There are only three weekends left in the Big Ten regular season, and Ohio State will need to play its best baseball if it hopes to secure a berth in the conference tournament at the end of the month in Omaha.
At 8-7, the Buckeyes currently occupy the eighth and final tourney-worthy spot in the Big Ten standings, but their opponent this weekend, Iowa, is lurking just one game back. To say this is a crucial series for the team would be a massive understatement.
Ohio State has won four of its last five after a three-game sweep of Purdue last weekend and a midweek split with UAB.
"We need to continue to compete and keep it rolling into the weekend," head coach Greg Beals said after Wednesday's 12-3 win over UAB.
The Buckeyes continue to be defined by their pitching, which is in the top three in the Big Ten in earned run average, strikeouts, walks, and extra-base hits allowed. Weekend starters Tanner Tully and John Havird continued to be rock solid against the Boilermakers, combining to allow just three runs in 12 innings of work. The bullpen fared even better, yielding a single run in a collective 11 innings.
Offensively, Ohio State has slowed slightly, averaging just four runs per game over their past five, but still lead the conference in home runs and doubles, and place in the top three in slugging, runs scored, walks, and stolen bases. Juniors Jacob Bosiokovic (10), Ronnie Dawson (8), and Troy Montgomery (8), and senior Nick Sergakis (7) are all in the top ten in longballs, and will be facing a Hawkeyes' staff that has given up the second most.
If Beals and his squad want to see the postseason, it is imperative that they win this series. With top-four opponents Michigan and Minnesota looming the next two weekends, Ohio State has to put as much distance between itself and Iowa as possible, and there will never be a better opportunity to do so.
Iowa Hawkeyes (21-21, 7-8 in Big Ten play)
Head coach Rick Heller guided Iowa to an at-large NCAA tournament berth a season ago, the program's first since 1990. It's been more of a struggle this season, due in part to an extremely tough schedule and the fact that the Hawkeyes lost several key contributors to graduation and the draft.
Iowa is in the middle of the Big Ten pack offensively, hitting .268 as a team and averaging roughly 5.75 runs per game. A trio of seniors at the top of the order in Tyler Peyton, Joel Booker, and Nick Roscetti paces the lineup, and will provide a challenge for the Buckeyes' staff.
Peyton, a third-team All-America selection and a 33rd round pick of the Cincinnati Reds a season ago, decided to forego the pros to play his senior season in Iowa City. A first baseman and pitcher, Peyton is hitting .314 with 10 doubles, four home runs, and 20 RBIs.
Roscetti leads the team with a .333 batting average and 30 runs driven in, while also providing solid defense at shortstop. Booker is just a step behind him at .331, and his 13 doubles and five homers are tops on the team.
On the mound, the Hawkeyes have pitched solidly, though not spectacularly, and have struggled with giving up the longball. The 27 home runs allowed by Heller's staff is bested only by Purdue's 28. But Iowa only allows 4.5 runs a game and a .264 opponents' batting average, so Ohio State's lineup won't get anything easy.
The workhorse of the group is redshirt C.J. Eldred, a transfer from Indiana playing his first collegiate season. The right-hander has a seemingly poor 2-6 record, but sports just a 2.92 ERA, a .260 batting average against, a 1.18 WHIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just under 3-to-1 in 71 innings pitched.
On Saturday, Peyton will exchange his spot at first base for the pitching rubber. While the righty has struggled on the mound this season, going 1-5 with a 6.87 ERA and a .298 opponents' average in 38 innings, he's been very tough in his career.
Sunday's starter has not been determined as of this writing, but Heller has five other arms on the roster that have made a start this season.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, May 6th, 6:35 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Tully (5-3, 2.60 ERA) vs. Eldred (2-6, 2.92)
Saturday, May 7th, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Havird (5-1, 2.78) vs. Peyton (1-5, 6.87)
Sunday, May 8th, 1:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Ryan Feltner (1-3, 4.14) vs. TBA
Saturday's game is Alumni Day at Bill Davis Stadium, with Ohio State's 1966 national championship baseball team being recognized.