This weekend's series between Ohio State and Illinois is getting a lot of national attention, and rightfully so. The Buckeyes and Illini are both nationally-ranked teams jockeying for postseason positioning, and boast two of the premier pitching staffs in the country. For the first time in a while, it seems all eyes in the college baseball world are on the Big Ten.
At 37-6-1 on the season (13-1 in Big Ten play), Illinois enters the weekend riding an 18-game winning streak. Head coach Dan Hartleb has his team ranked in the top ten in all of the national polls, and in serious contention for a national seed in his tenth season at the helm in Champagne.
"I don't like to lose, I can tell you that," Hartleb said. "I think you have to win every single game whenever you can. I'm not ready to lose any."
Ohio State has a seven-game unbeaten streak of its own, and ended a five-year rankings drought this week. At 31-10 (12-3 in conference), the Buckeyes are in the conversation to not only make the NCAA tournament field, but to host a regional.
"It's good to get respect in the polls from people who are following national baseball, but now it comes time to back it up,'' junior Nick Sergakis said.
A series win against the Illini would go a long way towards solidifying Ohio State's postseason fate. The Buckeyes are an impressive 17-4 at Bill Davis Stadium this season, but runs figure to be hard to come by. With the dominance of both sides' stables of arms on the mound, a timely hit could sway the momentum and shape the weekend's outcome.
Let's take a look at which bats may have an impact on the series.
Just as the Illinois pitching staff is at or near the top of most statistical categories in the Big Ten, the Illini offense is proving to be one of the conference's best. The team is in the top three in the Big Ten in batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.373), and runs scored (282), and leads in slugging percentage (.427) and home runs (38). Illinois averages nearly 6.5 runs per game.
Ohio State does not have nearly the fire power that the Illini do, but uses solid situational hitting to score just under 5.5 runs per outing. The Buckeyes are hitting .278 as a team, lead the conference in stolen bases (65), and are in the top half in slugging (.408), on-base percentage (.365), runs (222), extra-base hits, and sacrifices. The team's speed is what sets head coach Greg Beals' squad apart, led by sophomore leadoff man Troy Montgomery's 26 thefts, which puts him in the top ten in the country.
As Ohio State has proven throughout the season, no deficit is too big for this team to overcome. The Buckeyes have notched seven walk-off wins, and have seen a number of different players step up in clutch situations. Given the quality of the two pitching staffs, the team that can come through in a clutch situation may well walk away with the series.
"Those were turning points in the season,'' Montgomery said of the come-from-behind victories. "That helped our confidence. We're winning games in the ninth. We're together as a team.''
Ohio State's lineup
Beals has been dealing with injuries the past few weeks, and has been forced to juggle his lineup quite a bit more than in the season's early going. Still, a few mainstays have provided consistent production and allowed Ohio State to keep winning despite being without some key contributors.
Everything starts with Montgomery, who in addition to leading the conference in stolen bases is also among the leaders in runs scored (39) and triples (5). The center fielder from Fortville, Indiana is hitting .307 on the year, with three home runs and 19 RBIs in addition to all of the havoc on the basepaths.
Senior Pat Porter is having his best season in scarlet and gray, leading the team in most offensive categories while playing stellar defense in right field. Porter is tops on the team in hitting at .316, with team-highs in home runs (6), RBIs (32), extra-base hits (17), slugging (.529), and on-base percentage (.412). After being named a collegiate All-American last summer, the Chagrin Falls, Ohio product is having the type of year the Buckeyes needed him to have in the middle of the order.
Beyond Montgomery and Porter, Ohio State has seen some inconsistency and shifting in the lineup. Left fielder Ronnie Dawson, a Freshman All-American a season ago, is hitting .268, which is nearly 70 points below his clip in 2014. The Grove City, Ohio native is tied with Porter for the team lead in longballs, though, and has driven in 23 runs and stolen 13 bases. Of late, Dawson has been swinging the bat much better, and is using his unique blend of power and speed to anchor the middle of the order.
