Riding a wave of momentum after last weekend's thrilling three-game sweep of the UCF Tournament in Orlando, the Ohio State baseball team is looking to continue their winning ways in the Keith LeClair Classic this weekend in Greenville, North Carolina. Timely hitting, strong relief pitching, and a never-say-die attitude have served the Buckeyes well through the season's first two weekends.
On the offensive side, the Buckeyes' outfield is more than pulling its weight. Junior rightfielder Pat Porter had his bat come alive last weekend, going 5-13 at the plate and driving in three runs. While Porter is expected to produce for Ohio State, though, the story so far in 2014 is the hot start of freshman centerfielder Ronnie Dawson. Dawson is hitting .455 with a home run and five driven in in five starts, and had the walk-off game-winning RBI single against the Citadel on Saturday. Also of note, and nearly as unexpected as Dawson's scorching start, has been the play of senior leftfielder Tim Wetzel, who has a .333 average, with three doubles and six RBIs.
The production Ohio State is receiving from the outfield thus far stands in sharp contrast to the struggles of the team's quartet of sophomore starters around the diamond on the infield. First baseman Zach Ratcliff, second baseman Troy Kuhn, third baseman Jacob Bosiokovic, and shortstop Craig Nennig are a combined 22-108 (.204) at the plate in the early going, and will need to step up their production moving forward. Also troubling is the 11 errors the four have combined to commit in the first seven games, which needs to be cleaned up quickly.
The Buckeyes' weekend rotation of senior right-hander Greg Greve, junior lefty Ryan Riga, and freshman southpaw Zach Farmer have been steady if unspectacular through the team's first two weekends. Each has an earned run average under four, and has kept Ohio State competitive in every game. The real story of the pitching staff thus far, though, has been the bullpen. At the UCF tournament, Greg Beals' relievers allowed just one earned in 15.1 innings, with standout performances being given by sophomore righty Jacob Post and a pair of freshmen, lefty Tanner Tully and right-hander Travis Lakins. Post and Lakins both earned their first victories of the season in their appearances.
The Buckeyes stand at 5-2, and given the early struggles being experienced by the Indiana Hoosiers, are very much in the conversation as the cream of the Big Ten crop. They will try to keep their winning streak alive in Greenville against Pittsburgh, Western Kentucky, and East Carolina. Here is a preview of the matchups:
Friday, February 28 1:05 p.m. University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, competing in the ACC for the first time this season, are fresh off a 2-1 weekend at the USC-Upstate Tournament, and stand at 4-2 overall. Joe Jordano, in his 15th season at the helm for the Panthers has seen a lot of offense from his squad in the early going. Pitt has averaged over seven runs per game through their first six, including a 15-run explosion against Butler last Friday.
Redshirt sophomore Dylan Wolsonovich is off to a fast start for the Panthers, hitting .421 with five RBIs and five runs scored in the first half dozen games. Junior leftfielder Boo Vazquez has also started strongly, with a .320 average and a team-leading nine RBIs. The production from Wolsonovich and Vazquez has helped to keep the bats chugging along even as senior rightfielder Casey Roche, a preseason first team All-American according to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA), has struggled. Roche, who hit .339 with nine home runs and a Big East conference-leading 65 RBIs a season ago, is just 5-24 (.208) at the dish so far, with two HRs and four RBIs, and will enter Friday's game in an 0-7 slump.
On the mound, Friday's starter will be senior right-hander Matt Wotherspoon, who is 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA in his first two starts. Wotherspoon, a second team All-Big East selection after going 9-3 with a 3.70 ERA and a team-best 85 strikeouts a season ago, was a 20th round selection of the Detroit Tigers in the draft, but opted to continue his collegiate career. He was roughed up a little in his last outing, giving up five runs (four earned) on nine hits in five innings of work against Butler.
Saturday, March 1 11:05 a.m. Western Kentucky University
Western Kentucky enters the weekend with a 6-2 record in Head Coach Matt Myers' third season as skipper, and fresh off a 3-2 victory over 4th-ranked Vanderbilt on Tuesday. Solid starting pitching and a number of hot bats to open the season mean the Hilltoppers will be a test for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
On the bump for WKU will be senior southpaw Austin Clay, who enters with a 2-0 record and a 3.48 ERA. Clay was roughed up in the first inning of his first outing, giving up four runs to Southern Illinois, but has not allowed a run since. Last time out, he tossed five innings of shutout ball against UNC-Asheville, scattering just three hits. Also of note for the Hilltoppers' hurlers is junior lefty Ian Tompkins, an NCBWA Stopper of the Year watch list member, who has saved four games in as many opportunities already, striking out 11 in just 5.1 innings of work.
The WKU bats have been hot thus far in the young season, with four players hitting better than .300. Leading the way is senior second baseman Scott Wilcox, who is hitting .483 with two HRs and eight RBIs. Junior first baseman Ryan Church (.303, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs), sophomore centerfielder Trevor Lowe (.417, 1 HR, 6 RBIs), and sophomore third baseman Thomas Peter (.320, four RBIs) are also swinging the bats well, while senior outfielder Regan Flaherty, an offensive force for the Hilltoppers a year ago, has struggled mightily, mired in a 3-27 (.111) slump to start the campaign.
Sunday, March 2 2:05 p.m. East Carolina University
East Carolina is off to a rocky 3-5 start this season and riding a four-game losing streak entering weekend play, thanks in large part to a three-game sweep at the hands of top-ranked Virginia. Ninth year Head Coach Billy Godwin boasts two preseason All-Americans on the squad in senior second baseman-closer Drew Reynolds and junior right-hander Jeff Hoffman, but neither is enjoying the early season that was expected.
Reynolds, the preseason Conference USA Co-Player of the Year, is hitting just .212 and has yet to drive in a run, after leading ECU with a .322 average and 68 hits, while ranking second with 13 doubles and fourth with 30 runs scored in 2013. Senior third baseman Zach Houchins (.281, 3 RBIs), sophomore catcher Travis Watkins (.333, four RBIs), and junior rightfielder Ian Townsend (.258, 1 HR, 7 RBIs) are providing most of the pop for the Pirates thus far. The team has struggled to score runs, notching just 24 through their first eight games.
Hoffman and ECU's pitching staff have also experienced their share of struggles in the early season. Though he likely won't be on the mound against the Buckeyes, Hoffman, who was named a preseason first-team All-American by Baseball America and is on USA Baseball's Golden Spikes watch list, is 0-1 with a 4.05 ERA in his first two starts of the season. On the mound for the Pirates on Sunday against Ohio State will be freshman right-hander Davis Kirkpatrick, who is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in two appearances. His only start of the year resulted in an 8-3 win against Campbell University in which he went five innings, giving up three runs, two earned, on five hits, while striking out five and not issuing a walk.