In lieu of a recap of Iowa's midweek games -- Iowa beat NAIA team Grand View 3-0 on Tuesday and had Wednesday's game with Nebraska Omaha canceled due to poor weather -- let's look at the Big Ten standings and see what Iowa's chances of making the Big Ten Tournament look like with a little under a month to go.
Unlike the Big Ten Tournaments in several other sports, which invite all teams in the league, only eight teams get invitations to the Big Ten Baseball Tournament at the end of the season. As you'd probably expect, those eight invitations go to the top eight teams in the Big Ten standings. At present, Iowa sits at... ninth, two games behind eighth-place Illinois in the loss column. The top four teams in the standings -- Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana all appear to be in good shape to make the Big Ten Tournament. After that, though, things get messy.
Iowa is outside the top-8 -- but they're also just two games back of fifth-place Penn State. Two games is not an insignificant margin in the standings, but making it up is doable. Of course, two teams (Ohio State and Rutgers) sit narrowly behind Iowa at 5-7 in league play -- if we can't rule out Iowa, we also can't really rule out those two teams. We can rule out Northwestern and Purdue, though -- they're absolutely horrible.
Big Ten expansion has inflated league revenues, but from a competitive standpoint, it's also made the issue of imbalanced scheduling even more problematic. Iowa benefited from that imbalance in football (and wrestling) last season by taking advantage of easy conference schedules, while they were on the other side of the imbalance in basketball and had to play a much tougher schedule than eventual Big Ten champion Indiana (though it was ultimately losses against weaker teams that truly doomed Iowa's Big Ten championship aspirations). In baseball, Iowa definitely got the short end of the stick when it comes to imbalanced scheduling. The Hawkeyes have played three of the top four teams in the Big Ten this season (and they'll play the remaining team, Michigan State, in a few weeks) -- and gone 3-9 in those games. They've played zero games against the bottom four teams in the Big Ten (although they'll play one of those teams, Ohio State, in a critical series in a few weeks).
But there's no changing the schedule now -- we must simply deal with the hand that was dealt to us by the Delanybot 9000. So how do the closing stretches of league play look for Iowa and the other six teams vying for the four available spots to the Big Ten Tournament?
5th: PENN STATE (9-6 Big Ten)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: home vs Maryland (7th, 7-5)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: away at Nebraska (6th, 7-5)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: home vs Iowa (9th, 7-8)
Penn State is riding high in fifth at the moment, but they've also played more league games than the teams directly behind them (15 versus 12), so they could be passed soon. All three of PSU's remaining series are against teams in the thick of the Big Ten Tournament hunt, with home series against Maryland and Iowa sandwiched around a road series with Nebraska. Penn State is 13-4 at home this year, including a 4-2 mark in league play, but the Nittany Lions feel a bit like paper tigers -- six of their nine wins have come against Purdue and Northwestern who are, as previously noted, absolutely horrible. They've gone 3-6 against Illinois, Michigan State, and Rutgers in their other league games. They seem primed for a fall.
6th: NEBRASKA (7-5 Big Ten)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: away at Rutgers (11th, 5-7)
5/7, 5/8, 5/9: away at Michigan State (3rd, 8-4)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: home vs Penn State (5th, 9-6)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: home vs Indiana (4th, 8-4)
Nebraska is lurking right behind Penn State and has won four of their last five, but before that they lost five in a row, getting swept by Michigan and losing to Creighton and Northwestern as well. Like Penn State, they also feasted on the Big Ten dregs -- they went 5-1 against Northwestern and they have a tricky-looking stretch to close the season. Their series with Rutgers this weekend looks easy on paper, but Rutgers is 4-2 against Big Ten opponents at home this year. Nebraska follows that up with a very difficult-looking road trip to Michigan State next week before wrapping up with home series against Penn State and Indiana; at present, those final three series are all against top-5 teams in the standings.
7th: MARYLAND (7-5 Big T en)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: away at Penn State (5th, 9-6)
5/6, 5/7, 5/8: home vs Illinois (8th, 6-6)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: home vs Rutgers (11th, 5-7)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: away at Michigan State (3rd, 8-4)
Maryland is level with the Huskers at 7-5 int he Big Ten, which includes a sweep of Ohio State and winning two of three from Purdue. This weekend's series with Penn State looks pivotal -- if either team manages to sweep, it could give them a solid advantage to take into the final few weeks of league play. Maryland has a pair of home series against Illinois and Rutgers after that and wraps up with a road series against Michigan State. Given Maryland's troubles on the road (7-11 overall, 2-4 in Big Ten), they probably want to try and have a Top-8 spot secured by that series.
