It was early evening Friday, approaching 5 p.m. Central when Ohio State took to Hawks Field at Haymarket Park for batting practice. There was a bounce in the step of the Scarlet-clad players and coaches, a sense of optimism in the air, Buckeyes relishing the opportunity to take on a growing rival for three games in a pivotal weekend. As streams of Husker faithful entered the stadium, pregame drills concluded and first pitch on its way, it was to be a weekend where Ohio State was to show the sweep at the hands of Indiana was a minor speed bump on its way to the NCAA Tournament. A series win over Nebraska, a team many believe is regional-quality, to affirm Ohio State is to be too in that discussion.
Less than 45 hours later, the 25-man travel roster for Ohio State left Hawks field with heads low, eyes to the ground, proceeding to the dugout at a snail's pace, the Buckeyes witnessing Nebraska conclude the series with a second-consecutive walk-off win, capturing all three games with the winning run scoring in their final at-bat.
Expected to compete alongside Indiana and Nebraska, Ohio State was picked to finish third in the preseason by Big Ten coaches, respectively between the Hoosiers and Huskers, sweeps in back-to-back weeks at the hands of their conference rival drops the Buckeyes to 2-7 in the Big Ten, resting tenth in the conference. Ohio State needs to regroup, a pair of midweek games against Eastern Michigan (10-18) and Dayton (11-17) opportunities to get back on track and inject feel good vibes throughout the clubhouse at Bill Davis Stadium. But as their conference championship quest is at a dead end, 2014 set to be a fifth consecutive season without hardware returning to Columbus, what is to be taken from the weekend? Is the sky really falling?
Here's a closer look.
If the Big Ten offices flipped Ohio State and Penn State's schedule through the first three weeks of conference play, the top two storylines would not be storylines.
First-year head coach Rob Cooper has Penn State at 15-14, 4-1 in Big Ten play, the final game of their weekend series at Purdue the first time Cooper has seen defeat in the Big Ten. Penn State has opened Big Ten play against 4-22 Northwestern and the 6-21 Boilermakers. Taking nothing away from the efforts Cooper and staff have done to turn around the fortunes in State College, but winning four of five against the Big Ten's bottom two clubs is something that will not be exclusive to the Nittany Lions come season's end.
On the other side, Ohio State's three-series run to open Big Ten play was against Michigan State, Indiana and Nebraska, the picks by conference coaches to finish fourth, first and second. Only Penn State, with a season-ending Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan State run, joins Ohio State as Big Ten schools set to face three of the preseason's top-four over consecutive weeks.
Set to take on Penn State, Purdue, Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern in the back half of their schedule, Ohio State should be favored in their remaining five conference series, an opportunity to pile up wins. If by season's end Ohio State is 14-10, finish third in the Big Ten, is that a failure?
Good, not bad, not great, but good
That said, at Ohio State you're expected to compete for Big Ten championships. Placing third may not be a failure, but it's not what head coach Greg Beals signed up for.
The fact is in year four Ohio State is a good team, somewhere in the 50-75 range of teams throughout the country, but still in the process of rebuilding the program to be a top-30 club. The numbers reflect this.
The 0-3 weekend against Nebraska dropped Ohio State to 2-11 against teams in the RPI's top 50. Going back to last year, Ohio State is 13-28 against such clubs.
Against programs outside of the top 50 Ohio State is 16-2 this year, 30-8 over the last two seasons. Ohio State has no problem dispatching the back four-fifths of college baseball, which is why a run to finish 14-10 in the Big Ten should not be out of the question. But there is still work to do to bring Ohio State baseball back into the national spotlight, accept the team is good, capable of competing with the best in the country, won't lose the gimmes, but it's still a work in progress to be able to take down the top clubs.
The Buckeyes are in a bit of scramble mode as injuries plague the pitching staff. As junior left-hander Ryan Riga was skipped in the rotation as he battles shoulder soreness, Ohio State is trying to piecemeal a staff which has already lost freshman right-hander Adam Niemeyer to Tommy John surgery, reliever Michael Horejsei, junior right-hander Josh Dezse, the team's closer in 2011 and 2012, yet to pitch this season. With Greve taking Riga's start, a day after throwing a 30-pitch bullpen, Greve was unable to go deeper into the game even if his 60-pitch six-inning start warranted it, already on short rest after pitching last Sunday. Ohio State was unable to use sophomore right-hander Jake Post out of the bullpen, a potential option when freshman Travis Lakins ran into trouble closing games Friday and Saturday, due to needing to be ready if Riga was unable to go Sunday. Junior all-american closer Trace Dempsey yet to show his 2013 form compounds the injury woes.
It's still too early
Beals is in his fourth year at Ohio State, and after the close call a year ago, any sign of regression this year may cause the casual fan to believe the program is not trending in the right direction.
But that's not fair.
Beals was hired in June of 2010. Beals did a heck of a job compiling a recruiting class for 2011 given the late start in the recruiting cycle, and the class he compiled ended up being too good for the Big Ten.
When hired, Beals operated under Big Ten rules that a program could not oversign, extend it's scholarship issuing beyond college baseball's 11.7 allowance. The players signed could not sign for scholarship aid that total more than the players set to graduate. When Beals hauled in a recruiting class led by Ohio's top 2011 graduate Matt Wisler, three players inked a National Letter of Intent that would be drafted and sign a professional contract, outfield Cavan Cohoes and catcher Eric Haase joining Wisler in turning down an opportunity to be Buckeyes. The offers and monies provided to those players were part of the 11.7 to be used to field the 2012 team.
Ohio State did a great job of scrambling to find alternative options when the three players signed, available aid was used on Dempsey and former All-Big Ten right-hander Jaron Long. But for all intents and purposes, Beals first class wasn't much of one, Dempsey, catcher Aaron Gretz, infielder Ryan Leffel and Pat Porter the lone players from the first opportunity Beals had to build the program around players he want.
The 2013 success was spurred by transfers, quick fixes which are to be band-aids, not the foundation of a program. The 2012 and 2013 classes were highly-lauded, sophomores manning positions around the diamond, freshman arms showing significant signs of promise. And with all but seven players underclassmen, this is a very young team, and going back to the previously addressed, Beals has a green team in positions where they can compete against college baseball's best on any given day.