"I think he just went through that phase where he was pushing a little too hard," Beals said of Dawson's early season struggles. "And I think he's kind of gotten over that hump and started to relax a little bit. He's trusting his tools and his skills."
Sergakis (.262, 10 doubles, and 19 RBIs) and fellow junior Craig Nennig (.275 and 24 RBIs) have been the only mainstays on the infield, as injuries and struggles at the plate have left the Buckeyes in flux. The bat of Troy Kuhn (.259, 11 doubles, four home runs, and 18 RBIs) has been sorely missed, though his absence and the juggling it has caused has allowed players like L. Grant Davis (.304), Jalen Washington (.318), and Tre' Gantt (.317) to get a taste of extended playing time.
Senior co-captains Connor Sabanosh and Aaron Gretz have also been solid contributors while splitting the catching duties. Sabanosh is hitting .304 while following Montgomery in the order, driving in 18 and leading the team with six sacrifice flies. Gretz, who last Friday had a career night in a win over Northwestern, comes in at .259, with 12 RBis on the year.
As one would expect from the team's overall numbers, the Illini have a number of players having quality seasons at the plate. There are six regulars in Hartleb's lineup hitting at better than a .300 clip.
"The line-up doesn't have any dead outs in it," Hartleb said. "So the pitchers are going to have to compete against us from top to bottom."
A trio of seniors in second baseman Reid Roper, right fielder Casey Fletcher, and first baseman David Kerian are the heart of the Illinois attack . Fletcher, the reigning conference Player of the Week, is sixth in the Big Ten with a .351 batting average, and is also among the conference's best in runs scored (38) and on-base percentage (.449).
Roper and Kerian provide the brute force in the middle of the order. Roper, who's younger brother Ryne starts at third for the Illini, is making the most of his final season in Champagne. The Harrisburg, Illinois native is hitting .303, with six home runs and a team-high 38 runs batted in. His RBI total, slugging percentage (.503), and walks (29) are all among the best in the conference.
Two years removed from being a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and a year after tying for the team lead in RBIs, Kerian is having a breakout season. Hailing from South Dakota, Kerian leads the conference with 10 home runs, and is among the leaders with a .347 average, 34 RBIs, a .587 slugging percentage, and a .442 on-base percentage.
The seniors are not the only offensive threat for the Illini, though. Juniors Jason Goldstein (.287, six homers, 32 RBIs) and Ryan Nagle (.311 and a team-high 14 doubles) and sophomores Adam Walton (.302, 12 doubles, 10 steals from the leadoff spot) and Pat McInerney (.331, four home runs, 26 RBIs) have helped make the Illinois lineup one of the most formidable in the Big Ten.
"There's very, very good talent," Hartleb said. "It's a special group, and it's fun to be around them. Not just because they're winning, but because they do what they're supposed to do."
While the attention will be on the pitching mound all weekend, both Ohio State and Illinois have been very productive with the bats this season. If one or the other can strike early in a game, the offense could well steal the show. If things stay close as expected, though, the Buckeyes may have an edge as they are used to playing tight contests. Ohio State is 10-5 in one-run ballgames on the season, while Illinois is 5-2. Whichever side can stay cool and maintain their regular approach amongst the hype will be most likely to pull off the big win.
"I'm excited, but it's one game at a time,'' Montgomery said. "We have to stick with who we are. We have to give ourselves a chance to win.''
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, May 1st, 6:35 p.m. ET
Tanner Tully (4-2, 2.76 ERA) vs. Kevin Duchene (7-1, 0.74)
Saturday, May 2nd, 3:05 p.m. ET
Travis Lakins (3-2, 3.31) vs. Drasen Johnson (6-2, 2.11)
Sunday, May 3rd, 1:05 p.m. ET
Ryan Riga (5-2, 1.87) vs. John Kravetz (4-0, 2.92)