Ohio State did a lot to help its postseason aspirations over the weekend in West Lafayette. After taking two of three from Purdue, the Buckeyes now find themselves in sole possession of eighth place in the Big Ten, significant because the top eight teams receive invitations to the conference tournament in Omaha at season's end. The team is just a game behind seventh place Iowa, and a game and a half behind Minnesota and Michigan, and will play host to the Hawkeyes this weekend.
Head Coach Greg Beals was pleased with the fight the team showed to take the series from the Boilers after dropping Friday night's game in 13 innings, and the position they are in to finish the season. "I like where we're at as a team right now," Beals said. "We had a tough stretch to open Big Ten play. We've bounced back the last two Big Ten series and I like how we bounced back this weekend. After an extra-inning loss Friday it was good to come back and win the last two games on the road to take the series."
The Buckeyes were led all weekend by the pitching staff, which turned in a dominant performance, allowing just five earned runs (1.50 ERA) in the three games, and limiting Purdue to a meager .196 batting average. The weekend rotation set the tone, with Tanner Tully, Ryan Riga, and Greg Greve combining to throw 21.2 innings, allowing only 11 hits and three earned runs. Riga, in particular, was outstanding, throwing 7.2 frames of shutout ball in his first start since March 28th. The performance landed the southpaw his third Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honor of the season.
Also a welcomed sign was the production of Josh Dezse, who has struggled mightily to regain the form of two seasons ago. Starting all three games at first base, Dezse went 4-9 for the series, scoring three runs and driving in four.
Ohio State is getting healthy and beginning to find production from players who have underachieved for much of the season. Coupled with a pitching staff that has been solid all season, the team is poised to make a late-season push into the postseason. Before hosting a crucial series against Iowa this weekend, though, the Buckeyes face a big test in Louisville, a team that has made the NCAA tournament in six of the last seven years, including two trips to the College World Series.
Here's a preview of Lousiville.
Wednesday, April 30th, 6:00 p.m.
University of Louisville
Louisville comes into Wednesday night's game winners of six straight, and have climbed to No. 8 in the weekly National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's (NCBWA) Top 30 poll. The Cardinals were a participant in the College World Series a season ago after setting a school record for wins, and have their sights set on another trip to TD Ameritrade Park.
There is no denying the effect that Head Coach Dan McDonnell has had on the Louisville program, as he has guided the team to six NCAA tournament appearances, including two College World Series (2007, 2013) and three Super Regionals. In his eighth season at the helm, McDonnell has the Cards at 33-11 on the year, and at 11-4, in second place in the American Athletic Conference.
The Cardinals do everything well. The team is hitting .286 on the season, averaging nearly seven runs per game, and outscoring opponents by more than three runs per game.
Leading the Louisville bats is left fielder Jeff Gardner, a Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list member. The senior leads the team in a number of offensive categories, including batting average (.333), doubles (15), home runs (4), RBIs (44), and slugging percentage (.536). A season ago, the two-time team captain earned First Team All-Big East honors while hitting .337 with a team-leading nine home runs and 43 RBI, ranking 26th nationally with a .632 slugging percentage.
Gardner is getting plenty of help in the lineup, too. Fellow seniors Cole Sturgeon and Alex Chittenden are both hitting over .300. The right fielder Sturgeon, who doubles as a reliever and is also a team captain, is batting .303, with a team-leading 53 hits on the season, 15 extra-base hits, 24 runs batted in, and 15 steals. Chittenden, who plays the hot corner, is at .302 with 18 RBIs.
A trio of juniors is also providing pop for the Cardinals. First baseman Grant Kay boasts a .295 average, shares the team lead with four home runs, and is second with 34 RBIs and 19 stolen bases. Second baseman Zach Lucas also shares the club's home run lead and is right behind Kay with 32 driven in. Setting it all up is leadoff man Sutton Whiting. A second team All-Big East selection as a sophomore and a team capatin this season, the shortstop has a .417 on-base percentage and 28 steals.
As well as Louisville has hit the ball this season, though, the team's real strength is its pitching staff. The Cardinals' hurlers have a 2.85 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, and hold opponents to a .228 batting average.
The headliner on the mound is junior Nick Burdi, the Cards' closer who was named a preseason first team All-American by Baseball America, Perfect Game, Louisville Slugger, and the NCBWA, a midseason NCBWA Stopper of the Year watch list member, and joined his teammate Gardner in being a Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list member. In 2013, Burdi was among the nation's best relievers, earning 16 saves with a 0.76 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 29 relief appearances and 35.2 innings. This season, the righty is 2-1 with 10 saves in 18 appearances, and has yet to allow an earned run in 21.2 innings. Burdi has struck out 36 batters against just seven walks, and is sporting a 0.78 WHIP
Toeing the rubber for the Cardinals on Wednesday will be freshman Drew Harrington. The southpaw is 1-0 in 14 appearances, including one start, with a 5.85 ERA in 20 innings of work. Harrington, who was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Kentucky a year ago, is allowing opponents to hit a robust .402, but has a 4.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, having issued just four free passes all season.
Ohio State has rebounded from Friday night losses to win their past two conference series, and has itself in position to make a run to the Big Ten tournament. Before hosting a critical three-game set with Iowa this weekend, the Buckeyes will get a taste of one of the country's elite programs. A strong showing in Louisville could provide the team with much-needed confidence and a surge in momentum as it faces the final three weeks of the regular season.