After dropping five of its last six Big Ten games, the Ohio State baseball team is limping towards the finish line of the regular season. At 13-8 in conference play, the Buckeyes find themselves in a three-way tie for third place, and in need of a strong final series against a surging Indiana team.
The Hoosiers have won six of seven overall, including a sweep on the road against the same Maryland squad that took two of three in Columbus last weekend. First year head coach Chris Lemonis has his team in seventh place in the Big Ten entering the final weekend, posting a 9-10 record to this point.
Ohio State is building off of a win its last time out, though, 7-0 on the road at Youngstown State. The victory wrapped up an undefeated midweek season for the Buckeyes, who won all 12 on the schedule.
"The main battle cry today was to finish up our midweeks and get another win against an in-state rival," head coach Greg Beals said after the game.
Seeding for the conference tournament, which begins next Thursday in Minneapolis, will be of utmost importance this weekend. A series win for Ohio State in Bloomington would work as a solid precursor to a good showing at Target Field, and hopefully beyond that in an NCAA regional.
The series with the Hoosiers is also important for a pitching staff that has been beaten up of late. Weekend starters Tanner Tully, Travis Lakins, and Ryan Riga were battered to the tune of 39 earned runs by Illinois and Maryland. Tully, who has given up 16 earned runs in his past two starts, will be skipped on Thursday, presumably in anticipation of the Big Ten tournament, with redshirt freshman Adam Niemeyer starting in his place.
The Terps also knocked the bullpen around, ending a solid streak that saw the relief corps allow just one earned run in 11 games. Senior closer Trace Dempsey, who is tied for second in the conference with 9 wins and broke Ohio State's career saves record earlier this season, gave up six earned in 3.2 innings of work against Maryland in last two appearances.
One thing the Buckeyes have on their side is hot hitting. The team has scored 59 runs in the past six games, with senior Pat Porter, junior Troy Kuhn, and sophomores Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery all swinging the bat well. Ohio State is hitting .281 as a team, and will need to keep the fast offensive starts going against the Hoosiers.
"We've got a lot of baseball still to play, no doubt about it," Beals said. "We've got to finish strong."
Know your enemy: Q&A with The Crimson Quarry
LGHL: How big was handling Maryland on the road for the team's confidence moving forward?
CQ: Given the way the Hoosiers have been playing, it was probably the single biggest series win since they beat Florida State to win the Super Regional in 2013 and get to Omaha. This team started 15-4, which included a sweep of Cal State Fullerton, a series win at Stanford, and a series split with the College of Charleston. But in the 23 games between that start and the Maryland series, they were just 8-15, and had only two good wins (Louisville and Notre Dame) and only one series win (a sweep of Rutgers).
People were really down on this team, myself included. They looked dead. They didn't play with any fire. If they fell behind early, it was over. But something clicked that weekend at Maryland, and you could tell that they had a little bit of swagger back when they came home to host Long Beach State. The body language was much improved, there was life in the dugout, and they clawed back from two early deficits to take a series that, if played two weeks earlier, probably would have been a sweep based on the way the games each started.
LGHL: As Ohio State has been stumbling, the Hoosiers have won six of seven. How has the team been getting things done during the streak?
CQ: The offense has been better over the past seven games than it has been since March. They've scored 54 runs in the last seven games, and that is a complete aberration for this team. And this touches on your first question: I think this offensive outburst is partly due to the fact that they were able to get six runs and a win off of Mike Shawaryn, who was 10-0 until IU beat him.
And the other factor has been improved pitching. If you take a look at the first four or five weeks of the season, Indiana's starters were solid and the bullpen was untouchable. The arms were good enough and deep enough that we felt they could make another run at Omaha. The last thing you want to see in a tournament situation is a team that has more arms than everybody else. And the Hoosiers had that. But then they didn't. Starting with the first Big Ten series, the pitching was disastrous for a month and a half. The starters couldn't get out of the third or fourth inning and the bullpen was uncharacteristically giving up runs left and right.
