The Big Ten is known for its strength on the football field and basketball court, but if Wednesday’s baseball games were any indication, the rest of the conference tournament is appointment viewing for hardball fans.
Iowa’s Nick Day stunned Ohio State with a dramatic walk-off home run. Illinois, the overwhelming favorite, needed some late magic to rally past underdog Nebraska. Maryland edged Michigan State in the nightcap. The two-time defending Big Ten tournament champion Indiana Hoosiers lost to Michigan.
Thursday is when the real drama starts, as Wednesday's losers will fight for their tournament lives, and the winners will attempt to create separation from the rest of the field in the double-elimination format.
With that in mind, here is a look at Thursday’s schedule, predicted winners and game to watch.
|Thursday Schedule and Predictions|
|Game||Time (CT)||Predicted Winner|
|No. 6 Indiana vs. No. 7 Ohio State||9 a.m.||Indiana|
|No. 8 Nebraska vs. No. 5 Michigan State||1 p.m.||Michigan State|
|No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 2 Iowa||5 p.m.||Iowa|
|No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 4 Maryland||9 p.m.||Illinois|
Thursday’s Game to Watch: No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 4 Maryland
With all due respect to Maryland, this is the game to watch because it features powerhouse Illinois.
The Fighting Illini went 21-1 during the Big Ten regular season on the way to a conference crown and won their 27th game in a row Wednesday. That tournament-opening victory came against Nebraska, and Illinois' official Twitter account passed along some of the history the Fighting Illini made in the process:
Simply put, Illinois is a machine and the clear favorite to capture the tournament crown. It will likely host an NCAA tournament regional as well, although winning the Big Ten tournament would go a long way toward solidifying what is already a sparking resume.
For as great as the Fighting Illini have been all season, they didn't look unbeatable Wednesday against the Cornhuskers. In fact, Nebraska seized the initial 2-0 lead, and Illinois needed a Pat McInerney single in the bottom of the eighth inning to complete the comeback on the way to a 3-2 win.
While a stronger team than Nebraska may have beaten Illinois' Wednesday effort, the pitching staff did its job and held the Cornhuskers to two runs. Kevin Duchene started the game, and superstar closer Tyler Jay demonstrated why Illinois will be so difficult to beat in this tournament.
He shut the door in three batters on the way to his 23rd save of the year. If the opponent isn't tied or leading after eight, the game is over with Jay on the mound. That is a problem for the rest of the league if it hopes to somehow beat Illinois two times in this event.
Jim Shonerd of Baseball America noted that Jay didn't need long to show the scouts what they came to see:
Illinois led the Big Ten in ERA and batting average and has the fewest losses in Division I baseball this season. The Fighting Illini are the marquee attraction at this tournament whenever they take the field, and Thursday will be no different.
Duchene commented on his team's position, per Mark Tupper of the Herald & Review:
Truthfully, I feel like we’re riding a wave. And there’s no reason to switch gears and get off that wave yet.
What’s going on is something we’ll be able to look back on in a couple of years and say, "Wow! It’s pretty amazing what we did." But it’s hard to look back on something when you’re living in the moment.
Maryland will at least pose a challenge, though.
The Terrapins knocked off Michigan State Wednesday, and the Spartans were the last team to defeat Illinois (all the way back in March). D1Baseball.com also projects Maryland as an NCAA tournament team.
A postseason win over Illinois would solidify an already solid Maryland resume and set the Terrapins up for continued success in the Big Ten tournament with a perfect 2-0 start in a double-elimination format.
The only problem for Maryland is the juggernaut standing in the way Thursday.