WHO: 3-seed Michigan Wolverines (34-23, 14-10) vs. 2-seed Iowa Hawkeyes (39-14, 19-5)
WHERE: Target Field; Minneapolis, MN
WHEN: 5 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH: BTN (The Mothership!)
HOW TO LISTEN: 800 AM KXIC or 1360 AM KMJM or Hawkeye All-Access
RHP Blake Hickman, IOWA (9-1, 2.75 ERA) vs RHP Ryan Nutof, MICH (4-3, 3.51 ERA)
Hickman lasted only 2 1/3 innings in an earlier start against the Michiganders, giving up 5 hits and 4 runs (all earned) in a no-decision (Iowa won 13-7). Nutof pitched an inning and two-thirds of scoreless ball in relief in a 2-0 Michigan loss in the rubber game in Ann Arbor earlier this month. From what this writer saw at that game, Nutof loves to throw his slider early in the count and often, and he's very tough if he's getting it over to get ahead in the count.
We've made passing reference many times to Michigan's hitting prowess. Just how potent are the Wolverines, outside of averaging 6 runs in three games versus Iowa? Well, they closed Big Ten play posting a 39-run series against Northwestern. That's 13 runs/game, for anyone in our readership who may have trouble dividing. But they're not unstoppable. Calvin Mathews and Nick Hibbing combined to shut them out the last time they played Iowa. They averaged 4.3 runs/game in their final series of the year against #13 Oklahoma State.
Leading the Wolverines will be doubles and RBI machine Carmen Benedetti (.367, 24 2B, 3 HR, 66 RBI). One of the keys to Iowa's 2-0, series-clinching win in Ann Arbor was Iowa's outfield defense, including Kris Goodman snaring two bullets that Benedetti sliced into the left field corner, which the Wolverine seems to be able to do on demand. Jacob Cronenworth (.332, 6 HR, 42 RBI) leads Michigan in homers. Jackson Glines (.356, 5 HR, 33 RBI) is another Wolverine raker, who--like Benedetti and Cronenworth is slugging upwards of 0.500 with a > 0.900 OPS. Patrick Kendall, while less-well-rounded than the big three, has some power to watch out for. He's a low average guy at .240, and he's not a terrific defensive catcher, but he leads the team with 25 AB/HR, and hit an absolute moon shot in Michigan's 11-5 win over Iowa this season.
At this point in the season, it is obvious that Iowa's pitching is always its most key player. If Hickman is dealing, and shuts down the Wolverines like Calvin Mathews did in Ann Arbor, then you've got to like Iowa's chances. If not, then it will take a total team effort, as in Iowa's 13-7 win in Hickman's prior start versus the Maize and Blue, where five Hawkeyes recorded multi-hit games, and some unusual run producers stepped up (like Dan Potempa with 3 RBI, and Nick Roscetti with 4).
WHAT'S AT STAKE
The winner passes 'GO' and zips straight to the semifinal (kind of) round Saturday. We mentioned yesterday, the magic number to win the tourney is four; the winner of this game is halfway there. Well, our (admittedly my) bracket-mapping missed the mark a bit: Loser's bracket teams need to win five games to take home the trophy, due to the inevitability of needing to sweep out a 2-0 team on Saturday. For tonight's loser, that means having to beat a surging Indiana team, and then likely needing to sweep Illinois in a Saturday doubleheader to make the championship. Assuming every game is a 50% toss-up, winning three in a row is a 12.5% proposition (or 7/1, in odds format). Assuming nobody, not even Iowa, is a toss-up to beat Illinois...hello, snowball, it's supposed to get warmer this weekend.
NCAA-bid-wise, D1Baseball.com had Iowa safely in as of yesterday, and seemingly trailing Houston for the last regional host bid. Playing to seed for two days in the conference tournament likely will not change Iowa's NCAA outlook, especially over a plummeting Ohio State club, and a Michigan team that, according to D1Baseball (see previous link), is not even on the tournament bubble. Iowa's interest for this whole week would seem to lie in taking home the trophy and vanquishing Illinois. The outcome of this game is then likely only significant to the extent stated above, as it impacts Iowa's chances to take home the conference trophy. Similarly for Michigan, anything short of making Sunday (or, of course, getting the auto-bid by winning Sunday) probably doesn't get them all the way from nowhere-in-the-discussion to an NCAA regional.
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