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Ohio State baseball: Big home series for Buckeyes against defending champion Hoosiers

The Buckeye nine will get a good read on where they stand among the conference elite this weekend when Indiana comes to town

Ohio State Athletics

Ohio State has already played some elite competition in the early going of the 2014 baseball season. The Buckeyes have taken on the likes of Oregon, Oregon State, Auburn, and Oklahoma, all of whom are ranked in the Top 30 nationally by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. But perhaps no foe surpasses Indiana, last year's Big Ten champs and a participant in the College World Series. Three late-season losses to the Hoosiers derailed Ohio State's postseason aspirations in 2013, and despite a tough start to the year, Tracy Smith's squad remains the conference's benchmark.

The Buckeyes have a little momentum on their side, though. Winners of eight of their last nine and sitting atop the Big Ten at 16-7, Greg Beals' team is in the midst of a fourteen-game homestand, and the bats are starting to find some life. Since returning to the friendly confines of Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium, Ohio State has been held to fewer than six runs in only two games, and has more than doubled up the production of their opponents.

Leading the charge of late has been second baseman Troy Kuhn. The sophomore leadoff man has raised his average to .297, and leads the team in home runs (4), RBIs (19), doubles (8), extra-base hits (13) and slugging percentage (.538). This is the kind of jump the Buckeyes were hoping to see, and has been immensely important to the team's success given the struggles of middle of the order guys like Josh Dezse, Pat Porter, and Jacob Bosiokovic.

Also swinging the bats well have been a pair of a freshman and a senior. Ronnie Dawson has been raking since Day One for the Buckeyes, and continues to lead the team with a .342 batting average through the first third of the season. Fellow frosh Troy Montgomery is also putting things together. The outfielder is hitting .267 with five extra-base hits and 11 runs driven in. Montgomery hit his first career home run on Saturday against Michigan State, a grand slam to right that fueled a 6-2 victory. Senior Tim Wetzel has been the picture of stability for the club so far. The left fielder is hitting .313 with 10 RBIs, and has helped to set the table for the top of the order from the nine hole.

Ohio State's slowly-awakening bats are a good sign, but the strength of the team remains its arms, as evidenced by shutouts in their last two games. Friday starter Ryan Riga had his first real tough outing of the season against the Spartans, giving up five runs in 6.1 innings while getting a no-decision in the 7-6 loss. Senior Greg Greve was able to pick up the slack on Saturday, though, bouncing back from a couple of his own sub-par starts to toss six innings of two-run ball and earn the win.

As steady, and at times spectacular, as Riga and Greve have been, the real story of the pitching staff has been the stepping up of several freshman. Tanner Tully, who was just moved into the weekend rotation by Beals, was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Week on Monday after posting a 2-0 record in his first two career starts, throwing twelve scoreless innings against Xavier and Michigan State. Tully's honor comes just a week after Travis Lakins, who closed the door on Sparty for his second save of the season on Sunday, claimed the award.

The momentum Ohio State has built up over the past two weeks is crucial as they wade into the Big Ten schedule. Indiana will provide a measuring stick for just how far the Buckeyes may be able to go this season. Here's a preview of the Hoosiers.

Friday, March 28th 6:35 p.m., Saturday, March 29th 3:05 p.m., Sunday, March 30th 1:05 p.m.

Indiana University

Indiana sits at 12-10 on the season, but do not let that mark fool you. This team is loaded, and after a College World Series berth a season ago and playing an extremely tough schedule in the early going this year, they are battle-tested. The Hoosiers began the season ranked in the Top 10 of nearly every national ranking, including No. 3 by Baseball America. Several players earned preseason honors, and the team was a unanimous choice by conference coaches to win the Big Ten.

The team took two of three from Michigan in Bloomington last weekend to open Big Ten play, but lost a midweek contest against a tough Indiana State squad on the road on Wednesday. Like the Buckeyes, Indiana's bats are starting to wake up, and the team's 10-5 record in March is evidence of that.

Any offensive discussion of the Hoosiers starts with catcher Kyle Schwarber. The junior from Middletown, Ohio cleaned up on postseason awards last season, being named a first-team All-American and the nation's top catcher by the NCBWA and Perfect Game, after hitting .366 with 18 homers, 54 RBIs, and 65 runs scored. Schwarber also picked up accolades galore this preseason, being named a unanimous All-American by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, and the NCBWA. To date, he is hitting .310, with a team-leading three home runs and 12 RBIs, and is No. 16 on Baseball America's list of the Top 50 junior pro prospects.

