The equation is simple for the Ohio State baseball team. Eight Big Ten schools will travel to Omaha for the conference tournament at the end of May, and right now, the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in. The team is a game and half out of eighth place, and with just four Big Ten series remaining, must make a move now to avoid the disappointment of an early end to the season.
The Buckeyes should be itching to get back on the field against a conference opponent after hooking up with Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference last weekend and having no midweek games as the university went through final exams. At 4-8 in the Big Ten, Ohio State is tied for ninth place with this weekend's foe, the Purdue Boilermakers.
Head Coach Greg Beals seems to have found something with the top three spots in the lineup the past few weeks, as Nick Sergakis, Ronnie Dawson, and Troy Kuhn have powered the Buckeye offense. Dawson, particularly, has been on a tear lately, boosting his batting average back up to a conference-leading .376 and a team-high .504 slugging percentage. The freshman, who will certainly garner consideration for the Big Ten's best newcomer, notched his 17th multi-hit game of the season last Sunday.
The sophomore Sergakis, a transfer from Coastal Carolina in his first year on the field for the Buckeyes, took over at shortstop when Craig Nennig encountered an injury, and has shown no signs of relinquishing his spot. He's hitting .361 and has taken over the leadoff spot in the order, freeing Kuhn up to drop into the three hole. Sergakis is the only Ohio State player to claim Big Ten Player of the Week honors this season.
Aside from the top of the order, the Buckeyes' bats are still looking for answers. Fortunately for the team, though, the pitching staff has continued to be solid. Tanner Tully had another strong outing in his start last Friday, striking out four and allowing just one run in seven innings, and pushing his record to 4-2 on the season. The freshman southpaw has a 2.04 ERA and has issued an astonishing four walks, compared to 33 strikeouts, in 57.1 innings of work, good for a WHIP of 1.06.
Helping the Ohio State rotation is the news that junior Ryan Riga, who last pitched on March 28th against Indiana, will be returning to the mound on Saturday. The lefty is 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA, and has twice been named the Big Ten's Pitcher of the Week this season.
For Ohio State, the season comes down to the final four weeks. If the team can win its final four Big Ten series, a trip to Omaha for the conference tournament should be in order. If they stumble, the summer will come much quicker than the team would like. It all starts with handling business in West Lafayette this weekend.
Here's a look at Purdue.
Friday, April 25th, 6:35 p.m., Saturday, April 26th, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, April 27th, 1:05 p.m.
Purdue has become a consistent force in the Big Ten during Head Coach Doug Schreiber's 16-year tenure, winning the conference title as recently as 2012. This season has been a rebuilding year for the Boilers, though, as a youthful team that boasts just three seniors gains experience. At 10-27 for the year, Purdue has been relegated to the role of spoiler, trying to derail the postseason hopes of its opponents.
The Boilers got out of the gates this season losers of 13 of their first 14 games, but enter this weekend's series on a run of sorts, having won four of their last ten. The team ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten in both hitting and pitching, as growing pains and a tough schedule have caused several players to slump badly. Purdue is hitting just .231 as a team and scores just over three runs per game, while slugging a paltry .297.
The Boilers' bats are paced by senior Sean McHugh, last season's Team MVP and offensive player of the year after hitting .298, with 59 hits, 16 extra-base hits, and 31 RBIs. The catcher is having a similar season in his final collegiate campaign, currently batting .298, and leading the team with 45 hits, 18 runs scored, nine doubles, three home runs, and 16 runs driven in. McHugh is slugging .417 and playing solid defense behind the dish.
The only other Purdue hitters that are producing for Schreiber are redshirt sophomore Kyle Wood and junior Brandon Krieg. Wood, the team's first baseman, who is coming off a suspension for violating team rules, leads the Boilers in hitting, at .302, adding seven doubles, two home runs, and eight RBIs. The shortstop leadoff man Krieg has a .261 average, with five doubles, a home run, 15 driven in, and a team-high nine stolen bases.
While Purdue's bats have been anemic, the opposition has teed off on the team's pitching staff. The Boilers have a Big Ten-worst 5.89 ERA and allow opposing hitters a .314 average. The staff is also at or near the bottom of the conference in strikeouts, runs allowed, hits allowed, walks, and extra-base hits allowed, and has only hurler with an ERA under three.
Accordingly, the weekend rotation has struggled for Purdue. Sophomore Jordan Minch takes the ball on Friday, and is 1-5 in his ten starts, with a 5.03 ERA in 62.2 innings of work. The southpaw has yielded a .278 batting average against and 18 extra-base hits, with a 1.47 WHIP.
Saturday starter Gavin Downs has been the Boilers' most effective, going 2-4 in eight starts, with a 3.88 ERA. The righty has thrown 53.1 innings, giving up 1.33 walks and hits per inning, and holding opponents to a .269 batting average.
Sunday's starter for Purdue still has not been named, and finding a third arm for the weekend has been a challenge for Schreiber. Three players have made three starts or more on the season, and not one has an ERA under 4.97.
The struggles of the starters have put a large burden on the bullpen for the Boilers, as three pitchers have appeared in 19 games or more. A pair of sophomores in Mike Lutz and Tim McElroy anchor the bullpen. Lutz established a freshman record by appearing in 25 games a season ago, and is on pace to blow that number away this year. The righty is 1-5 with a 5.54 ERA and three saves in 23 appearances. McElroy, a southpaw who appeared 21 times as a freshman, is 0-1 with a 4.86 ERA and a save in 20 trips to the mound.
Purdue is fighting for its postseason life just as Ohio State is. The winner of this weekend's series will have a leg up, and momentum as the final month of the season gets underway. The Buckeyes would like nothing more than to get a repeat of the performance it had against the Boilers in a three-game sweep last season in Columbus, but Doug Schreiber's squad is .500 at home, and poses a test. With just four Big Ten weekends remaining, winning the series is vital to both clubs as they eye a trip to Omaha.