Just about all season long, it’s been a three-horse race for the Big Ten. IU, Nebraska and Michigan have flip-flopped spots all year in the top three while managing to maintain distance from the rest of the pack.
Now, it’s IU’s turn to sit atop the rest of the Big Ten. After a 2-1 home series win over Iowa this past weekend, the Hoosiers are at 20-9, a game in front of the Cornhuskers in the loss column. IU’s gradual improvement at the plate is a big reason why it’s rattling off wins.
“For the last several weeks, we’ve shown some signs of growth throughout,” head coach Jeff Mercer said about his team’s hitting. “This is about the time of the year when you have a chance to settle your lineup in and spend a lot of time with guys in the mid-week diagnosing. We are getting a lot better offensively, and it’s beginning to show.”
A big part of IU’s offensive improvement has been redshirt senior catcher Collin Hopkins. Usually known for his defense, Hopkins has made more plays hitting next to the plate than he has fielding behind it.
He’s in the midst of a five-game hitting streak that includes three games with three or more hits. This follows a rough start to the season that had him hitting below .100 until late April.
“My swing is in a really good spot thanks to the coaching staff,” Hopkins said. “I’m just really trying to stay simple and short and quick to the ball.”
IU, Nebraska and Michigan have had their respective hot and cold spells. For the Hoosiers, a blistering 8-1 start to the season was cooled off after some positive COVID-19 tests came among the coaching staff. A five-game losing streak in the middle of the year left the team with some ground to make up, which it has thanks to their current four-series win streak.
As for Nebraska, a seven-game win streak from March 20-April 2 had the team in control of the conference race at the time. Now, the Cornhuskers have lost four of five and are in a battle to regain the top spot in the Big Ten.
Michigan’s season began with series win after series win, including a six-game win streak from March 7-March 14. But a series loss against Rutgers two weekends ago and a series split against Illinois this past weekend now has Illinois at 21-11, a half game behind IU.
None of the three teams have gotten a crack at each other yet, but that’s about to change in what will be a crucial stretch of baseball in determining the conference champion. After playing Rutgers twice to start this weekend, IU will play Nebraska twice, Michigan three times and Nebraska twice more, all in consecutive weekends. Nebraska and Michigan won’t meet until May 28 in what is expected to be a dramatic final series of the regular season for both clubs.