The warm weekend weather helped to awaken the Ohio State baseball team's bats in the final two games of their series with Penn State, giving the Buckeyes their first two wins in Big Ten play in three weeks. After being swept by both Indiana and Nebraska, and dropping Friday's game to the Nittany Lions, Ohio State banged out 27 hits and 19 runs on Saturday and Sunday, en route to taking two out of three in the series.
"When the wind's blowing, it really helps the mentality of the hitters and gets them going," Head Coach Greg Beals said. "It was good to see us pitch well out of the bullpen and hit well up and down the lineup to get this win to take the series."
A number of Ohio State hitters had big weekends, with sophomore Nick Sergakis leading the charge. The shortstop, who now has an eight-game hitting streak, went 8-13 at the dish against the Lions, scoring five runs, driving in five, and leaving the yard for the first time in his career. For his performance, Sergakis was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday.
Also finding his power was first baseman Josh Dezse, who hit three longballs in the series, including two on Sunday. The junior, who has struggled at the plate all season, went 5-10, scoring six and driving in seven, while raising his average to .240 on the year.
In addition to hot hitting, the Buckeyes got strong performances on the mound from Friday and Saturday's starters and the bullpen. The Ohio State rotation has been in flux of late due to junior Ryan Riga's bout with shoulder soreness, and needed solid outings. Freshman Tanner Tully took the loss on Friday, but went eight innings, allowing just three earned runs. A Buckeye comeback came up just short in the 5-4 loss.
Senior Greg Greve came up huge on Saturday. The right hander tossed a shutout, striking out three and scattering just four hits, while giving the bullpen additional rest in a 7-0 win. After a rocky stretch, Greve is now 4-2 on the season, with a 3.76 ERA and a WHIP of just 1.18, being named Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Week for the first time in his career on Monday.
While the starters tossed 22 innings for the series, the bullpen was effective for Beals as well. Tyler Giannonatti and Travis Lakins combined to allow only one run in five innings of work, striking out three, surrendering three hits, and not issuing a free pass.
Taking the series from Penn State is a first step for the Buckeyes in trying to turn around what has been a tough beginning to the conference schedule. At 4-8 in the Big Ten, the team is still on the outside looking in at the postseason. Ohio State now has a two-week hiatus from conference play, and needs to use the series victory against the Lions to build momentum for the final month of the season.
A trip to Morgantown to take on West Virginia comes up on Tuesday, followed by a meeting with a dangerous Ball State team in Columbus. The Buckeyes will look to keep the bats and arms hot to keep things rolling and string together a much-needed winning streak.
Freshman Zach Farmer will be on the hill on Tuesday. The lefty has given up just two earned runs while striking out 16 in 21.1 innings (0.84 ERA) over his last four starts, going 4-0 in that span. Wednesday's starter has yet to be announced, though Trace Dempsey has made midweek starts the past two weeks.
Here's a preview of the Mountaineers and Cardinals.
Tuesday, April 15th, 6:05 p.m.
West Virginia University
The Buckeyes arrive in Morgantown to take on a West Virginia team mired in a seven-game losing streak in which they have been outscored 45-10. Head Coach Randy Mazey is 16-15 in his second year at the helm after putting together a surprising 2013 campaign. The Mountaineers are 2-6 in Big Twelve play, just one spot above the cellar, after being swept in consecutive weekends by TCU and Oklahoma State.
Despite their recent skid, West Virginia has been solid, if unspectacular, both at the plate and on the mound this season. The team is hitting .275, and scores just under five runs per game, though during their recent losing streak, the Mountaineers are plating less than a run and a half each time out.
Three of the Big Twelve's top seven hitters play in Morgantown. Pacing the the Mountaineers is centerfielder Bobby Boyd, who is third in the conference with a .364 average. The junior has started every game, and leads the team in hits (48), runs scored (31), and stolen bases (14 in 15 attempts). Fellow junior Billy Fleming is right behind Boyd, hitting .358 and playing a sterling second base.
