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Ohio State baseball heads to the desert for the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge

The Buckeyes will get an early season taste of elite competition in Arizona.

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It may only be the second weekend of the season, but the Ohio State baseball team is already facing a monumental challenge, as it travels to Arizona to take part in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. The Buckeyes will play four games against two teams, including one of the top teams in the nation, which should give head coach Greg Beals a good idea of how much work the club has ahead of it if it hopes to contend for a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

In four games at the Sunshine State Classic to open the season, we saw the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly from Ohio State. The Buckeyes went 2-2 in Florida, and their performance showed the kinds of inconsistencies expected from a team with so much inexperience.

“We need to work on our quality at-bats and be more prepared defensively,” Beals said. “We need to get better at the little things and we will.”

Ohio State opened the weekend looking good offensively, scoring 21 runs in the first two games down south. But the Buckeyes mustered just four in the final two outings, collecting only 13 hits while striking out 13 times and leaving 16 runners on base.

Seniors Zach Ratcliff and Jalen Washington stood out at the plate, as one would hope they would. Ratcliff was a monster, going 7-for-16 with a pair of home runs, five runs scored and six runs batted in, while Washington had an 5-for-13 weekend of his own, doubling twice and driving in a pair.

The starting pitching was also inconsistent. Quality starts by Adam Niemeyer and Jake Post bookended the weekend, but Yianni Pavlopoulos and Ryan Feltner got knocked around a bit. In all, Ohio State’s starters logged 20 innings in the four games, yielding 13 runs, 10 earned, on 21 hits, striking out just five and walking five.

The bullpen also had its struggles, giving up 10 runs, eight of which were earned, in 15 innings of duty, with Seth Kinker, Austin Woodby, and Reece Calvert all giving up multiple runs. The bright spot for the pen was Kyle Michalik, who tossed 1.1 scoreless innings, and freshmen Andrew Magno and Gavin Lyon, each of whom had scoreless debuts.

Adding to the difficulties was sloppy defense. Ohio State committed eight errors, and had just one clean game. Brady Cherry was charged with three of those, and Washington and Bo Coolen had two apiece. Buckeye hurlers also uncorked four wild pitches and hit four batters, something that will need to be addressed.

The opening weekend unfolded in much the way one would expect for a team with 17 newcomers, but Beals knows the squad has to grow up in a hurry with a steep jump in competition coming in Arizona.

“I said all along that we would have some bumps and take a few lumps early on, and I feel like that’s what’s happening,” Beals told Press Pros Magazine. “I still feel confident in the big things: scoring runs, we’re gonna pitch. We just have to shore up all the little things that lead to winning ball games.”

In the desert, the Buckeyes will face a pair of clubs from the elite Pac-12 conference, and miscues will be magnified. If the scarlet and gray are to pull any upsets, they’ll need to play near-flawlessly, executing the gameplan with precision on the mound, in the field, and in the batter’s box.

Let’s take a look at what to expect in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

Utah Utes (2-1)

A season ago, Utah won its first Pac-12 championship and made a trip to an NCAA regional despite the fact it had an overall record under .500. The Utes won two out of three in this year’s opening series against Cal State Bakersfield, a performance that head coach Bill Kinneberg called “a typical opening weekend” with “a little rust in some areas.”

The outfield triumvirate of DaShawn Keirsey, Jr., Josh Rose, and Chandler Anderson are expected to carry much of the load offensively. Keirsey was a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in 2016, and is considered the top athlete and defensive outfielder in the Pac-12. Third baseman Dallas Carroll had a big opening series, going 8-for-12 with three doubles, five runs scored, and three RBIs.

Ohio State will see two good young arms on the bump for Utah in freshman Jacon Rebar and sophomore Riley Ottesen. Rebar struck out nine batters in four innings in his collegiate debut against Bakersfield, while Ottesen, who is draft eligible this year, can touch the mid to upper 90s with his fastball, though he was roughed up to the tune of five runs in five innings in his first start of the season.

No. 5 Oregon State Beavers (4-0)

Oregon State entered the season as the team to beat in the Pac-12 according to Baseball America, and showed no signs opening weekend to doubt it. The Beavers took two games apiece from Indiana and Duke at the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic, outscoring the two 22-6. Head coach Pat Casey, in his 23rd season at the helm, has Oregon State primed to make a return to the NCAA tournament after missing out in 2016, with a solid lineup and a deep, talented pitching staff.

The standouts offensively for the Beavers are sophomore Nick Madrigal and junior K.J. Harrison. Madrigal, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and consensus Freshman All-American a season ago, is already off to a hot start. He went 6-for-15 opening weekend, with a double, a home run, three runs scored, and four runs batted in. Harrison, the team’s leader in doubles, homers, and RBIs in 2016, blasted two longballs and drove in five against the Hoosiers and Blue Devils.

On the mound, Oregon State held Indiana and Duke to a combined .177/.260/.254 slash line, yielding just three earned runs in the four games and posting a better than 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Who the Beavers hand the ball to against the Buckeyes is still to be announced as of this writing, but junior lefty Luke Heimlich, who was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week for his performance in the opener, and sophomore right-hander Bryce Fehmel are tough at the top of the rotation. Righties Jake Thompson and Sam Tweedt are highly capable arms as well.

Game times and probable pitching matchups

Thursday, February 23rd, 7:00 p.m. ET vs. Utah

Niemeyer (1-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Rebar (1-0, 0.00)

Friday, February 24th, 3:00 p.m. ET vs. Oregon State

Pavlopoulos (0-0, 23.14) vs. TBA

Saturday, February 25th, 9:30 p.m. ET vs. Utah

Feltner (0-1, 3.18) vs. Ottesen (0-0, 9.00)

Sunday, February 26th, 11:00 a.m. ET vs. Oregon State

Post (0-0, 3.00) vs. TBA