Ohio State baseball: Big Ten play begins at Purdue

Ohio State begins its third season of Big Ten play under Greg Beals - Chris Webb

Backed by a national top-20 pitching staff, Ohio State travels to West Lafayette to begin Big Ten play. The Buckeyes look to spoil the grand opening of the Purdue's Alexander Field by taking the weekend series against the defending conference champs in their drive to the title.

Ohio State ended its pre-conference slate with a 12-6 record, ending the five-week run with a home series victory over Bryant. With scores of 4-1, 2-3, 6-4 the pitching staff again was at the forefront of the success, holding the Bulldogs to seven runs over 27 innings and a .202 average, 19-for-94, over the three games.

The pitching prowess of Ohio State is starting to stack up against the nation's best. At the time of the NCAA's latest statistic release, March 17th, Ohio State was 19th in the nation with a 2.52 ERA, 21st in walk-plus-hits per innings pitched (WHIP) at 1.15 and 36th in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.69. Individually, sophomore right-handed pitcher Trace Dempsey in second in the nation with seven saves.

With three starting pitchers holding ERA's below 3.10 and six non-freshman relievers that have combined to pitch 55 innings with a 1.30 ERA to their credit, Ohio State is good and deep on the mound.

And they may be entering Big Ten play with the conference's top unit.

The Ohio State ERA trails only Indiana's clip of 2.11 while the Buckeyes lead the conference in WHIP, strikeouts (152), fewest BB/9 (2.79), fewest hits-per-nine innings (7.56), saves (8) and second to Northwestern's .231 opponent's average with a .232 batting average against.

Running like a well-oiled-machine, Ohio State will try to ride their arms to the program's 16th Big Ten championship, a mission that begins this weekend in West Lafayette.

Due to unseasonable weather, the Buckeyes and Boilermakers (7-11) will play one game Friday before a Saturday doubleheader closes the series. The weekend probables are as followed:

Fri. 5 PM: Jr. RHP Jaron Long (3-1, 2.36) vs. Jr. RHP Brad Schreiber (1-2, 5.25)

Sat. G1 2 PM: Sr. RHP Brad Goldberg (2-0, 1.52) vs. Fr. LHP Jordan Minch (2-2, 5.76)

Sat G2.: Sr. LHP Brian King (3-2, 3.03) vs. Sr. RHP Robert Ramer (2-1, 5.22)

Though the defending Big Ten champions, Purdue is not perceived to be a threat to contend for another conference championship. From Purdue's 45-14 2012 club, no weekend starters return and only two everyday positional starters return. Relying on youth, the Boilermakers are not the club that finished the season nationally-ranked, home to the Big Ten's pitcher, player and coach of the year.

Where the Buckeyes are near the top of every pitching statistic, Purdue is at the bottom of the conference tables. With a Big Ten-worst 6.49 ERA, the Boilermakers are allowing the opposition to bat .315 in allowing nine home runs to date, 46 extra-base hits, with a conference-high 81 walks against a conference worst 5.6 K/9.

Ohio State's bats have showed well at the plate this season and look to continue Purdue's pitching woes. Not a team of great power, their seven home runs and .385 slugging percentage are second in the Big Ten but well behind Indiana's respective totals of 13 and .450, Ohio State has done well in moving base-to-base and being aggressive. The Buckeyes offset the sixth-best Big Ten batting average, .278, with third-most stolen bases, 36, and second-most sacrifice bunts, 15.

Leading the Ohio State attack is senior outfielder Joe Ciamacco with a .367 average and eight-for-eight effort in stolen bases. The Buckeyes have benefited from a pair of sophomores in catcher Aaron Gretz (.345 average/.457 on-base percentage/.466 slugging) and outfielder Pat Porter (.302/.384/.508) as the pair of second-year players anchor Greg Beals' lineup.

In total, five Buckeyes are batting at least .300 with two more starters north of .290. The 5.2 runs/game the Ohio State offense churns out has been more than enough for the Buckeye starters. While the Big Ten's top bullpen may don Scarlet and Gray, the weekend rotation stymies how often the relievers are called upon.

An All-Big Ten first-team pick a year ago, junior right-handed pitcher Jaron Long (3-1, 2.36) has resumed his No. 1 duties without missing a beat. In his third year in the program, senior Brad Goldberg has been dominant with a 1.52 ERA over 29.2 innings. Brian King, the lone left-handed starter, has done well to make sure the Buckeyes go out on top in his final season with a 3.03 ERA, issuing only six walks in 32.2 innings.

Behind the pitchers, Ohio State's defense has steadily picked up, now home to a .969 fielding percentage, fifth in the Big Ten.

At 12-6, and a current RPI of 88, Ohio State enters Big Ten play under conditions that are favorable to reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. Due to a tough non-conference schedule, Purdue currently sits just outside of the RPI top-100 at 102. Michigan State's RPI is expected to drop after taking on Oakland this weekend, but the Buckeyes week-two conference opponent currently has a lofty RPI of 10. Indiana and Illinois each join the Spartans as RPI top-25 teams, the Hoosiers currently ranked 22nd by Baseball America.

The Buckeyes have each of those three conference opponents at home, as well as six combined games between Georgia Tech, Louisville and Oregon, all nationally-ranked teams that will be in contention to host a regional.

The schedule is there for the Buckeyes to have a grand year, the bats do enough and the pitching has been lights out. With visions of May glory, the Buckeyes should capture their March series against the Boilermakers. Sweeps are tough in the Big Ten, especially on the road, and Purdue will have a lot of excitement with the opening of their $11-million facility. Expect the Buckeyes to take the first two games before Purdue salvages the series with a close finale.

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