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Ohio State baseball 2014: Opening weekend preview

The Buckeyes kick off the season on the diamond in the Snowbird Classic

Photo Credit: Joe Greve

The mercury may not have risen above freezing in weeks, and there's still plenty of snow crunching under foot around campus, but one sure sign of Spring has arrived as the Ohio State baseball team prepares to open their season this weekend.  The Buckeyes are in Port Charlotte, Florida, set to kick off the 2014 campaign with four games in the Snowbird Classic.

Greg Beals' squad is young and hungry, but does return thirteen letter winners from a season ago.  With their eyes on a Big Ten title and an NCAA tournament berth, the Buckeyes get the season started Friday afternoon, followed by a doubleheader on Saturday and a final game on Sunday in the Sunshine State.   Senior right hander Greg Greve, one of the team's three captains this season, is expected to take the hill on Friday, with two southpaws, junior Ryan Riga and freshman Zach Farmer, on the bump on Saturday.  Sunday's likely starter is still unknown, but should provide an opportunity for valuable early season experience for a Buckeye hurler.

Here's a look at the matchups:

Friday, February 14 5:00 p.m.: University of Connecticut

In the season opener, Ohio State will take on Connecticut, who is making the transition to the American Athletic Conference just a year after claiming the Big East tournament championship.  Head Coach Jim Penders is in his 11th season at the helm for the Huskies, who went 35-28 in 2013, but just 9-15 in conference play.  The team won the conference tournament despite being the 8th seed.  UConn is returning three starting pitchers who made at least nine starts last season, but suffered a major blow with redshirt junior right-hander Carson Cross, a team captain and Preseason Co-Pitcher of the Year in the AAC, requiring season-ending shoulder surgery.  Cross went 9-5 with a 2.44 ERA in 2013, finishing second in the Big East with 86 strikeouts in his 110.2 innings of work. Filling the void will be senior southpaws Anthony Marzi, another team captain, and Brian Ward, and sophomore lefty Christian Colletti. Redshirt junior righty Jordan Tabakman leaves the bullpen after saving five games a season ago to step into the starting rotation, and is likely to be on the bump against the Buckeyes.

The Huskies hit .270 as a team in 2013, and outscored opponents by nearly fifty runs, but have to fill the void left by the departures of second baseman L.J. Mazzilli, who was taken in the fourth round of the draft by the New York Mets and led the team in just about every offensive category, and outfielder Billy Ferriter, a two-time team captain who holds the school's career stolen base record and was named Most Outstanding Player in the Big East tournament last season.  Senior shortstop Tom Verdi, the third of the team's three captains, will be expected to usher along a young infield and provide an offensive spark, after hitting .261 with 21 RBIs and 21 stolen bases a year ago. Beyond Verdi, a trio of promising sophomores is hoping to take a big leap in terms of production, with catcher Max McDowell (.257, 4 HRs, 25 RBIs), first baseman Bobby Melley (.283, 28 RBIs), and infielder Vinny Siena (.302, 1 HR, 35 RBIs) being counted on to provide some pop.

Saturday, February 15 12:00 p.m.: Auburn University

In the first of two games on Saturday, the Buckeyes will take on Auburn in new Head Coach Sunny Golloway's first season at the helm.  Golloway, who spent the previous eight seasons as Head Coach at Oklahoma after an eight-year stint at Oral Roberts, is taking over for John Pawlowski, who was fired after posting a 33-23 record last season and a 167-126 (.570) mark in five seasons.  The Tigers have failed to reach the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons.

Auburn's starting rotation is expected to be anchored by senior left-hander Michael O'Neal, the likely starter against the Buckeyes on Saturday and a transfer from Chattahoochee Valley Community College, who went 8-4 with a 2.73 ERA in fourteen starts last season.  Joining O'Neal will be juniors Daniel Koger and Rocky McCord, who combined to make just fourteen starts in 2013 and will be called on to eat up innings.  The bullpen is held down by senior righty Terrance Dedrick, who posted a 4-2 record a year ago, with 10 saves.

The Tigers will need to replace their top two bats this season, following the departures of first baseman Garrett Cooper, picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the sixth round of the draft after leading the team with a .354 batting average and tying for the team lead with seven home runs and 37 runs batted in, and outfielder Cullen Wacker (.320, 34 RBIs). Four players in particular are looking to build on solid seasons in sophomore second baseman Jordan Ebert (.303, 4 HRs, 22 RBIs), senior centerfielder Ryan Tella (.259, 3 HRs, 37 RBIs), senior third baseman Damek Tomscha (.274, 7 HRs, 26 RBIs), and senior catcher Blake Austin (.290, 3 HRs, 23 RBIs).

Saturday, February 15 3:00 p.m. & Sunday, February 16 1:00 p.m.: Indiana State University

The Buckeyes will play their final pair of games against another team with a new Head Coach, as they take on Indiana State and Mitch Hannahs, who was an All-American second baseman for the Sycamores in the late-1990s. ISU is returning just four starting position players this season, and has serious questions surrounding its starting pitching. On the mound, the Sycamores must replace their top two arms from last season, and return only three hurlers who even made a start.  Senior right hander Daniel Peterson leads the contingent with nine starts, having posted a 1-5 record with a 4.61 ERA. Peterson also made six appearances out of the bullpen. Redshirt junior southpaw Greg Kuhlman made five starts in twenty-one appearances, and senior lefty Josh Negele made two in twenty-one appearances.  Junior college transfer Brad Lombard, a right-handed junior, will also be in the mix to stabilize the rotation, and is expected to be on the mound against the Buckeyes on Saturday.  The bullpen does return Kurt Kudrecki, who posted a 1.57 ERA and three saves in a team-high 29 relief outings in 2013.

Indiana State continues the trend of Buckeyes' opponents replacing their best bats, as the Sycamores try to fill the hole left by Robby Ort, the school's all-time leader in runs batted in.  A familiar face will be among those trying to fill Ort's shoes, as Derek Hannahs, son of the coach and Ohio State transfer who appeared in ten games for the Buckeyes in 2011, touts the highest returning batting average on the team, after hitting .309 a season ago. Joining Hannahs are returning starters Mike Fitzgerald, a senior outfielder (.263, 3 HRs, 20 RBIs), junior centerfielder Landon Curry (.260, 21 RBIs), redshirt junior outfielder Jacob Hayes (.248, 24 RBIs), and senior shortstop Tyler Wampler (.214, 11 RBIs).  The Sycamores will need improvement at the plate from one through nine to improve on their 26-25 mark from a season ago.