The Ohio State baseball team is playing just its third Big Ten series of the season, yet it feels like a must-sweep situation. The Buckeyes are currently 2-4 in conference play, good for a tie for 10th place, and have a tough schedule the final month of the season that includes trips to Illinois and Minnesota and home series against Iowa and Michigan. Without a sweep this weekend against visiting Rutgers, Ohio State's chances of securing a berth in the Big Ten tournament will take a serious hit.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Buckeyes, but last weekend's sweep at the hands of Maryland put a spotlight on many of the things that have caused the team to struggle throughout the season. Failure to take advantage of opportunities with timely hitting, defensive miscues that lead to unearned runs, and a bullpen that has been inconsistent in holding leads proved to be Ohio State's undoing against the Terrapins, and could keep the team from the Big Ten tournament if they continue.
The one constant from the Buckeyes in 2016 has been how solid the starting rotation has performed, and last weekend was a good example. Tanner Tully, John Havird, and Ryan Feltner, who filled in for the injured Adam Niemeyer, allowed just three earned runs and notched a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20.1 innings of work.
That sort of pitching should be good enough to win at least one ballgame, but the Ohio State bats were stymied to the tune of a collective .140 batting average and 23 strikeouts.
The Buckeyes still lead the Big Ten in doubles, home runs, and runs batted in despite the ineptitude in College Park, and this weekend's opponent, Rutgers, ranks near the bottom of the conference in a plethora of pitching statistics.
Ohio State has a chance to put up runs in bunches and get itself back on track against the Scarlet Knights, and needs to seize the opportunity, lest the uphill battle to reach Omaha and a sixth consecutive conference tournament appearance becomes too steep.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-17, 2-4 in Big Ten play)
Rutgers may be the black hole of the Big Ten when it comes to football and men's basketball, but the baseball program appears to be in capable hands under third year head coach Joe Litterio. The team is averaging just under six runs per game, has a veteran core, and has held its own against some top-notch competition this season.
At the plate, senior catcher R.J. Devish leads the way, the fourth-leading hitter in the conference with a .406 average. Devish also leads the Big Ten with a .540 on-base percentage from his leadoff spot and is second with 17 stolen bases.
In the middle of the lineup, senior first baseman Chris Suseck and junior right fielder Rob Marcinczyk pace the production. Marcinczyk leads the Scarlet Knights with eight doubles, two triples, four home runs, 26 RBIs, and a .463 slugging percentage out of the cleanup spot. Suseck, who generally hits third in the order, is hitting .297 with a pair of homers and 25 runs driven in.
The weekend rotation also features some experience, with senior lefty Howie Brey enjoying his best collegiate season as the Friday starter. Brey is 3-3 with a 2.82 earned run average, limits the opposition to a .248 average, and has an impressive 5.33-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Following Brey are a couple of big right-handers in junior Kyle Driscoll and sophomore John O'Reilly. Driscoll, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 240 pounds, is 3-3 and also limits opponents to a .248 batting average. Where the Toms River, New Jersey native has struggled is in issuing 33 walks in 40.1 innings, nearly as many free passes as strikeouts.
O'Reilly, no slouch himself at 6-foot-5, threw 60 innings as a freshman last season, and is in his first full season as a member of the rotation. In 40 innings, he is 0-2 and has been hit around to the tune of a .289 opposition average and a 5.40 ERA.
The lefty-righty combo of Max Hermann and Reed Shuttle have been Litterio's most trusted relievers, with each already having made over ten appearances and saving three games.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 15th, 6:35 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Tully (4-2, 2.49 ERA) vs. Brey (3-3, 2.82)
Saturday, April 16th, 3:05 p.m. ET
Havird (2-1, 3.21) vs. Driscoll (3-3, 4.02)
Sunday, April 17th, 1:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
TBD vs. O'Reilly (0-2, 5.40)