After a 4-0 start to the season, Ohio State baseball headed down south once again carrying a two-game losing streak. Dropping the final two games of their series with Florida Atlantic, the Buckeyes were meeting another tough Conference USA opponent in Alabama-Birmingham.
UAB came in having started the season 6-1, with a pitching staff doing its job as well as anyone in the country. With head coach Greg Beals' squad struggling offensively, the Blazers provided an uphill battle on the road.
A doubleheader was played on Saturday after Friday evening's series opener was cancelled due to field conditions. UAB dominated the double dip, and the Buckeyes appeared to be in a tailspin. Showing grit on Sunday, Ohio State was able to salvage a victory, returning to Columbus with a 5-4 mark through the season's first three weekends.
"It was a big gut-check victory for us today," Beals said after game.
Another rally falls short
In game one of Saturday's doubleheader, UAB trotted out its ace, senior Alex Luna, who had not allowed an earned run in his first two starts of the season. The Blazers' right-hander got through six innings against Ohio State before the Buckeyes were able to plate a run, not allowing a hit until the top of the seventh.
On the hill for Ohio State, southpaw Tanner Tully worked around runners on base in the first two innings and got a quick 1-2-3 in the third, striking out three UAB hitter in the first three frames. A leadoff triple by catcher Esteban Tresgallo in the fourth was followed by an RBI groundout from DH Brett Blackwood for the first run of the game. It was the only blemish for Tully on the afternoon, as he finished with two walks and four strikeouts in six innings of work, and left the game tied, 1-1.
In the top of the seventh, second baseman Nick Sergakis was hit by a pitch and came around to knot the game when a bloop to center by right fielder Pat Porter found some green grass for the first Ohio State hit of the afternoon.
UAB wasted little time reclaiming the lead, though, against Buckeye reliever Jake Post. Post entered the game having not allowed a run in his first 7.1 innings of the season, but a leadoff double by shortstop Adam Smith started a sequence of well-executed baseball by the Blazers. Smith was sacrificed to third by center fielder Chase Davis and came around to score when third baseman Nathan Vincent singled to center.
The Blazers added an insurance run off Post in the eighth thanks to a bunt single by Smith, who went 3-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Post, who took the loss, finished his day allowing two runs on five hits in two innings of work.
Down to their final at-bat, the Buckeyes were finally able to send Luna to the showers. Center fielder Troy Montgomery led things off with an infield single, and was followed by a single to center by designated hitter Connor Sabanosh. After a flyout by left fielder Ronnie Dawson, UAB went to its bullpen, bringing in righty Cory Eller. Eller promptly walked Sergakis to load the bases and gave up a single to Porter to cut the deficit to one.
That was where the rally fell short for the Buckeyes. With the bases loaded and one out, third baseman Troy Kuhn hit into a 4-6-3 double play that ended the game. Luna, who was charged with two earned runs on three hits in 8.1 innings, got the win to improve to 2-0 on the season. Eller picked up his second save on the year.
Two big innings
Ohio State ran into another hot hurler in the second game of Saturday's double dip, as junior James Naile picked up where Luna left off in silencing the Buckeye bats in an 8-1 victory.
"James and Alex, for us, pound the zone and get a lot of ground balls and lots of outs by our defense," UAB head coach Brian Shoop said after the game. "Two very quality wins over a very quality opponent. Very pleased with the day."
Ohio State actually held the lead in this game until the sixth inning. A leadoff walk by Montgomery in the top of the fourth was followed by a two-out RBI single by Sergakis for a 1-0 lead. But that was the end of the Buckeyes offense for the day. Naile went 7.1 innings, giving up just that one run on four hits, striking out six en route to improving to 3-0 on the season.
Sophomore Travis Lakins, who has struggled a bit in the early going, started strong on the mound for Ohio State. The righty kept the Blazers scoreless for five innings, striking out seven. But in the sixth, UAB opened the frame with a pair of walks and a single to load the bases for Smith, who tripled to the gap in left-center, driving in three. A bunt single by Davis brought Smith plateward, and gave UAB a 4-1 advantage.
Lakins, who was replaced by junior John Havird, fell to 0-2 through his first three starts of the season, allowing four runs on eight hits in 5.1 innings. The righty did set a career-high with eight strikeouts in the game.
Beals went to his bullpen once more in the eighth, bringing on freshman Kyle Michalik. The right-hander gave up four hits and walked a batter, as the Blazers tacked on four more runs and pressed their advantage to 8-1. Two big innings had sent Ohio State to its fourth consecutive loss.
After the disappointment of dropping a doubleheader on Saturday, the beginning of Sunday's game could have left the Buckeyes reeling. After Ohio State went down in order in the top of the first, UAB jumped on starter Ryan Riga for two runs in the bottom of the frame on a two-out, two-run single by third baseman Evan Peterson.
Unlike Saturday, though, the Buckeyes fought back. After a two-out double in the second by Kuhn and an infield single from catcher Aaron Gretz, Blazers' starter Johnny Lieske uncorked a wild pitch, letting Ohio State on the board.
The game remained 2-1 until the seventh, when the scarlet and gray kept the two-out magic going. Kuhn led things off with an infield hit, moved to second and then third on sacrifices by Gretz and first baseman Jacob Bosiokovic, then trotted home on a single by shortstop Craig Nennig. Nennig scored a batter later when Montgomery ripped the first pitch he saw down the right field line for a triple and a 3-2 lead.
A walk and a single chased Riga from the game in the bottom of the seventh, as Beals decided to go to his closer, Trace Dempsey, early. The senior had not pitched since last Sunday's 2-1 loss to Florida Atlantic. Dempsey surrendered the lead when the first hitter he faced, first baseman Tyler Mims, singled to center, but induced a pop out and a groundout to get out of the inning.
That would be the last time the Blazers really threatened.
In the top of the eighth, Ohio State got the big hit it had been waiting for when Kuhn blasted a home run to left. The junior from Zionsville, Indiana, who had entered Sunday hitting just .207, went 3-for-3 on the day, scoring three runs and driving in one.
Dempsey finished things out by striking out four UAB batters in the last two innings, picking up his first win of the season. Riga, who received a no-decision, was charged with three earned runs on 11 hits in his 6.1 innings of work.
"I'm proud of the way our guys continued to fight and have that `next pitch' mentality," Beals said. "The story of the ball game was our efficient pitching, strong defense, and timely hitting."
Ohio State will spend its fourth consecutive weekend on the road to start the season. The Buckeyes travel to play Western Kentucky, with first pitch scheduled for Friday night at 6:00 p.m. ET.