Ohio State started off the 132nd season of baseball in school history with a lot of theatrics. Playing in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Florida, the Buckeyes used great relief pitching and timely late-inning hitting to score a couple of gritty, come-from-behind wins on Friday and Saturday. An offensive explosion on Sunday led to a blowout and a tournament sweep for head coach Greg Beals and his squad.
"It's great to get off to a good start to the season and win all three games this weekend," Beals said after Sunday's victory.
Sneaking a Win
The season opened on a chilly Friday evening against George Mason, an NCAA tournament participant in the Houston regional last season, after winning the Atlantic 10's conference tourney. Winning in walk-off fashion by a score of 4-3, the Buckeyes overcame offensive struggles with men on base and miscues on the basepaths.
"We were able to sneak away with a win," Beals said after the game. "We made some mistakes on the bases, but fortunately we were able to learn those lessons without losing a ball game."
Ohio State started the scoring in the game early when sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson blasted a home run to right field. Dawson was third on the team as a freshman with four home runs in 2014, earning Freshman All-America honors from Perfect Game and Louisville Slugger.
Tanner Tully, who joined Dawson on those freshman All-American teams and was voted the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year last season, took the mound for the Buckeyes. After posting a 6-3 record and a 2.22 ERA in his first season on the hill in Columbus, Tully is expected to anchor a talented starting rotation this year.
The Patriots went quietly in the first two innings, but touched up Tully for two runs in the top of the third. With two outs, second baseman Michael Smith doubled down the left field line and came around to score when center fielder Luke Willis tripled to the left-center gap. A double to right by shortstop Brandon Gum plated Willis to give George Mason the lead.
A triple in the bottom of the frame by sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery, followed by an RBI double to left-center by last season's leading run-producer Troy Kuhn, evened things at two apiece. It was the last run Ohio State would score until the ninth inning.
The Patriots got to Tully once more in the top of the fourth, taking a 3-2 lead on catcher Ray Toto's sacrifice fly. The Elkhart, Indiana native finished his first start of the season allowing three runs, all earned, on six hits, while striking out five and walking one in five innings of work.
Tully was relieved by junior righty Jake Post, who quieted the George Mason bats, striking out five and walking one, while allowing just one hit in four innings as he earned his first win of the season.
"Post deserved to win the game tonight," Beals said. "He allowed us to be in a position to come away with a victory. It was great to see and I think you will see that from our team this year. We have depth and talent in our pitching staff."
Still trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth, the Buckeyes found a way to get the job done, aided by the Patriots' Tyler Tobin, a sophomore transfer student from Chesapeake College. Tobin walked senior right fielder Pat Porter to lead off the inning, then gave up a double down the left field line to junior second baseman Nick Sergakis.
"Pat led off the inning with a great at-bat and got things started for us," Beals said. "That's what you want from your seniors. He didn't try to do too much and started the momentum for us. And Nick came up with a big hit."
An intentional walk to senior catcher and co-captain Aaron Gretz loaded the bases, after which Tobin hit junior first baseman Jacob Bosiokovic with a pitch, plating the tying run. A wild pitch with junior designated hitter Zach Ratcliff standing at the plate allowed Sergakis to sprint home, securing the victory in dramatic fashion.
"It's a humbling win," Beals said. "And our opponent pitched the ball extremely well against us tonight."
With a quick turnaround from Friday night's 10 p.m. finish to Saturday afternoon's 2:30 p.m. start time, Ohio State did not have much time to savor its opening day win. Toeing the rubber for the Buckeyes against Saint Louis University was sophomore right-hander Travis Lakins. With serious heat on his fastball, a devastating slider, and a newly-developed cutter, the Franklin, Ohio native has been drawing a great deal of attention from pro scouts.
The Billikens got on the board first thanks to a throwing error by junior shortstop Craig Nennig with two outs in the top of the second. The Buckeyes tied the game in the bottom of the third, though, on a Montgomery RBI single to right, which brought around Ratcliff, who had doubled with one out and moved to third on a Nennig single.
Lakins ran into trouble in the fifth, giving up a leadoff single to shortstop Alex King and a one-out single to center fielder Trent Leimkuhler to put runners on the corners. Saint Louis followed that with an infield RBI single from first baseman Mike Vigliarolo and a run-scoring single to center by DH Jake Henson to take a 3-1 lead. After walking catcher Colton Frabasilio to load the bases, Beals went to his bullpen, ending Lakins' day.
Junior lefty John Havird was unable to escape the trouble in the fifth, giving up a two-run single to left fielder Michael Bozarth to extend the Billikens' advantage to four. The runs were charged to Lakins, who's final line on the day was five runs allowed, four of them earned, on nine hits in 4.2 innings.
