Ohio State baseball is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 after an improbable run through the loser's bracket of the Big Ten tournament in Omaha that culminated in an 8-7 win over Iowa in the championship game last Sunday. The Buckeyes hit their stride at the right time, posting a 16-4 record in May, and head to the Louisville regional as a No. 2 seed and back in the national polls for the first time in over a year.
The team's tourney run highlighted what has made Ohio State so successful in the past month, as solid pitching and defense, aggressive baserunning, and timely hitting all came together to propel the scarlet and gray into the postseason.
Buckeye pitching, which led the Big Ten in ERA during league play, broke the tournament record for strikeouts, punching out 44 in 55 innings of work. Tanner Tully and John Havird combined to toss 15 innings of three-run ball, Ryan Feltner impressed by allowing one earned run in 6.1 innings, and Kyle Michalik provided six scoreless relief innings. With the exception of the two games against the Hawkeyes, Ohio State's staff was firmly in control throughout the tourney.
Offensively, the Buckeyes were led by Ronnie Dawson, the newly-minted third-team Louisville Slugger All-American who took home Most Outstanding Player honors after hitting .578 and setting tournament records with 15 hits and six doubles. Aside from Dawson, each game saw different players step up at the plate, with Nick Sergakis, Craig Nennig, Troy Kuhn, Troy Montgomery, Jacob Bosiokovic, Jalen Washington, and Tre Gantt all coming through in clutch situations throughout the team's five wins in four days.
It is precisely that kind of baseball that Ohio State will need to continue to play if it holds out any hope of pulling off a major upset and advancing to super regional play. The Louisville regional will be tough, but the Buckeyes scrappy, never-say-die brand of ball is exactly what it takes to do the unexpected this time of year.
Wright State Raiders (44-15, Horizon League)
Wright State is making its second straight regional appearance after beating Valparaiso to claim the Horizon League's tournament championship and automatic bid. Head coach Greg Lovelady, who was named the conference's Coach of the Year for the second time in his three seasons at the helm, is building a solid program that looks as though it could be a regional contender on an annual basis.
The Raiders are a load offensively, hitting .283 as a team and averaging better than seven runs per game. First-team All-Horizon League outfielder Ryan Fucci anchors the lineup, slashing .326/.414/.529 with 11 home runs, 59 runs batted in, and 25 stolen bases in 28 attempts. Second-team shortstop Mitch Roman leads the team with a .339 batting average, 79 hits, and five triples, while also driving in 40 runs.
Another first-team All-Horizon selection will be on the bump when Wright State meet the Buckeyes in senior Jesse Scholtens. The 6'4, 230-pound right-hander went 10-1 with a 2.72 ERA in 102.2 innings for the Raiders in 2016, limiting the opposition to a .217 batting average, posting a WHIP of 0.97, and striking out better than five hitters per walk issued.
Western Michigan Broncos (22-32, Mid-American Conference)
Western Michigan, much like Ohio State, are a hot team coming into regional play. Despite a sub-.500 record for the season, the Broncos won four games in the MAC tournament, including a 12-7 victory over a heavily-favored Kent State team in the final, to claim the conference's automatic bid.
This isn't an offensive powerhouse of a team, as Western Michigan averaged less than five runs per game in 2016, and hit a mere 11 home runs as a team. Shortstop Connor Smith, the MAC Freshman of the Year and second-team all-conference selection, paced the team with a .335 average. The Broncos' leaders in homers (three) and RBIs (36) would barely be a blip for the Buckeyes.
On the mound, Western Michigan also struggled, as would be expected of a team ten games under .500. The Broncos give up more than six runs per game and get hit around at a robust .298 clip. The lone standout, first-team All-MAC lefty Keegan Akin, is likely to pitch in the team's regional opener against Louisville, and its possible Ohio State will not face Western at all over the weekend.
Louisville Cardinals (47-12, Atlantic Coast Conference)
Head coach Dan McDonnell is fresh off being named ACC Coach of the Year for the second straight season and his Louisville squad is the No. 2 national seed in this year's NCAA tournament. Despite falling to Virginia in the ACC tournament final, the Cardinals are among the elite teams in the country.
Louisville can straight up mash the baseball. Hitting .321 as a team, the Cardinals averaged 7.5 runs per game, mashed 57 homers, and had collective on-base and slugging percentages of .402 and .487. Junior outfielder Corey Ray, a likely top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball draft next week, is the cream of a very talented crop offensively, slashing .320/.376/.525 with 16 doubles, 15 longballs, 58 RBIs, and 39 stolen bases.
As talented as Louisville is in the everyday lineup, its pitching may be even better. The Cardinals' staff had a collective 2.85 ERA and .217 batting average against this season. Junior Drew Harrington was the ACC Pitcher of the Year, sophomore Brendan McCay was named the nation's best two-way player as a freshman and made first-team All-ACC as both a pitcher and a position player this season, senior Kyle Funkhouser is slated to be drafted in the first round, and junior reliever Zack Burdi is another likely first round pick in the draft. Whoever the Buckeyes face if they meet with Louisville is likely to be among the best arms the team has seen all season.
How to watch
Ohio State opens regional play against Wright State at 2 p.m. ET on Friday. Should they defeat the Raiders, the Buckeyes would face the winner of Louisville-Western Michigan at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. A loss on Friday would mean a 12 p.m. ET start on Saturday. Beyond that, double elimination rules come into play on Sunday and, if necessary, Monday. All games this weekend are available for streaming on ESPN3.
The winner of the Louisville regional moves on to super regional action against the winner of the Nashville region, which is comprised of Vanderbilt, UC Santa Barbara, Washington, and Xavier. Super regionals are a best two out of three format, with the eight winners nationally advancing to the College World Series in Omaha.