The snow is falling again here in the mitten, so it must be time for conference action to begin. (For those heading this way, as both Michigan and Michigan State are home, the forecast is for four to six inches of snow this evening and into tomorrow morning. The consolation is that weather forecasting is, to be polite, an inexact science.) My heart wants to crank out a protracted preview of this weekend's slate, but my brain says that's going to run past my bedtime.
This time, my brain wins. (A sign I'm getting older, no doubt.) Let me share a thought or two about each of the five series on tap for this first weekend.
Indiana (10-7) @ Minnesota (10-9)
This is probably the marquee match-up of the opening weekend of Big Ten play. The young Hoosiers are hoping to make a statement in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The Gophers, however, are fresh off a two-game split with #2 Missouri and look to be improving with each week.
Can Matt Bashore dazzle the Gophers? Are the Hoosiers ready to contend? Will the Gophers have a letdown after the Mizzou series? Or does the Minnesota charge to a title begin here? Shouldn't the Big Ten Network really be in Minneapolis this weekend?
Penn State (5-12) @ Ohio State (10-6)
This looked like a dynamic series until the season began. Somewhere between here and there, Penn State has lost their way. Stats rarely tell the entire story, but the Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten in batting average, ERA and fielding percentage. That pretty much sums up the unexpected decline from PSU.
On the other hand, I'm starting to like this group of Buckeyes. There's a nice mix of veterans and fresh faces. Yes, I'm concerned about their bullpen. Yes, the infield is, for the most part, very young. No, they don't hit many homers. Yet, I just get this feeling about the way OSU is playing. Maybe it's just an overdose of snow.
Iowa (7-9) @ Michigan (10-6)
I hope Nate Recknagel and Chris Berset keep their arms warm. The Michigan catchers will be throwing frequently as these Hawkeyes run. A lot. They've stolen a conference leading forty-two bases on fifty-four tries. Somewhat surprisingly, Michigan and Indiana (not so surprisingly) are second with only twenty-six swipes. Expect the hard-charging Hawks to keep pressure on Michigan all weekend.
Iowa pitchers had best keep Mr. Recknagel inside the park. The senior catcher/firstbaseman is leading the conference with seven dingers already. He's the current leader for conference player of the year, at least in one writer's opinion. Long way to go, of course. It will also be interesting to see how Michigan's pitching fares after Zach Putnam and Chris Fetter.
Illinois (9-6) @ Michigan State (7-9)
This was an incredible series to conclude the '07 season. Not quite as much on the line this weekend, but I expect both sides to be looking for one of those last conference tournament slots in May. A win now counts the same as a win later, right?
I really don't feel like the Spartans' hitters have put everything together yet. Is that going to happen on a cold opening weekend in East Lansing? Perhaps, not. It may help the Illini to catch MSU before the weather and their bats warm up.
Northwesten (4-9) @ Purdue (7-11)
I hate to say this, but Purdue is playing better. I hate to say it because this observation will undoubtedly will lead to a Boilers' collapse. It usually does. However, I've noticed since Purdue has moved Brandon Haveman to the top of the order and inserted Ben Wolgamot into the lineup, the wins have become more frequent. It's also about time for Ryne White's bat to heat up.
NU's Jake Goebbert might be the player most under-the-radar in the conference. He's second in slugging percentage at .720 and tenth in OBP at .460. Mike Kalina has also been stellar this year. He remains amongst the conference leaders in batting average (.472, 1st), slugging (.642, 3rd) and OBP (.509, 5th). The 'Cats can hit, but whether they can pitch well enough to take this series is the question.
I hope everyone can get out to the ballpark this weekend. Even if you can't, I hope you'll enjoy the opening weekend of Big Ten action.