Three Strikes: Big Ten Begins Play, SIU’s Hot Start

Image credit: Maryland righthander Sean Burke (Photo courtesy of Maryland)

Big Ten Prepares for Unique Season

After an offseason of uncertainty and a preseason filled with plenty of consternation about its quick decision to play a conference-only schedule and then its slow process of producing a slate, the Big Ten is set to begin its season Friday. 

This part is simple enough to grasp: each team is scheduled to play 44 Big Ten games with no non-conference competition and with no Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season. How each team will arrive at 44 games, however, is anything but simple. 

The schedule begins with teams split up to play games in three locations during the first weekend of play—Round Rock, Texas; Greenville, S.C., and Minneapolis, Minn., where hosting Minnesota will use its winter home—the domed U.S. Bank Stadium. 

And things don’t necessarily get more straightforward once teams return to campus, as each weekend is filled with a mix of traditional three-game series, four-game series and “pods,” where three teams travel to one site and play four games total, two against each opposing team. 

No one is going to stand up and laud this solution as being perfect. Instead, it’s thought of as a good enough way to muddle through given the circumstances and the challenge of trying to organize an uneven number of teams (13) into a conference-only schedule.

“It’s the best we could do with what we were given,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. 

“I’m not going to lie, I don’t think any coach in the league is happy with what is being thrown at us, but we’ll make the best of it.” 

While coaches around the league might lament not being allowed to play a more normal schedule—the Big Ten’s restrictions aren’t unique, but it is the biggest conference to limit its teams so severely—and there was some hand wringing about how long it took for the schedule to be released, there is something to be said for the Big Ten coming up with a unique schedule in an effort to maximize the number of games played. 

The easy solution would have been to play four games per weekend at campus sites starting in mid March and play about 36 games. Instead, this unconventional idea was hatched, and at the very least, it has gotten the Big Ten closer to something that feels like a full slate of games. 

“The one thing that’s pretty unanimous around the coaches in our league (is) we just want to play as many games as humanly possible,” Maryland coach Rob Vaughn said. “You know, these (players) got cut short last year, (so) we just wanted to play as much as we could, however we could, in the safest manner that we could.”

The league has also built in some flexibility in an effort to make sure everyone gets a full complement of games. When bad weather hits or if a team has to be sidelined due to Covid-19 protocols, there are contingency plans in place to move affected teams around to play in other places. 

“The one real positive to the schedule is that, let’s say we were playing somebody and they went down with Covid, there’s a chance to get one of the teams from the pod that’s the closest to you to be able to jump out of that pod and play head-to-head where that way would possibly save teams sitting out when they were healthy,” Heller said.

Additionally, Heller noted the possibility of turning three-game series into four-game series along the way to make up for lost games and even the possibility of playing nearby opponents on a Tuesday to make up for games that may have been lost. So, we know that the league and its teams are going to be able to do whatever it takes to get games in. 

What we don’t know is how this unique arrangement will affect the Big Ten teams’ postseason prospects. Because they won’t be playing opponents outside the conference, traditional metrics like RPI won’t be an effective way to measure the quality of the conference and we won’t get a chance to see teams’ head-to-head results against other postseason hopefuls from other leagues. 

Also, does it benefit the league from a perception standpoint if there’s one host-quality team leading the league and raising all boats? Or would it be better if there were a handful of good teams fighting it out for the conference title in May? That’s all to be determined. 

“The NCAA baseball (selection) committee is going to have a difficult job because I think there is going to be a lot of variances and things that happened in the course of the season across the country,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “I think the RPI, obviously, when we’re only playing conference teams, might be less of an impact for us. So, how they sort through all that I think is going to be their challenge.”

Southern Illinois Slugs Way to 8-0 Start

With a road sweep of Mercer last weekend, along the way becoming just the second team in the last 10 years to sweep the Bears on their home field, Southern Illinois got off to a 7-0 start, the program’s best start since 1967.

On Tuesday, the Salukis stretched their record to 8-0 with a win against Western Illinois. They have won 13 straight games dating to last season, their longest winning streak since 1990.

There are a handful of reasons why SIU has come out of the gate hot, but you have to start with offensive production. An experienced Southern Illinois lineup is hitting .329/.421/.590. While some of those numbers come from a team feasting in an offense-friendly environment at Mercer, this team has swung the bats well all season long. 

The Salukis scored eight runs on Opening Day against Jacksonville State, 13 runs two days later against Alabama State and 10 runs in a midweek game against Eastern Illinois prior to the series at Mercer, where they scored 33 runs in three games. 

“I think we’ve swung it better than I could have ever expected over the first two weeks,” Southern Illinois coach Lance Rhodes said.

Leading the way has been fifth-year senior first baseman Philip Archer (.469/.564/.938, 3 HR), third-year sophomore center fielder Tristan Peters (.394/.487/.515), fifth-year senior shortstop Nick Neville (.378/.415/.649, 3 HR), fifth-year senior third baseman Ian Walters (.343/.452/.771, 4 HR), third-year sophomore DH Vinni Massaglia (.296/.441/.667, 3 HR) and fourth-year junior left fielder J.T. Weber (.278/.300/.722, 5 HR). 

