In a pair of games played in blustery conditions, Ohio State dropped its two midweek games to West Virginia and Ball State. The Buckeyes sit at 21-17 for the season, and have lost four of their last six. The prospect of an at-large bid for postseason play is largely out of the question for the team at this point, making the remainder of the Big Ten regular season supremely important.
The Buckeye nine get a break from conference play this weekend, as Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference comes to Columbus for a three-game tilt. Greg Beals' squad needs to find some consistency, both at the plate and on the mound, and needs to find it fast if hopes of the postseason are to be fulfilled.
"It's very good for us right now, we need to have some non-Big Ten play," Beals said.
Some positive news for Ohio State is that junior Ryan Riga, who has missed his last two starts due to shoulder soreness, is closer to returning to the mound. The southpaw is 3-1 on the season, with a 3.52 ERA, and has twice been named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week. Sophomore Jake Post will make another start in Riga's stead against the Racers. The righty, who improved to 3-2 last Sunday against Penn State despite giving up five earned runs in five innings, will be making his fifth start of the season, and carries a 3.60 ERA.
Adding Riga back into the mix with senior Greg Greve, last week's conference Pitcher of the Week for his shutout of the Nittany Lions, and freshman Tanner Tully, who has been impressive since joining the weekend rotation, would help to solidify the Buckeye staff at a time when it's sorely needed.
The Racers also come in losers of four of six. This series, plus a lack of midweek games next week to accommodate finals week for Ohio State, is a chance for the Buckeyes to right the ship before hitting the stretch run in the Big Ten. Only four conference series remain, and at 4-8, the team needs to go on a run just to make it to the Big Ten tournament.
Here's a preview of Murray State.
Friday, April 18th, 6:35 p.m., Saturday, April 19th, 3:05 p.m., Sunday, April 20th, 1:05 p.m.
Murray State University
Murray State comes to town in the midst of an average season, sitting at 16-18 for the year and 9-9 in the OVC. The Racers are 6-6 when playing away from Reagan Field in Head Coach Rob McDonald's 11th season at the helm for his alma mater. The Breds (short for Thoroughbreds) as the team is also known, is currently fourth in the OVC standings after being picked tenth in the preseason, and finds themselves in the middle or bottom of the conference pack in most statistical categories.
The Racers' offense has been less than stout this spring. The team is hitting .267, and is in the bottom two of the OVC in slugging, hits, total bases, and stolen bases. The Breds have 81 extra-base hits, but only four have left the yard. Despite the lack of power, though, Murray State scores about six runs per game and boasts six players with 20 or more runs batted in.
Newcomer Tyler Lawrence is off to a quality start in his freshman season for the Racers. The catcher leads the team in hitting with a .309 average, 42 hits, and 26 RBIs, also adding nine doubles and 23 runs scored while batting predominantly in the cleanup spot.
Complementing Lawrence is senior leadoff man Ty Stetson. Coming off a 2013 campaign in which he hit .336 with nine doubles, three triples, and 27 RBIs, the left fielder is raking at a .302 clip with a team-leading 34 runs scored, 10 doubles, and seven steals, also contributing 20 runs driven in. Stetson is the table-setter for the Breds, touting a .439 on-base percentage that is eighth in the conference.
Also providing pop for the Racers are a quartet of juniors and a sophomore, including second baseman Anthony Bayus (.295, 10 doubles, 20 RBIs), center fielder Taylor Matthews (.285, five doubles, two triples, a home run, and 20 RBIs), shortstop Matt McGowan (.270, nine doubles, a home run, and 21 RBIs), right fielder Kollin Dowdy (.313, 10 doubles, and 20 RBIs), and first baseman Michael Hargrove (.216, a team-leading two home runs, and 18 RBIs).
Murray State's nearly .500 record is a testament to a run differential of just -3 for the season. While the Racers score six runs a game, the pitching staff is also allowing six per contest. The Breds' hurlers have a 4.88 ERA, with opposing hitters batting .283, and allowing 1.49 walks and hits per inning.
Toeing the rubber on the weekend for the Racers are senior Cameron Finch and sophomores Cody Maerz and Sheldon Baxter. Finch, a righty, went 5-4 with a 4.32 ERA as season ago, including the school's first nine-inning no-hitter. This year has proved tougher for Finch, who is 3-4 with a 5.63 ERA. The opposition is hitting a robust .333 against him, and he has allowed 1.73 walks and hits per inning.
Maerz, who started seven games a season ago as a freshman, posting a 3-2 record with a 3.81 ERA, is also having a rougher go of things this year. The right hander is 1-5 with a 6.61 ERA and two saves. This will be his fifteenth appearance of the season, but just his second start. Baxter, who is in his first season as a starter, is 1-3 with a 4.22 ERA. The lefty sports a 1.14 WHIP and hold opponents to a .251 average.
It appears the Buckeyes will be avoiding hometown boy from Murray, Kentucky, Brock Downey, who has been the ace of the Racers' staff. The junior southpaw is 6-1 in his first full season as a starter, with a 2.02 ERA and three complete games. The opposition hits just .224 against Downey, who has an excellent 1.02 WHIP and strikes out three and a half batters for every free pass he issues.
Three pitchers anchor the Breds' bullpen, though the relievers have been knocked around a bit this season. Senior Tyler Saltsman has been lights out, going 2-0 in ten appearances with a 2.79 ERA. The righty has held opponents to a .222 batting average, with a 1.19 WHIP, and strikes out nearly a batter in inning. Joining Saltsman in making ten or more appearances for the Racers' pen are freshman John Lollar (1-0, 4.00 ERA, two saves), and sophomore Andrew Bramley (1-2, 8.19 ERA).
The scenario is simple for Ohio State with a month remaining in the regular season. If the Buckeyes hope to reach Omaha for the Big Ten tournament, they will need to put together a sizable winning streak in conference play. With only twelve conference games remaining, the team must begin putting together some consistency against Murray State, and carry it through finals week to their trip to West Lafayette in a week.