It's going to be a wild final weekend in the Big Ten. All eight seeds for next week's conference tournament will be up for grabs, and Ohio State is very much in the hunt. At 13-8, the Buckeyes are currently tied for third with Nebraska, and sit just 2.5 games behind current frontrunner Minnesota, which also happens to be their final opponent.
Ohio State has hit its stride at just the right time, winning six straight and eight of its last nine in Big Ten play. It's not out of the question for the team to land the top seed with a sweep and some help. A series win against the Gophers, regardless of how the final standings shake out, though, is hugely important to the momentum the team has built over the past month.
As has been the case all season, pitching is where the Buckeyes hung their hats in last weekend's sweep of Michigan. The starting rotation of Tanner Tully, John Havird, and Adam Niemeyer yielded just four runs in 20.1 innings of work against the most explosive offense in the conference. The trio also issued just three walks against 24 strikeouts, grounding a Wolverine lineup that had been tearing up opposing pitching all season.
While the pitching has been a mainstay all year, what was truly encouraging during the sweep was the timely hitting Ohio State produced. Michigan scored first in all three games, but the Buckeye lineup always fought back, scoring 18 runs, pounding out 24 hits, and taking 13 walks. The approach at the plate is night and day compared to just six weeks ago when the team was swept by Maryland.
In order to emerge from Minneapolis with a series victory and charge into the Big Ten tournament with some serious swagger, Ohio State will need to continue playing its best baseball of the year. With an outside shot at seeing their NCAA Tournament hopes realized, the Buckeyes simply cannot experience any letdowns the rest of the way.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (33-16, 15-5 in Big Ten play)
Much as was the case with Michigan last week, Ohio State will be facing one of the most productive offensive teams in the conference when they take the field against John Anderson's Minnesota squad. The Gophers have exceeded expectations to contend for a Big Ten title, and it has a lot to do with their bats.
Minnesota leads the conference in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, runs scored, and runs batted in, and is in the top two in on-base percentage, doubles, and home runs. Flat out, this team can hit, so the Buckeyes' pitching staff will have its hands full again.
All nine regulars in the Gopher lineup are hitting .297 or better, but the standouts are juniors Matt Fiedler and Austin Athmann. Fiedler, an outfielder and designated hitter who works double duty as the team's Friday starter on the mound, is second in the Big Ten with a .388 average, and leads the team with 78 hits, 42 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases. The Eagan, Minnesota native is also second on the squad with seven home runs and 36 runs driven in.
Athmann is Anderson's catcher and cleanup hitter, and is having an all-conference type of season, hitting .366 with 13 doubles, 11 homers, 37 RBIs, and a 1.092 OPS. After homering just twice in 181 career at-bats coming into 2016, the power surge is a sign of Athmann's perseverance after undergoing three different surgeries in his time at Minnesota.
From a pitching perspective, the Gophers are in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten, allowing about 4.5 runs per game, but they have given up the third-fewest hits and the fourth-lowest opponent batting average. Where Minnesota really benefits is having the top-ranked defense in the conference.
Fiedler is the Friday starter and has been very solid in that role. The righty is 7-2 on the season, posting a 3.86 earned run average, .247 opposition batting average, and 1.26 WHIP in a team-high 77 innings of work.
On Saturday, senior left-hander Dalton Sawyer takes the ball, and he has excellent stuff. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound native of Waconia, Minnesota is second in the Big Ten with 92 strikeouts, and carries a 6-5 record with a 3.41 ERA. Sawyer averages more than 11 punchouts per nine innings and holds opponents to just a .236 batting average.
Junior Toby Anderson will be on the bump on Sunday, and is also having a breakout season. The right-hander is 7-1 with a 3.12 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and a .236 batting average against. Coupled with a strong bullpen, the Buckeye bats will face a major challenge against the Gophers.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Thursday, May 19th, 7:30 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Tully (7-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Fiedler (7-2, 3.86)
Friday, May 20th, 7:30 p.m. ET (airing live on BTN)
Havird (6-2, 3.14) vs. Sawyer (6-5, 3.41)
Saturday, May 21st, 3 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Niemeyer (4-2, 3.38) vs. Anderson (7-1, 3.12)