A grand opportunity was at hand for Ohio State. On the heels of the program's first perfect opening weekend since 2010, the Buckeyes were provided a test in taking on Florida Atlantic. The Owls entered the contest with their own unblemished record, 4-0, opening the season with a weekend sweep over Connecticut, adding a midweek triumph over a ranked Miami team for good measure. FAU was a quality club willing and able to provide Ohio State with an early season measuring stick.
After dropping the evenly-matched series two games to one, falling in the weekend's rubber match 2-1, Ohio State showed it can compete with a strong club, one which received votes to be ranked. But the weekend also showed there is still work to do before the Buckeyes can be expected to join the conversation of a strong club itself, worthy of being ranked.
3 things learned
1) Riga's form found. After debuting in Columbus with a stellar sophomore season as a transfer from Wabash Valley Community College, expectations were high as southpaw Ryan Riga moved to the rotation as a junior last year. In 2012 the left-hander carried a 2.14 ERA over 46.1 innings, showing good command in issuing only nine walks while striking out 38 batters. In his only start of his sophomore season, Riga pitched seven innings against Georgia Tech, allowing one run off five hits, striking out five.
In his next start against a ranked opponent, March 8, 2014 at Oregon, Riga pitched a shutout, holding the Ducks to five hits over nine innings, punching out 10, walking one batter. Unfortunately that would be the best the Bucks saw Riga at. A nagging sore arm bothered Riga for nearly two months, sidelining him five weeks and producing uneven results in his return. For the 2014 season Riga carried a 4.33 ERA over 68.2 innings, striking out 55 with 22 walks.
Where issued only 1.74 walks per nine innings in 2013, the number jumped to 2.88 in 2014.
Through two starts as a senior Riga is showing a return to form. Though he received the tough-luck loss Sunday, Riga produced a second consecutive quality start with a six-inning outing, allowing one run off five hits, walking one, striking out six. After two outings Riga has allowed only one run in 12 innings, scattered nine hits, issued two walks and struck out 10 batters.
As sophomore starters Tanner Tully and Travis Lakins struggle to match the success from their freshman seasons atop the Buckeye rotation, Riga has been a stabilizing force thus far.
2) The little things matter. To be blunt, Ohio State was gifted its season opening victory against George Mason. While junior Jake Post was dominant out of the pen and deserve his victory, the Buckeyes benefited from the Patriots walking two batters, hitting another and uncorking a wild pitch to give Ohio State two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Twice in the late innings Ohio State had the tying run at third base with less than two outs, unable to score what would have been the tying run.
Without the opposition's aid, in Sunday's finale against Florida Atlantic, Ohio State's inability to advance runners and a failure to do the little things cost them.
With the scored tied 0-0, junior third baseman Troy Kuhn led off the fifth inning with a double. Senior DH Aaron Gretz drew a next at-bat walk, putting two Bucks aboard. Too early to play for one run, sacrifice outs, head coach Greg Beals did the right thing in allowing junior Craig Nennig to swing away. Unfortunately Nennig struck out looking, did not get the ball in play to advance the runners. Troy did get to third when junior Zach Ratcliff popped out in foul territory down the right field line, but was stranded there with a next at-bat strikeout by Troy Montgomery.
Kuhn cost himself in the seventh as the Bucks trailed 1-0. Leading off the inning with a single, his and OSU's second hit of the day, Kuhn was picked off first in the ensuing at-bat with Gretz at the plate. Immediately after Kuhn was wiped away, Gretz doubled. Freshman Tre Gantt pinch ran for Gretz and with two outs was throw out at the plate on a single to left field from Ratcliff. The Buckeyes picked up two singles and double in the inning without scoring a run.
Freshman reliever Kyle Michalik entered the game in the seventh and promptly plunked the first two batters he faced. After a sacrifice bunt put two Owls in scoring position, the right-hander recovered to strike out the next batter. The inning appeared over, Michalik to leave unscathed with a bouncer back to the pitcher, but an error on the toss to Ratcliff at first extended the inning and doubled OSU's deficit.
In their last at-bat, trailing 2-0, back-to-back singles opened the ninth. Kuhn skied a ball to left field, a ball in play where neither runners could advance. Nennig did record a two-out, RBI single to put runners at the corners in a one-run game, but Ratcliff struck out to end the game.
Against good teams the little things can cost a club dearly, and it did for the Buckeyes with an opportunity to take a key series.
3) The adjusted RPI works. Two years ago college baseball introduced an adjusted RPI formula. In a sport where the home team wins nearly two-thirds of the time, how games were weighed changed.
To help teams forced to travel early and often during the season (mainly northern teams), and inhibit teams which rarely travel and load up on home contests, (mainly southern teams) the new formula was created to neutralize the home-away disparity. Instead of a win being a win, a loss a loss, with the changed formula, a win for the home team is worth 70% of a win, or .7 wins, a loss worth 130% off a loss, or 1.3 losses. Conversely, a road win is worth 130% of a win, 1.3 wins, a road loss worth 70% of a loss, .7 losses. Neutral contested remain a 1:1 ratio.
Facing Florida Atlantic in their first road series of the season, though the Buckeyes went 1-2 in the overall win-loss ledger, the Bucks left Boca Raton with a 1.3-1.4 weekend in the eyes of the RPI.
Considering each team had a decisive victory, the rubber match an evenly-played one-run contest, the RPI's record feels more true to Ohio State's results. Where the Buckeyes will go an entire month before playing a midweek contest due to Ohio's late-winter climate, FAU was able to play a quality opponent mid week in Miami, allowed the Owls hitters and pitchers to enter the contest with more reps under their belt. The RPI's formula was adjusted was for precisely this matter, and this weekend showed why.