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Ohio State baseball: Buckeyes heading west to battle some big boys

After three successful weekends down south, the baseball Bucks are heading west for a showdown with Oregon

Ohio State Athletics

The south has been kind to the Ohio State baseball team thus far in the young season. After three trips below the Mason-Dixon Line, the Buckeyes sit at 7-3, the second-hottest start in the Big Ten and good enough to begin receiving votes in the weekly National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Division I Top 30 poll.

Ohio State went 2-1 at the Keith LeClair Classic in Greenville, North Carolina last weekend, defeating Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky before a late rally came up short against host East Carolina. Of note was the continued solid performances by the pitching staff, particularly senior righty Greg Greve, who threw six innings of shutout, one-hit ball against the Panthers, striking out nine, and a pair of saves for senior closer Trace Dempsey. More importantly, though, was the awakening of the bats of the quartet of sophomore infielders. First baseman Zach Ratcliff, second baseman Troy Kuhn, third baseman Jacob Bosiokovic, and shortstop Craig Nennig combined to score eight runs and drive in six in the three games.

"At the end of the day, we won the weekend and we're playing good baseball heading into next week," said Head Coach Greg Beals.

The season starts to ramp up this week, and the challenges grow exponentially, as Ohio State will travel to the Pacific Northwest for a three-game weekend series with No. 11 Oregon. The team will also play their first weekday game of the season on Tuesday against 5th-ranked Oregon State. The trip will provide a great barometer for how strong this Buckeyes team really is, and a chance to find out how they stack up against a couple of the nation's best. Here's what to look for in the matchup against the Ducks.

Friday, March 7th 9:05 p.m., Saturday, March 8th 7:05 p.m., & Sunday, March 9th 3:05 p.m.

University of Oregon

The Buckeyes travel to Eugene to take on an Oregon team fresh off a Tuesday doubleheader sweep of Seattle University. The Ducks, who rose to number five in the NCBWA poll after an 8-0 start, were swept last weekend by Cal State-Fullerton, dropping them six spots. George Horton's squad, who advanced to the Raleigh Regional Final last season before falling to Rice, is looking to make a fourth NCAA postseason appearance in the past six years, and their third straight.

Oregon has several players swinging hot bats in the early going, which should provide a challenge for an Ohio State pitching staff that currently sits at the top of the Big Ten in earned-run average (2.71), opposing batting average (.237), saves (5) and hits allowed (79). Senior rightfielder Tyler Baumgartner leads the team in hitting (.377), runs scored (14), and doubles (6) from the third spot in the lineup. In Tuesday's doubleheader against Seattle, Baumgartner went 6-10 at the plate, with a double, a triple, three runs scored, and three driven in. Also encouraging for the Ducks has been the performance of designated hitter Kyle Garlick, who took a medical redshirt a season ago due to a broken wrist. Garlick, now a redshirt junior, is batting .366 with a home run, four doubles, and a team-high ten RBIs.

Additional pop has been provided by freshman first baseman A.J. Balta (.297, 5 RBIs), senior second baseman Aaron Payne (.289, 6 RBIs, 10 runs scored), sophomore third baseman Mitchell Tolman (.267, 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 10 runs scored), and freshman leftfielder Austin Grebeck (.345, 4 RBIs). Grebeck was ranked number 46 among freshman nationally in Baseball America's list of top 50 prospects by class.

As good as the bats have been for Oregon through their first thirteen games, though, it is the team's pitching that has been the real story. Sporting a 2.90 team ERA and striking out an average of nearly a batter an inning, the Ducks have gotten extremely strong starting pitching and solid relief work out of their staff. The team entered the season primed to rely on sophomore lefty Cole Irvin, a preseason third-team All-America selection by the NCBWA following a freshman campaign in which he went 12-3 with a 2.48 ERA and four complete games. Irvin, though, underwent Tommy John surgery last month and is out for the season, and Horton has had to fill a big hole in the front end of the rotation.

Stepping in to fill the void left by Irvin's absence have been senior Jeff Gold, freshman Matt Krook, and junior Tommy Thorpe. The Buckeyes may avoid facing Gold, who picked up his third win of the season in Tuesday's first game against Seattle, giving up a run on just two hits in six innings of work. The righty's 2.12 ERA in 17 innings so far is tops on the team.

The other two, however, are tabbed to be on the bump Friday and Saturday. Thorpe, who will square off against Greve in the series opener, is coming off by far his worst start of the season, giving up seven runs, six earned, on eight hits in 5.1 innings against Fullerton. Those six earned runs account 3/4s of the runs the lefty has allowed in 2014. On the year, Thorpe is 1-1 with a 3.93 ERA.

Saturday's starter against junior Ryan Riga will be Krook, who came in at 7th on the Baseball America list of top 50 prospects by class. The 35th pick in the 2013 MLB draft by the Miami Marlins, the southpaw opted to postpone the start of his professional career. A power pitcher, with a fastball touching the mid-90s, Krook has overmatched opposing hitters to the tune of a .159 batting average against and 27 strikeouts in just 19.1 innings. Though he has yet to pick up a decision, his 2.33 ERA has been impressive.

There are a couple of possibilities for who will toe the rubber against freshman lefty Zach Farmer on Sunday for Oregon if Gold is not the man. Senior righty Brando Tessar and junior lefty Spencer Jordan both saw time on the mound in the second game against Seattle on Tuesday, combining to throw 5.1 innings, and have made spot starts this season. Another option is sophomore southpaw Porter Clayton.

Regardless of who gets the nod on Sunday, the Buckeyes know they will be contending with one of the best 1-2 punches of any bullpen in the country throughout the weekend. When things are tight in the late innings, the Ducks rely on the tandem of sophomore Garrett Cleavinger and junior Jake Reed. Cleavinger, a preseason third-team Louisville Slugger All-America selection, finished last season with a 9-0 record, two saves, and a 1.24 ERA in 37 appearances, This season, the lefty has already made seven appearances, going 2-0 and striking out 12 in just 5.2 innings. Reed, who went 6-6 with a 3.50 ERA as a starter last season, is off to a fast start in his new bullpen role. The righty is 2-0 with three saves in six appearances, and has yet to allow an earned run.

After three weekends of southern hospitality, Ohio State will face its stiffest challenge of the young season in this trip out west. The Buckeyes also have the opportunity to avenge last season's three-game sweep at the hands of the Ducks in Columbus. Revenge would be sweet, and could help propel the program to heights it hasn't experienced in some time.