The Big Ten baseball season is drawing to a close -- just three more games to go in league play -- and the race for the Big Ten Tournament is getting pretty congested. As a reminder, only 8 of the 13 Big Ten teams make the Big Ten Tournament, the Top 8 in the final standings. The top six teams appear pretty set -- Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Michigan State. Michigan State is sitting at 12-9, just a game ahead of two teams at 11-10 (Maryland and Penn State ) and two games ahead of two other teams at 10-11 (Illinois and Iowa), so it might be possible for them to lose out on a spot... but that seems to involve a lot of things breaking just right, which doesn't seem all that likely. There simply aren't enough games left for them to fall out of the mix in all likelihood.
So we're down to those four teams competing for those final two spots: Maryland, Penn State, Illinois, and Iowa.
Here's how the four teams compare to each other in competition head-to-head. In a fortuitous bit of scheduling happenstance, all four teams have played -- or will play; Iowa and Penn State wrap up the season against one another this week -- each other, which will make comparisons (and tiebreakers) easier.
Read the table by looking at rows not the columns. For instance, Maryland went 2-1 against Penn State but 1-2 against Illinois and Iowa. Illinois went 2-1 against Maryland and Illinois and 1-2 against Iowa. And so on.
7) Maryland (11-10 Big Ten, 26-24 overall)
Next: at Michigan State (May 19-21)
Maryland has hit the skids a bit lately, losing four in a row before beating Rutgers 6-0 on Sunday. That four-game losing streak included two losses to Rutgers, a loss to Illinois, and a loss to West Virginia. Those Rutgers losses -- and a loss to Purdue earlier in the season (one of just two wins the Boilermakers have all year) -- loom very large and could be costly for the Terps. That said, they're still in decent position at 11-10 and 7th place for now.
Maryland has a big series at Michigan State this weekend, giving them an opportunity to slide further up the Big Ten rankings -- or tumble all the way out of the Top 8. If they go 3-0 or 2-1, they'll be in the Big Ten Tournament, no questions. If they go 1-2 or 0-3, though, things don't look good for them. They also don't stack up well in the tiebreaker department, as they went 1-2 against both Illinois and Iowa this year.
8) Penn State (11-10 Big Ten, 27-25 overall)
Next: Iowa (May 19-21)
Like the Terps, Penn State has been taking it on the chin lately: they lost their last two games to Nebraska by a combined score of 14-1 in their most recent series and they've lost 11 of their 15 games, including their last four straight series. This is a team that took advantage of a friendly schedule earlier in the season -- they swept all six games against Northwestern and Purdue, by far the two worst teams in the league. Those six wins account for over half of their league wins.
Penn State's series with Iowa this weekend isn't quite a win-and-you're-in series for both teams -- but it probably is for Penn State. If they go at least 2-1, the only way they could get bounced out of a Big Ten Tournament spot is if Illinois went 3-0 in their series this weekend. If they go 1-2 or 0-3, though... adios, Nittany Lions. Penn State also has very unfavorable tiebreaker situations at the moment, as Illinois and Maryland both have the head-to-head advantage over them.
9) Illinois (10-11 Big Ten, 26-22 overall)
Next: Michigan (May 20-22)
Like Iowa, the Big Ten schedule has kicked Illinois in the teeth this year -- they didn't get any games against conference pushovers Northwestern or Purdue. They have had to play (or will play) all of the Big Ten Tournament contenders, though. They've struggled against the teams at the top of the league (1-2 against Minnesota and Indiana), but they have series wins over Ohio State (2-1), Penn State (2-1), and Maryland (2-1). Recently, they went 3-3 on a six-game league road trip, taking two of three from Maryland and dropping two of three from Indiana. They close out the year with a home series against a very dangerous Michigan team.
The good news for Illinois is that if they can keep their head above water against the Wolverines -- which means going against 2-1 against them -- then they might be able to grab the last spot in the Big Ten Tournament. They hold tiebreakers over Maryland and Penn State. The only team of these three they don't have a tiebreaker advantage over is Iowa.
10) Iowa (10-11 Big Ten, 24-24 overall)
Next: at Penn State (May 19-21)
After four straight series where the Hawkeyes went 1-2, Iowa finally got things turned around last weekend, grabbing Saturday and Sunday wins over Michigan State to claim a series win -- and keep themselves within touching distance of the Top 8. The good news is that Iowa controls its own destiny to get into the Big Ten Tournament. If they can go 3-0 against Penn State this week, they'll lock up a spot in the Big Ten Tournament -- they'd move ahead of Penn State (currently in 8th place) and would win the head-to-head tiebreaker over Illinois (since they went 2-1 against the Illini this year). The bad news is that they haven't gone 3-0 in any series this year and they'd have to so on the road -- where they've won just four games all year (the only Big Ten team with fewer road wins this year is Purdue, who has three). So that's a problem.
But if Iowa can go 2-1 against Penn State, things still look pretty favorable for them. They'd be level with Penn State at 12-12 in the Big Ten -- but they'd have the head-to-head tiebreaker. Illinois would be the only team that could keep Iowa out of a Big Ten Tournament spot in that scenario -- but they'd need to go 3-0 themselves to stay ahead of Iowa. Again, they lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Hawkeyes. Sweeping Michigan -- even at home -- looks like a tough ask for the Illini.
So: can Iowa go 2-1 against Penn State this week? I think so -- Penn State's resume is fairly weak and they've lost several games to teams worse than Iowa. Iowa hasn't had a lot of luck on the road this year, to be sure, but the schedule has put up some large roadblocks for them as well. Their Big Ten road series before this were against Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio State -- aka, the top three teams in the current league standings. Going 3-6 against those teams on the road is fairly understandable. Penn State looks like by far the easiest road opponent Iowa has had in the Big Ten so far. It's still going to take some timely hitting and good pitching to prevail, but Penn State looks beatable.
So your rooting interests for the weekend:
1) Iowa (duh -- but still, Iowa has to win at least two games this weekend or everything else is moot)
2) Michigan State (MSU winning drops Maryland down into the muck and opens up two spots in the Big Ten Tournament -- which means Iowa wouldn't have to worry as much about what Illinois was doing)
3) Michigan (Iowa has the tiebreaker over Illinois, but putting a little distance between themselves and the Illini wouldn't hurt, either)
We'll preview the series with Penn State later in the week.