Ohio State enters the final series of the regular season knowing that it has a spot locked up in the Big Ten tournament. At 9-12, the Buckeyes currently occupy the sixth spot in the conference standings, but a strong showing against Northwestern in Columbus, coupled with some help from Minnesota, could jump one more spot to fifth. Positioning is important in the conference tournament, as the Big Ten's top three teams have proved to be a cut above the rest. Ohio State would do well to avoid a first round matchup with the likes of Indiana, Nebraska, or Illinois.
The Buckeyes wrapped up the non-conference schedule with an 11-3 victory over Cincinnati on Tuesday night in a game in which the team's bats finally showed signs of life. Ohio State had managed to plate just four runs in its previous four games.
Freshman Ronnie Dawson racked up four hits, fellow frosh Troy Montgomery had a pair of two-run doubles, and sophomore Jacob Bosiokovic, largely a disappointment at the plate this season, drove in three runs of his own to lead the charge.
Skipper Greg Beals has also made a minor tweak to the weekend rotation, sandwiching freshman Travis Lakins between usual starters Tanner Tully, the reigning conference Freshman of the Week, and senior stalwart Greg Greve, electing to rest junior Ryan Riga.
Riga, who three times this season has been named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, dealt with shoulder soreness earlier in the year, missing nearly a month, and has been ineffective in his past two starts. The hope is the extra rest will do the southpaw good and allow him to come back strong in Omaha. Lakins is normally featured in the back end of the Buckeyes' bullpen, but given the recent revival of closer Trace Dempsey, Beals is comfortable handing the ball to the righty for the start.
Consistency on offense has been the team's achilles heel all season, and to make any noise in the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes will need to score runs. Ohio State did that on Tuesday against the Bearcats, and has an opportunity to build more momentum at the plate with the Wildcats coming to town. Northwestern is dead last in the Big Ten in runs allowed, and the Buckeyes must capitalize on that to finish the regular season strong.
Here's a preview of Northwestern.
Thursday, May 15th 5:00 pm, Friday, May 16th 5:00 pm, Saturday, May 17th 12:00 pm
For the Wildcats, the series in Columbus is likely the culmination of the season. At 5-15 in the Big Ten, and losers of six of its last seven conference games, Northwestern will need to overcome improbable odds to make the trip to Omaha next week. Head Coach Paul Stevens is in his 27th year at the helm of the Wildcats, and is the winningest coach in program history, but hasn't had so much as a .500 record since 2003.
Despite its record, Northwestern has been good at the plate this year, ranking fifth in the Big Ten with a .275 team batting average, but has struggled to push runners across. The Wildcats average just under 4.5 runs a game and slug a meager .345, ranking near the bottom of the conference in extra-base hits. The team's woes have been compounded by several injuries, including shortstop Kyle Ruchim, Northwestern's best hitter, who was lost for the season after just two games due to an arm injury.
Leading the Wildcats' attack with the bats is Matt Hopfner. The true freshman has seen time in the outfield and at first base, and is hitting .330 in his first collegiate season. Hopfner leads the team in hits (61) and runs scored (28), adding three doubles, a triple, and 23 runs batted in.
Also steady in Stevens' lineup is junior Scott Heelan. Slated to be the team's starting catcher, Heelan has been moved to second base in the wake of Ruchim's injury, and is hitting .311, with a team-leading 10 doubles and 29 RBIs.
The injury bug also bit sophomore Zach Jones, Northwestern's starting first baseman, a few weeks ago against Michigan State, and he has not played since. Jones was hitting .315 with 17 RBIs when he went down, improving upon a freshman season in which he tallied a .300 average and 14 driven in.
Injuries have also not been kind to the pitching staff for the Wildcats, as several members have missed time throughout the season. Northwestern ranks near the bottom in the Big Ten in pitching in most statistical categories. Stevens' staff has a 4.86 ERA, gives up over six runs a game, and has a WHIP of 1.64.
The Wildcats' weekend rotation is anchored by junior Brandon Magallones and sophomore Reed Mason. Magallones is 3-7 on the season, with a 5.81 ERA. The right-hander, who will take the ball on Thursday, allows the opposition to hit a robust .302 and has a WHIP of 1.69 in 69.2 innings. Control has been an issue for Magallones, as he has walked as many hitters as he has struck out (38).
Mason, who leads the team with 13 starts and will be on the bump on Friday, is 1-4 with a 4.40 ERA in 75.2 innings of work. The southpaw leads the team in strikeouts (40), but gives up a .318 batting average to opponents and 1.64 walks and hits per inning.
Rounding out the Wildcats' hurlers this weekend will be senior Nick Friar, who will start game three on Saturday. Friar is second on the team with 21 appearances, and will be making his sixth start. The righty is 5-0 this season, with a 4.38 ERA in 51.1 innings, holding opponents to a .237 batting average and carrying a 1.44 WHIP.
Northwestern's bullpen is anchored by senior Jack Quigley, who has set a career-high in innings pitched in his final season in Evanston. The righty is 2-7 with a 4.50 ERA, and ranks fifth in the Big Ten with eight saves. Quigley has allowed opponents to hit .288 in his 22 appearances, and sports a WHIP of 1.58.
Ohio State is poised to complete its third straight winning regular season under Beals, and has its sights set on a trip to the Big Ten tournament. If the Buckeyes are to make a run in Omaha, the offense will need to produce much more consistently. The team got a start in building momentum at the plate on Tuesday, and has a chance to get hot against a Northwestern pitching staff that has struggled all season. Without putting a few crooked numbers on the board, Ohio State's stay at the conference tournament could be a short one.
All three games in the series will be televised live on the Big Ten Network.