After beginning the new season with the program's best start since 2010, Ohio State baseball dropped the final two games of its series against Florida Atlantic last weekend in Boca Raton, falling to 4-2 on the year. The magic that had helped propel the Buckeyes to two come-from-behind wins on opening weekend ran out against the Owls, as miscues in the field and struggles at the plate with runners on base were too much for the team to overcome.
FAU is a quality team, though, as it cracked the latest NCBWA rankings with its 6-1 start. Playing high quality competition is something that should benefit Greg Beals' squad as the season continues.
Despite the disappointment of the last two games, though, Ohio State stands fourth in the Big Ten through the first two weekends, and has received solid production from a number of players. Junior shortstop Craig Nennig is leading the team in batting through the first six games, sporting a .400 average after hitting just .231 a year ago, sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson and junior second baseman Nick Sergakis have both knocked in five runs to lead the team, and junior third baseman Troy Kuhn has reached base in every game thus far, toting a .346 on-base percentage despite a dismal .190 batting average.
On the mound, senior lefty Ryan Riga is off to a hot start, allowing only one run in twelve innings of work through his first two starts, striking out 10, and junior right-hander Jake Post has been stellar in relief, striking out seven and allowing just three hits in 7.1 innings of shutout ball.
Picked to finish sixth in the conference prior to the season, the Buckeyes would like to right the ship and continue to exceed expectations. Their opponent this weekend will not make that easy on them, though, as Alabama-Birmingham's pitching staff has been impressive in shutting down opposing hitters. For Ohio State to snap its losing streak, the bats are going to need to awaken.
Let's take a look at UAB.
University of Alabama-Birmingham (Conference USA)
UAB is fresh off its first loss of the season, a midweek defeat against Alabama A&M, after starting the season on a six-game winning streak. The Blazers are receiving votes in the latest NCBWA poll, and will provide another stout test for Ohio State.
Head coach Brian Shoop, an Ohio guy who attended both Malone College and Kent State, was named the Conference USA Coach of the Year in 2014 after guiding the Blazers to a 35-21 record, and has high hopes for his team this season.
"I want to be able to attack the game in multiple ways," Shoop said. "We want mentally tough guys who are hard workers."
The strength of Shoop's squad is undoubtedly the pitching staff, which currently ranks in the top ten nationally in WHIP and hits allowed. This despite losing second team Louisville Slugger All-American and C-USA Pitcher of the Year Chase Mallard to the pros. The Blazers have a 2.21 team ERA and are holding opposing hitters to a .189 batting average.
Senior righty Alex Luna anchors the mound corps for UAB. A preseason All-Conference selection after going 7-1 with a 1.76 ERA in 87 innings as a junior, Luna has been very strong in his first two starts this season. The Huntsville, Alabama native has yielded just one run in 15.2 innings (0.57 ERA), striking out 14, walking one, limiting the opposition to a .098 average, and sporting a WHIP of 0.38.
"He pounds the strike zone and gets a lot of ground balls," Shoop said after Luna tossed 7.2 shutout innings in the season opener.
Following Luna in the weekend rotation is junior James Naile, who redshirted last season after having Tommy John surgery. The Missouri product led UAB in wins as a sophomore two years ago, going 7-5 with a 4.14 ERA. Through two starts this season, Naile has shown no lingering effects from the surgery, posting a 2-0 record and not allowing an earned run in 13.2 innings. The right-hander has struck out 14, issued no free passes, and has a WHIP of 0.51.
Sunday's probable starter is senior Johnny Lieske, a junior college transfer who went 5-2 for Shoop in 2014, his first season with the Blazers. Lieske was solid in his first start against Western Michigan, throwing eight scoreless innings and striking out seven, but got tagged for six runs in four innings of work last weekend against Savannah State. For the year, the Machesney Park, Illinois native is 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA.
Offensively, UAB is averaging nearly 6.5 runs per game, which is a full two runs better than the Buckeyes. Two seniors and a freshman are off to hot starts in the heart of the Blazers' order.
Third baseman Nathan Vincent is coming off a tough junior season that was his first in Birmingham after transferring from junior college. He hit just .216 in 2014, but is off to a scorching start, hitting .429 with two doubles, a triple, a home run, and seven RBIs. Vincent is also a perfect 4-for-4 in stolen bases.
Hitting behind Vincent is fellow senior Jeff Schalk, last season's team leader in homers and runs driven in. Through seven games, Schalk is batting .308, and leads the team with two dingers and eight RBIs.
The cleanup hitter for UAB is freshman and Alabama native Brett Blackwood. Seeing time in six games exclusively as the DH, Blackwood is hitting .304 with a team-leading three doubles. The newcomer has also added a triple, a home run, and six RBIs.
Game times and pitching matchups
Saturday, Feb. 28, doubleheader beginning at 1 p.m. ET
Game one: Tanner Tully (1-0, 4.22 ERA) vs. Luna (1-0, 0.57)
Game two: Travis Lakins (0-1, 6.75) vs. Naile (2-0, 0.00)
Sunday, Mar. 1, at 1:30 p.m. ET
Riga (1-1, 0.75) vs. Lieske (1-0, 4.50)