It was a weekend which drew national attention. Writers from Baseball America and D1Baseball descended to Columbus and local media turned out in droves, filling the Bill Davis Stadium pressbox to capacity. In the first meeting between ranked Big Ten teams in Columbus since the turn of the millennium, the focus of the college baseball universe was squarely on the weekend series between Illinois and Ohio State.
The Buckeyes dropped each game, as Illinois ran its program-best winning streak to 21 games, so Ohio State's first appearance in national polls since 2010 was short-lived. A disappointing weekend which saw Ohio State's odds of hosting an NCAA Regional take a hit, the weekend was a measuring stick for Greg Beals' Buckeyes, one where the Scarlet and Gray they're just short of being an elite team.
3 things we learned
1) The Illini are really good. Ok, so maybe this wasn't learned this weekend, the team entered Columbus riding an 18-game running streak, but watching the Illini in action, they are damn good.
Dan Hartleb as a veteran team, seven of nine batters have been in the program for three years, each starting pitcher the Illini rolled out was an upperclassmen. The players run the bases properly, the fielders throw to the right bases, the ptichers know the importance of throwing strikes, they represent a complete team.
Left on the wrong side of the bubble last year, a season in which Illinois dominated eventual Southeastern Conference champion Florida, the Illini are on a mission to leave no doubt as to their tournament, and not National Seed, worthiness. Improving to 16-1 in the Big Ten with its final two series at home, Illinois is on pace to go down as one of the best teams in Big Ten history.
2) Left-handed pitchers neutralize Buckeyes explosiveness.
The Buckeyes saw one of the best starting pitchers in the country on Friday night in Illinois junior left-hander Kevin Duchene and twice saw the nation's top left-handed collegiate prospect in closer Tyler Jay. Both with sub-1.00 ERAs, Duchene and Jay will make life hell for every team they face.
But it wasn't just those two, Sunday reliever Rob McDonnell held Ohio State to two hits in four innings. Ohio State's two leading hitters, senior right fielder Pat Porter (.317) and sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery (.306) are left-handed hitters, as is sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson. The trio have a combined 48 extra-base hits between them. A same-handed pitcher who has the capabilities of throwing off-speed pitches that run away from the outfield trio is a recipe to quite the big Buckeye bats.
Against Duchene and Jay the trio went 1-for-9 with two walks. McDonnell held the trip hitless in five at-bats, picking up three strikeouts against one walk.
And when they get on base, the three have 46 stolen bases in 58 attempts, a left-handed pitcher is tough to run on, needing to know whether the ball is going home or to first base as the pitcher enters his delivery. Montgomery did up his Big Ten lead in stolen bases to 29 on the season, but two were against a right-handed pitcher. The lone swipe off a southpaw saw Montgomery take third base off JD Nielsen, where being on second opposed to first isn't quite the disadvantage.
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in stolen bases, and as a left-handed can stymie some of the Buckeye power, they have a leg up in taking away some prowess on the bases.
3) The team knows all isn't lost. It was a tough weekend, in fact it flat-out stunk. A chance to show their national ranking was just, put their name strongly in the mix to host a regional, the Buckeyes fell short. Back to ranks of receiving votes, Ohio State's season to date is a good one, not great.
But the season didn't end with the 27th out of Sunday's game. Ohio State has no time to sulk, the Buckeyes close the home season with a three-game set against Maryland, another team with sights on the NCAA Tournament, one which also suffered a home sweep and looking to right the ship. And after Ohio State welcomes the Terrapins, they travel to Indiana and then it's on to the Big Ten Tournament, a conference postseason where the odds are strong each of the eight competing teams have sub-75 RPI.
Beals reinforced to his time a lot lies in front of the them. Their goals of winning the conference championship took a hit, but reaching the NCAA Tournament, and even hosting a regional, the Bucks still control their destiny. Beals said his Sunday postgame conversation with the team had nothing to do with the weekend that was, it was solely on what's to come. Which is a lot for the Bucks. This weekend was one to learn from and apply the lessons going forward in pursuit of their goals.
A look at Miami
After taking the prior midweek off for finals, Ohio State has two midweek games against in-state foes this week. The Buckeyes concluding a perfect showing in home midweek games, the final three non-weekend contests will be played across Ohio, starting with Tuesday's game at Miami.
The RedHawks are in the second year of head coach Dan Hayden's guidance. While going a respectable 9-12 in the Mid-American Conference, Miami is 2-22 in non-conference play.
Batting .258, Miami scores 4.82 runs per game. The RedHawks are led by senior outfielder Matt Honchel, his .373 average pacing the club. Honchel is slugging .500 on the strength of 12 doubles, a triple and two home runs. For good measure, Honchel as stole 10 bases in 12 attempts, but Miami isn't a threat on the bases as a team, swiping 36 bags in 64 attempts.
Miami pitchers have been roughed up by the opposition, sporting a .278 batting average against and 5.55 ERA. The team does hold an edge over the Buckeyes with 6.82 strikeouts-per-nine-innings to Ohio State's 6.74. Expected to take the ball for the RedHawks is junior right-hander Chris Ticherich. With a 0-2 record in eight appearances, three starts, Ticherich has a 6.20 ERA over 24.2 innings, 13 strikeouts with eight walks. Continuing to work exclusive as a midweek starter, freshman right-hander Jacob Niggemeyer will toe the rubber for the 6 p.m. start. Niggemyer is a perfect 3-0 in his rookie season, totaling 27.2 innings over five starts. A 1.63 ERA rests asided 11 strikeouts and three walks.
Miami will be going for its first win against a Power Five program, the RedHawks dropped a Feb. 15 road contest at Mississippi State and were swept in three games at South Carolina, March 6-8.