Since we are at the halfway point of the Big Ten season, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at the top 4 teams in the standings and make a few predictions as to how this race will play out.
#1 Ohio State
Conference Record: 9-3
Series Remaining: vs. Northwestern, vs. Michigan, at Illinois, vs. Iowa
Ohio State is currently sitting in the proverbial Big Ten "driver's seat" with 4 series to go. Unfortunately for IU, Ohio State still gets to welcome the Big Ten's two bottom-feeders in Iowa (3-8) and Northwestern (2-8) to Columbus for weekend match-ups that could easily result in a pair of sweeps for the Buckeyes. Against Michigan, the Wimmers/Fetter match-up should be a great one, but the Buckeyes offense may simply be too much for the Wolverines' #2 and #3 starters to handle. The series at Illinois is the one IU fans will really be watching as it could be the match-up that makes or breaks IU's chances of taking home the Big Ten's regular season crown.
Conference Record: 8-3
Series Remaining: at Michigan, at Purdue, vs. Northwestern, vs. Michigan St.
The good news is that we already played Illinois and Minnesota. However, I really hope the cancellation of Game 3 with Minnesota (which could have been moved to a doubleheader on Saturday) doesn't end up being the one win needed to catch OSU in the standings. Also, given that we do not face the Buckeyes in conference play, it is imperative that the Hoosiers "take care of business" against the likes of Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan St., all of which currently sport losing records overall and in conference play. IU can't count on the Buckeyes to lose many more games, so the Hoosiers probably need to wrap up the season 10-2 or better (2 sweeps, 2 series where we take 2 of 3) to have a chance at bringing home the title.
Conference Record: 8-4
Series Remaining: at Penn State, at Northwestern, vs. Ohio State, at Purdue
As I said before, the Ohio State/Illinois series is the one to watch. However, the match-ups with Penn State and Purdue will be tough ones as both will be vying for wins to get into the Big Ten Tournament. With a strong pitching staff, the Illini should have no trouble shutting down the Northwestern bats that rank 9th or 10th in nearly every conference offensive category. Given the way both IU and OSU are playing right now, Illinois can probably only afford to lose 2 games at most the rest of the way in order to remain in the title picture. And of course, taking 2 of 3 or sweeping the Buckeyes would also be a big boost to the Illini's title outlook.
Conference Record: 7-4
Series Remaining: vs. Purdue, vs. Iowa, at Michigan, at Penn State
Minnesota finishes up the season with match-ups against the current 5th through 8th place teams in the Big Ten standings. With only the top 6 teams in the standings making the Big Ten Tournament, these 4 teams could be dangerous opponents for the Golden Gophers. While Minnesota is certainly capable of taking at least 2 of 3 from each squad, they will all inevitably be hungry for wins. Minnesota's outlook is very much like that of Illinois. The Buckeyes and Hoosiers are riding high right now, and the Golden Gophers can ill afford too many losses the rest of the way. Minnesota probably needs to sweep at least 2 of its 4 remaining series and take 2 of 3 in the other 2 match-ups in order to have a fighting chance at the Big Ten regular season title.
Where IU Will Finish...
While there is still obviously a lot of baseball yet to be played and a number of teams that could ultimately take home the title, I think IU will go 11-1 the rest of the way and finish at 19-4 in conference play, just ahead of the Buckeyes who will finish 19-5. I see the Hoosiers taking 2 of 3 from Michigan and then sweeping Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State heading into the Big Ten Tournament. If things play out the way I think they will, the conference championship will actually come down to Game 1 of the heated rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan. I think Illinois can take a game from the Buckeyes, so the Fetter-Wimmers match-up may ultimately decide it all. My predictions are based on Fetter getting the best of Wimmers and OSU this time around, opening the door for the Hoosiers to take home their first Big Ten title in a very, very long time. Of course I am biased, overly optimistic, and a wishful thinker, so feel free to disagree. This was definitely a bold prediction, and I will be the first to admit that the conference race could easily play out in a very different manner. For now, Go Hoosiers!