Ohio State has reached the most crucial juncture in its baseball season. Over the course of the next 20 days, the Buckeyes will play nine games against Big Ten opponents, six of which will come on the road, and a pair of midweek games against a team that currently holds a national top-25 ranking in Florida Atlantic. The success or failure of the season may well hinge on this stretch for the boys in scarlet and gray.
The team enters a road series against Illinois riding a three game winning streak, but at 4-5 in conference play, finds itself on the outside looking in at a berth in the Big Ten tournament in Omaha at the end of May. Despite having scored more runs and striking out more batters than any other Big Ten squad, and sporting the fourth-best overall winning percentage in the conference, Ohio State would be going home without a postseason for the first time in head coach Greg Beals' tenure if the season ended today.
The Illini are an identical 4-5 in the Big Ten, so this is a series with major conference tournament implications.
"It's an opportunity for us to one-up somebody in the standings," Beals said after Tuesday night's 9-0 win over Cincinnati. "We need to win that series on the road. We've been playing good baseball at home, and we need to take that on the road."
Last season's three-game sweep at the hands of Illinois in Columbus began a downward spiral for the Buckeyes that saw them lose 10 of 14 in the last month of the season and go from being in the conversation to host a regional to missing the NCAA tournament altogether.
With the exception of last Friday's uncharacteristically mediocre start by Tanner Tully, Ohio State's weekend rotation has been incredibly solid for the past month. The bullpen, which hit a rough patch against Maryland two weekends ago, has bounced back as well.
Offensively, the Buckeyes are simply overpowering their opponents, with the quartet of Jacob Bosiokovic, Nick Sergakis, Troy Montgomery, and Ronnie Dawson all in the top eight in the Big Ten in home runs. Beals' squad is outscoring opponents by an average of over two runs per game on the season.
Ohio State is fighting for its postseason life. While a rough weekend in Champaign wouldn't completely derail the season, a series win against the Illini would give the Buckeyes some breathing room. And a little revenge for the events of last year wouldn't be too bad, either.
Illinois Fighting Illini (18-16, 4-5 in Big Ten play)
Head coach Dan Hartleb guided Illinois to the most successful season in program history a year ago. The Illini set a program record with 50 wins, put together a 27-game winning streak, and advanced to super regionals for the first time. That success, though, also led to nine players being drafted last June and Hartleb looking at the challenge of reloading.
Where those departures have hit Illinois the hardest are at the plate. The Illini are in the bottom half of the conference in most offensive categories and have really struggled at times to score runs.
The leader of the team is undoubtedly senior catcher Jason Goldstein. A first-team All-Big Ten selection and a 17th round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago, Goldstein leads the team with a .358 batting average, 38 hits, four home runs, 23 RBIs, a .519 slugging percentage, and a .435 on-base percentage. The Highland Park, Illinois native is an All-American candidate and will get plenty of attention from Ohio State's pitchers.
Also having a solid season is the double play combination of redshirt senior second baseman Michael Hurwitz and redshirt junior shortstop Adam Walton. Hurwitz, who didn't not play in 2015, is hitting .302 and has scored 23 runs.
Walton, who received a first-team All-Big Ten nod and was drafted in the 20th round by the Baltimore Orioles, has a .256 average and leads the team with eight doubles and 13 stolen bases from his leadoff spot.
The starting weekend rotation for Illinois has been solid if unspectacular in 2016, which is to be expected when all three members from 2015 had to be replaced. As a team, the Illini allow opponents to hit .260 and sport a collective 3.75 earned run average.
Junior Cody Sedlock is the brightest light among the team's staff, and one of the top prospects in the Big Ten for this June's draft. The 6-foot-4 right-hander is 4-1 in nine starts covering 56.2 innings, and leads the conference with 70 strikeouts. Sedlock holds the opposition to a .247 average and has a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Doug Hayes, the redshirt sophomore lefty who will take the ball on Saturday, is 5-2 with a 3.25 ERA in 55.1 innings of work. Those five wins are tops on the team, but his 1.84-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests that Hayes has struggled with his control.
On Sunday, freshman Cole Bellair will be on the mound. The right-hander is 1-2 with a 3.05 ERA in 11 appearances this season, six of which have been starts, with opponents hitting just .224 against him.
Getting to Illinois' starters will be in the Buckeyes' best interest, as the senior righty-lefty combination of Nick Blackburn and J.D. Nielsen have been very effective out of the bullpen, combining for 12 saves and a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 22, 7 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Tully (4-3, 3.18 ERA) vs. Sedlock (4-1, 3.49)
Saturday, April 23, 4 p.m. ET
John Havird (3-1, 2.80) vs. Hayes (5-2, 3.25)
Sunday, April 24, 2 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Adam Niemeyer (3-1, 3.23) vs. Bellair (1-2, 3.05)