Ohio State baseball is riding a wave of momentum as Big Ten play gets set to commence. The Buckeyes have won five in a row for the second time this season, and several key contributors are starting to get their bats going.
Sophomore Troy Kuhn is on a tear of late, having homered in two straight games, and three of five, and sits in a tie for the conference lead with four on the season. The second baseman has upped his average to .284, and his 11 extra-base hits and 17 runs driven in lead the team. A solid weekend against the Spartans could put Kuhn in line for Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Fellow sophs Zach Ratcliff and Jacob Bosiokovic are starting to turn things around at the plate as well. Ratcliff, though still not displaying the pop that is hoped for, with only one extra-base hit and four RBIs on the season, is getting on base. The Buckeyes' first baseman has improved his average to .294. Bosiokovic is still only raking at a .253 clip, and leads the team with 22 strikeouts, but he is starting to hit the ball hard. It's only a matter of time before balls start finding daylight and falling in. Ohio State's keeper of the hot corner is second on the team with 15 RBIs and seven extra-base hits.
Still struggling for Greg Beals are two sluggers in the middle of the order. Juniors Pat Porter and Josh Dezse are both hitting under the Mendoza line, and neither have left the yard. The pair were members of the preseason conference Watch List, but have only combined for 12 runs driven in, three doubles, and a triple.
While the bats have largely slumbered through the first month of the season, the Buckeyes' pitching staff has been solid. Ryan Riga has been as good on the bump as anyone in the Big Ten, posting a 3-0 record and 2.23 ERA. The junior lefty has been moved up in the weekend rotation, taking the ball on Friday now, and has been named conference Pitcher of the Week twice in the young season. Senior Greg Greve has had a couple of rough outings, being bumped back to Saturdays, but still has a 2-1 record and a 3-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Beals is shaking up the rotation a bit this weekend, swapping one freshman lefty for another on Sunday. Tanner Tully, who made his first collegiate start against Xavier, throwing five shutout innings, has been penciled in for the third game against Michigan State, replacing fellow frosh Zach Farmer. Farmer is 2-3 in five starts, with a 4.22 ERA, and has struggled with his control. He has walked 16 in 21.1 innings, opposed to 10 punchouts. Tully, by contrast, has given up just three earned runs in 21 innings, striking out 12 and issuing 2 free passes.
With Ohio State's hitters seeming to get their legs underneath them the past week, and the rotation continuing to keep them in games, the Buckeyes may be peaking at the right time. With big matchups against Indiana and Nebraska on the horizon in the coming weeks, this series against Michigan State is critical to getting the Big Ten season off to a good start.
Here's a preview of the Spartans.
Friday, March 21st 6:05 p.m., Saturday, March 22nd 3:05 p.m., Sunday, March 23rd 1:05 p.m.
Michigan State University
The Spartans have been something of an enigma in the early going of the season. Their schedule has been tough, having played seven of their first seventeen against teams that are ranked or receiving votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's (NCBWA) latest Top 30 poll. Head Coach Jake Boss' squad is 3-4 in those games, having knocked off current No. 4 Oregon State and taking two of three from 24th-ranked TCU. Still, the team sits just a game above .500, at 9-8, as they come into Columbus.
Michigan State's struggles can be traced to their bats. The team is hitting .239 and scoring fewer than four runs a contest, with several everyday players having trouble getting going. Both marks rank eleventh of twelve teams in the Big Ten.
The Spartans had two players make the Big Ten's watch list, and while both are swinging the bats reasonably well, neither has produced as was hoped. Rightfielder Jimmy Pickens is hitting .267, with four doubles, two triples, a home run, and 12 RBIs, while successfully swiping five bases in six attempts. The junior was a second team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, when he hit .303 with nine dingers and 42 RBIs. Leftfielder Cam Gibson, an All-Big Ten Freshman a year ago after hitting .325, is raking at a .279 clip out of the leadoff spot, with four doubles, two triples, and five driven in.
Junior Blaise Salter, who led the team with a .343 average a year ago, has been the hottest bat to start the season. The designated hitter is batting .295, leads the team with 14 RBIs, and shares the team lead with six doubles and two homers. Centerfielder Anthony Cheky is also contributing, hitting .281 and stealing seven seven bases in eight attempts.
While the bats have not been scorching to start the season, Boss has gotten very good pitching. The team is fifth in the conference in ERA at 3.47 and in opposing batting average at .239. Looking at the weekend rotation, these numbers get even better.
The Spartans' staff is anchored by Mick VanVossen and Justin Alleman, two righties having breakout seasons. VanVossen, a junior, is 4-0 on the year, with a 1.91 ERA. The opposition is hitting just .197 against him, and he carries a meager WHIP of 1.03. As a sophomore last March, VanVossen tossed a complete game against the Buckeyes, scattering seven hits in a 7-2 Michigan State victory.
Alleman, a Top 50 freshman prospect a year ago according to Baseball America, was also on the Big Ten's preseason watch list. In his first season as a starter, opposing hitters are batting just .202 against him. Alleman is 1-0 in five starts, with a 2.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.0.
Sunday's starter for Michigan State is still up in the air, as several players have taken the ball behind VanVossen and Alleman, though consistency has been lacking. Senior Chase Rihtarchick (0-2, 5.40 ERA) and sophomore Anthony Misiewicz (0-3, 7.45 ERA) have both made multiple starts, but have been hit hard, allowing opposing hitters a .333 average.
As good as the weekend rotation has been for Michigan State, the back end of the bullpen has been equally as solid. The Spartans enter the weekend leading the conference in saves. Handling the bulk of the late innings have been junior Jeff Kinley and freshman Jake Lowery. Kinley, who received a medical redshirt a season ago after developing blood clots, has five saves to his credit, despite getting knocked around a bit. Opponents are hitting .297 against him, and he has allowed eleven runs, only five earned, in 9.2 innings, good for a 4.66 ERA.
Lowery, who arrived in East Lansing as the second-ranked recruit in the state of Michigan, has been nearly flawless in his first collegiate campaign. The righty is 1-0 with two saves in eight appearances out of the pen, not allowing a run, while holding the opposition to a .167 average and posting a 0.68 WHIP.
For Ohio State, things get even more serious now. Sitting near the top of the Big Ten through the season's first month, the Buckeyes must build momentum in conference play. Two big tests loom on the schedule the next two weekends against Indiana and Nebraska, so handling business and dispatching the Spartans is of the utmost importance.