College baseball: Minnesota on a roll as Big Ten Tournament returns to Omaha
OMAHA, Neb. — The Big Ten baseball tournament will open a five-year run at TD Ameritrade Park on Wednesday with a wide-open field featuring two of the nation's hottest teams in Minnesota and Purdue and a defending champion Iowa club that's looking to reach a third straight title game.
This will be the third time the tournament is held at the 24,000-seat home of the College World Series. A record 62,044 turned out in 2014 and 33,728 in 2016.
The Big Ten signed a deal for the tournament to be played in Omaha through 2022, a move that coincides with the conference's rising baseball profile. Host Nebraska didn't make the eight-team field after finishing 10th in the regular season, but advance ticket sales assure crowds will dwarf the total turnout of 6,712 last year at 2,000-seat Bart Kaufman Field on the Indiana campus.
"The thing about Omaha, the people value baseball with the World Series," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "We'll get a lot of people who come to the tournament just to watch the baseball. It's a no-brainer to be here."
The tournament opens with Bracket 1 day games pitting No. 3 seed Michigan (32-19) against No. 6 Iowa (33-18) and No. 2 Purdue (34-18) against No. 7 Ohio State (34-20). In Bracket 2 night games, No. 1 Minnesota (37-13) plays No. 8 Michigan State (20-30) and No. 4 Illinois (31-18) meets No. 5 Indiana (37-15).
Bracket winners meet for the title Sunday, with the champion earning the conference's automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
Minnesota has won 21 of its last 24 games to put itself in position to host an NCAA regional for the second time in 20 appearances under 37th-year coach John Anderson.
"The biggest mistake we can make right now is to look ahead," he said. "I think we're interested in playing good baseball, competing and trying to stay in this tournament as long as we possibly can."
Purdue has won 18 of 20, with the two losses coming against Ohio State two weeks ago. The way the last game against the Buckeyes unfolded provides motivation. Purdue led 6-1 in the fifth inning before giving up 15 straight runs and losing 16-6.
"I know when the bracket came out," Boilermakers coach Mark Wasikowski said, "our guys were pretty excited we get a chance to play Ohio State right away."
NCAA tournament implications
The Big Ten is on track to have five teams make the NCAA Tournament — Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State and Illinois — and possibly a record sixth if Michigan makes a run. It would be the second year in a row the Big Ten has had five make the national tournament. Wasikowski said the Big Ten's facilities improvements and increased competitiveness made the Purdue job attractive to him after 17 years as an assistant in the Pac-12. Ten years ago, he said, no one on the West Coast would have imagined the Big Ten possibly having more NCAA teams than the Pac-12.
"Everybody said, 'Let's schedule a Big Ten team early in the year and just beat the snot out of them,' " Wasikowski said. "And you'd schedule three wins, more or less."
Big Ten player of the year Bren Spillane of Illinois won the regular-season triple crown with a .407 batting average, 22 home runs and 57 RBIs. His .944 slugging percentage leads the nation.
Hawkeyes at home
Iowa is the de facto home team because of Nebraska's absence. When Iowa made it to the 2016 Big Ten title game against Ohio State, a crowd of 10,350 showed up.
"Three years ago we played Michigan in a non-championship game, and we got 8,000," Heller said. "If we get marquee game times, the Hawk fans will be here for sure."
Sparty sneaks in
Michigan State avoided missing the tournament for a second straight year by winning two of three against Ohio State last weekend. The Spartans had gone into their final series tied with Maryland for eighth place. The Terrapins owned the tiebreaker over MSU but were swept by Indiana last week.
Ohio State also is back in the tournament after a one-year absence. The Buckeyes have won 12 more games than a year ago to mark the fourth-best turnaround in the country, according to Baseball America.