For the first time this season, Ohio State played two midweek games. The Buckeyes grabbed up two wins over visiting Rider, picking up a 6-2 win Tuesday evening before completing the midweek sweep with a 7-2 win. Now 12-5 on the season, Ohio State finds itself entering Big Ten play on a roll.
Finding a way to win
The five non-conference weekends showed Ohio State can win in a variety of ways. A testament to the depth of the lineup and the quality starting pitching, whether it takes a slugfest or the team finds itself in a pitchers' duel, Ohio State has the necessary skill to meet both tasks.
In Tuesday's non-conference game against Rider, the Buckeyes discovered a way to win when presenting far from it's A-game.
"We won the game but I don't think we played real well," head coach Greg Beals said. "Maybe the worst game played all season."
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Broncs matched the Bucks in hits, six a side, as well as with an unsightly four errors, but the host were able to find a way to piecemeal an offensive attack and turn back Rider, 6-2.
The Buckeyes struck first with a two-run home-half of the third. With the help of a Rider error on a sacrifice bunt, junior shortstop Craig Nennig scored the game's first run, crossing home after a leadoff walk. Reaching base by way a fielder's choice, and putting himself in scoring position with a stolen base, sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery doubled the Buckeye lead, scoring on a one-out single by senior DH Connor Sabanosh.
Rider the cut the deficit in half in their next at-bat. A four-pitch walk to left fielder Justin Thomas put the leadoff Bronco on base. A fielding error by Troy Kuhn put two men on, and Thomas at third base. A 5-4-3 double play would prevent Rider from mounting a rally, but Thomas was able to score on the twin-killing, making it a 2-1.
But the Bucks were back at in their the bottom of the fourth. Singles by Nennig and Montgomery, and walks drawn by seniors Aaron Gretz and Pat Porter helped produced two more runs. Rider aided the Buckeye effort with a two-out fielding error which allowed Gretz to score and extending the inning in front of Porter who drove in Nennig with a bases loaded walk. Ohio State would be unable to create a gap wider than three runs, leaving the bases loaded as the game moved to the fifth inning.
Ohio State's men left on base almost came back to bite them.
A one-out fielding error by junior first baseman Ryan Leffel would begin a string of three consecutive Broncs reaching base. Back-to-back singles from third baseman Nick Richter and DH Jake Bender loaded the bases for Rider. Thomas skied a ball to Porter in right field, deep enough to score center field Jordan Leinweber and cut Ohio State's lead in half. Buckeye starting pitching Jacob Niggemeyer plunked first baseman Lee Lipinski to re-load the bases, before the freshman induced a 6-4 groundout to end the threat, strand three runners on base, maintain Ohio State's 4-2.
That would be the closet Rider would get.
Ohio State added insurance runs in the fifth and seventh innings. Nennig produced an RBI-triple for Ohio State's fifth run and L. Grant Davis drove a two-out single to right to give the game its final margin. Junior right-hander Jake Post pitched three scoreless innings of relief, followed by freshman right-handed Kyle Michalik closing the game with a perfect ninth inning.
Nennig's 2-for-3, two-run game led the Buckeye bats, while Niggemeyer collected his first decision as a Buckeye, picking up the win after five innings of four-hit baseball, allowing two unearned runs.
Be it the four errors, nine runners left on base, the four combined walks and hit batters, or all of the above, Beals wasn't satisfied with Tuesday's win.
"I challenged the guys after the game. Tomorrow, let's get our 12th victory and let's do it clean. Let's do it the way we plan, the way we prepare."
The Buckeyes met the wish of their coach.
Rider jumped out to a 2-0 lead after their first at-bat, striking start John Havird for a pair of runs off four hits and a stolen base. However the southpaw dashed the visitors' hopes of jumping out to a sizebale lead, inducing a 6-4-3 double play to leave a runner on base and turn the game to the Buckeye bats.
Ohio State responded with two runs of their own. After drawing a leadoff walk, Montgomery stole second base. With a runner in scoring position and one-out, Porter drove in his outfield mate, driving a single to right. Porter himself added a stolen base and with two down the Buckeyes third outfielder, sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson, tied the game at 2-2, driving in Porter with a single up the middle.
With the game reset at two runs a side, Havird entered cruise control.
Making his first start as a Buckeye the JUCO transfer from Mesa Community College stifled the Bronc attack over the next four innings. Only a one-out single off the bat of Thomas in the third prevented the left-hander from retiring the last 12 batters faced. Over the final four innings he pitched, Havird struck out eight batters, two in each inning.
While Havird provided the Buckeyes with a strong start, an outburst in the second inning was all Ohio State needed to pick up its 12th victory.
In a five-hit innings, Davis and Nennig single, Kuhn and Montgomery doubled with Porter adding a triple to give the Scarlet and Gray four runs in the inning. Porter's two-out double to the left-center gap was his first of the season, next to three doubles and three home runs, more notably the 13th of his career, tying Ohio State's all-time record.
"Any time you can have your name in the record books is pretty cool," the native of Kenston, Ohio said. "I get faster after each base, I push off and get more power and speed coming off."
Ohio State closed the book on scoring with it's seventh run in the sixth inning. Dawson drove an 0-2 outside fastball to left field, driving in Porter who drew a one-out walk. Dawson and Porter each finished the game 2-for-4, as did junior second baseman Nick Sergakis who batted between them in the cleanup spot. Dawson and Porter both drove in two runs.
Four Buckeyes relieved Havird with an inning of work out of the bullpen. Freshman right-hander Adam Niemeyer pitched a clean sixth before freshman right-hander Seth Kinker matched him with a hitless seventh. Junior left-hander Michael Horejesi continued the string of a hitless, one-strikeout inning in pitching the eighth before sophomore right-hander Shea Murray struck out a pair in a four at-bat ninth. Ohio State pitchers finished the game with 13 strikeouts and only one walk, limiting the Broncs to five hits.
Without committing and error, and the pitchers not providing a free base until the ninth, Beals was proud of how his team responded.
"We had no walks until the ninth innings, only gave up three free bases total, one walk, one stolen base, one wild pitch, everything else we made them earn," he said.
"We played great defense, threw strikes, John Havird did a great job settling in and pitching to his strengths and gave us a really good quality start. The bullpen guys got there work and we're ready for the weekend."
Ohio State will open Big Ten play in hosting Michigan State this weekend. The Buckeyes will be in search of their first Big Ten championship since 2009.
News and notes
Ohio State's 12-5 record heading into conference play is the team's best mark under Beals. Ohio State entered conference play at 8-10 in 2011, 13-10 in 2012, 12-6 in 2013 and 13-6 in 2014.
The triples record Porter tied is shared with former outfielders Jacob Howell (2004-07), Steve Caravati (2001-05) and Drew Anderson (2002-04).
Montgomery and Nennig have each hit safely in every game in March.
Ohio State's six stolen bases on Wednesday night were the most by the team in a game this season.
As Big Ten play begins, the Buckeyes are one of six teams have a winning percentage of .700 or better.