Havird threw three consecutive scoreless innings after that, though, keeping Ohio State within shouting distance.
As was the case on Friday night, the Buckeyes came alive in the late innings. Dawson led off the bottom of the sixth with a single, and advanced all the way to third on a throwing error by Leimkuhler. He trotted across the plate two batters later when Sergakis grounded out to short.
Dawson was in the middle of the action again in the seventh, delivering a two-run single to draw Ohio State within a run. A one-out double to right-center by Ratcliff, a two-out walk by Montgomery, and a hit-by-pitch for Kuhn loaded the bases for the Grove City, Ohio native, and he came up big.
In the eighth, Sergakis led off with a double down the line in left, and moved to third a batter later when Bosiokovic singled to center. In what turned out to be a big play in the game, Bosi was heads up on the basepaths, advancing to second on the play when the throw went through to third.
After a Ratcliff strikeout, the least likely hitter in the lineup got the biggest hit of the day, when Nennig pulled a 2-2 pitch to left center, bringing both runners around to score. The Wrightstown, Wisconsin native had just 10 RBIs all of last season.
"We really improved our at-bats when we got into their bullpen," Beals said after the game. "I really was pleased with the bottom of our lineup. Bosiokovic, Ratcliff, and Nennig had big hits for us today."
The 6-5 lead was preserved by senior closer Trace Dempsey, who earned his first save of the season and moved within two of tying Ohio State's career record. Havird, who struck out five and walked one in his 3.1 innings of work, got his first win as a Buckeye.
"This team has some grit and I think we are never really out of a ball game," Beals said. "Our motto is ‘Everyday,' and we need to come back out here tomorrow and continue to work as a unit and go for the weekend sweep."
A Team Win
In the final game of the tournament on Sunday against Pittsburgh, Beals shook up his starting lineup from the previous two days, flipping Porter and Sergakis in the four and five holes in the order, and inserting freshman Jordan McDonough into the DH spot. Senior co-captain Connor Sabanosh also made his first start behind the plate this season with junior lefty Aaron Schnurbusch taking the mound for the Panthers.
The moves paid dividends at the plate, and senior lefty Ryan Riga was in total control all afternoon, en route to an 8-0 win and a tournament sweep.
"It was a team win and I'm proud of the way our guys competed from start to finish," Beals said after the game.
After Kuhn scored on a throwing error in the first inning to give Ohio State the early 1-0 lead, a walk and another throwing error put Sergakis at third with two outs. Porter then proceeded to single through the right side of the infield for the RBI.
Riga, who worked around a bases loaded jam in the first, retired seven straight and ten of eleven, silencing Pitt's offense. The senior from Fairfield, Ohio gave the Buckeyes six innings of shutout ball, yielding just four hits while striking out four batters.
The Buckeyes went to work on the Panthers in the fourth, scoring four runs and pushing the lead out to 6-0. Nennig, who had the game-winner on Saturday, led off with a double to left and immediately came around to score when McDonough followed suit with a double of his own. It was the first hit for the Cincinnati St. Xavier product in his collegiate career. After another throwing error by Pitt put Montgomery on base and Kuhn was hit by a pitch, McDonough trotted home on a Dawson groundout to second base.
Sergakis, who went 4-for-11 (.363) on the weekend, brought home Montgomery and Kuhn with the team's third double of the inning, ending Schnurbusch's day after just 3.2 innings.
Beals gave three members of the bullpen an inning of work each after Riga exited the game. Redshirt freshman right-handers Kyle Michalik and Adam Niemeyer bookended the final three innings around junior lefty Michael Horejsei, keeping the shutout intact. The trio combined to allow just two hits, striking out four and not issuing any free passes.
"Our pitching staff was the story today with four different guys pitching a combined shutout," Beals said.
Ohio State got its final two runs in the ninth inning. With the win in hand, Beals went to his bench, getting five players their first at-bats of the season. Junior Jake Brobst drew a bases load walk to bring home a run, and freshman Tre' Gannt collected his first collegiate hit and run batted in to conclude the scoring.
In all, eight Buckeyes had hits on the day, highlighted by Nennig's 4-for-4 afternoon. After hitting a paltry .231 last season, Nennig has gotten out of the gates on a tear, going 6-for-11 (.545) on the weekend, including hitting safely in his final five at-bats.
Ohio State will travel back to Florida next weekend for a three-game set with Florida Atlantic University. The series will be the second of four straight the Buckeyes will play on the road to open the season. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday in Boca Raton.