One month into the 2017 season, the Ohio State baseball team is finally coming home. After playing the first 16 games of the year on the road in the sunny locales of Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina, the Buckeyes will open their home schedule at Bill Davis Stadium on Saturday against Xavier.
Due to predicted inclement weather, the series, which was to begin on Friday evening and be played in its entirety in Columbus, will now feature a Sunday doubleheader at the Musketeers’ Hayden Field in Cincinnati.
Ohio State wrapped up what for all intents and purposes was a successful spring break trip to Fort Myers and Port Charlotte in the Sunshine State with a season-high three-game winning streak, claiming midweek victories over Lehigh and Bucknell at the Snowbird Classic after upsetting nationally-ranked Florida Gulf Coast in the final game of their series with the Eagles. With an 8-8 mark that also includes a win over a top-five Oregon State team, the Buckeyes have shown they can compete with anyone, but have lacked consistency game-to-game.
“We’ve been on the road four weeks now, and we are not where we want to be,” head coach Greg Beals said after Wednesday’s win. “But we are on a three-game win streak and we look forward to being back home and continue our winning ways.”
One player that has stood out in the early season has been leadoff man and center fielder Tre’ Gantt. The junior from Fishers, Indiana has reached base safely in all sixteen games, slashing .345/.451/.552 with four doubles, a triple, two home runs, eight runs batted in, and 13 runs scored. After batting .275 in 84 games his first two seasons in scarlet and gray, it’s the kind of jump that Beals and the coaching staff had hoped for.
Also producing are seniors Zach Ratcliff and Jalen Washington. Ratcliff leads the team with four homers, carries a slash line of .295/.333/.541, and shares the club’s RBI lead with Washington, having driven in 12. Washington, a co-captain for the second straight year, has a team-high five doubles and five stolen bases.
The pitching staff, believed to be the team’s strength coming into the season, has experienced the same ups and downs Ohio State has gone through as a whole. The weekend rotation of Jake Post, Ryan Feltner, and Adam Niemeyer have put together some quality outings, but have gotten knocked around their fair share as well. The trio is a combined 3-6, with a collective earned run average of 5.06, 1.57 WHIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just barely 2-to-1.
Beals needs better from what is a veteran group, the three having combined to start 54 career games. Feltner in particular has struggled, lacking fastball command and leaving the ball up in the zone too often. The sophomore from Walsh Jesuit High School currently sports an ERA of 6.45, a 1.88 WHIP, and an opposition batting average of .326. Feltner has the stuff to be an ace in the future, but needs to execute pitches consistently to reach his potential.
Likewise, the bullpen has been shaky, and at no time was that more apparent than in game one of the FGCU series, when the Buckeyes blew a five-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to lose. The back-end triumvirate of Kyle Michalik, Seth Kinker, and Yianni Pavlopoulos have made 17 appearances out of the pen already, and figure to be leaned on a great deal as the season continues.
Michalik has been particularly lights-out, having just had a 22.1 inning scoreless streak that dated back to last season snapped on Wednesday. The side-winding righty has limited opponents to a .231 batting average and has a WHIP of just 1.05.
So Ohio State is back in friendly territory, poised to play 10 of its next 12 games at home, and with a good idea of where improvement is required. Big Ten play is just a week away, so the time for the Buckeyes to start putting things together is now.
“We got ourselves back to .500,” Beals said. “That’s not to say we don’t have work to do.”
That work gets underway Saturday afternoon in Columbus against a club that’s limping in. Let’s take a look at why Xavier has had a rough opening month of the season.
Xavier Musketeers (7-10, Big East Conference)
Head coach Scott Googins, now in his 12th year at the helm for Xavier, guided the Musketeers to a Big East tournament title and the program’s first ever trip to the NCAA tournament in 2016, which included a win over national powerhouse Vanderbilt, but the first month of the 2017 season has not been kind to the team. Gone are last year’s conference player of the year Andre Jernigan and first-team All-Big East catcher Dan Rizzie, and Xavier has struggled momentously at the plate without them.
The Musketeers come in having lost three in a row and four of their last five, and were shutout in two of those games. As a team, Googins’ squad is slashing a paltry .233/.320./.363, averaging just over four runs per game. Junior third baseman Rylan Bannon, a first-team all-conference honoree last season as well, leads the charge offensively, but is only producing at a .284/.385/.567 clip, leading the team with five doubles and four home runs.
Beyond Bannon, Xavier has been waiting for someone, anyone else to get hot at the plate. Junior catcher Nate Soria, who was first-team All-Big East as a designated hitter in 2016, has really had his difficulties. The Homer Glen, Illinois product has a slash line of just .217/.319/.333 with two homers and four RBIs, and has struck out in more than 35 percent of his at-bats.
Similarly, senior right fielder Joe Gellenbeck, who in 2016 led the team and Big East with 51 RBI and racked up 13 home runs and 16 doubles, is hitting .254 in 17 games and has yet to find his groove. Gellenbeck has three doubles, two longballs, and leads the team with 12 RBIs.
The troubles for the Musketeers at the plate have put pressure on the pitching staff, and the arms for Googins have to this point been unable to thrive without run support. Xavier yields an average of more than five runs per game, an opposition batting average of .275, and more than three extra-base hits every time out.
At the top of the weekend rotation are a pair of quality junior arms in Zac Lowther and Garrett Schilling. Lowther, a lefty, is 2-2 in four starts, sporting a 2.61 ERA and limiting opposing hitters to a scant .171 batting average. With 25 strikeouts and a 1.06 WHIP in 20.2 innings of work, he will pose a tough test for Ohio State’s lineup.
Schilling has been nearly as good, putting up a 3.13 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP and .244 opponents’ average in his four starts. A right-hander with precise command, he has issued just four walks in his 23 innings pitched.
The third arm of the weekend, senior Greg Jacknewitz, rounds out the veteran trio. With a 5.00 ERA and WHIP of 1.39, the southpaw has lacked consistency. Jacknewitz has only allowed opposing hitters a .260 batting average, but has given up 13 extra-base hits in 18 innings of work, including a team-high five home runs.
The bullpen has been the question mark for the Musketeers, though two young arms have stood out in the early season. Sophomore Matt Kent has yet to allow a run in seven appearances covering 17.1 innings, while freshman Conor Grammes has given up just two in his 7.1 innings spread out over five outings.
The Buckeyes have yet to prove they can perform at a consistent level this season, but Xavier represents an excellent opportunity to win a series, and doing so could provide a real spark at the outset of their long homestand. Ohio State is still largely a club without an identity. Perhaps some home cooking will help the scarlet and gray begin to forge one.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Saturday, March 18, 3 p.m. ET (streaming live on BuckeyeVision)
Post (1-1, 4.05 ERA) vs. Lowther (2-2, 2.61)
Sunday, March 19, 12 p.m. ET
Feltner (0-3, 6.75) vs. Schilling (1-2, 3.13)
Sunday, March 19, 3 p.m. ET
Niemeyer (2-2, 4.26) vs. Jacknewitz (0-2, 5.00)