Ohio State is on the road for the fourth straight weekend to open its season, and the third in a row against a Conference USA opponent. The Buckeyes are taking on Western Kentucky in a truncated two-game series on Sunday and Monday after the weather caused Friday and Saturday's games to be scrapped.
Head coach Greg Beals has his team off to a 5-4 start through the season's first three weekends. Ohio State has lost four of five, but took the last game of last weekend's series against UAB. The Buckeyes had lost two of three the previous weekend to Florida Atlantic.
"We played two tough ones against very good opponents," Beals said this week. "I think it's important before we go into conference play that we can go on the road and prove that we can win a series on the road."
Ohio State has had its share of struggles in the early going. As a team, the Buckeyes are hitting a paltry .231 and scoring under four runs per game. The team's outfield trio of senior Pat Porter and sophomores Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery, expected to lead the offensive attack for Beals, are batting a combined .206. Dawson, a freshman All-American a season ago, is particularly having a rough start, with just a .194 average and a team-high 10 strikeouts. It's a small sample size, but the Buckeyes need their three-hole hitter to find his stroke.
Junior third baseman Troy Kuhn, the leading returning home run hitter in the Big Ten, had a nice weekend in Birmingham last week after his own slow start. Kuhn is batting .281 with a team-leading five extra-base hits, and is the key to Ohio State's success at the plate. Fellow juniors Craig Nennig, who is hitting a team-high .310, and Nick Sergakis, who leads the team with six RBIs, are also helping to keep the Buckeyes afloat offensively.
"It's not really what we have to do differently, it's what we have to improve on and it's just our mindset," Sergakis said. "We've got to keep believing that we are the same team that we went into the season as."
The pitching staff has also had some ups and downs thus far. Sophomore starters Tanner Tully and Travis Lakins have fallen short of expectations through their first three starts, though Tully looks to be rounding into form. Last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year finished with two walks and four strikeouts in six innings of work last Saturday against UAB, earning a no-decision. Lakins, though, is still trying to put it together, having given up four earned runs in each of his three appearances.
Senior Ryan Riga has been steady, though, posting a 1.96 ERA and a team-leading 15 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. The bullpen, particularly senior closer Trace Dempsey and junior Jake Post, have been mostly solid. Dempsey has yet to allow a run in his 4.2 innings pitched, including a crucial 2.2 scoreless in the final game against UAB.
Given the loss of a game this weekend, it's not clear whether Lakins or Riga will start on Monday. Lakins needs the work to regain his form, while Riga has been incredibly solid. Whoever of the two does not toe the rubber is likely to get the ball for Tuesday's home opener at Bill Davis Stadium against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Western Kentucky enters the series having won four in a row, and will make it tough for Ohio State to build a winning streak. With the home opener coming up on Tuesday and the start of Big Ten play rapidly approaching, the Buckeyes need to start putting things together.
"We have the talent," Sergakis said. "It's just a matter of when it shows."
Let's take a look at the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky University (Conference USA)
Western Kentucky started the season on a slide, losing five of its first seven games. The Hilltoppers are starting to put things together during their recent winning streak, though, outscoring their opponents 33-15 over that span. Head coach Matt Myers is in his fourth year as skipper in Bowling Green, and has seen his team play tough against good competition, including nationally-ranked Maryland and Vanderbilt.
The strength for WKU is its hitting, which has produced nearly seven runs a game through 11 games, and totaled 36 extra-base hits. Senior first baseman Ryan Church, a preseason All-Conference selection after batting .306 with seven home runs and 38 RBIs as a junior, leads the Hilltoppers' offensive attack. The Santaluces, Florida native has a .277 average and team-high totals with five extra-base hits and 15 RBIs.
Junior center fielder Anderson Miller, who led WKU with a .335 batting average a season ago, is having a monster start as well. Miller is hitting .343 with three doubles, two triples, two homers, eight RBIs, 10 runs scored, and a team-leading .714 slugging percentage. The Hilltoppers' two-hole hitter has an astronomical 1.203 OPS.
Also having solid starts are junior third baseman Danny Hudzina and senior outfielder/designated hitter Phillip Diedrick. Hudzina leads the team with 15 total hits, and sports a .326 average and 11 runs driven in. Diedrick is second on the team in batting average, hitting .333, and has three doubles, two homers, and 10 RBIs.
WKU's pitching may offer Ohio State's slumbering bats a chance to wake up, as the staff has a collective ERA of 5.33 and allows a .283 opposition batting average.
Junior John Harmon will take the ball first for Myers. The lefty transfer from Darton State College in Albany, Georgia is 1-0 in his three starts, striking out 11 and walking five in 12.2 innings of work. Despite a 5.68 ERA, Harmon has limited batters to a .221 batting average.
Following Harmon as Monday's probable starter is junior Josh Bartley, who threw six innings of scoreless, two-hit ball his last time out. For the season, the right-hander is 2-0 with a 3.52 ERA, striking out five and walking seven in a team-high 15.1 innings pitched. A native of Bowling Green, Bartley is the only member of the weekend rotation who was on the Hilltoppers' roster last season.
Sophomore righties Ben Morrison, another Bowling Green native, and Kevin Elder, who transferred from Iowa Western Community College, anchor the WKU bullpen. Morrison has not allowed a run in five appearances, giving up just one hit while striking out six and walking one in 4.2 innings, saving three games. Elder has also appeared five times, allowing just one earned run in 7.2 innings of work (1.17 ERA), striking out seven.
Game times and pitching matchups
Sunday, Mar. 8, 5 p.m. ET
Tully (1-0, 3.24 ERA) vs. Harmon (1-0, 5.68)
Monday, Mar. 9, 1 p.m. ET
Lakins (0-2, 6.75) or Riga (1-1, 1.96) vs. Bartley (2-0, 3.52)