*This post was primarily written by guest author Colin Wright*
After 2020’s abrupt end to the NCAA baseball season, baseball across Big Ten country finally returned this past weekend. However, just like everything else nowadays, the season comes with several COVID-era modifications.
Unlike many ballparks of schools across the southeast, Big Ten baseball will be played exclusively in front of closed audiences limited only to family and friends of players and the press.
The Big Ten will also be playing an exclusively conference only schedule across it’s thirteen member schools in an effort for universities to continually test and keep tabs on their students and faculty to reduce the potential for the spread of COVID-19.
Regardless of these new pandemic-influenced changes, the existence of a season in the first place is enough cause for joy.
SSB+ Subscription 50% off, one-day only!
With much of the Midwest still waiting to thaw, much of the conference’s first weekend of games were played far away from campus sites around the conference.
Big Ten competition took place this past weekend at Fluor Field in Greenville, SC, The Dell Diamond in Round Rock, TX, and on the turf at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN the usual home of the Minnesota Vikings.
In Greenville, a pod of Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Maryland were camped out for a weekend slate of games that would see the Buckeyes take on the Illini and the Spartans take on the Terrapins.
This would be the norm across the conference with the same being the case with Michigan playing Iowa and Purdue playing Nebraska in suburban Austin and Indiana taking on Rutgers, and Penn State facing Northwestern in Minneapolis.
The first pitch Friday afternoon started a 44 game sprint toward the Big Ten championships in late may, and so far Michigan is clearly the front-runner.
In their first season back since their 2019 College World Series and National Championship appearance against Vanderbilt, the Wolverines are out for blood. However, the mighty Wolverines that we last saw in Omaha might be a little more vulnerable since their stint in the national spotlight.
The team is without stars such as outfielder Jordan Nwogo, infielder Jack Blomgren, and catcher Joe Donovan in 2021. The team will be incredibly dependent on pitcher Stephen Hajjar. In his four starts last season Hajjar posted a 2.08 ERA and a 3-0 record across his four starts last season.
Other serious contenders for the Big Ten crown include Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio State.
While this may not be like the Kyle Schwarber teams of old, these Hoosiers enter 2021 equally as poised to compete. IU is led by outfielder Grant Richardson. In last year’s truncated season, Richardson led the Hooisers with a .424 batting average, five home runs and 17 RBI.
Illinois will lean heavily on Danny Doligale who saw action last season finishing with a .316 while starting on the Illini team that beat Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Coastal Carolina before the onset of Covid.
While Ohio State’s offense may be good, especially with the likes of catcher Brent Todys and his.333 average last season, what makes the Buckeyes really stand out is their rotation led by LHP Seth Lonsway. In limited action in 2020, Lonsway went 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA, but the lefty struck out an incredible 42 batters in 18 innings of action and only gave up 18 walks. He should be a serious contender for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year in 2021.