Purdue baseball continues its tour of the South with a three-game series against last year’s College World Series champions.
No. 4 Ole Miss (11-2) has already played six games against Big Ten teams and only lost one to then-No. 13 Maryland. The Boilermakers (8-4) will be the fifth team from their conference to go up against the Rebels this year and they’ll be playing their first game as a visiting team this season on Friday.
In the 12 games prior, Purdue traveled to neutral sites for a trio of four-game series for a chance to be the home team, at least on paper, for a few outings. Head coach Greg Goff said it’s not easy to play the first month of games as a visitor. Adverse crowd environments aside, he said, it’s a good change of pace to start in the field and have the opportunity “to get the last out.”
He said the team will be ready for the upcoming challenge in Oxford, Mississippi, and “they’ve been talking about it since the (Akron) game ended on Sunday.”
“Anytime you go on the road, it’s a challenge — especially going into that place,” Goff said. “It’s gonna be 6,000 to 7,000 people all over you. It’ll be a great time and a great environment for our guys. I’m so excited to have an opportunity to go down and play ‘em.”
The Boilers are yet to make a clean sweep of a weekend series, but they’ve also never played less than four games in three days. With the exception of their most recent string of games against Akron, the Boilermakers dropped one of two games of the doubleheader in their first two weekends.
Pitching, and its strategic nuances, factor into some of those outcomes. Along with needing to use several arms per game, teams keep a watchful eye on pitch counts in the early going to ensure the Boilers on the mound stay healthy throughout the 56-game regular season.
Outings like Kyle Iwinski, both the Big Ten and national pitcher of the week, had Saturday night help to alleviate bullpen strain more than anything. He pitched the entirety of the shutout, retiring 21 of 22 batters with just 78 tosses in a “pitcher’s BP” performance, as Goff termed it.
“(Iwinski) just had great command,” Goff said. “He had great composure and he was aggressive in the strike zone.”
Not only did reliable mound performances pay dividends for the Boilers’ bullpen, but so did the sticks on the other end. Purdue leads the conference in scoring, averaging 9.5 runs per game, and has invoked the mercy rule several times this season to put teams out of their misery.
The team put a single run up on the scoreboard in its opening game of the Akron series, which resulted in a loss. The Boilers’ response was amassing 53 runs in the next three games while allowing only 13.
Goff said he thinks the 2-1 loss in the series opener prompted the guys to “look at themselves” and focus on their objective at the plate.
“I think we’re just starting to get in the groove a little bit and see (results) offensively,” Goff said. “We got seven of nine returners from last year that finished second in the Big Ten in hitting. (We had) the second-best offense in the league.”
A big contributor to last season’s offensive machine was C.J. Valdez, who made the 2022 All-Big Ten First Team as a designated hitter. Valdez was designated hitter for just under .500 against Akron pitchers through 13 at-bats. That weekend was Valdez’s first time making a plate appearance in every game of a series this season.
Before that, Jake Parr was the primary DH, batting .285 through the first couple weekends. Parr was still in the lineup for all but one of the Akron games, poking a grand slam over the right field wall to blow open the score in the first inning of Saturday’s nightcap.
Goff took advantage of his options on the right side of the field against the Zips, similar to what he’s been doing all season. First base and right field have been held down by Jake Parr, Jake Jarvis, Camden Melvin and Cam Thompson as they’re shuffled around for pinch-hitting situations.
In pursuit of an optimal lineup, the opponents’ pitcher plays one of the biggest roles in determining which Boilers end up where.
Purdue hit just four for 37 against the three lefties NJIT showed in the late-February series, causing some concern. Rather than risk another lefty-lefty matchup against Akron’s Sunday starter, Goff swapped the right-handed throwing, but south-paw swinging Jarvis in favor of Parr.
“We haven’t hit left-handed pitching very well,” Goff said. “So I just thought getting another right-handed hitter in the lineup would be what we need to do.”
Akron’s starter lasted just 1.1 innings, by which time Purdue was comfortably ahead 6-0. Runs continued to compound for the gold and black, who managed 23 runs total in the seven-inning game, which was cut short for the sake of the Zips.
Over the weekend, Purdue found first base 18 times from being hit by pitches and stole 18 bases. Several scoring opportunities were exacerbated in Purdue’s favor by wild pitches, and at one point, a bases-loaded balk.
Ole Miss likely won’t provide the Boilers with the same chances. The Rebs’ pitching staff have beaned a third of the batters Akron has, thrown half the amount of wild pitches and their stat sheet has never heard of a balk.
“We’ll face the best arms we’ve faced all year this weekend,” Goff said. “They’re really good, and that’s why we scheduled ‘em — to give us an opportunity to start getting ready for Big Ten play and things like that. But we’ll face some really, really good arms and it’ll be a really good challenge for our hitters.”