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Baseball's Big Ten Tournament format needs to be changed

The Big Ten baseball tournament is in need of change because last season's rules did not yield fair outcomes for many teams. – Photo by Skinzfan23 / Wikimedia

With the Big Ten's regular baseball season entering its stretch run, the Big Ten Tournament will take place in just less than a month. As the Rutgers baseball team looks to avenge last year’s NCAA tournament snub, it's worth examining a tournament that likely sealed the Scarlet Knights' fate after they lost in the 2022 finals to Michigan.

The Big Ten baseball tournament has a flawed structure, and it needs to be changed.

The tournament is set up with eight teams playing in a double-elimination format, meaning that teams will be eliminated when they lose two games. The tournament will be played in this fashion until the championship game, which is just a single elimination game.

The tournament takes place between a six-day window from Tuesday, May 23, to Sunday, May 28.

This is where the first issue lies. Too many games are to be played in just a six-day window, so there is little to no flexibility regarding potential cancellations due to weather. This was on full display in the 2022 tournament, as the schedule had to be moved around thanks to rain in the Omaha area.

With the tournament schedule having to be moved around in 2022, Rutgers' semifinal win against Indiana started at 11:53 p.m. Central Standard Time on Saturday night. The Knights then had to turn around and play Michigan in the title game the next day at 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, giving Rutgers less time to recover and prepare.

The Knights would end up losing to the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament final. Michigan also faced a significant scheduling issue, as it had to play the championship game just one hour after it won its semifinal matchup.

Due to the logistical nightmare that was last year's tournament, the conference added an extra day to the tournament starting this year. The extra day will most likely help solve the scheduling issue, though an additional day might still be needed.

Rutgers' championship game loss also brings up another formatting issue. As stated before, the tournament operates in a double-elimination style until the championship game. In 2022, the Knights made it to the championship game without a loss, while Michigan already had one loss to Iowa.

Due to the format, Michigan then played Iowa again the next day and won, advancing to the championship game. The Wolverine's win over Rutgers meant the tournament ended with both teams having one loss, but Michigan received the auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament, which caused the Knights to go home.

This entire situation begs the question: Why play a double-elimination tournament if the championship game is also not double-elimination? The only reason to justify the different format in the championship game is that it increases the suspense by having it be only one game. Due to the format, the Knights were punished for their lone loss being later in the tournament than the Wolverines' loss when if anything, the opposite should be true.

With many glaring flaws to the Big Ten baseball tournament, here are three changes the Big Ten can make to make its baseball tournament better and fairer. The changes will be listed in order from most to least likely to be implemented.

Make the championship a best-of-three series

While this would likely have to be coupled with adding even more days to the tournament, it is the best way to ensure that teams that make it to the championship have an equal opportunity to win the tournament.

The main drawback to this idea would be that the double-elimination tournament mixed with the best-of-three series in the championship is a lot of games to play and can cause players fatigue. But due to the variability of baseball games on a game-by-game basis, a best-of-three series is the fairest way to decide a winner.

Scrap the double-elimination model and make the entire tournament single-elimination

This idea likely would not be popular among the teams, but it would still solve a lot of problems with the tournament. The Big Ten Tournament is unique in that it only features eight teams, whereas other conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference, feature 12 teams. 

Because baseball can be such a random sport, many teams would not be in favor of making the entire tournament single-elimination. On the other hand, it would solve the issue of uneven double-elimination formats and would also make it logistically easier to squeeze the tournament back into a five-day window.

Adopt a soccer-style model where the team with a higher run differential advances until the championship game

With this system, the eight teams would play each other twice in the first two rounds, and the team with the higher run differential would advance, similar to the aggregate model used in European soccer. In the finals, the two teams with the highest run differential would play a best-of-three series. The teams in the Big Ten will probably never agree on this potential change, though, due to the random nature of baseball.

As Rutgers’ regular season enters the final month, the team hopes to prepare itself to make a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament despite how the Big Ten Conference tournament is formatted. If the Knights win the tournament this year, it will be their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2007.

For more updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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