IOWA BASEBALL: SEVENTH INNING STRETCH SEASON UPDATE

Beat the Illini.

In truth, we're probably a little deeper in the season than the seventh inning stretch (Iowa has just six more regular season games remaining), but am I going to let that destroy my metaphor?  No, I am not.

So where does Iowa stand right now?  To the standings!

TEAM B1G RECORD OVERALL RECORD RPI
1 Indiana 16-2 32-12 4
2 Nebraska 13-5 32-17 44
2 Illinois 13-5 27-17 66
4 Michigan 11-10 24-25-1 134
5 Minnesota 9-9 23-20 106
6 Iowa 8-10 27-17 92
6 Michigan State 8-10 26-20 116
6 Ohio State 8-10 27-22 86
9 Penn State 5-12 17-26 219
10 Purdue 5-13 12-32 188
11 Northwestern 5-15 15-31 247

As you can see, in addition to the conference standings and the overall standings, I also added a column for each team's RPI ranking.  Baseball RPI isn't much different than basketball RPI, so a lot of the same complaints apply, but even with that being the case, we can see a few things.  One, Indiana is really, really, really good.  They're currently ranked 4th in the nation in RPI; they've been as high as 2nd.  They're clearly the best team in the Big Ten, but if something shocking happens and they don't win the Big Ten Tournament and grab the Big Ten's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they're a shoo-in for an at-large berth.  Two, Northwestern is really, really, really bad.  Let's take a moment to point and laugh at them, too.  (Let's just ignore the part where they staged a miraculous comeback and beat Iowa, 14-13, earlier this year.)

Anyway.  Iowa actually has the 5th best RPI in the league, but they obviously sit a few spots behind the likes of Michigan and Minnesota in the standings (that blown game against Northwestern looms large here).  Iowa sits in sixth place... but they also sit in eighth place, thanks to the three-way logjam of teams with 8-10 records.  I'm not sure of the tiebreakers that would be used to determine which teams get the 6th, 7th, and 8th seeds if they remain tied up through the end of the season; that's a concern for a few weeks from now.  The good news is that Iowa is still in good position to make the Big Ten Tournament this year (which was an all-too-rare occurrence under previous coach Jack Dahn, albeit it was also a bigger accomplishment back then since only six teams made the tournament rather than the eight that will make it this year).  They have a slight cushion over 9th place Penn State, who is finding new ways to embody the term "freefall."  The Nittany Lions have lost 11 straight Big Ten games (and 12 straight overall; they squeezed in a loss to Kent State in there, too) and are moving away from Big Ten Tournament contention rapidly.

Let's take a look at the Big Ten series on tap this weekend, the penultimate weekend of the season.

#2 Illinois at #6 Iowa (Iowa City, IA)
#6 Ohio State at #4 Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)
#1 Indiana at #9 Penn State (at State College, PA)
#10 Purdue at #5 Minnesota (at Minneapolis, MN)
#2 Nebraska at #6 Michigan State (at East Lansing, MI)

Iowa has a tough draw with Illinois, who's tied with Nebraska for the second-best record in the league.  Hopefully a little home cookin' at Duane Banks Field can help them steal a win or two from the higher-ranked Illini. Fortunately, the teams tied with Iowa don't have it too easy, either.  Michigan State hosts Nebraska, while Ohio State heads on the road to face Michigan.  And they can probably all breathe a sigh of relief that Penn State's meltdown is likely to continue with a visit from B1G-dominating Indiana on tap.

Here's the basic game info for Iowa's series with Illinois:

Game 1 - Friday, 5 p.m., BTDN (Johnson, 4-5, 3.25 vs. Hickman, 2-1, 3.68)
Game 2 - Saturday, Noon, BTN (Kravetz, 5-1, 3.09 vs. Kuebel, 6-3, 4.35)
Game 3 - Sunday, 2 p.m., BTDN (Duchene, 2-1, 1.80 vs. Peyton, 4-0, 4.50)

The middle game is on BTN tomorrow afternoon -- that should be fun.  Iowa's 17-2 blitzing of Ohio State last Sunday was also on BTN (as was their 3-2 loss to the Buckeyes on Monday, sadly).  Incidentally, this is the first time Iowa has played Illinois in baseball since 2011 -- apparently it's not just football where the Big Ten is determined to keep us from playing our border rival on anything approximating a regular schedule.  Thanks, Delanybot 9000!

Illinois appears to have a pretty balanced team, in terms of offense and pitching:

Illinois is fourth in the Big Ten with a .277 team batting average with four players hitting above .300. Jason Goldstein leads the team with a .325 batting average with nine doubles, three home runs and 25 RBIs. Casey Fletcher has a team-best six home runs, while David Kerian and Reid Roper are pacing the squad with 29 RBIs.

Illinois enters the weekend with a 3.36 team ERA, which is third-best in the Big Ten, and has five shutouts. The Illini will send redshirt junior Drasen Johnson (4-5, 3.25 ERA) to the mound Friday, junior RHP John Kravetz (5-1, 3.09 ERA) on Saturday and sophomore LHP Kevin Duchene (2-1, 1.80 ERA) on Sunday. Duchene is working his way back after missing a month and a half with forearm tightness. Illinois has 10 saves this season with seven coming from Tyler Jay. He is 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 19 appearances with 35 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings.

Fletcher, in particular, might be a guy Iowa's pitchers want to avoid after what he did last week:

Illinois' Casey Fletcher had a big week at the plate last week for the Illinois. The junior belted five home runs, with three coming last Wednesday against Southern Illinois and two against Michigan State on Saturday, with 10 RBI over a four-game stretch. Not only did Fletcher earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors, he was recognized as a National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and NCAA.com.

FIVE HOME RUNS IN ONE WEEK?  GOT-DAMN.

This doesn't figure to be an easy series for Iowa, but this is their regular season home finale (Senior Day is Sunday) and they've been pretty good at home in B1G play against teams not named Indiana: 4-2, including taking two of three from Nebraska in March.  Go Hawks.

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