After putting together a season-high seven-game winning streak, the Ohio State baseball team took one on the chin on Tuesday night against Kent State. The Buckeyes, who had outscored opponents 55-26 during the streak, were silenced at the plate and unable to keep the Flashes off the board in an 8-3 defeat.
Now head coach Greg Beals must take his squad on the road to face a tough Maryland team in what is shaping up to be a crucial early-season Big Ten series. Ohio State is currently on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament, with strength of schedule and RPI rankings in the middle of the pack nationally, and needs as many quality series wins as possible if it hopes to make a regional. Beating the Terrapins would go a long way towards that goal.
"It's a big series, even though it's early," Beals said.
Despite the thumping against Kent State, the Buckeyes are still 2-1 in conference play and in the top five among Big Ten teams in nearly every offensive category. Senior Nick Sergakis continues to put together an All-American type of season, and the power being generated by the likes of Jacob Bosiokovic and Ronnie Dawson means the team has the firepower to compete. But Maryland boasts the best weekend pitching rotation Ohio State will have faced thus far in 2016, so the series will serve as a good barometer of where the bats really are.
For the Buckeyes on the bump, the pitching staff is among the conference's best in terms of striking out batters and avoiding walks, but the opposition is hitting .274 against them, which is third-worst. The weekend rotation of Tanner Tully, Adam Niemeyer, and John Havird will have to "command the bottom of the strike zone," as Beals said, to stay ahead of the Terps and minimize their ability to put together big innings.
This is only the second Big Ten series of the season, and the first on the road, but it feels big for the Buckeyes. While a poor showing may not torpedo the season, a strong one could well propel the team forward for the foreseeable future.
Let's take a look at the Terrapins.
Maryland Terrapins (15-15, 1-2 in the Big Ten)
Do not let the record fool you. Maryland was one of the preseason favorites in the Big Ten for a reason, and head coach John Szefc's Terps will provide some of the stiffest competition Ohio State will face all season.
Offensively, Maryland is very young, but in the top half of the conference in most statistical categories. The Terps average over five runs a game, and place in the top four in the Big Ten in runs batted in, doubles, and home runs, so they have some pop. The three hitters having the best seasons thus far, though, are comprised of a sophomore and two freshmen.
Kevin Biondic, Maryland's sophomore first baseman, leads the team with a .343 batting average and a 1.003 OPS. The first of the two newcomers, second baseman Nick Dunn, is hitting .328 and has team-high totals of 38 hits, 27 runs scored, and nine doubles.
Fellow freshman Marty Costes, who plays left field, is tops on the team with six home runs, 24 RBIs, and a .551 slugging percentage.
Somewhat disappointing thus far for the Terps has been shortstop Kevin Smith, a Perfect Game first-team Freshman All-American a season ago and the No. 2 2017 draft prospect in the conference according to Baseball America. Smith is hitting just .268, but does have 11 extra-base hits, including seven doubles and three homers, and has driven in 12 runs.
Where Maryland hangs its hat, though, is on the mound, and Szefc has one of the most highly-touted arms in the country at his disposal. The weekend rotation boasts a collective 3.01 earned run average and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.125-to-1.
Junior Mike Shawaryn came into the season with as many accolades as a pitcher can seemingly have. A first-team All-American according to Perfect Game, Louisville Slugger, and the NCBWA a year ago, the right-hander already owns the program's records for single season and career victories after posting a 13-2 record with a 1.71 ERA as a sophomore.
A native of New Jersey, Shawaryn is not off to the type of start one would have predicted in 2016. He comes into the weekend 2-3 with a 4.15 ERA in 39 innings, with 36 strikeouts against 15 walks. But, opponents are hitting just .209 against him, which indicates just how tall a task the Buckeyes will have against him.
Shawaryn's rotation mates Taylor Bloom and Bryan Shaffer are putting up more impressive seasons statistically, further increasing the daunting task at hand for Ohio State. Bloom, a righty, is 4-2 on the year with a 2.36 ERA in a team-high 49.2 innings of work. Shaffer, another right-hander, is 3-2 with a 2.74 ERA in 46 innings, and yields just a .207 opposition batting average. It's very possible that runs will be at a premium in College Park.
The Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them this weekend. A series win could have huge implications for a team that needs a lot of things to break its way to have any shot of reaching the NCAA tournament. The meat of the Big Ten schedule has officially arrived, and it's time to see if the scarlet and gray is truly a contender.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 8th, 1:30 p.m. ET
Tully (4-1, 2.53 ERA) vs. Bloom (4-2, 2.36)
Friday, April 8th, 5:30 p.m. ET (live on Big Ten Network)
Havird (2-1, 3.86) vs. Shaffer (3-2, 2.74)
Sunday, April 10th, 1 p.m. ET
Niemeyer (2-1, 3.48) vs. Shawaryn (2-3, 4.15)
(note: the teams will play a doubleheader on Friday due to impending inclement weather on Saturday, which may or may not impact the pitching matchups)