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Ohio State baseball: Iowa comes to town for pivotal B1G series

The Buckeyes enter the weekend just a game and a half behind Iowa in the Big Ten standings, and need a big series to keep their postseason hopes alive

Ohio State Athletics

It has not been a great week for the Ohio State baseball team. Before traveling to Louisville for a matchup with the 8th-ranked Cardinals, the Buckeyes were informed that freshman left-hander Zach Farmer has been diagnosed with leukemia, a brutal reminder that, despite the importance that fans, players, and coaches assign to the sport, it really is just a game in the grand scheme of things.

With their teammate firmly in the forefront of their minds, the Ohio State players had to attempt to focus on the game on Wednesday night, and came up short against a Louisville squad that was in the College World Series a year ago and has aspirations of a return visit to Omaha this season. The Buckeyes fell 7-3, dropping their record on the season to 25-20.

Fellow freshman Curtiss Irving took the ball in Farmer's stead, and the Cards jumped on him early, plating three runs in the first two innings. After a leadoff single to start the home half of the first inning by shortstop Sutton Whiting, left fielder Jeff Gardner, a Golden Spikes midseason watch list member and Louisville's leading hitter, left the yard, taking Irving deep to right-center for a 2-0 lead. A leadoff double in the second by right fielder Colin Lyman, followed by a wild pitch, led to an RBI groundout by catcher Kyle Gibson, pushing the lead to 3-0.

Irving's day would be done in the fourth, when a leadoff double by third baseman Alex Chittenden paved the way for Gibson's second run driven in on the night with a single to center. Irving gave up four runs, all earned, on six hits in 3.1 innings, suffering the first loss of his collegiate career.

Louisville extended its lead to 6-0 in the fifth inning, when Tyler Giannonatti gave up a single and two doubles to open the frame. Center fielder Cole Sturgeon reached on a leadoff single before back-to-back doubles by first baseman Danny Rosenbaum and Gardner.

Meanwhile, the Buckeye bats couldn't get anything started, notching just three hits through the first seven innings. The team plated a run in the eighth when shortstop Craig Nennig, who went 2-3 in the game, scored on a wild pitch, and got two more in the ninth on a two-run homer from center fielder Troy Montgomery.

A loss to a perennial power program like Louisville will not work to sink Ohio State's season. The team has business to attend to this weekend in Columbus, and with just three conference series remaining, must put in a big time effort against an Iowa team looking to move up in the Big Ten standings.

Here's a preview of the Hawkeyes.

Saturday, May 3rd 3:05 p.m., Sunday, May 4th 3:05 p.m., Monday, May 5th 7:05 p.m.

University of Iowa

Iowa is having a surprising breakout season in Head Coach Rick Heller's first year at the helm. Not predicted to be in the top half of the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes have the third best overall winning percentage (25-15 .625) in the conference. Still, the team is a game under .500 in Big Ten play at 7-8, and currently occupies the seventh spot in the standings. Iowa is trying to reach the conference tournament for the first time since 2010. They come in with momentum, having won four straight series. Since dropping three games to Indiana in early April, the Hawkeyes have taken series from Kansas, Northwestern, Minnesota, and South Dakota State

The bulk of the Hawkeyes' success can be traced to the team's bats. Iowa leads the Big Ten in team batting average (.303), and ranks at or near the top in a number of offensive categories, including slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs scored, hits, RBIs, doubles, home runs, and stolen bases. The team scores 6.65 runs and averages nearly two and a half extra-base hits per game, and boasts seven players with 20 or more RBIs and seven everyday players hitting .300 or better.

Iowa has a plethora of upperclassmen enjoying breakout seasons, led by a junior class that is coming of age. Second baseman Jake Mangler is pacing the team in hits (54), doubles (11), and runs batted in (35, fourth in B1G). The Clinton, IA native is hitting .333 and slugging .420.

Joining Mangler among the Hawkeyes' emerging junior class are shortsop Jake Yacinich (.338, 4 triples, 22 RBIs, and 22 steals), designated hitter Dan Potempa (.333, 8 doubles, 2 home runs, 28 RBIs), third baseman Nick Day (.326, 14 RBIs), and center fielder Eric Toole (.319, 8 doubles, 26 RBIs).

Also having a career year is senior Taylor Zeutenhorst. The right fielder leads the Big Ten with nine home runs, and is hitting .283, slugging .503 (fifth in B1G), and has driven in 32 runs (seventh in B1G).

With all of that firepower, we haven't even mentioned Iowa's leading hitter, sophomore Tyler Peyton. The first baseman is fifth in the conference with a .346 batting average in his first season in Iowa City after transferring from Iowa Central Community College, adding eight doubles and 20 RBIs.

The Hawkeyes score runs in droves, and Ohio State's starters will need to be just as sharp as they were last weekend against Purdue to keep Iowa in check. That said, the Buckeyes are also encountering an opportunity to jumpstart their offense, as the Hawkeyes have been mediocre on the mound and will be missing their ace this weekend.

Iowa's hurlers come into the weekend tenth in the Big Ten with a 4.49 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .271 and surrendering more home runs (20) than any other team in the conference. The Hawkeyes' staff sports a WHIP of 1.42, and strikes out just two batters for every one it walks.

The biggest break for the Buckeyes is that sophomore Calvin Matthews is not scheduled to take the mound in the series. The 6'4" righty is 3-2 in 11 starts, with a 2.86 ERA, allowing the opposition to hit just .221 and striking out three and a half hitters for every free pass issued. Matthews left his last start after 3.1 innings against South Dakota State.

Taking Matthews' turn in the rotation on Saturday will be junior Andrew Hendrick. The lefty has made eight appearances for the Hawkeyes, including five starts, and is 3-2 with a 4.67 ERA in 34.2 innings. Opponents are hitting .311 against Hendrick, who has a 1.59 WHIP.

On the bump for Sunday's tilt will be junior Sasha Kuebel, a former 31st round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics. The southpaw is 5-3 in thirteen appearances (11 starts) covering 63.1 innings. Kuebel has been knocked around a bit, sporting a 4.83 ERA, a .318 batting average against, and a 1.53 WHIP.

The starter for Heller in game three on Monday has not been announced, but first baseman Peyton has doubled as a pitcher throughout the season, making 10 starts and eating up 61.2 innings. The sophomore is 4-0 with a 4.38 ERA, allowing the opposition to hit just .236 and giving up 1.33 walks and hits per inning.

Iowa's bullpen has been roughed up for the majority of the season, with both of its back-end workhorses having ERAs of 4.60 or higher. Sophomore Tyler Radtke, a transfer from Villanova, has made a team-high 18 appearances out of the pen, throwing 29.1 innings. The righty is 2-2 with a 4.60 ERA and two saves. Junior closer Nick Hibbing, a former 42nd round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is 1-3 with three saves. In 28.1 innings, the 6'6" right-hander has a 5.72 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP, while allowing opponents a .270 average.

This weekend's series in Columbus will be a matchup of strength against strength, as Ohio State's rock solid pitching is pitted against Iowa's juggernaut of a lineup. The series may well hinge on whether the Buckeyes can score runs in bunches against a maligned, under-manned Hawkeye pitching staff. The team that emerges with a series win will have an upper hand in the race for Omaha and the Big Ten tournament, while the loser will face an uphill climb in the final two conference weekends. Both sides have a lot to play for, both on the field and off.

Saturday's series opener will be streamed live via the Big Ten Digital Network, while Sunday and Monday's games will be televised live on the Big Ten Network, with Kevin Kugler and Scott Pose calling the action.