Probable Pitching Matchups Friday: Matt Morgan (Sr, RHP) vs. UConn's Elliott Glynn (Sr, LHP) Saturday: Blake Mascarello (Jr, LHP) vs. Notre Dame's Cole Johnson (Sr, RHP) Sunday: Brad Schreiber (So, RHP) vs. TBA for Pittsburgh
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue baseball opens its new season at the BIG EAST-Big Ten Challenge for the third year in a row, taking the field against three quality programs that will also be making the transition from indoor practice facilities to live action under the fair skies of Florida's Gulf Coast.
The Boilermakers (33-24 in 2010) take on Connecticut (Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Dunedin Stadium), Notre Dame (Saturday at 4 p.m. at Al Lang Park) and Pittsburgh (Sunday at 1 p.m. at Walter Fuller Complex) this weekend in the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area. CollegeBaseball360.com will offer live video webcasts of the Connecticut and Notre Dame games.
UConn (48-16) is a preseason favorite in the BIG EAST and ranked as high as No. 9 nationally by Baseball America. The Huskies return a veteran team from 2010, a season in which they won a program-record 48 games and hosted an NCAA Regional.
Notre Dame (22-32) is under the guidance of new head coach Mik Aoki and looking to bounce back from a down year in 2010. The Boilermakers will be out snap a five-game losing streak against their in-state rival dating back to 2003.
Pittsburgh (38-16) finished third in the BIG EAST in 2010 but was left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers have been ranked as high as 30th nationally in Collegiate Baseball's preseason poll.
"We're all basically coming out of indoor [practice facilities]," said Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber, who begins his 13th year as the leader of the program. "It's a nice event and hopefully we'll be able to continue it as well. We've got a pretty good challenge, which I was happy to see the draw of teams that we got."
The Boilermakers have struggled at the Challenge the last two seasons, posting a 1-7 record in games in the Tampa-St. Pete area. Purdue won its inaugural game against Cincinnati at the 2009 Challenge, but has lost a number of close games since. The Boilers dropped a pair of extra-inning affairs in 2009 and two one-run games last season.
Among Purdue's returning players, Tyler Spillner and Matt Morgan have enjoyed the highest level of success at the Challenge. Spillner is 11-for-21 with four doubles and seven RBIs the last two seasons. Morgan has struck out 13 in his 12 innings over starts under the Florida sun. Last year, he was deserving of a win after fanning nine over seven innings of shutout ball against Cincinnati. But the Bearcats rallied against the Boiler bullpen, scoring seven times in the bottom of the ninth inning, for a stunning comeback victory.
As Purdue's projected leadoff man and game one starter, Spillner and Morgan will get to make an early impact on the new season.
"I think we're going to have to do all the little things - the base running, getting bunts down and moving guys over," Spillner said. "The biggest thing we've emphasized this year are the five extra wins. If we would have found a way to win a couple one-run games, five extra wins and a couple Big Ten wins would have given us a Big Ten championship. We were that close."
"I want to play my game and not really do anything much different than what I've been doing in the offseason," Morgan said. "The only major difference is it's on dirt and it's against a different uniform. It's a little challenging to face the same [Purdue] guys every weekend. You learn a lot about your own team, which is good. But it's going to be good to see other hitters and have a measuring stick that we can compare against other teams because we have some really good competition."
Not only is Purdue looking to put together a better showing at the Challenge, but also get off to a better start altogether. Like many northern schools, the Boilermakers are scheduled to play their first 19 games away from Lambert Field. The 33-win campaign of 2010 could have been even better if the Boilers had started, say, 6-5 instead of 3-8.
Schreiber highlighted confidence as part of the reason for the slow start in 2010.
"Confidence comes from within," he said. "You've got to develop that, and it comes through proper practice. But it's also being grounded and not letting five or six at-bats totally affect your confidence level. And that's what I think happens. Guys put too much stock and confidence in their results rather than their preparation. Your preparation is your foundation. You've done thousands of reps and you only get 200 at-bats in a season."
"[Keys this season will be] big hits in clutch situations and working ourselves into better hitting counts," junior first baseman Ryan Bridges said. "A lot of times last year, we chased maybe something down low and grounded into a double play. And on the defensive side, just making plays; we had too many games get away because of routine plays we messed up. Plays we didn't make."
Purdue played well in true road games a season ago, posting a 15-11 record and winning road series at Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. But the Boilers had their struggles in neutral-site contests, going just 3-7. Four of those seven losses came at the season-opening BIG EAST-Big Ten Challenge.