When Ohio State entered the season, its schedule reflected a new philosophy for head coach Greg Beals, as tournament formats were exchanged for true road series. The move was an attempt to capitalize on the increased emphasis on road wins taken into account by national RPI rankings.
After dropping their first two series away from home two games to one against both Florida Atlantic and UAB, the Buckeyes went south once more to take on Western Kentucky in search of their first road series victory.
The series in Bowling Green, Kentucky was supposed to be the usual three-game set Friday through Sunday, but was forced to be truncated due to the weather. An initial plan to play a doubleheader on Sunday and the finale on Monday was also scrapped, leaving the Buckeyes and Hilltoppers with just a two-game slate.
Ohio State entered the weekend having lost four of its previous five games, though the team managed to pull out a victory in its final game against UAB last Sunday. WKU had won four in a row and was really getting things going offensively, having outscored its opponents 33-15 in those games.
Hitting is contagious
When Ohio State and WKU finally took the field on Sunday afternoon, the Buckeyes' bats woke up. After having scored only seven runs in the past five games, the team exploded for 10 runs on 15 hits.
"Hitting is contagious, and today we were able to get ourselves going," Beals said after the game.
On the very first pitch of the game, center fielder Troy Montgomery laced a single to left. After DH Connor Sabanosh was hit by a pitch by Hilltopper starter Josh Bartley, left fielder Ronnie Dawson hit a ground ball to second base. Sabanosh was forced out at second, but Dawson beat out the throw to first by shortstop Cody Wofford. Montgomery never stopped running, and put Ohio State on the board when catcher Ryan Messex dropped the throw home.
In the top half of the second inning, the Buckeyes loaded the bases with one out after singles by catcher Aaron Gretz, shortstop Craig Nennig, and first baseman Ryan Leffel. Montgomery again came through, hitting a gapper to left-center to score two. Leffel then ripped a single the next inning to bring Gretz around from second and give Ohio State a 4-0 lead.
Ohio State starter Tanner Tully worked around a few base runners in the first three innings, holding WKU scoreless. A comeback liner in the fourth ended the sophomore's day, though, as he couldn't continue in the game. He finished with three scoreless innings, yielding three hits and striking out a pair.
Senior Ryan Riga relieved Tully, and immediately walked the first two batters he faced to load the bases in the fourth. The southpaw worked out of the jam, though, inducing a groundout by second baseman Jeff Clarkson to his counterpart in the field, Nick Sergakis.
The fifth inning put the game out of reach for good as the Buckeyes strung together five hits and plated five runs, pushing the lead to 9-0. Sabanosh got things started with a single up the middle, followed by a Dawson walk. After a Sergakis flyout to left, right fielder Pat Porter knocked an RBI single to center, bringing Sabanosh plateward, and ending Bartley's day on the mound. The junior gave up seven runs, six earned, on ten hits in 4.1 innings.
Third baseman Troy Kuhn then bounced a ball to short off reliever Brandon Allen, but the Hilltoppers were unable to turn the double play to get out of the inning, and Dawson came home to make it 7-0. Back-to-back singles by Gretz and Nennig brought Kuhn around to score the third run of the inning.
That's when Leffel, who had just one at-bat and three total plate appearances all season entering the game, hit a shot to left-center for a two-run double. The former Dublin Coffman standout finished his day 3-for-4 at the plate, tying a career-high by driving in three runs. Allen gave way to freshman Connor McHugh having given up two runs on three hits in a third of an inning.
"We got some key hits," Beals said. "The bottom of our order did a great job for us, with Gretz, Nennig, and Leffel giving us the spark we needed."
Ohio State hit double digit scoring in the top of the ninth. Sophomore L. Grant Davis collected his first hit as a Buckeye with a one-out single up the middle, and was followed by a Jake Brobst single and a walk to Jalen Washington to load the bases. Davis scored on an error by WKU third baseman Danny Hudzina on a Nennig grounder, making it 10-0.
Riga cruised through five innings of work in relief of Tully, improving to 2-1 on the season, allowing four hits and striking out two. Freshman Adam Niemeyer pitched the ninth, allowing the lone Hilltopper run on two hits with a strikeout in his second appearance of the season.
"The situation where we are only playing two games down here means we had an extra starter ready to go in the bullpen," Beals said. "Sunday is Riga's normal day to pitch and he was prepared to come in. It's not easy to do that, and for him to give us five scoreless innings was big."
String it together
The Buckeyes failed to carry over the offensive momentum in the early going of game two on Monday afternoon in Bowling Green, but timely hitting late propelled the team to a 6-4 victory and its first road series win of the season.
"I really liked how our offense stayed together," Beals said after the game. "We were able to string it together late in the ballgame and got a couple of really big hits."
Ohio State got on the board first when Leffel stayed red-hot. After Nennig led off the bottom of the third inning with an infield single, the Buckeye first baseman ripped a double to left-center for his fourth RBI of the series and a 1-0 lead. It was the last production Ohio State would muster for quite some time.
On the bump, sophomore Travis Lakins cruised through the Hilltoppers early. The righty, who had struggled in his first three starts of the season, retired 11 straight to start the game. A two-out double in the home half of the fourth by WKU first baseman Ryan Church was the first blemish for Lakins, but a strikeout by right fielder Phillip Diedrick put an end to the threat.
The Hilltoppers did get to Lakins in the fifth, though, as a single by Hudzina with one away and a pair of two-out singles by second baseman Leiff Clarkson and catcher Ty Hogan knotted the game at one apiece. In the sixth, WKU took the lead when Hudzina singled home Anderson Miller, who had led off the inning with a double. Finally, in the seventh, after Jake Post had relieved Lakins, Clarkson scored on an error by Nennig.
Lakins' final line in six innings of work included two runs on six hits and a career-high 10 strikeouts. He received a no-decision for his effort.
WKU starter Austin King matched Lakins in mowing through the Buckeyes. After Leffel's third inning double, the southpaw retired the next 12 batters he faced. Ohio State managed to tie the game in the seventh off King thanks to a two-out RBI single by Nennig. King gave up two runs on five hits in 6.1 innings, earning a no-decision.
"He did a good job mixing his pitches," Beals said. "In the middle of the game, he held us down for a bit."
When the Hilltoppers went to their bullpen, the Buckeyes responded. Dawson doubled with one down in the eighth off Tate Glasscock and, after Sergakis went down looking, Porter hit his first home run of the season for a 4-3 lead. A leadoff pinch hit double by Gretz in the ninth followed by a single from Montgomery and a double by Sabanosh pushed the lead to 6-3.
"Your big-time players, you need them to come through in big-time situations," Beals said. "And Pat Porter did that today. He hit that ball really well, and at a great time."
Trace Dempsey had a little trouble closing things out, balking in a run, but got Miller to ground out to end the game for his second save of the season.
"We needed to get a road victory, to win a road series," Beals said. "Going into conference play, which is coming up in two weeks, it was important for us to go on the road and win a series against a good ballclub."
Ohio State has little time to savor Monday's win as it will host Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Worth in the team's 2015 home opener Tuesday afternoon at 5:05 p.m. ET. The midweek contest with the Mastodons opens up an 11-game homestand for the Buckeyes, who will take on Evansville in a three-game series this coming weekend.