But Manager Chris Lemonis made two big changes that have really sparked better pitching. He got Kyle Hart healthy enough (returning from Tommy John) to give him four or five innings and moved him to the weekend rotation and Scott Effross to the bullpen. Hart has had a couple good starts and Effross has only given up one run in the few weeks he's been coming out of the pen, while throwing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.0 IP to 8.0 IP each weekend in relief. The other move he made was to pull Christian Morris from the rotation. Morris was good to start the year, but had a nightmare month of April. And he's been pretty good when he comes out of the bullpen for a couple of innings here and there.
LGHL: Buckeye fans were not sorry to see guys like Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Dustin DeMuth, and Joey DeNato move on to the pros. Who has taken their place this season, and how are they faring?
CQ: There was no replacing Kyle Schwarber. He had the kind of talent that, not only does Indiana get once in a generation (or two or three), but his offensive abilities were some of the best that the NCAA has seen anywhere in recent years. We have also learned that Joey DeNato was irreplaceable, at least this season. He was always good for seven or eight innings on Friday night. You always knew the bullpen would be fresh for Saturday and Sunday. Not anymore.
But some guys like Brad Hartong, a senior catcher, Scott Donley, a senior DH, and Craig Dedelow, a sophomore centerfielder, have really picked up the club offensively in the past couple weeks. Casey Rodrigue, another senior, has also had a few monster games. But there's not much power. So, this team has to really scrap runs out. They don't hit three or four homers a game like last year's team did.
And there has been simply no one who has filled in well for DeNato. Jake Kelzer, who should be nothing more than a 3rd starter, has been starting on Friday nights and just doesn't give you what you need in that spot. Caleb Baragar, an inexperienced lefty has been the most consistent and best starter all season, but that's not saying a whole lot with this bunch of starters. Kyle Hart could be the one who turns into what DeNato was, but that will require Lemonis to lift his pitch limit (about 90 pitches).
LGHL: Indiana also lost head coach Tracy Smith after last season. What has your impression of Chris Lemonis been in his first year heading up the program? Can we expect the Hoosiers to bounce back to the top of the conference soon?
CQ: Everyone was excited about the hire of Lemonis. He came from Louisville, where he was the director of recruiting in addition to being the assistant manager, and he proved there that he can recruit talent to northern baseball. But we were all wondering what we would see as far as strategy and motivation go. There were a lot of questions being raised a few weeks ago by a lot of people. But I'm in the process of prepping an article about how this entire season has been confirmation that he is the right man for the job.
As I mentioned a couple questions ago, he has pulled the right strings at the right time with the pitching staff. The hot start and the trending finish are great signs. And, assuming that the recruiting goes the way it did at Louisville for him, there's no reason to think Indiana won't contend for a Big Ten title most years, starting next year or the season after.
What's been most impressive about Lemonis is that he got this team that had no focus and no fire a couple weeks ago to win six out of seven and has them back in the NCAA conversation. Last week, D1baseball.com had IU listed as the first team out of the field. If they can win this weekend's series, they probably get in barring a catastrophic Big Ten tournament. That would be one hell of a feat for a first year manager who went 8-15 in the middle of the season.
LGHL: In order to beat Indiana, Ohio State is going to have to ___________.
CQ: Get their runs early. The recipe for beating Indiana is scoring early and burying them. Scott Effross, Thomas Belcher, Luke Harrison, and Ryan Halstead (bullpen) don't give up much of anything, and you rarely see anyone but them after the 5th inning. Failing to take an early lead on Indiana can be fatal. The offense is patient and timely (at least they have been lately) and this bullpen can keep the game at a stalemate until the offense does something.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Thursday, May 14th, 8:00 p.m. ET (airing live on Big Ten Network)
Niemeyer (2-0, 1.59 ERA) vs. Luke Harrison (4-0, 0.90)
Friday, May 15th, 6:35 p.m. ET
Lakins (4-3, 3.84) vs. Kyle Hart (3-0, 2.45)
Saturday, May 16th, 1:05 p.m. ET
Riga (5-3, 2.86) vs. TBA