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Ohio State baseball spring breaking against Florida Gulf Coast

The Buckeyes are back in the Sunshine State for a weekend series against a tough Eagles squad.

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Ohio State baseball has been uneven to say the least through the first three weekends of the 2017 season, but the fight the Buckeyes showed in the final two games of their series win over Campbell last weekend has infused a little extra optimism into the program.

After being thoroughly outplayed in a 7-2 loss in game one last Friday night, a game in which the team mustered just two hits, Ohio State put together back-to-back performances that were about as complete as any it has had this year. Head coach Greg Beals watched his squad rack up 14 runs on 21 hits and 16 walks in the two wins, and received quality pitching that, with the exception of one tough inning, held the Camels bats in check.

“It’s good to get a series win on the road,” Beals said after Sunday’s 7-6 series clinching victory. “It’s very valuable, especially, after Friday night’s ball game when the tempo of the game was all Campbell. I really liked how our guys responded and came out and competed Saturday and Sunday to win the series.”

Junior leadoff man Tre’ Gantt is making the kind of jump thus far in the season that the coaching staff had hoped for. The Buckeyes’ center fielder has reached base in each of the team’s 11 games and hit safely in 10 out of 11, slashing .325/.429/.500 with four doubles, four runs batted in, and eight runs scored. Gantt was 4-for-10 against Campbell, scoring a run, driving in two, and playing solid defense.

Ohio State also saw life in the bats of juniors Tyler Cowles and Bo Coolen, each of whom have struggled in their first year in scarlet and gray. Cowles had three hits in Buies Creek, including his first home run as a Buckeye, and Coolen went 4-for-8 in the final two games of the series after beginning the season 2-for-26.

Beals also had to be pleased with the pitching staff, which after redshirt junior Adam Niemeyer got knocked around on Friday night, rebounded to keep the Campbell bats off-balance. Redshirt senior Jake Post really had things working on Saturday, allowing just one run in six quality innings of work. The right-hander picked up his first win in nearly two years, scattering five hits and striking out a career-high eight.

Sophomore righty Ryan Feltner followed that up with his best start of the young season, going six innings as well, yielding five runs, four earned. Were it not for a two-out three-run double in the sixth, his line would have looked even better, as he showed command of his fastball that had been lacking in his first two outings.

Out of the bullpen, the Buckeyes got a combined 8.1 scoreless innings during the series from sophomore Connor Curlis, and juniors Dustin Jourdan, Curtiss Irving, Seth Kinker, and Yianni Pavlopoulos. Pavlopoulos, who was the reigning Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Week for his win over Oregon State the previous weekend, was back in his familiar closer’s role for the first time this season.

Ohio State’s win over Oregon State, the fifth-ranked team in the country, two weekends ago was surely the more impressive performance on paper. But the grit and consistency the Buckeyes displayed in the final two games against the Camels was exactly what this team should strive for game-in, game-out. The squad has shown it can compete with anyone, but must bring that same focus every time it hits the field if it hopes to be a factor once Big Ten play begins.

The challenges the club has already faced in 2017 won’t get any easier this weekend, either, as Ohio State travels to Fort Myers, Florida for a three-game weekend set with Florida Gulf Coast. While FGCU may be best known as “Dunk City,” the school’s baseball program is no slouch, either, having a national ranking from Collegiate Baseball at present, and narrowly missing out in other polls.

Let’s take a look at what the Buckeyes are up against as they spring break in the Sunshine State.

Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (11-2, Atlantic Sun Conference)

Dave Tollett, now in his 15th year at the helm for FGCU, brings his team into the weekend on a hot streak, having won eight in row, including a midweek sweep against No.2 Florida on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Eagles are a relatively inexperienced club, with 13 freshmen and nine junior college transfers, but have veterans on the pitching staff and a few standout returnees in the lineup that make them a well-balanced, dangerous opponent.

Off to a fast start for Tollett are the top two hitters in the order and double play combination of second baseman Matt Reardon and shortstop Julio Gonzalez, both juniors. Reardon has a slash line of .321/.446/.453 from the leadoff spot, leading FGCU with 14 runs scored and four stolen bases. Gonzalez is slashing .375/.456/.542, and has been the beneficiary of Reardon’s on-base prowess, leading the team 16 RBIs.

Catcher Spencer Levine and left fielder Eli Lovell, also juniors, have helped anchor the middle of the order. Levine has a slash line of .286/.396/.476 with five doubles, a home run, and 14 RBIs, while Lovell is right behind him, slashing .283/.345/.472 with a team-high seven doubles, a homer, and 11 driven in.

That quartet has helped to cover for sluggish starts from redshirt senior first baseman/designated hitter Nick Rivera (.235/.381/.431) and sophomore third baseman/first baseman Jake Smith (.214/.267/.357), who were expected to supply the bulk of the lineup’s pop.

On the bump, Tollett has a seasoned array of arms to throw at Ohio State. As a staff, the Eagles have limited opponents to a .255/.320/.330 slash line, amassing a 3.54 earned run average and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The pair of games FGCU played midweek against the Gators will benefit the Buckeyes, though, as top hurler Mario Leon won’t be on the mound.

In his stead will be senior Garrett Anderson, junior Kutter Crawford, and redshirt sophomore Josh Dye. Crawford (who might have the best baseball name of any Ohio State opponent this season) and Dye have been lights out, combining to go 6-0 in seven starts.

Crawford, a right-hander, has worked 19 innings, yielding just a 1.42 earned run average, a .188 batting average against, a 0.88 WHIP, and an astounding 27 strikeouts compared to three base on balls. Dye, a southpaw, has been nearly as effective, sporting a 1.96 ERA, allowing opposing hitters a .246 average, a 0.98 WHIP, and 13 strikeouts against a single walk. The Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them at the plate on Saturday and Sunday.

Anderson will be making only his second start of the season, though he has appeared out of the bullpen three times. The righty will present Ohio State’s best chance, on paper at least, of getting its bats going, as he has amassed a 3.00 ERA, a .298 batting average against, and a 1.58 WHIP in 12 innings of work.

Right-handed senior closer Sterling Koerner has been effective in the back end of the bullpen for the Eagles, saving three games. In 11 innings pitched, Koerner has a 1.64 ERA, allowed a .233 opponents’ batting average, and given up 1.09 walks and hits per inning. In a close game, he gives FGCU a reliable weapon to shut the door.

Game times and probable pitching matchups

Friday, March 10th, 6:30 p.m. ET (streaming live on Asun.TV)

Post (1-1, 3.38 ERA) vs. Anderson (1-0, 3.00)

Saturday, March 11th, 6:00 p.m. ET

Feltner (0-2, 5.51) vs. Crawford (3-0, 1.35)

Sunday, March 12th, 1:00 p.m. ET

Niemeyer (1-2, 5.14) vs. Dye (3-0, 1.86)