Ohio State got the start to the season it was hoping for on the diamond last weekend, coming away with three victories at the Snowbird Classic. The Buckeyes were one of just three Big Ten teams to escape opening weekend unblemished.
The star of the weekend was Ohio State's bullpen, which threw 11.1 scoreless innings in Port Charlotte, with six pitchers tallying a combined 14 strikeouts. Considered one of the biggest question marks for the team entering the season, this performance was a big positive. As a whole, Buckeye hurlers allowed just eight runs all weekend, limiting the opposition to a .250 batting average and only four extra-base hits.
There is room for improvement from the pitching staff, though, as sophomore starters Tanner Tully and Travis Lakins, tabbed as one of the best 1-2 combinations in all of college baseball entering the season, both had lackluster performances by their own standards. Tully gave up three runs on six hits in five innings of work, while Lakins, who is transitioning to the starting rotation from the bullpen this season, allowed five runs, four of which were earned, on nine hits in 4.2 innings.
Encouraging for head coach Greg Beals and his staff in the first weekend was the performance of the offense. After several players got off to slow starts last season, Ohio State showed a more potent attack in the Snowbird Classic, including two come-from-behind wins, and eight runs scored after the sixth inning.
"You're going to see the offense catch up to the pitching now, and I think that's an evolution in the program," Beals said before the season started.
Shortstop Craig Nennig had a big weekend at the plate, going 6-for-11 (.545) and driving in a pair of runs that gave the Buckeyes the win on Saturday against Saint Louis. His middle infield partner, Nick Sergakis, was 4-for-11 (.364) with three of those hits being doubles, and added three runs scored and three driven in.
The lone home run of the weekend came off the bat of left fielder Ronnie Dawson, who hit a big fly to right in his first at-bat of the season. The sophomore from Grove City, Ohio also paced the team with four RBIs.
Ohio State now heads back to the Sunshine State for a weekend series with Florida Atlantic. This is a departure of sorts from the way the Buckeyes have scheduled the past few seasons, where more tournaments were played. In the hopes of boosting the program's ranking, three true road series are being played in the early season.
"Road wins have great value to them, so we're trying to tweak that RPI system a little bit," Beals said of the computer-generated rankings used by the NCAA, which gives higher priority to victories away from home.
Three more wins in Boca Raton would have the Buckeyes off to their best start under Beals, but won't be easy against an FAU team that also swept its first weekend.
"We are 3-0, but we have to continue to improve," Beals said. "It's a new week, and FAU is our next challenge."
Let's take a look at the Owls.
Florida Atlantic University (Conference USA)
FAU comes into the series with a record of 4-0 after sweeping Connecticut to open the season and beating nationally-ranked Miami (FL) on Wednesday. The sweep of the Huskies helped the Owls to receive votes in this week's NCBWA poll, and beating a powerhouse like the Canes should continue that trend.
Head coach John McCormack is in his seventh year at the helm for FAU after having served as an assistant coach the previous eleven. This is the school's second season playing baseball in Conference USA after leaving the Sun Belt Conference, and came in sixth in the conference's preseason coaches poll.
The offense for the Owls will be led this season by a pair of preseason All-Conference USA players. Sophomore middle infielder Stephen Kerr was a second team All-Conference USA selection last year, and made the All-Freshman team. Kerr hit .324 in 2014, with a team-high 38 runs scored and 10 stolen bases. His 24 extra-base hits led the team.
Joining Kerr in fueling FAU's lineup is junior outfielder Brendon Sanger, who has led the team in batting average in each of his first two seasons. In 2014, Sanger hit .332 and led Conference USA with a .439 on-base percentage. He finished the year with 29 RBI, 11 doubles, two triples, and .440 slugging percentage, each of which was good for second on the squad.
The mound corps for McCormack this weekend is highlighted by junior right-hander Kyle Miller. In FAU's opener last Friday, Miller tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, no walks, and striking out 10. The effort earned the Fort Myers, Florida native Conference USA Pitcher of the Week honors.
"I was impressed," McCormack said after the game. "He's got swing-and-miss stuff and he just keeps coming at you."
A pair of righties are also probable to take the hill on Saturday and Sunday. Senior Drew Jackson, who last season won his first four decisions en route to a 5-4 record, was equally solid against UConn. Jackson allowed just an unearned run, striking out nine and walking one in 6.1 innings of work, but earned a no-decision. Junior Robbie Coursel, a transfer from St. Petersburg College, fared less well, giving up three runs, all earned, on four hits, while striking out three and walking two in 3.2 innings.
Game Times and Pitching Matchups
Friday, February 20th, at 6:30 pm ET
Tully (0-0, 5.40 ERA) vs. Miller (1-0, 0.00)
Saturday, February 21st, at 4:00 pm ET
Lakins (0-0, 7.71) vs. Jackson (0-0, 0.00)
Sunday, February 22nd, at 1:00 pm ET
Ryan Riga (1-0, 0.00) vs. Coursel (0-0, 7.36)