Since a pair of disastrous weekends in Bloomington and Lincoln in late March and early April that saw the Ohio State baseball team get swept by the Hoosiers and Huskers, the Buckeyes have won three consecutive Big Ten series, and at 8-10, find themselves in a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference. The top eight squads will make the Big Ten tournament in Omaha at the end of the month, and with just two weekends remaining in the regular season, the Buckeye nine is playing to clinch their spot and improve their seeding.
Ohio State took two of three from Iowa in Columbus last weekend in a series that saw a little bit of everything. The Buckeyes won handily, 9-4, in the series opener on Saturday behind seven solid innings from Tanner Tully and a pair of home runs by Josh Dezse. On commencement day at Ohio State on Sunday, the Hawkeyes dealt the Buckeyes their worst conference loss in seven years, thumping starter Ryan Riga and the bullpen to the tune of a 17-2 win. Finally, the Buckeyes took the rubber match on Monday by a score of 3-2. Newly graduated Greg Greve tossed seven strong, Travis Lakins and Trace Dempsey shut the door, and the bats did just enough to clinch the series.
The Buckeyes will finish out the regular season with four home games, taking on Cincinnati in a non-conference tilt on Tuesday, before Northwestern comes to town for a Thursday-Saturday series to conclude the Big Ten schedule. First, though, Ohio State travels to Ann Arbor this weekend for a clash with the Wolverines. A fourth consecutive conference series win would go a long way towards helping the Buckeyes jump into the middle of the Big Ten standings and avoid first round matchups with the Hoosiers or Huskers in the conference tournament. Bragging rights over the school's most bitter rival, regardless of sport, would be an added bonus, too.
Here's a preview of the Wolverines.
Friday, May 9th 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 10th 2:00 p.m., Sunday, May 11th 12:00 p.m.
University of Michigan
Second-year Head Coach Erik Bakich has Michigan headed to its second consecutive trip to the Big Ten tournament, and at 11-10 entering the weekend, occupy the fourth spot in the standings. The series with Ohio State will be the Wolverines' last in conference play, as they will conclude the season by hosting Kansas.
Michigan is actually having a very similar season to Ohio State, struggling to score runs but staying in games because of its pitching. The Wolverines enter the series 24-25-1 for the year, and are looking to finish strong and get their heads above .500. After taking two of three from Northwestern last weekend in Evanston and midweek contests from Central Michigan and Oakland, Bakich's squad is on a four-game winning streak.
The Wolverines are hitting just .258 as a team in 2014, landing in the middle of the pack or the bottom half of the conference in most offensive categories. The team does lead the Big Ten with 84 doubles. Michigan scores 4.74 runs per game, which pitted against the 3.55 ERA of the Buckeyes, could lead to some low-scoring affairs in Ann Arbor.
Center fielder Jackson Glines leads the Wolverines attack, leading the team with a .343 batting average, 62 hits, 37 RBIs, and a .486 slugging percentage. The junior transfer from Fresno City College also has a share of the team lead with 17 doubles, adding a home run, 36 runs scored, and 13 steals in 15 attempts.
Setting the table for Glines and the rest of the Michigan lineup is shortstop Travis Maezes, an Ann Arbor native, who was on the Big Ten's Preseason Watch List after being named an All-Big Ten Freshman member a season ago by Perfect Game. The sophomore is hitting .303, and leads the team with 40 runs scored and 18 stolen bases.
Fellow sophomore Jacob Cronenworth, who in his first season for the Wolverines picked up several accolades, including All-Big Ten second team, Baseball America Freshman All-America first team, NCBWA Freshman All-America first team, Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, Perfect Game Freshman All-America first team, and Big Ten All-Freshman Team, is having a disappointing year at the plate. The third baseman, who is also the team's closer, is hitting just .254, with five doubles, four triples, two homers, and 27 RBIs, compared to 2013 when he hit .320 with 12 doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 41 RBI.
The backbone of this Michigan team can be found on the mound, where Wolverine hurlers have been stellar. The team boasts a 3.47 ERA, fourth-best in the Big Ten, and yields just four runs per game. Michigan leads the conference in strikeouts, is third in opposing batting average at .250, and sports a WHIP of 1.38. For an Ohio State team that has struggled to put runs on the board at times this season, the Wolverines will provide a stout test.
The weekend rotation for Bakich has actually been the weak link of the staff. Friday starter Trent Szkutnik is 1-5 in 12 starts covering 64.2 innings, compiling a 3.76 ERA. The opposition hits .293 against the junior lefty, and he sports a WHIP of 1.59.
Following Szkutnik in the rotation this weekend will be sophomore Evan Hill. The southpaw is 3-6 with a 3.99 ERA in 13 starts, throwing 70 innings, giving up a .260 opposing batting average and 1.34 walks and hits per inning.
While the Wolverines have not announced who will be taking the ball on Sunday, senior Logan McAnallen has made several weekend starts. McAnallen, who started Michigan's midweek game against Oakland, is 3-3 with a 4.11 ERA in sixteen appearance, nine of them starts, covering 50.1 innings. The third lefty in the rotation allows opposing hitters a .271 average and has a WHIP of 1.67.
Where Michigan really shines is in the bullpen. Cronenworth, who is a member of the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List, is 2-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 10 saves, which is tied for the most in the Big Ten. No member of the Wolverines' bullpen who has made more than ten appearances has an ERA over 3.41.
Complementing Cronenworth in the pen have been Donnie Eaton (0-1, 0.77 ERA, 13 appearances), Mac Lozer (0-0, 1.84 ERA, 19 appearances), James Bourque (1-2, 3.27 ERA, 20 appearances), Brett Adcock (6-3, 3.31 ERA, 23 appearances), and Keith Lehmann (3-1, 3.41 ERA, 19 appearances). If Ohio State fails to score in the early going off Michigan's starters, it's going to be tough sledding to get anything started once the ball is in the hands of the Wolverine relievers.
With just six conference games remaining for the Buckeyes, this weekend's series in Ann Arbor is critical to the team's positioning for the Big Ten tournament. Ohio State would like nothing more than to avoid a first round matchup with Indiana or Nebraska, and winning its fourth straight conference series could go a long way towards accomplishing that. The Buckeyes will need to score runs early against the Wolverines and continue their solid work on the mound to emerge from That School Up North with momentum as they head into the regular season's final week.