The struggles endured by the Ohio State baseball team during the month of May have been well documented. Entering the month, the Buckeyes had cracked the top 25 in the national polls for the first time since 2009 and were in the conversation to host a regional. A 1-8 finish to the conference schedule, including being swept by Illinois and Indiana, erased those possibilities. Now the team is in need of a solid showing at the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis to solidify its first NCAA tournament appearance during the tenure of head coach Greg Beals.
"We start a new season on Wednesday," senior co-captain Aaron Gretz said on Monday. "We need to play with a chip on our shoulder again."
The edge that carried Ohio State to seven last at-bat victories, a huge midweek win over a top ten Louisville club, and (at the time) the highest RPI ranking in the Big Ten has been largely absent over the past three weeks. Despite throttling a few in-state opponents and finishing the midweek schedule an undefeated 12-0, the Buckeyes have gone from looking like serious contenders for a conference crown to mostly an afterthought.
"We haven't played loose and relaxed these last couple weeks," Beals said. "I challenged our guys to get the stranglehold off themselves, relax, trust that they're good players, trust that this is a good team, and this is a great opportunity ahead of them in the tournament and the possibility of NCAA tournament also."
Beals's squad can change that by knocking off second-seeded Iowa in its first round matchup. The Hawkeyes finished the regular season trailing only Illinois in the standings, and five games ahead of the third place tie between Maryland, Michigan State, and Michigan. Solid in all three facets of the game and currently ranked 21st nationally in the NCBWA poll, Iowa has been resurgent in head coach Rick Heller's second year at the helm.
A win on Wednesday would do wonders for Ohio State's NCAA tournament standing and the team's overall psyche. Doing so will require getting that edge back and playing as the dangerous team it has shown it can be.
"We are in position to compete for a championship" the Buckeyes' other co-captain, Connor Sabanosh, said. "We will be ready to go this week."
Let's take a look at the Hawkeyes.
Iowa Hawkeyes (38-14, 19-5 in B1G play)
Regardless of its performance in Minneapolis, Iowa is primed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990. A strong showing could result in a regional being hosted in Iowa City, which is quite the accomplishment for Heller and his staff. After years of being irrelevant, the Hawkeyes have surged to a place the program has rarely seen in its history.
"It's been a complete culture change around here and around the whole program," senior Jake Mangler said in a recent story in the Des Moines Register. "Obviously, it's been a lot for the better."
After back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since 1989-90, and a draw in the conference tournament that puts them opposite the red-hot Illini, Iowa has a real chance to make a deep run.
Any talk of the Hawkeyes must begin with junior Tyler Peyton. The Grimes, Iowa native has paced the team's offense all season, finishing fourth in the Big Ten with a .360 batting average and putting up team highs in slugging (.439) and on-base percentage (.449). Peyton also accounted for nine doubles, 28 RBIs, and 29 runs scored hitting in the 3-hole in the lineup.
The 6'3" right-hander will also be on the mound for Iowa on Wednesday. In 14 starts this season, he went 6-4 with a 3.32 ERA in 81.1 innings. Peyton led the Hawkeyes in strikeouts, held opponents to a .260 batting average, and sported a 1.38 WHIP. He did lose his final start of the regular season last Friday against Rutgers, though, lasting only 3.2 innings and allowing five runs on five hits.
Heller has a veteran team that doesn't beat themselves and has experience in the Big Ten tournament. Senior center fielder Eric Toole is the offensive engine from the leadoff spot, hitting .321 and finishing sixth in the conference with 72 hits. A product of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Toole was second in the Big Ten in stolen bases with 27, and led the Hawkeyes with 39 runs scored.
Hitting right behind Toole is Mangler, a fifth-year senior from Clinton, Iowa. A second-team All-Big Ten performer a year ago, Mangler is hitting .301 and leads the team with 33 runs driven in, and is a solid leader on the field.
Iowa is not a team that lives by the longball, coming in dead last in the Big Ten in home runs, but gets good punch from cleanup hitter Kris Goodman. A .279 hitter, Goodman leads the team with 11 doubles, five triples, and three homers, while driving in 24 and slugging .437.
Junior shortstop Nick Roscetti has been a pleasant surprise in his third season in Iowa City. After serving primarily as a defensive replacement in 2013 and 2014, the Sherman, Illinois native is hitting .314 with 25 RBIs.
The Iowa pitching staff was second in the Big Ten with a collective 2.90 ERA, and a big reason why is how effective the bullpen has been. If the Hawkeyes have a late lead, their opponent will be hard pressed to strike up a rally.
Senior closer Nick Hibbing, a former 42nd round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, has been lights out in 2015, going 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA and saving seven games. Opponents hit a meager .187 against the 6'6" righty, who has a 0.85 WHIP and 16-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Setting up Hibbing are a pair of juniors who transferred from junior colleges in right-hander Luke Vandermaten and lefty Ryan Erickson. In 19 appearances covering 35 innings of work, Vandermaten is 2-0 with a 0.77 ERA and four saves, and has held opponents to a .202 average. Erickson, for his part, is 4-0 with a save in his 16 relief outings. The southpaw sports a 1.93 ERA, with the opposition batting .255 against him.
For Ohio State to knock off the Hawkeyes, the team will need a dramatic turnaround from its own pitching staff. Top ten in the country in ERA entering May, Buckeye hurlers have been knocked around badly in the run-up to the Big Ten tournament. For Beals and his team to make a run, the pitching will need to regain its form, beginning with sophomore Travis Lakins on Wednesday afternoon at Target Field.
Lakins, who finished up the regular season 4-4 with a 3.99 ERA and struck out nearly eight batters per nine innings, has given up 13 earned runs (19 runs total) in his past three starts. If the draft-eligible righty can find the edge he had in April, when he went 2-0 in five starts with a 2.73 ERA in 29.2 innings, the Buckeyes could have a solid chance of upsetting Iowa and advancing in the winner's bracket.
How to watch/listen/follow
First pitch is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday.