baseball is a medium contact risk sport, and that’s where it’s been designated (by the NCAA),” he said. “I think there is very little risk of exposure between teams. So I was surprised when anybody elected to not play opponents outside their league or even outside their local area.

“I can understand limiting travel, because the longer you’re on the road and the more distance you have to travel, the greater the exposure is, but it’s not necessarily the opponent. Baseball, unlike football or basketball where you have the high contact... the risk isn’t as great.”

Without nonconference games or a conference tournament this year, Michigan coach Erik Bakich said the only way to guarantee an NCAA bid is to win the regular-season title or finish second.

“If there are three or four teams that are jumbled up at the top and only a game or two separates them," Bakich said, "maybe there’s a case for more teams.”

IN THE POLLS

Arkansas is the consensus No. 1 team after beating TCU and sweeping four games from Southeast Missouri State. The Razorbacks are averaging 7.7 runs per game, have 26 extra-base hits and committed only three errors while starting 7-0.

D1Baseball.com ranks Vanderbilt (6-1) and Mississippi State (5-2) after the Hogs; Baseball America flip flopped those two teams in its rankings.

Collegiate Baseball newspaper has Vandy as its No. 2 team and Florida (6-2) at No. 3.

CLARKE SPARK

South Carolina's Wes Clarke leads the nation in batting average (.636), homers (8) and RBIs (17) after a monster week.

The junior catcher hit three homers against Winthrop last Tuesday and two more Sunday in an 8-7 win that clinched a two-game sweep of in-state rival Clemson. Clarke has homered in four of six games for the unbeaten Gamecocks, including three multi-homer games.

BIG FIRST WIN

It took almost a year, but Andy Pascoe has his first win as Western Illinois' coach. And it was a doozy.

The Leathernecks, who were 0-13 when last season ended because of the pandemic, opened with an 8-3 win at then-No. 4 Louisville on Friday. WIU lost the other two games in the series.

“It was extremely emotional to get my first career win against a highly ranked team, especially after not winning any games last year and coming so close in so many games last year, too,” Pascoe said.

COWBOYS ON ROLL

Oklahoma State is unbeaten through two weeks for the first time since 2014 and looks like the most well-rounded team in the Big 12.

The Cowboys have outscored opponents 41-13 during a 6-0 start. They hit six of their nine homers in a three-game sweep of Illinois State, and they allowed the Redbirds a total of four runs. Their 2.17 ERA is best in the conference.

CRANKING COUGARS

Houston hit a school-record eight of its nation-leading 20 homers in a 14-1 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christie on Saturday. It was the Cougars' most in a game since 1999 and the most by any team since Indiana went deep nine times against Maryland on March 30, 2019.