I've extensively followed Ohio State baseball since 2006 when my childhood friend Matt Angle was the Buckeye center fielder. Over time, simply going to Buckeyes games in support of a friend has turned into following the team, being knowledgeable of Ohio State, the Big Ten and college baseball. I've seen hundreds of Ohio State games and thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown inside Bill Davis Stadium. In fact, I've run out of gas on Michigan backroads after Ohio State games, specifically the Buckeyes' 2006 Big Ten Tournament contest against Minnesota. Today will mark the seven-year anniversary of having to call my grandmother to deliver gas to me 20 minutes outside of Lansing.
In short, I've seen a *lot* of Ohio State baseball.
What I haven't seen often is what I've seen the last two weeks.
Greg Beals put his club through a grueling stretch to end the season. With non-conference games against Georgia Tech and Louisville sandwiching a weekend series against Oregon, the Buckeyes stepped out of the Big Ten to play six games against RPI Top 25 clubs. When the Buckeyes returned to conference action, No. 11 Indiana awaited. Then the Buckeyes opened the Big Ten Tournament against Top 50 Nebraska before another game against Indiana. Today's elimination game marks another showdown with the Cornhuskers.
All said, the Buckeyes will end their season with 12, 13 or 14 consecutive games against RPI Top 50 clubs. Ohio State has been put the through ringer; just 3-8 against said competition thus far, and it would be perfectly reasonable to chalk it up to playing very good teams of which there's nothing to be ashamed of.
But there is something worrisome to the Buckeyes of late.
Friday's 11-3 loss to Indiana is the 11th consecutive contest Ohio State has failed to score more than three runs. Give credit all you want to the pitching staffs the Ducks, Hoosiers, Cardinals, Yellow Jackets and Huskers sent out, but that is unacceptable. Yes, senior tri-captain Ryan Cypret has missed the last six games due to a broken finger, and sophomore Pat Porter, Ohio State's leader in on-base-plus-slugging percentages, has not swung a bat in three games due to a wrist injury, but this is a senior-laden team. From first-team shortstop Kirby Pellant and first baseman Brad Hallberg to catcher Greg Solomon and center fielder Joe Ciamacco, these are Ohio State players that have been around the block.
And simply put, somebody needs to step up.
In comparing the Buckeyes to Indiana, there is no questions the Hoosiers are the more talented club. With two very likely top-three round draft picks in next year's MLB Draft (catcher Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Sam Travis) anchoring a lineup that has a near-.400 batter batting sixth, IU is the class of the Big Ten, hands down.
But prior Ohio State teams have been short on raw talent, not ripe with prospect after prospect and still put up a better fight than what the Buckeyes have shown of late.
When Ohio State entered the 2007 Big Ten Tournament as the No. 6 seed in 2007, the Buckeyes needed a final day victory just to get into the tournament. The Buckeyes went on to win the tournament, the first and only sixth-seed to do so behind key hit after key hit. Senior outfielder Jacob Howell would not let his team die. Redshirt sophomore reserve Michael Arp roped a double down the right field line to score two-runs in the championship game against Minnesota.
When Howell and Arp departed, new faces such as Dan Burkhart, Zach Hurley and Michael Stephens provided big hits for the Buckeyes, guiding the team to the 2009 Big Ten championship, and ending the regular season with a sweep of Iowa to claim the championship on the final day, one half-game in front of Minnesota.
Arp, Howell and Stephens were not drafted. Hurley was a late-round senior sign with only Burkhart being a reasonable-touted prospect that was drafted and left after his junior year. They weren't stars, they weren't future MLB players like Angle or J.B. Shuck, further back Nick Swisher, but they were players that were able step up to the plate, know the moment, know the team needed a lift and then provide it.
We've yet to see that player emerge offensively for the Buckeyes.
Further adding to the frustrations is the fact that the pitching staff has done its part time and time again. Senior left-handed pitcher Brian King may have stumbled on Friday against Indiana, but last Friday he pitched into the seventh holding Indiana scoreless in a game for the Big Teh championship. Brad Goldberg has put back-to-back outstanding strong starts together in this crunch time. Closer Trace Dempsey may still feel the sting of back-to-back blown saves, but for three and a half months he has been lights out. Entering tonight's contest, when the Buckeyes scored three runs they were 33-5, a testament to their pitching. Yet the bats have continued to let them down with 18 such occasions of failing to score three runs a sign of the offensive struggle. But even now the Buckeyes need junior right-handed pitcher Jaron Long to step up and return to the form he showed in 2012, when he was named an All-Big Ten first-teamer, in order to help extend the season.
Friday saw freshman Troy Kuhn collect a pair of doubles and three RBI. It saw classmate Zach Ratcliff collect a hit after opening the tournament 3-for-4 against Nebraska. Maybe it will be the freshman stepping up to the plate, seizing the opportunity.
Whoever it is, whatever class, side of the plate, state they're from, the time is now for someone to say they're tired of this and step into the batter's box with a plan and get the job done.
Or else it'll be too late, and 2014 will be our collective focus sooner than we would've liked.