The monster in the middle of the West Virginia lineup is senior Ryan McBroom. The first baseman is hitting .347, and is second in the Big Twelve with six home runs and 35 RBIs. A 36th-round pick of the Kansas City Royals last summer, McBroom is slugging .537 and leads the team with 11 extra-base hits.
While the offense has been struggling to push runs across the past two weeks, the Mountaineers' pitching staff has been knocked around, giving up an average of six and a half runs per game. For the season, the staff has a 3.68 ERA, a .256 batting average against, and a very respectable 1.33 WHIP. The team's weekend rotation has been solid, anchored by a pair of MLB draft picks who returned after last season in Harrison Musgrave and Sean Carley.
West Virginia's achilles heel has been finding a reliable midweek starter and a struggling bullpen. Mazey has only three relievers with an ERA under 5.40, and beyond the weekend starters, there is a significant jump in the opposition's batting average. On the mound on Tuesday will be junior Michael Bennett, who is 2-3 with a 5.62 ERA on the season. The righty is getting the start after being unable to get out of the first inning on Sunday against Oklahoma State.
Wednesday, April 16th, 6:35 p.m.
Ball State University
Ball State visits Columbus winners of seven of their past ten and sitting in second place in the MAC's West Division at 9-2 in conference play. Rich Maloney is in the second year of his second stint as Head Coach of the Cardinals after a nine year run at Michigan, and has the team at 24-12 on the season.
The Cardinals have been robust offensively all season, averaging over six and a half runs per game, touting six regulars hitting better than .300, and finding themselves at or near the top of several offensive categories in the conference. Ball State is second in team batting average (.295), and leads the MAC in hits, runs scored, and home runs.
Four freshman are leading the charge at the plate for Maloney. Third baseman Sean Kennedy is off to a torrid start in his first collegiate season. The freshman from Dayton is hitting .379, which is good for third in the conference. Rightfielder Alex Call is second on the team in hitting from the leadoff spot at .339, and fellow frosh Caleb Stayton, the first baseman, is at .333, with four home runs and 28 RBIs. Rounding out the first year quartet is catcher Jarett Rindfleisch, who is raking at a .326 clip, with three dingers and 20 driven in.
Aiding the newcomers in providing pop for the Cardinals is senior centerfielder Sean Godfrey, who is batting .331, and leads the team with seven home runs, 41 RBIs, 50 hits, 34 runs scored, 16 doubles, 16 stolen bases, and a .576 slugging percentage. Sophomore Ryan Spaulding is also hitting above .300. The second baseman has a .313 average to go with four home runs and 22 driven in.
While Ball State has been feasting on opposing pitching, their own staff has struggled to keep runs off the board. As a team, Cardinal hurlers have a 5.60 ERA, a 1.54 WHIP, and have allowed opponents to hit .293. Only one member of the staff has an ERA under 4.30.
Another freshman has been the all-everything on the bump for the Cardinals, as righty Zach Plesac leads the team in nearly every meaningful statistical category. Plesac, whose uncle was Major Leaguer Dan Plesac, is 7-2 in 15 appearances, including five starts, with a 2.60 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .246 batting average against, four saves, and a 3.38 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio.
Unfortunately for Ball State, Plesac, who was named MAC West Division Pitcher of the Week on Monday, will not be taking the ball against the Buckeyes on Wednesday. The Cardinals' starter has not been named, though Nestor Bautista, Chris Lovejoy, and Clay Manering have all made midweek starts this season. None of the three have an ERA lower than 4.90.
With just twenty regular season games remaining, Ohio State must parlay its series win against Penn State this past weekend into serious momentum. Time is running out to make a push for the postseason, and neither West Virginia nor Ball State will make for easy victories. If the bats stay hot and the Buckeyes continue to get solid pitching, the team may be able to go on a run and extend its season to the Big Ten tournament in Omaha five weeks from now.