Archer, Neville, Walters and Weber were all big parts of the lineup last season, while Peters and Massaglia are transfers from the junior college level. Put together, they’ve not only helped give the lineup impressive length, but they’ve also helped the Salukis hit for more power. In 18 games last season, they hit 10 homers and slugged .412 as a team. This season in eight games, they’ve hit 19 and are slugging .590. 

“We do have some guys that know the strike zone extremely well, it’s something that we harp on all the time, as far as getting good pitches to hit, and as soon as we get that good pitch, we want to put the ball in play with authority,” Rhodes said. 

Without a returning workhorse from last season, there was and continues to be more uncertainty on the mound, but SIU really likes what it has gotten from a pair of junior college transfer righthanders in Mike Hansell (1.69, 10.1 IP) and Ben Chapman (0.00, 13 IP) in the rotation. 

“Going into the season, we put a brand-new junior college guy out there, Mike Hansell, and he’s got Friday night stuff,” Rhodes said. “He’s 90-94 (mph), he’s got a really good slider that can get people out. He’s got a good splitty that can get people out. 

“Another guy, Ben Chapman, who has kind of been on the back end of the rotation for us, was another guy who was throwing extremely well ever since he stepped foot on our campus. He’s just a junior college kid that was mainly a catcher whenever he came to our program, and he was a closer for his junior college, and when he came here, he just transitioned to pitcher only.”

How well the pitching staff continues to develop as the season goes on is likely to have a lot to do with SIU’s ceiling, and in that regard, it helps to have former Missouri coach Tim Jamieson, who has a long history of developing outstanding pitchers, on board as the team’s pitching coach. 

But at least at this early juncture, it already seems clear that this is an improved team over last season, and last season’s team appeared to be a clear improvement from previous seasons as it was. The program’s progress under Rhodes, in his second season since being hired as head coach, has been strong.

Over the last two weeks, SIU has beaten two conference title favorites in Jacksonville State and Alabama State, plus Mercer, a perennial contender in the Southern Conference. Compare that to 2020, when the Salukis were 12-6 with a win against Southern California but no other wins against teams that were expected to contend for the postseason. 

The real test this season, though, will come once SIU enters Missouri Valley Conference play. It’s one of the most competitive mid-major conferences out there, so a team can’t fluke its way into finishing near the top of the standings. 

“If we’re in the top of the league, fighting for that opportunity (for a championship), then we had a really good year because I think our league is super competitive, super tough,” Rhodes said.

Southern Illinois, a program that went to the College World Series five times between 1968 and 1977, hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1990. The Salukis still have a lot to prove this season in order to go from where they are now to being in position to break that streak, but for the first time in a long time, the start to the season has provided plenty of optimism. 

NKU’s Todd Asalon Announces Retirement, Coaching Carousel Begins

On Feb. 26, through a press release, Northern Kentucky coach Todd Asalon announced that he would retire at the end of the 2021 season after 21 seasons at the helm. 

Asalon came to the decision over the course of the extended Covid-19 pandemic-induced offseason. Away from the grind of the college baseball calendar for the first time in a long time, he spent a lot of time at home with family over the last year and he found out that he liked it quite a bit, and furthermore, that he was no longer willing to make the types of sacrifices that being a college baseball coach requires of a person. 

“That time at home, I’m just like, ‘This isn’t so bad, being home, not a bad gig,’ ” Asalon said. “It was really nice. I felt like my life slowed down.”

NKU’s transition up to Division I has been a struggle at times, especially when it was a member of the extremely competitive ASUN Conference before moving to the Horizon League, but prior to that, the Norse were a power in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference under Asalon. 

They went to the DII NCAA Tournament eight times in 12 seasons between 2001 and 2012, including each of the last five years before moving up to DI. It’s the memories of those teams that Asalon will hold on to. 

“My second year, we won the conference championship. That was special, my first one,” Asalon said. “We ran off a lot (of championships) after that. For 10 years after that, I think we won five championships, and if we didn’t win it, we came in second. We had a really, really good niche in Division II at NKU, like all of our sports did, so those are my favorite memories, winning championships, winning rings and that kind of stuff.”

Asalon is the second coach to retire already in 2021, joining Rob Smith, who in January retired after eight seasons at Ohio. With those moves, the coaching market is already heating up after a slow 2020.

One obvious candidate to succeed Asalon is longtime pitching coach Dizzy Peyton, a former NKU pitcher who has been on staff in some capacity since 2005. Asalon notes that he asked the NKU administration to strongly consider Peyton for the role, given his familiarity with the program and his qualifications. 

Whoever it is, the next NKU coach will be just the third coach in the history of the program, as Asalon took over for program founder Bill Aker, and for that next person in line, there will be challenges. 

The team’s facilities are subpar, even within the scope of the Horizon League, and there is no true dedicated indoor practice facility. And although it finds itself in a fairly advantageous area for recruiting, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, that region is fairly congested with other mid- and low-major programs vying for a similar caliber of player. 

At the same time, it will provide a chance for a coach to meticulously build a program. Not only is it a fairly new Division I program, which might make it more malleable than one with a long history of success at this level, but the NKU administration is well aware of the baseball program’s competitive challenges and will likely have the requisite amount of patience and understanding as a result. 

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