8th: ILLINOIS (6-6 Big Ten)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: home vs Minnesota (1st, 9-2)
5/6, 5/7, 5/8: away at Maryland (7th, 7-5)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: away at Indiana (4th, 8-4)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: home vs Michigan (2nd, 8-3)
Illinois is directly ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten standings and has that aforementioned two-game lead on the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten standings, which is bad news. The good news? Illinois has a very tough closing stretch, with home series against Minnesota and Michigan, the top two teams in the league, and road series against a good Indiana team and a Maryland team scrapping for their own top-8 finish. It's not hard at all to forecast several more Illinois losses over the remainder of the season.
9th: IOWA (7-8 Big Ten)
5/6, 5/7, 58: away at Ohio State (10th, 5-7)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: home vs Michigan State (3rd, 8-4)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: away at Penn State (5th, 9-6)
Unfortunately for our beloved Hawkeyes, their own closing stretch includes its share of potholes, too. Iowa has been good at home (12-4 overall, 5-4 in Big Ten play), but Michigan State will be a difficult foe for Iowa's final home series of Big Ten play (MSU is 4-2 on the road in the Big Ten this year, although half of those wins did come against Purdue). Iowa probably needs to take at least two of three from that series. The trick for Iowa will be figuring out a way to have some success on the road. They're 3-12 overall on the road this year, and 2-4 in Big Ten play. Next weekend's series with Ohio State will be crucial, given their proximity in the standings -- Iowa is ahead of OSU for now, but that may not be the case when they meet next week since OSU plays lousy Purdue this week. Regardless, losing two of three (or worse, all three) to Ohio State could drop Iowa too far in the standings to claw their way into the bottom of the Top-8. The final weekend series against Penn State will also be challenging, though at this point the key is Iowa still being in contention for the Top-8 by that time those games roll around.
10th: OHIO STATE (5-7 Big Ten)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: away at Purdue (13th, 2-13)
5/6, 5/7, 5/8: home vs Iowa (9th, 7-8)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: home vs Michigan (2nd, 8-3)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: away at Minnesota (1st, 9-2)
Ohio State is on the outside looking in right now, but they have a schedule that could help them sneak into the Top-8 -- sort of. This weekend's series against Official Big Ten Patsies Purdue is must-win -- they need to take at least two of three from the Boilermakers, though a sweep would be ideal -- and next weekend's series with Iowa will be pivotal for both teams. They may need to win as many of their next six games as possible, because no one in the Big Ten has a more unforgiving final two weeks than the Buckeyes, who host Michigan (8-3, second in the standings) and travel to Minnesota (9-2, first in the standings) over those six games. There may not be too many wins to come by for OSU in those games.
11th: RUTGERS (5-7 Big Ten)
4/29, 4/30, 5/1: home vs Nebraska (6th, 7-5)
5/6, 5/7, 5/8: away at Michigan (2nd, 8-3)
5/13, 5/14, 5/15: away at Maryland (7th, 7-5)
5/19, 5/20, 5/21: home vs Northwestern (12th, 2-13)
Rutgers is also on the outside looking in, but they have several potential wins lurking on their schedule, which could help them sneak in the back door to the Big Ten Tournament. The Scarlet Knights wrap up the series with three games against a dismal Northwestern team, so if they're still close to the Top-8 by then, they should be very well-situated to get the last few wins they need to get into the Big Ten Tournament. The key will be winning enough games before then to stay close enough for those games against Northwestern to matter. Their toughest remaining games are a road trip to Michigan next week -- winning two or more there would obviously be outstanding, but that's probably not realistic. If they can take at least one from the Wolverines, though, they could limit the damage. Other than that, their series against Nebraska (home) and Maryland (away) will be hugely important. If they can win four of those six and go 1-2 against Michigan, they'll be sitting at 10-11 heading into that final weekend series with Northwestern.
I think 13-11 will definitely get a team into the Big Ten Tournament and 12-12 will probably also do the trick. For Iowa that means going 6-3 or 5-4 in their remaining nine games. That isn't going to be easy, given the quality of Iowa's remaining opponents and Iowa's inconsistency this season (not to mention their struggles on the road), but it's not impossible. Next weekend's series with Ohio State looms very, very large.
NEXT: After all this talk about Big Ten teams, though, Iowa's next games are a three-game home series against Kansas State (19-22) this weekend (6 PM CT Friday, 2 PM CT Saturday, 1 PM CT Sunday) -- that is, assuming poor weather doesn't mess with the schedule.