Home has been very good to the Ohio State baseball team so far in 2016. The Buckeyes have won their first four contests at Bill Davis Stadium, and five straight overall, as the Big Ten schedule opens this weekend against Northwestern.
"It's huge," head coach Greg Beals said. "We're starting at home. You want to put yourself at the top of the standings to begin the year."
Ohio State swept Hofstra last weekend in a home-opening non-conference series, then rallied to beat Xavier in a midweek matchup on Tuesday. The team is 12-6-1 on the season, but trending in the right direction.
The pitching staff has been rounding into form, particularly the weekend rotation of Tanner Tully, Adam Niemeyer, and John Havird. Against Hofstra, the three combined to allow just two earned runs (0.90 earned run average) in 20 innings, and did not issue a single walk. On the season, the trio has a 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, displaying uncanny command.
In the bullpen, Yianni Pavlopoulos is rebounding from a redshirt year and Tommy John surgery very well, saving five games and having yet to allow a single run.
On the offensive side, outfielders Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery, the two players with the highest expectations on the team, are both beginning to click as well. Montgomery is hitting .321 and sporting an on-base percentage of .506, meaning that the Buckeye leadoff man is reaching safely in more than half of his plate appearances. That table setting is allowing Dawson to produce at an all-conference clip in the middle of the order, to the tune of team-leading marks of 15 extra-base hits and 22 runs batted in.
Senior co-captain Nick Sergakis continues to pace the team in batting average at .410, and has reached base safely in every game thus far in 2016. Freshman Brady Cherry is also in a good groove at the plate, hitting .333 with four home runs, 17 RBIs, and a .686 slugging percentage that is second on the team.
The only real question for Ohio State at this point is how much longer Jacob Bosiokovic, the junior right fielder who started the season absolutely scorching the ball, will be out with a hamstring injury.
Despite the absence of Bosiokovic, though, the Buckeyes seem to have moved past the struggles they experienced early in the season. The visiting Wildcats will provide a good test to see if that's true, as a solid start in conference play is imperative if the scarlet and gray hope to meet their postseason aspirations.
"You want to keep that winning streak rolling into conference play," Beals said. "You want to protect the home turf."
Northwestern Wildcats (5-16)
First-year head coach Spencer Allen has a winning pedigree, serving as an assistant on last year's Illinois team and at a successful Creighton program before that. While Northwestern is struggling this season, it's only a matter of time before he has the program on an upward trajectory.
Northwestern comes into the weekend having lost six straight and 12 of its last 13, but have been competitive, with five of those losses coming by three runs or fewer. The Wildcats score about five runs per game, and place fifth among Big Ten schools in batting average, but the club is dead last in earned run average and opposition batting average.
Offensively, outfielder Matt Hopfner is putting together a fine season at the plate to pace the Northwestern attack. The junior from Edina, Minnesota leads the team in batting average (.390), hits (30), runs scored (16), doubles (8), slugging (.519), and on-base percentage (.460), while also appearing in three games on the mound.
A pair of freshman are also producing for Allen, in second baseman Willie Bourbon and shortstop Jack Dunn. Dunn is second on the team with a .321 average and 13 runs, while Bourbon has a team-high 13 RBIs.
On the bump for the Cats this weekend will be the trio of senior Reed Mason, Hopfner, and sophomore Dan Kubiuk. Mason, a lefty, has been the most consistent starter for Allen in 2016, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.28 ERA, but has been hit at a .290 clip by opponents. Kubiuk, likewise, is yieliding a .301 average to the opposition. The right-hander is 0-1 with a 3.00 ERA, making three starts in seven appearances covering 18 innings.
Much as at the plate, Hopfner has excelled on the mound, albeit in limited time. Another southpaw, Hopfner is 0-1 with a 1.50 ERA and one save, and has limited opponents to a .150 average in six innings pitched.
Sophomore righty Tommy Bordignon has been the most effective arm out of the bullpen for Northwestern, saving two games in six appearances, holding the opposition to a .138 clip at the plate and sporting a WHIP of 0.78.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, March 25th, 6:35 p.m. ET
Tully (3-1, 2.73 ERA) vs. Mason (2-1, 3.28)
Saturday, March 26th, 3:05 p.m. ET
Niemeyer (1-1, 3.60) vs. Hopfner (0-1, 1.50)
Sunday, March 27th, 12:00 p.m. ET (live on Big Ten Network)
Havird (1-1, 4.08) vs. Kubiuk (0-1, 3.00)