With just four weekends remaining in the regular season, Ohio State baseball finds itself in a position the program hasn't experienced during head coach Greg Beals' tenure. At 28-10 (9-3 in Big Ten play) and checking in at No. 13 in the latest NCAA RPI rankings, the Buckeyes hold their postseason destiny in their own hands.
The top-ranked Big Ten team in the RPI, Ohio State has some talking about an NCAA regional being hosted in Columbus. The Buckeyes have not made a regional appearance of any kind since 2009.
The remaining schedule for Beals and his squad is daunting. Following this weekend's road trip to Northwestern, Ohio State finishes the final three weekends of the regular season hosting Illinois (No. 21 in RPI) and Maryland (No. 35 in RPI) and traveling to Bloomington to face defending conference champs Indiana. A year after squeaking into the Big Ten tournament, a strong showing to close things out against premier opponents by the Buckeyes could translate to an end to the NCAA drought.
If Ohio State wants to prove itself to be a real contender in the conference and beyond, it must win the games it should win, and that starts this weekend.
Let's take a look at the Wildcats.
Northwestern Wildcats (13-26, 4-8 in Big Ten play)
This is Paul Stevens' 27th year as head coach of the Wildcats, and will also be his last. Since taking over the program in 1988, Stevens, who will retire at the end of the season, has amassed 663 total wins and 311 in Big Ten play, both records at Northwestern.
Stevens' final season has not been kind, as the Wildcats have been forced to play a strange schedule due to renovations at Rocky Miller Park. The team has played only two home games in 2015.
Last season, Northwestern took two of three from Ohio State in Columbus in the last series of the regular season, and comes into this year's series on a three-game winning streak. One of those wins came against a very tough Iowa team on the road.
Hitting has not been a problem in Evanston, as Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in batting average with a .279 team clip. The Wildcats struggle mightily in bringing runs home, though, ranking dead last in the conference in runs scored.
Senior Kyle Ruchim is the leadoff man and catalyst for Stevens. The center fielder enters the weekend fourth in the Big Ten with a .362 batting average, and leads the team in several meaningful offensive categories. Ruchim, who has 16 doubles, six home runs, and 23 RBIs, sports a 1.020 OPS.
Right behind Ruchim in the lineup are junior first baseman Zach Jones (.331 and a team-high 25 RBIs), senior catcher Scott Heelan (.329 and a team-leading 17 doubles), and sophomore left fielder Joe Hoscheit (.289, three home runs, and 22 RBIs), who provide the majority of the pop for the Wildcats. Heelan in particular had a big series against the Buckeyes last season, racking up three doubles, a triple, and four RBIs.
Compounding Northwestern's difficulties in scoring runs has been a pitching staff that has struggled to keep the opposition off the board. As a staff, the Wildcats have a 5.50 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP, and allow opposing hitters to rake at a .310 rate.
In Friday's series opener, Stevens will give the ball to senior Brandon Magallones. At 3-2 on the season, the righty is the only starter on the roster with a record above .500, but his ERA is 6.48 and the opposition hits .325 against him. Magallones leads the team in both strikeouts and walks allowed, and yields 1.87 walks and hits per inning.
Northwestern will start junior Matt Portland on Saturday, a lefty with the lowest ERA (4.29) of anyone on the staff who has started a game. Portland is 1-5 in 10 starts covering a team-high 63 innings, allowing opposing hitters a .302 average.
Sunday's starter is still up in the air at this point, and with good reason. Among the remaining Wildcat hurlers who have been on the bump in a starting role, not one has an ERA lower than 6.00. Given the roll that Ohio State has been on, particularly in clutch situations, the Buckeyes should be able to put runs on the board in Evanston.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 24th, 4:00 p.m. ET
Tanner Tully (3-2, 2.78 ERA) vs. Magallones (3-2, 6.48)
Saturday, April 25th, 2:00 p.m. ET
Travis Lakins (2-2, 3.38) vs. Portland (1-5, 4.29)
Sunday, April 26th, 2:00 p.m. ET
Ryan Riga (5-2, 1.85) vs. TBD