OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Indiana enters the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 1 seed, the national leader in home runs and the top scoring team in the conference.
Its toughest opponent might be TD Ameritrade Park.
The ballpark is one of the most cavernous in the country, and the dearth of homers the first few years the College World Series was played in the stadium drew criticism. The ball has been carrying better since 2015, when the NCAA went to the flat-seam ball, but homers are still at a premium.
“I understand the concern,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said Tuesday. “Just like every other problem we’ve had to solve, we’ll have to solve this one, too, and find a way to be productive.”
The double-elimination tournament opens Wednesday with No. 3 seed Illinois (36-17) playing No. 6 Maryland (28-27). Games to follow are No. 2 Michigan (38-16) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (31-24), Indiana (36-19) vs. No. 8 Iowa (30-22) and No. 4 Minnesota (26-25) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (28-20). The championship game is Sunday.
The 33-year-old Mercer, the Big Ten coach of the year in his first season after being hired away from Wright State, inherited a team built for power. The Hoosiers are an all-or-nothing ballclub, having hit 90 homers and struck out a nation-leading and conference-record 591 times.
Indiana’s Matt Lloyd and Cole Barr share the league lead with 16 homers apiece, and teammate Matt Gorski is tied for fifth with 12.
The Hoosiers are averaging 1.7 homers per game both home and away and 1.3 at neutral sites. TD Ameritrade is the regular-season home of Creighton, and the ballpark surrendered a total of 21 in 18 games — 14 by the Bluejays and seven by opponents, not counting one inside-the-park homer.
Minnesota, which won the Big Ten tournament last year at TD Ameritrade, hit no home runs in its first three games but had two in the championship game against Purdue.
“A lot of space out there, a lot of room,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “Your ability to play defense, especially outfield defense in a big ballpark, becomes critical. I think the facility is a factor here. I don’t think the home run plays as much as it might in our league. We’ll see.”
The Hoosiers’ defense and pitching have improved over the season. An offense averaging 7.1 runs per game has been a constant.
Strikeouts have come down in recent weeks, and the Hoosiers have gotten better at moving runners along by stringing together at-bats rather than by waiting for the long ball. That could serve them well in Omaha.
“The last couple weeks we’ve played against the best teams in the league and we’ve played on some non-offensive days with wind blowing in at big ballparks,” Mercer said. “We’ve found ways to do that. Everywhere I’ve been we’ve been terrific offensively. It’s just what we do.”
Illinois has won 14 of 18 games following a three-week spell in which it lost nine of 14.
“We started conference 1-5 and worked ourselves into a third seed,” coach Dan Hartleb said. “It comes down to getting the key pitch, key hit, and good leadership within our team to steady the ship and not panic.”
Michigan enters the tournament in a funk after losing five of its last seven. The Wolverines, who were in first place most of the season, finished a half-game behind Indiana.
“Our guys were extremely disappointed coming into this knowing we didn’t do as well as we should have done and could have done,” coach Erik Bakich said.
BIG TEN AWARDS
Michigan’s Jordan Brewer was named Big Ten player of the year and Indiana’s Andrew Saalfrank was named pitcher of the year. Brewer leads the league in batting (.358), and second in slugging percentage (.637), stolen bases (19), hits (69) and RBIs (52). Saalfrank is second in the Big Ten in wins (8) and third in strikeouts (96).
THE RESPECT CARD
Big Ten schools are spending more money on baseball, and the conference’s number of NCAA Tournament bids has increased to an average of four since 2015. Minnesota’s Anderson said the only thing holding back Big Ten baseball is cold weather. The conference is No. 7 in the RPI.
“I think this league doesn’t get the credit it deserves nationally because we have to play so many road games the first four to six weekends of the year, and it impacts our RPI as a league and how people view us from a national perspective,” Anderson said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in America who wants to play a team from the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament because they know they’re going to get a quality opponent.”
Having Nebraska make the tournament should boost attendance. The Cornhuskers’ absence last year showed up at the turnstiles, with the Big Ten announcing the five-day attendance at 12,404. Total attendance was 62,044 in 2014 and 33,728 in 2016, the previous years the tournament was in Omaha. The Huskers were in the field both times.