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Ohio State baseball: Buckeyes head to Lincoln for first B1G road series

After a successful homestand, Ohio State faces a tough series against the Huskers

Ohio State Athletics

Following a three-game sweep at the hands of Indiana, the Ohio State baseball team got back on track in a big way with two midweek games against in-state opponents. The Buckeyes scored 18 runs and pounded out 31 hits in wins against Ohio and Toledo, reigniting an offense that went missing against the Hoosiers.

The victories improved the team's record to 18-10 on the season, and concluded a 10-4 run during a 14-game homestand.

"We took care of business yesterday and today," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said after the Buckeyes dispatched the Rockets. "We'll have a good challenge on the road at Nebraska this weekend. They're playing well but probably haven't played up to their potential so far so they'll be looking to bust out a little bit. We have to go defend ourselves after last weekend because we can't afford to have two bad weekends in a row in conference."

The Buckeyes jumped on Ohio from the start on Tuesday, plating five runs in the first inning and never looking back. Five Ohio State hitters had three hits in the game, including Troy Kuhn, Pat Porter, Ronnie Dawson, Zach Ratcliff, and Ryan Leffel. Ratcliff stole the show, though, going 3-4 and driving in five runs, including a three-run bomb to left in the bottom of the sixth. Trace Dempsey, normally the team's closer, got the start to get some work, giving up two runs in four innings. After three scoreless by Tyler Giannonatti, the Bobcats were able to tack on four late runs against Shea Murray and Curtiss Irving, though it was far too little too late in what ended as an 11-6 victory for the home team.

Ohio State started the scoring early on Wednesday against Toledo, as well, scoring four in the bottom half of the first inning, courtesy of a bases loaded walk by Jacob Bosiokovic, a fielder's choice by Ratcliff, and a two-run single by Connor Sabanosh. The Buckeyes added two more in the fourth with back-to-back RBI singles from Dawson and Bosiokovic. The early production would be more than enough, as freshman starter Zach Farmer went four scoreless innings and the bullpen was touched up for just two runs. For good measure, Bosiokovic added his third RBI of the day in the eighth with a two-out single that scored Leffel, pushing the final tally to 7-2.

Kuhn and Dawson continued their offensive onslaught, combining to go 10-16 at the plate, with six runs scored and four driven in. Leffel continued his push for more at-bats as well, going 4-8, driving in a run, and scoring three. The redshirt sophomore upped his average to .415 in limited action, and is slugging a club-best .512.

What was really encouraging for Ohio State, though, was that several slumping players got their bats going against MAC pitching. Porter (5-8, three runs scored), Ratcliff (3-9, one run scored, five RBIs), and Bosiokovic (2-4, three RBIs) all delivered, as the Buckeyes set a season-high for scoring in a two-game stretch.

Beals' squad will need to keep that firepower at the plate going as they hit the road for their first Big Ten series away from Columbus. At 2-4 in the conference, Ohio State can ill afford a repeat of last weekend's performance when they arrive in Lincoln for three games against Nebraska. Believe it or not, there are only six weekends of conference play left in the regular season, and the Buckeyes need to finish strong if they hope to reach the Big Ten tournament in Omaha.

Here's a preview of the Huskers.

Friday, April 4th, 7:35 p.m., Saturday, April 5th, 3:05 p.m., Sunday, April 6th, 2:05 p.m.

University of Nebraska

Nebraska has been a bit of a disappointment this season. Sitting at 16-13 after coming one win shy of an NCAA tournament berth a season ago, the Huskers have lost six of their last ten. Head Coach Darin Erstad, in his third season at the helm for his alma mater after 13 years in the majors, is trying to return the school to the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Offense has not been a problem for Nebraska through the first third of the season. The Huskers are batting a conference-best .306 as a team, and lead the Big Ten in slugging percentage, hits, runs scored, doubles, and triples. Leading the way at the plate are two juniors who are putting together solid careers in Lincoln. It all starts with second baseman Pat Kelly, a first-team All-Big Ten selection a season ago and a former Freshman All-American. Kelly is batting .322, with a conference-leading 38 hits, including a home run, three doubles, and a triple. The Red Wing, Minnesota native is also second in the Big Ten with 23 runs batted in.

Kelly's junior classmate that sets the table for the Huskers' attack is right fielder Austin Darby. The leadoff man is hitting .333, with six doubles and three triples. Darby is second on the team in hits (37), RBIs (19), and runs scored (19).

Also providing punch at the plate is freshman Ryan Boldt, a 22nd round pick of the Boston Red Sox in last year's draft. The center fielder is hitting a team-high .340, with seven doubles, three triples, and 16 RBIs. Another Red Wing, Minnesota native, Boldt also leads the Huskers with five stolen bases, shares the team lead with 20 runs scored, and is right behind Kelly and Darby with 34 hits.

While offensive production has not been a problem for Erstad's squad, the pitching staff has had its struggles. The team ranks in the bottom third of the conference in ERA, opposing batting average, runs allowed, and walks. The staff WHIP of 1.56 is mostly a result of issuing free passes, which Husker hurlers do at a high rate. The team has a 1.5 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Despite these issues, Nebraska boasts a solid weekend rotation. Senior Christian DeLeon, the Friday starter, is 2-2 on the season, with an even 3.00 ERA in 48 innings of work. The righty has fanned 25 compared to just eight walks, and holds opposing hitters to a .257 batting average. On Saturday's, the ball goes to junior Chance Sinclair, a JUCO transfer in his first season in Lincoln. Sinclair has been sensational for the Huskers, posting a 4-1 record and 1.28 ERA in his seven starts, eating up 42.1 innings and yielding a .253 opposing batting average.  Where the righty has struggled is in issuing free passes, allowing 14 compared to just 16 strikeouts. Rounding out the rotation is junior Aaron Bummer, a former 31st round pick of the New York Yankees in 2011. The southpaw has been roughed up a bit in his six starts, posting a 5.46 ERA and a WHIP of 1.88. Bummer is 3-2 on the season in 31.1 innings, but like Sinclair, has had trouble with walking hitters, issuing 16 base on balls compared to 18 punchouts.

As a result of the rotation's control issues, Nebraska's bullpen has gotten plenty of work. Four relievers have made at least ten appearances, and the back-end has been the strength of the staff. Junior Josh Roeder is the team's closer, and he is building off a solid year a season ago. The right-hander from Plano, Texas has a 2-1 record in ten appearances, with a 2.00 ERA and five saves. Even more impressive has been senior Zach Hirsch, who leads the team with 15 appearances after having missed the final 31 games a season ago with a wrist injury. The 6'4" southpaw is 2-0 with two saves, posting a 1.25 ERA and a WHIP of 1.0, striking out 26 while walking only six in 21.2 innings.

Last season, Ohio State's hopes of reaching the Big Ten title game were dashed by Nebraska. With both teams off to slow starts in conference play, this series will go a long way to helping determine if either one can make it back. The Buckeyes have a little momentum thanks to their recent homestand, with the bats really coming alive in the last two games. They'll need all the firepower they can get against the high-scoring Huskers, as they look to avoid falling further behind in the Big Ten race.