The most meaningful series in Greg Beals' tenure as head coach of the Ohio State baseball team is approaching this weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes have cracked the national polls after an impressive April that has seen them surge to 31-10 (12-3 in Big Ten play) on the season.
Coming to town this weekend is Illinois (37-6-1, 13-1), the top team in the Big Ten, and a consensus top ten team in the national rankings. The Illini have won a program best 18 straight, and are in the conversation for a national seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I'm not sure anybody envisioned the number we've won in a row," Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said after Sunday's 6-3 win over Penn State. "You've got to play the game hard and don't beat yourself, and if you do that, you have a chance to win each and every game."
This series holds both conference and national implications, as both sides are in the hunt to host a regional and put together postseason runs unseen in recent program history. Both Ohio State and Illinois are where they are in large part due to the dominance of their pitching staffs, and an arms showdown of epic proportions is anticipated at Bill Davis Stadium.
"Our team has confidence," Beals said Tuesday. "We find ways to win and now we have to do it at home against a good ball club."
Before the first pitch is thrown, let's take a look at what to expect on the bump between the Buckeyes and the Fightin' Illini.
This weekend pits two staffs that are among the nation's elite in a number of statistical categories. The Buckeyes come in with a 2.59 team earned run average, which ranks ninth in the country. That number shrinks to 2.36 in Big Ten play. Ohio State is also in the top 15 in the country in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.07-to-1) and WHIP (1.19).
Opposing hitters are batting at a meager .248 clip against the scarlet and gray this season (.236 in conference games) and have been shutout a Big Ten-high five times. The quality and depth of the staff is seen up and down the stable of arms, as Buckeye pitchers have tossed 22 quality starts on the year, and the bullpen is riding a 10-game wave of near-lockdown performances, putting up a 1.36 ERA in that span.
As good as Ohio State has been, though, Illinois has been even better. The Illini are third in the country in ERA (2.29), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.07-to-1), and WHIP (1.09), and place second in walks allowed per nine innings (1.88). Among conference teams, Hartleb's staff is in the top three in nearly every meaningful statistical category.
Illinois has not lost since March 29th in East Lansing, and during the streak has allowed more than three runs just three times. The team has depth and talent, both on the starting bump and out of the bullpen, holding the opposition to a .238 batting average on the season. Ohio State's offense will be facing an uphill climb to put runs on the board.
The Buckeyes have had the luxury of handing the ball to the same three weekend starters all season long, and the trio's consistency has been a big part of the team's success. Sophomores Tanner Tully and Travis Lakins and senior Ryan Riga have a collective 2.64 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP, accounting for a 12-6 record.
Tully, last season's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is 4-2 in his 11 starts, sporting a 2.76 ERA in 65.1 innings of work. The southpaw, who has issued just one more walk (12) than appearances, has a 1.26 WHIP and a 3.17-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and ranks 82nd among all hurlers in the country with just 1.65 walks per nine innings.
Lakins struggled a bit at the start of the season in making the transition from the bullpen, where as a freshman he was one of the toughest setup men in the Big Ten. Of late, the Franklin, Ohio native has seemed to start trusting his stuff more and more, and it's paying dividends. At 3-2 on the season with a 3.31 ERA, Lakins is holding opposing hitters to a .244 average and striking out just shy of a batter per inning. His 63 punchouts lead the team and rank fourth in the conference.
It's been a fine final season in Columbus for Riga, who is 5-2 with a 1.87 ERA in his 72.1 innings of work. Earlier in the season, the lefty set a program record by throwing 30.2 straight scoreless innings. Riga limits the opposition to a .233 batting average, strikes out 2.72 for every free pass issued, and allows a minuscule 1.11 walks and hits per inning.
The Illini's weekend starters are an equally impressive group. Junior Kevin Duchene and seniors Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz are a combined 17-3 on the season, and that record is no accident. The three have combined for a 1.94 ERA, and have walked an astounding 23 batters in 203.2 innings of work.
Duchene appears to be the frontrunner to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season, and is a very solid candidate for All-American recognition. The junior lefty is 7-1 for the Illini, and places in the top five in the country with a 0.74 ERA and a 13.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With terrific command, Duchene allows opposing hitters just a .238 average and has a WHIP of 0.97.
After Duchene, the Buckeyes won't get a break. Johnson is 6-2 with 2.11 ERA in a team-high 81 innings pitched. The righty from Chillicothe, Illinois has a .236 batting average against, a 0.99 WHIP, and a 5.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Johnson is also the only Illini hurler with a complete game this season, having gone the distance on two occasions.
Kravetz will round out the weekend for Illinois, and there is very little drop off from Duchene and Johnson. The right-hander is 4-0 with a 2.92 earned run average, throwing 61.2 innings in his 10 starts. The opposition hits just .246 against Kravetz, who has a 1.08 WHIP and has allowed just eight walks on the season.
Not surprisingly, both teams also feature strong bullpens that rarely surrender leads late in games. While there is depth and talent throughout the relief corps on both sides, the headliners are the closers. Neither Beals nor Hartleb have any reason for delay in making the call for their stoppers.
Ohio State has relied on Trace Dempsey for three seasons to nail down wins. The senior recently broke the program's all-time record for career saves, and has seven on the season. At 9-1, Dempsey also leads the Buckeyes in wins, a fact that can be attributed to the late-inning theatrics that the team has employed all year. With a .174 opposition batting average and a 0.83 WHIP, Dempsey has done everything Beals has asked of him.
Across the diamond, Illinois has perhaps the most sought-after draft prospect in the Big Ten closing its games in Tyler Jay. The junior lefty is a sure bet to be a first round pick in the MLB draft, with a dynamic fastball that can touch the upper-90s from a three-quarter arm slot. Jay leads the country with a 0.63 WHIP, and sports a 5-1 record with eight saves in 21 appearances covering 46 innings. The Lemont, Illinois product's numbers are simply staggering. He holds opponents to a .168 batting average and has struck out 53 compared to a meager four walks (13.25-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). If the Illini have a lead late in a close game, Ohio State will really be up a creek.
With temperatures expected to be in the 70s with sunny skies, it's going to be a great weekend for baseball in Columbus, and fans are in for a treat with the Ohio State and Illinois pitching staffs. Runs may be scarce, but the excitement of a series with such high stakes certainly won't be.
"It's a battle of the heavyweights, the Mayweather and Pacquiao of the Big Ten," Buckeyes' junior Nick Sergakis said of the matchup on Tuesday.