WHO: #1 seed Minnesota Golden Gophers (34-18 overall, 16-7 Big Ten)
WHAT: First round of Big Ten Tournament
WHERE: TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, NE)
WHEN: 5 PM CT
TV: BTN (announcers: Andy Masur, Scott Pose, Danan Hughes)
RADIO: AM-800 KXIC (free), Hawkeye All-Access ($), TuneIn Radio*
*I'm not sure if the game will be on TuneIn Radio or not, but it's worth a shot.
Back to the Big Ten Tournament! This trip didn't seem like one that Iowa was going to be making even as recently as a few weeks ago, but a 4-2 record down the stretch against Michigan State and Penn State (coupled with a key win by Michigan over Illinois last weekend) was just enough for Iowa to grab the 8th seed in the tournament on a tiebreaker. Iowa's making their third-straight appearance in the Big Ten Tournament -- a program record -- although they're hoping to have their most successful outing in the tournament in that run. Iowa went 1-2 in the BTT in 2014 and 2015. Their best recent run in the BTT came in 2010 when Iowa engineered a thrilling run to the championship game, where they fell to Minnesota.
Unlike last year, when Iowa was hoping for a good BTT performance to improve their stock for the NCAA Tournament and hopefully net them the ability to host the Regional round, this year presents a more straightforward scenario for Iowa and the NCAA Tournament. Win the Big Ten Tournament and you're in. Get eliminated and your season is over. It's that simple. The Big Ten Tournament is double-elimination, not single-elimination, though, so whatever happens today, Iowa will still have a game to play tomorrow.
Iowa played Minnesota earlier this season, going 1-2 against them in a series in Minneapolis. Iowa lost the first game of the series, 4-1, but split the next two games, winning one 6-3 and losing the other 6-3. Tyler Peyton started for Iowa in their win, pitching five pretty solid innings (5 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 3 K) and getting good run support from the Iowa offense, who used a 4-run fifth inning to break the game open. Peyton was masterful in last weekend's win over Penn State, but he's not getting the call today, likely to keep him on full rest for tomorrow's game.
Minnesota led the Big Ten in hitting and fielding this year. They absolutely crushed the ball at the plate, hitting .328 for the season (well ahead of the #2 team, Michigan, who hit .304 as a team) and also posted a .370 slugging percentage and .389 on-base percentage. They led the Big Ten in home runs (46), triples (14), and total bases (890), and finished third in doubles (103). They don't draw a lot of walks (181, 11th in the Big Ten) and they don't steal a lot of bases (44, third-fewest in the league). But when you can hit the ball like they do, that really doesn't matter.
A whopping eight regular starters are hitting .302 or better -- and the ninth guy is hitting .299. The Gophers absolutely rake, in other words. Four Gophers are hitting .344 or better, led by Matt Fiedler (also Thursday's starting pitcher), who's belting .383 with a .542 slugging percentage and a .424 on-base percentage. Austin Athmann brings a lot of power: he's hitting .376 with 11 home runs and 13 doubles this year. Really, there are no weak links in the Minnesota batting order this year.
Iowa: RHP C.J. Eldred (SO, 2-8, 3.60 ERA)
Eldred was Iowa's top pitcher for much of the year, but he's trailed off lately -- this is his first full season since (I believe) he was a junior in high school, so the grind may be getting to him. He had a solid, if brief, outing against Penn State last weekend: 4 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K. I don't think Iowa will ask him to go too deep into the game (although if he can, that would be wonderful), as Heller is likely planning to use a rotation of pitchers here if needed.
Minnesota: RHP Matt Fielder (JR, 7-2, 3.67 ERA)
Fielder is mashing at the plate, but he's also been solid on the mound. His seven wins are tied for the second-most in the Big Ten, he has a 2:1 K:BB ratio (63:32), and a solid ERA (3.67). He's not Minnesota's best pitcher -- among their regular starters, he has the highest ERA (3.67 versus 3.31 and 3.28) and the highest opponent batting average (.250 versus .247 and .233) -- but he's certainly good enough. Hopefully Iowa's bats come to play early in this game and can chase him early.
Speaking of the Iowa bats, here's their starting lineup for today:
I'll provide updates in the comments, but feel free to add your own as well.