If ever there was a time when the Ohio State baseball team was in need of a series sweep, it's this weekend. And if ever there was an opponent against whom it could be possible, it's this one.
In a tie for 10th place in the Big Ten at 5-7, and finding themselves on the outside looking in at the conference tournament, the Buckeyes are hitting the road for a three-game series against Big Ten cellar dweller Purdue.
Ohio State fell short in its attempt at getting a series win against Illinois last weekend, and its proverbial back is up against the wall in regards to the team's postseason aspirations. With the final three Big Ten opponents being Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, the Buckeyes must take care of business against the Boilermakers in West Lafayette to have even a shred of hope of making it to Omaha next month.
The series loss to the Illini stings, as it was winnable. Ohio State outscored Illinois 12-7 in the three games, and once again got very solid starting pitching from the trio of Tanner Tully, John Havird, and Adam Niemeyer. Tully put in his finest performance of the season with nine innings of shutout ball on Friday, and Havird yielded just one earned run on Saturday despite lacking the sharpness he had displayed in his previous few starts. Niemeyer was simply done in by two bad innings.
The offense continues to be the question mark for the scarlet and gray. Nine of the team's 12 runs in the series were scored on Saturday, which kind of skews the results. Junior Ronnie Dawson continued his recent tear, going 7-for-15 in the series, driving in four runs and scoring three. Senior Nick Sergakis also had a good series, with a 4-for-10 showing and two RBIs.
Where there is concern in the lineup is at the top. Junior leadoff man Troy Montgomery was just 1-for-14 against the Illini and redshirt junior Jacob Bosiokovic had to be dropped from the two-hole he has occupied all season due to his recent slump. Bosiokovic also exited Sunday's loss after an apparent injury on the basepaths.
In a nutshell, the Buckeyes have a lot riding on this weekend's series. If they can manage a sweep of Purdue and get a little help in the form of losses by the four teams directly in front of them in the standings (Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Maryland), postseason hopes will remain alive. That's a lot of "ifs," but it's the reality of the situation Ohio State will find itself in for the remainder of the season.
Purdue Boilermakers (7-31, 2-13 in Big Ten play)
It's a down year for Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber, who is in his 18th season at the helm in West Lafayette. The Boilers are being outscored by nearly three runs per game in 2016, and simply cannot keep opponents off the bases. Both offensively and defensively, Purdue is ranked at or near the bottom of the conference in nearly every meaningful statistical category.
That said, Schreiber's squad has taken a game from both Michigan State and Maryland the past two weekends, so pulling a sweep will certainly not be a given.
With a collective .253 batting average, good for last in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers' lineup appears to be just what Ohio State's pitching staff wants to face. But there are a few dangerous spots in the lineup that Tully, Havird, and Niemeyer will need to be leery of.
The 2-3-4 spots in the order feature seniors Kyle Johnson, Kyle Wood, and Brett Carlson, each of whom is putting together a very solid final collegiate season. Johnson leads the team with a .320 batting average, 49 hits, and 26 runs, to go along with 10 doubles, six home runs, and 27 RBIs.
Wood is the Big Ten's leader in homers, having hit 10 longballs to this point. The first baseman is hitting .263 with 10 doubles and a team-high 29 RBIs.
Hitting cleanup is Carlson, a former transfer from Austin Peay who is in his second season with Purdue. After playing his way into the everyday lineup, Carlson has put up a .307 average with nine doubles, two homers, and 14 RBIs.
The matchup with the Boilers' pitching staff should be a welcome sight for a Buckeye offense that has really struggled in Big Ten play. Purdue's hurlers carry a collective 5.83 earned run average and allow a .314 opponents' batting average. The three starters Ohio State will see this weekend are a combined 2-10 with an ERA just under 5.00.
Friday's first starter Gavin Downs is 1-3 on the year, sporting an ERA of 5.27 and being hit around at a .302 clip. A senior right-hander, Downs has a 1.51 WHIP and just two more strikeouts than walks.
Fellow senior righty Matt Frawley will take the ball in game two on Friday, and has fared slightly better than Downs. Frawley is 1-4, but leads all Boilermaker starters with a 3.18 ERA, to go along with a better than 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .264 batting average against.
On Saturday, Shane Bryant will be on the bump, another senior right-hander. Bryant is 0-3 on the season with a 6.55 ERA and .341 opponents' batting average in ten appearances, four of which have been starts.
With just four weekends remaining in the regular season, this is the time that Ohio State must come alive. A sweep of Purdue is hugely important for the Buckeyes in both the standings and from a momentum standpoint. If the team is to keep its streak of Big Ten tournament appearances going, it will have to play its best baseball of the year down the stretch, starting on Friday afternoon.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 29th, 3 p.m. ET (Game one)
Tully (4-3, 3.18 ERA) vs. Downs (1-3, 5.27)
Friday, April 29th, 6:30 p.m. ET (Game two)
Saturday, April 30th, 2 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Niemeyer (3-1, 3.23) vs. Bryant (0-3, 6.55)