Joining Schwarber in fueling Indiana's offensive attack are third baseman Dustin DeMuth and first baseman Sam Travis. DeMuth, who was a second-team All-America selection by Perfect Game and third-team by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper after hitting .377 with five home runs and 41 RBIs last season, is the 4th-ranked pro prospect nationally in the senior class. The 6'3", 215-pound keeper of the hot corner is pacing the Hoosiers with a .347 average this season, and has added a homer and seven driven in.

Travis, who started all 65 games for the team last season despite a broken hamate bone, is a former Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and was named a preseason second-team All-America by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper after hitting .316 and placing second in the conference in home runs (10), RBIs (57), and doubles (22). Along with Schwarber, the first sacker is a member of the Golden Spikes Watch List this season, and is raking at a .341 clip, with a team-high 18 RBIs.

The trio of Schwarber, DeMuth, and Travis is enough to give any opponent some sleepless nights, but unfortunately for the Hoosiers, only one other player is hitting better than .256, second baseman Casey Rodrgue. A junior college transfer from Louisiana, Rodrigue is hitting .308 with 13 RBIs and nine stolen bases from the leadoff spot, and was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday. Particularly disappointing has been left fielder Casey Smith, who entered the season as Baseball America's No. 37 senior pro prospect. Smith is mired in a 10-55 slump to open the season, hitting just .182 with two runs driven in and one extra-base hit.

While the bats have been a bit of a concern for Indiana through the first third of the season, the pitching staff has shone. The team leads the Big Ten with a 2.81 earned run average and is second in strikeouts. Opposing hitters are batting just .267 against the Hoosier staff, who boast a 1.37 WHIP and a weekend rotation featuring three starters with sub-2.60 ERAs.

The heart of the rotation for Tracy Smith is senior Joey DeNato, a second-team All-Big Ten performer a season ago, and this year's Friday starter. DeNato, who entered the season as Baseball America's 11th-ranked senior pro prospect, is 4-1 in six starts, posting a 2.39 ERA while eating up 37.2 innings. Despite giving up a team-high 10 earned runs, the southpaw is holding opposing batters to a .234 average and sports a WHIP of 1.22.

Indiana's Saturday starter is someone Ohio State has a score to settle with. Junior Kyle Hart clinched the Big Ten title for the Hoosiers last season against the Buckeyes, allowing just a run on four hits over 8.1 innings. Hart is arguably the hottest pitcher in the conference right now, having won the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week award the past two weeks. In his past three starts, all victories, the righty has allowed just one earned run and 11 hits, while striking out 18 in 22 innings. He is 3-1 on the season, with a 2.01 ERA in 31.1 innings of work. The opposition is hitting just .146 against the lefty, and his WHIP of 0.925 shows a hurler who is on top of his game.

DeNato and Hart get the majority of the attention among the weekend rotation, and rightfully so, but Sunday starter Christian Morris has done a serviceable job keeping the Hoosiers in games. The sophomore righty is 0-2 in his four starts, and has allowed a .304 opposition batting average, but his 2.55 ERA demonstrates escapability.

Indiana's litany of players scooping up preseason awards and draft hype also extends to the bullpen. Senior Ryan Halstead was named to the NCBWA's Stopper of the Year Watch List and was rated as Baseball America's No. 22 pro prospect among seniors. Halstead is IU's all-time leader in season saves (11 in 2013) and career saves (22), and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in last June's MLB Draft. After putting off his pro career for one last season in Bloomington, the righty has been limited by an injury, registering one save in four appearances, throwing 3.1 innings and not yet allowing a run. He will not be available for the Hoosiers in Columbus.

Two workhorses in the pen that are worth noting are Luke Harrison and Scott Effross. Harrison, a junior righty, has made ten appearances, throwing 15.2 innings and posting a 2.30 ERA with one save. Effross, a sophomore from Twinsburg, Ohio, has already appeared in a gaudy 13 games, spanning 24.2 innings of work. The righty is 2-1 with a 1.46 ERA and a team-leading three saves, two of which came last weekend against the Wolverines.

A full third of the season has already elapsed for Ohio State, and from here on out, the tests will only get stiffer as they strive towards their first postseason appearance since 2009. Despite a slower than expected start, Indiana is still considered the cream of the Big Ten crop, and this series will provide a barometer for the Buckeyes to measure themselves against. Conference supremacy, and perhaps an inside track to regionals, can be established by Greg Beals and his squad with a big performance against the Hoosiers this weekend.