Roughly one month into the season, the Ohio State baseball team has shown itself to be the kind of squad that can win games in a variety of ways. After a two-game midweek sweep of Rider at home this week, the Buckeyes are in the midst of their third four-game winning streak of the season, and have claimed victories with offensive explosions, small-ball execution, and superb pitching.
"We're trying to get guys to evaluate the process, not just the result," head coach Greg Beals said. "If we can stay in that approach, and evaluate ourselves on things we can control, it gives us a chance to have sustainable success."
Beals has his squad sitting in the fifth position in the Big Ten currently, with a 12-5 record. Ohio State will open its conference schedule this weekend in Columbus against a Michigan State team that has struggled with inconsistency.
The Buckeyes are getting contributions from their entire lineup, and any player one through nine can come up with the big hit when its needed. Shortstop Craig Nennig, a career .214 hitter in his first two seasons in scarlet and gray, is leading the team with a .393 average, adding 10 runs scored and 11 driven in while playing his usual solid defense.
Right fielder Pat Porter, who struggled last season, has heated up in the past couple of weeks. The senior, who was named a Summer Collegiate All-American by Perfect Game this past summer, is hitting .317 and leads Ohio State with three home runs and 15 RBIs. The pop in Porter's bat that seemed sapped last year as he recovered from a broken hamate bone as a sophomore has returned.
On the mound, the story so far this season has been senior Ryan Riga. The southpaw Sunday starter for the Buckeyes is 3-1 with a 1.19 ERA, striking out 24, limiting the opposition to a .239 batting average, and sporting a 1.09 WHIP. As sophomores Tanner Tully and Travis Lakins have struggled at times in the early going, Riga has been a calming influence for the weekend rotation.
At 8-1 in March, Ohio State has momentum entering this weekend's slate, and expectations for contention in the Big Ten are beginning to rise. As the grind of the conference season gets underway, the Buckeyes must prove they can defend their home field against a tough opponent.
"We're ready to go," Beals said. "We're 12-5 now, on a pretty good little win streak, guys feel pretty good. We know Sparty is going to be a good opponent, they've played a tough schedule."
Let's take a look at the Spartans.
Michigan State Spartans (8-9, 0-0 in Big Ten play)
In his seventh season at the helm for Michigan State, head coach Jake Boss has already put his stamp on the program. The Spartans have notched 30 wins or more in five straight years, and made the NCAA regionals in 2012 for the first time since 1979.
Boss' squad has struggled a bit this season, coming into this weekend's series a game under .500. In a scheduling quirk many northern teams must contend with at the start of the season, Michigan State has yet to play a home game.
At the plate, the Spartans are off to a slow start, hitting just .245 as a team and averaging slightly more than four runs per game. Leading the way for Boss' lineup is senior Blaise Salter, a third-team NCBWA All-American last season. Salter is the punch in the middle of the order for Michigan State, hitting .305 with a team-high seven extra-base hits, three homers, and 12 RBIs.
Adding pop for the Spartans is third baseman Mark Weist, who transferred to play his senior season in East Lansing from Spring Arbor University. Starting every game, Wesit is batting .326 and leads the team with five doubles.
Setting the table is junior Cam Gibson. The left fielder hit .315 and ranked in the top ten in the conference as a sophomore in hits (70) and on-base percentage (.405). Gibson is hitting .262 with a team-leading 12 runs scored, two triples, and a perfect seven-for-seven on stolen base attempts.
The situation on the mound is somewhat confusing for Michigan State. Spartan hurlers have a collective ERA of 4.11 and limit the opposition to a .250 batting average, but an ace who has struggled and a lack of run support has left the rotation's stats looking dreadful.
Senior Mick VanVossen, a third-team All-Big ten selection last season after posting an 8-3 record with a 2.82 ERA, is having the worst season of his career to this point. The 6-foot-3 righty is 1-3 in five starts, posting a 7.48 ERA, a .288 opposition batting average, a 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a WHIP of 1.66 in 21.2 innings of work. VanVossen is the probable Friday starter this weekend, and Ohio State would like to keep his struggles going.
Saturday's probable starter is sophomore Cam Vieaux, a conference All-Freshman selection a year ago and one of the more intriguing pro prospects in the Big Ten. Vieaux has been fairly on the bump for Boss thus far, sporting a 2.08 ERA, a team-high 30 strikeouts, and a 1.29 WHIP in a team-leading 30.1 innings. Yet, the southpaw's record is 0-3 as the Spartans have scored a grand total of six runs in his starts.
Anthony Misiewicz, a junior lefty, is the probable Sunday starter for Michigan State. In five starts covering 22.1 innings, Misiewicz is 1-1 with a 5.24 ERA.
The Spartan bullpen has a nice blend of experience and young arms, and has performed pretty solidly thus far. Senior Jeff Kinley, who led the Big Ten and set the Michigan State single-season saves record with 13 last year, carries a 2.57 ERA through a team-high nine appearances. Joining Kinley in the relief corps are sophomore Joe Mockbee and a quartet of freshmen in Alex Troup, Brandon Hughes, Keegan Baar, and Andrew Gonzalez.
Ohio State has now won four games in a row three different times this season, yet the team has not been able to push things out to five games or beyond. The Buckeyes will have that opportunity on Friday at Bill Davis Stadium against a Michigan State squad that is eager to put together a streak of its own. For the home team to carry over their early season momentum to the Big Ten schedule, Beals knows his team needs to focus on mental toughness.
"In my opinion we're not there yet," he said. "We need to continue to grow in our mental toughness. That next pitch mentality. Our guys have high expectations, and sometimes those expectations can get on you a little bit. They need to relax, trust themselves. That's what I'm talking about, trust."
Fans of the scarlet and gray will see if Ohio State can ratchet up that toughness and get off to a quick start in conference play this weekend.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, Mar. 20th, at 5:05 p.m. ET
Tully (1-0, 3.16 ERA) vs. VanVossen (1-3, 7.48)
Saturday, Mar. 21st, at 3:05 p.m. ET
Lakins (0-2, 4.66) vs. Vieaux (0-3, 2.08)
Sunday, Mar. 22nd, at 1:05 p.m. ET
Riga (3-1, 1.19) vs. Misiewicz (1-1, 5.24)