T arget Field will be host to a showcase of the Big Ten’s top baseball teams for the next five days without any presence from its member university located less than 3 miles away. The Gophers, traditionally one of the conference’s top teams, missed the Big Ten tournament for only the third time in the past 18 seasons after failing to sweep Michigan State in last weekend’s final regular-season series. They finished in ninth place, one position out of the eight-team tournament.
The action starts at 9 a.m. Wednesday for the Big Ten’s best, and the title will be decided at the Twins’ five-year-old stadium for the second time in three years on Sunday afternoon. Here’s an around-the-horn look at what’s ahead:
Illinois hasn’t lost a game in nearly two months. The Fighting Illini won their 26th in a row, tied for a Big Ten record, when they beat Nebraska 10-9 on Friday. Their lone conference loss, their last defeat, came March 29 to Michigan State. Illinois finished atop the standings with 21-1 conference record, and its 45-6-1 overall record is the best in Division I. “I really don’t think this group is concerned about the streak; it’s a byproduct of playing well,” coach Dan Hartleb said Tuesday. “We don’t discuss it, but we’ve enjoyed it, and to this point they’ve handled it really, really well.” Illinois has two top-five rankings, the USA Today coaches poll and Baseball America poll, and owns a No. 10 RPI ranking. That should be good enough to host an NCAA tournament regional, a big step toward possibly claiming one of the eight national seeds for the College World Series.
Chance for redemption
Red Wing native Ryan Boldt entered the 2013 high school baseball season as Minnesota’s prized prospect, considered a favorite to lead his team to a state championship at Target Field and to be selected early in the first round of the MLB draft. Just weeks into the season that changed, when Boldt injured his right knee and finished his prep career with his leg in a brace. The outfielder kept his commitment to Nebraska, where he’s grown into one of the top players with a team-leading .350 average and nine stolen bases. Two years after missing out on a chance to showcase his talent at Target Field, he’ll get redemption starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Big Ten’s banner year
The Big Ten features a team ranked in the top five in two national polls and five teams ranked in the top 40 in RPI, with a sixth not far behind. All eight teams in this week’s tournament have more than 30 victories, including some against traditional powers from the warm states. The success could earn the conference as many as six spots in next week’s NCAA tournament, with four spots likely already locked up. The eight coaches were in agreement on Tuesday that this weekend’s event will be as competitive as any conference tournament in the country.
The Hawkeyes have transformed into a national contender in just two seasons under coach Rick Heller. They’re ranked 19th in the Baseball America poll and placed second in the Big Ten with a 19-5 record. Under Heller, they’ve compiled back-to-back 30-victory seasons after achieving this feat only twice in the previous 20 years. “It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of excitement, a lot of positive feedback for our program,” Heller said. “I felt like when I was first hired, if we could show some signs of life, the Hawkeye fans would come out and support us … and they have.” Iowa swept the Gophers in the second-to-last regular-season series, a result that helped cost Minnesota its spot. Things have changed quickly under Heller, and top recruits are taking notice: Next season’s incoming crop was rated the top class in the Big Ten and 40th in the nation by Perfect Game.