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Ohio State baseball: Buckeyes host Evansville in first home series of the season

Winners of four in a row, Ohio State is just a week away from the opening of the Big Ten schedule and looking to build momentum against the Purple Aces

Ohio State Athletics

Update, 12:35 p.m.: Unfortunately once again, rain's caused an Ohio State baseball cancellation. OSU's next game will be Saturday just after 3 p.m.

The Ohio State baseball team has experienced quite the roller coaster through the first month of the season. The Buckeyes started the year off with four straight wins and the program's best start since 2010, but then lost four in a row to drop to .500. Ten days later, the team is riding another four-game winning streak going into the first home series of 2015.

Head coach Greg Beals saw his team pull out a victory in its last at-bat in the home opener on Wednesday against Northern Kentucky. A bases loaded hit by pitch for senior designated hitter Connor Sabanosh brought freshman pinch runner Tre' Gannt home for a 4-3 win.

"It was anti-climactic at the end," Beals said after the game. "But I thought it was a good ball game and I give Northern Kentucky credit. They played very well tonight."

Sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson had a breakout day at the plate, going 2-for-4 with his second home run of the season and two runs driven in. The Grove City, Ohio native also scored all the way from first on an errant pickoff attempt in the eighth inning, putting the Buckeyes up 3-2 at the time. Dawson has been slumping in the early going, and Ohio State must hope this performance was a sign that he is breaking out of it.

"We got the big hit [home run] from Dawson early in the ball game," Beals said. "He's a dynamic offensive player and gave us the lead again late in the game."

Senior right fielder Pat Porter also had two hits for the Buckeyes, and junior first baseman Ryan Leffel hit safely in his third consecutive game since being inserted into the starting lineup.

Freshman right-hander Adam Niggemeyer made his collegiate debut against the Norse, and equipped himself well. The former Olentangy Liberty standout allowed just two runs on eight hits over six innings of work, striking out two. Niggemeyer projects to be a regular starter for Beals during midweek games.

"We played great defense and got a quality start out of Jacob Niggemeyer," Beals said. "The rookie gets the ball for the first time in his career in a home opener, and gave us six innings with two earned runs."

The opening of the Big Ten schedule is looming next weekend when Michigan State visits Columbus for a three-game set. It is important that Ohio State take care of business in winnable upcoming games against Evansville and Rider.

Let's take a look at this weekend's series with the Purple Aces.

University of Evansville (Missouri Valley Conference)

Evansville comes to Columbus having lost two games in a row, and four of its last six. The Aces are currently sitting at .500 through a dozen games for head coach Wes Carroll. In 2014, the team won the regular season championship in the MVC, and Carroll, an Evansville alum, was named Coach of the Year.

"We have to right the ship going into a weekend against a tough opponent in Ohio State," Carroll said after Wednesday's 5-1 loss to Belmont.

The Aces have only scored one run in the past two games, but have been fairly good offensively in the season's first month. As a team, Evansville is hitting only .252, but ranks in the top 50 nationally in runs scored per game. The struggles of late have Carroll looking for answers.

"Our offense is in a major rut right now that we need to pick ourselves out of," he said. "We really need some leadership and someone to step up and provide the big hit when we need it."

Carroll would normally be looking for that offensive spark from senior outfielder Kevin Kaczmarski, an All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team selection a season ago, but the Cary, Illinois native has been out of the lineup with an injury the past four games. Kaczmarski was leading the team with a .448 batting average when he went out, and leaves a void in the middle of the Aces order. It still isn't known if he will be able to play this weekend.

Expected to pick up the slack for Evansville in Kaczmarski's absence is left fielder Josh Jyawook. The junior is hitting .361 and has driven in a team-high 12 runs. Setting the table for Jyawook is senior center fielder Jarod Perry, who's 12 runs scored lead the team.

While the offense looks for answers, the Aces pitching staff has been fairly solid through the first month of the season. Evansville has a 3.39 team ERA and limits opposing hitters to a .247 average, sporting a 1.36 WHIP.

Right-hander Connor Strain will take the ball on Friday. The junior has had the least impressive start of the season among the weekend rotation, coming into the series with an 0-1 record and 5.62 ERA. Strain has been hit at .281 rate by opponents, giving up 11 runs, 10 earned, in 16 innings.

Senior Matt Rodgers, last season's midweek starter for the Aces, will be on the bump on Saturday. The righty is 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA in his three starts, covering 16 innings, and is tied for the team lead with 15 strikeouts. The opposition hits a meager .241 off Rodgers, who has a 1.19 WHIP.

In Sunday's final game of the series, Carroll will trot out freshman Brodie Harkness. A native of Canada, Harkness is 2-0 in his first college season, with a 3.50 ERA and a share of the team lead in strikeouts with Rodgers. The newcomer is fresh off his best outing of the season, throwing six one-hit, shutout innings last weekend against Western Illinois. Harkness struck out a career-high eight against the Leathernecks.

"Harkness pitched outstanding," Carroll said after the game. "He commanded all three pitches and kept them off balance."

Evansville's bullpen has been solid as well, sporting a 2.68 ERA and allowing just five inherited runners to score. The Aces' pen has tossed 47.2 innings, allowing only 38 hits while striking out 44. The quartet of righties Ryan Brady, Conor Gilligan, Brian Jestice, and Brent Jurceka have carried the load in relief, each appearing in four games and giving up a combined eight earned runs.

Game times and probable pitching matchups

Friday, Mar. 13, at 5:05 p.m ET

Tanner Tully (1-0, 2.75 ERA) vs. Strain (0-1, 5.62)

Saturday, Mar. 14, at 3:05 p.m. ET

Travis Lakins (0-2, 5.73) vs. Rodgers (2-0, 3.38)

Sunday, Mar. 15, at 1:05 p.m. ET

Ryan Riga (2-1, 1.54) vs. Harkness (2-0, 3.50)