OSU-Illini Tilt Shows Better Big Ten

After years on the fringes of college baseball, the Big Ten has jumped to prominence this year, shown in part by this weekend's Ohio State-Illinois tilt in Columbus that matches two top-25 teams.

When Ronnie Dawson was serving as a batboy at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus, he heard it.

A native of Grove City, he spent his time around professional baseball while working for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, and everyone knew he was headed to Ohio State to play baseball.

And occasionally, some people at the park would have something to say about it.

“They used to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re going to Ohio State? They don’t play good baseball in the Big Ten,’ ” Dawson said. “The Big Ten was always football, basketball – never baseball.”

Those players had reason for their derision. When Indiana made the College World Series in 2013, it ended a nearly three-decade absence for the Big Ten in Omaha as the Hoosiers were the first league team to crash the party since Michigan in 1984.

Now, this weekend, the No. 23 Ohio State baseball team will host No. 7 Illinois in a matchup you could find in the SEC or Pac-12 on any given weekend. Ohio State enters this weekend’s three-game set at Bill Davis Stadium ranked 11th in the RPI and Illinois is 21st, while Nebraska (12th), Iowa (25th), Michigan State (30th) and Maryland (31st) give the Big Ten the potential to have six teams in the NCAA tournament this season. And national media from around the country is expected to be in Columbus this weekend to check out the series.

So, is the Big Ten now a baseball conference?

LINK: Baseball Notes

Unquestionably, it seems to be getting better.

“It’s obviously good for our conference,” Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. “What Indiana has done the last couple of years was good for our conference. As coaches throughout the conference, when we got together in September, we had the feeling that we were getting pretty good as a conference.

“It’s really good to see everybody going out and playing as well as they have this year. Our thoughts are coming true that we are establishing ourselves not only as a Power 5 conference in football and basketball but in baseball as well.”

So how did the Big Ten, which as recently as 2011 was a one-bid league in the NCAA tournament, get to this point?

LINK: OSU Baseball Deserves Support

First, the league maybe didn’t have as far to go as it appeared. Ohio State hosted NCAA Super Regionals in 1999 and 2003, falling just short in the last step before Omaha under Hall of Fame coach Bob Todd. In 2007, three Big Ten teams made the NCAA tournament, with Michigan upsetting top-seeded Vanderbilt in the regional round before falling to eventual champ Oregon State in the Super Regional. This is the conference of Jim Abbott and Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and Barry Larkin, after all.

Add in Nebraska, which made three College World Series appearances in the 2000s and went to the NCAA tournament in nine of 10 years from 1999-2008, and Maryland, a rising ACC power at the time it joined the Big Ten, and the league’s depth has improved as the conference has expanded the past four years.

Michael Baumann, the north regional editor of D1Baseball.com, says other factors are at play as well. Such schools as Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota have undertaken major renovations to their stadiums in recent years, while the league has done what it could to bolster the talent in its coaching ranks.

“All those schools that are traditionally football and basketball schools – Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State – are investing in baseball in a big way,” Baumann said this week on our Buckeye Beat podcast. “We’re seeing the power of schools with money wanting to succeed at baseball.”

More specifically, Baumann says, “It’s the coaches.” Looking at the six Big Ten teams in the top 31 in RPI, most have energetic young mentors, as four – Beals, Nebraska’s Darin Erstad, Maryland’s John Szefc and Iowa’s Rick Heller – have been hired in the past five years after success at lower levels or in the case of Erstad, a successful major league career.

“The ones you’re seeing succeeding brought on a new coach recently,” Baumann said, “and all of those coaches have tended to be either successful young mid-major coaches like Greg Beals or Rick Heller at Iowa … or top assistants at successful programs, like Chris Lemonis who took over at Indiana this year who was the hitting coach at Louisville.”

Baumann also sees jealousy at play. For so long, the thought of a Big Ten team making it to the College World Series seemed nearly impossible; once Indiana did it, schools not only knew it was possible, they wanted to replicate the feat.

“You see Indiana make the run they had in 2013 and then last year earning a national seed before being upset in the regional, you can’t really overstate the power of jealousy in the Big Ten,” Baumann said. “Ohio State doesn’t like not being as good as X, Y or Z as Michigan or Illinois or whoever.”

The Big Ten has also seen an increase in star power the past couple of years, something that could be encapsulated by someone like Kyle Schwarber, the Indiana catcher drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Cubs last year who is hitting .377 in the early going at Double-A. This year, there is tremendous pitching depth in the league, with Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all in the top 15 in the nation in ERA.

There is still work to do, of course. There are just 20 alums of Big Ten schools who have played in Major League Baseball so far this year, and only 10 of them actually played in the conference while the other half suited up for Nebraska, Maryland or Rutgers before they joined the league.

But Big Ten baseball seems to be on the rise – just as Dawson told the naysayers back when he worked in downtown Columbus.

“I was like, ‘We’re going to start being good,’ ” he said. “And it’s starting to show. The Big Ten can play with anybody.”

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