Northwestern baseball hits the road this weekend for the final time this season, visiting Purdue for the second consecutive year.
The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Big Ten, having won eight straight games and nine of their last ten. That hot stretch has catapulted Purdue into third-place in the Big Ten and, perhaps more importantly, into the conversation for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Now that you know the basics, here are four more things to know about the Boilermakers:
1. Their Friday night starter is one of the best pitchers in the nation.
Forget the “best starter in the conference” discussion – Purdue’s Tanner Andrews boasts one of college baseball’s top arms. Purdue’s ace has a 2.10 ERA in 11 starts this season, good for 45th best in the country.
Andrews’ pitch repertoire includes a mid-nineties four-seamer, a low-nineties sinker, a slider, and a splitter. The senior righty has gone at least six innings in 8 of his 11 starts this season and has only allowed more than two earned runs in a game twice.
Andrews is really, really tough, and the ‘Cats will have to really battle at the plate to have a chance on Friday night.
2. Purdue’s most formidable hitter is also their most patient.
Jacson McGowan is that hitter, and he’s a rare blend of pop and patience. The junior first basemen enters the weekend top-five in the conference in both slugging percentage (.628) and on-base percentage (.472).
McGowan is third in the conference and first on the team with 11 home runs, and he also leads the conference with 34 walks drawn.
Just how important is McGowan’s production to Purdue’s success? This season, when McGowan drives in a run, Purdue is 19-6. When he doesn’t, they’re just 5-10.
3. Purdue’s closer is pretty darn close to lights out.
His name is Ross Learnard, and he’s given up just two runs on 11 hits in more than 24 innings this season. Those numbers add up to an intimidatingly low 0.74 ERA and a .136 batting average against.
With his eight saves as evidence, Learnard is one of the best closers in the conference. If Purdue has a late lead this weekend, Northwestern is going to be hard-pressed to find the same comeback magic they found last weekend at Penn State.
4. The Boilermakers have a legitimate shot at an at-large bid.
Sure, a 24-16 record for a Big Ten team might not seem like at-large bid material, but Purdue just might control its own postseason destiny thanks to its recent hot stretch.
With a top-60 RPI and a handful of quality wins (including two over No. 15 Indiana), Purdue is at least in the at-large bid conversation. And interestingly, the Boilermakers finish their Big Ten season with series at Ohio State and vs. Michigan – six more chances to pick up some top-60 RPI wins.
If Purdue can sweep Northwestern and win four or five of those six games against the Buckeyes and Wolverines, they could quite possibly snag an at-large bid and might even walk away with a Big Ten regular season title.
There’s a lot on the line for Purdue this weekend, and with the stakes as high as they are, anything less than a sweep would have to feel at least semi-disappointing.