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Ohio State baseball hosts Minnesota as Big Ten play gets started

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The Buckeyes and Gophers both look to start the conference schedule on the right foot.

Ohio State baseball (https://www.facebook.com/OhioStateUniversityBaseball/photos/a.490557127647985.95609.484743748229323/1279710348732655/?type=3&theater)

Ohio State baseball will be opening Big Ten play on Friday at Bill Davis Stadium, and after more than a month of the season, the club’s identity is beginning to come into sharper focus. Depending on how you look at that, who this Buckeye team is could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing.

With a 9-11 record through roughly the first ⅓ of the season, Ohio State has proven to be a team that is ultra-streaky offensively, just as capable of scoring runs in bunches as it is of getting completely shut down. As a team, the Buckeyes are slashing .247/.353/.406, have hit home runs in nearly 12 percent of their at-bats and struck out in over 26 percent of them, and have just two regulars batting above .260.

Those two are center fielder and leadoff man Tre’ Gantt and catcher Jacob Barnwell, who was recently moved up to the two-hole in the lineup. Both players have made the kind of jump in performance that the coaching staff had hoped for before the season started, with Gantt putting together a slash line of .365/.467/.581, team-leading marks of six doubles and 15 runs scored, a pair of triples, two home runs, and nine runs batted in. Barnwell, for his part, has a .300/.377/.383 slash, smacking five doubles and playing excellent defense behind the dish.

One intriguing development within the last week has been the insertion of freshman Noah West into the starting lineup at second base. Noah McGowan, who had been the everyday second baseman, has transitioned to right field, a spot that has been a bit of an offensive black hole for Ohio State. West has put together a .357/.471/.571 slash line in his limited opportunity, and McGowan responded with a three-homer game on Sunday against Xavier. That kind of jolt at the plate is what the Buckeyes will need if they hope to compete in conference play.

Just as confounding as Ohio State’s bats have been, though, the pitching staff has been even more of an enigma. Viewed as the strength of the club coming into the season, the Buckeye mound corps has yet to find any consistency, and the bullpen in particular has had a rocky time of things. Relievers let up a big lead two weekends ago against Florida Gulf Coast en route to a walk-off loss, and last weekend suffered an extra innings defeat and two walk-offs against the Musketeers.

But, also just as with the offense, there have been encouraging signs on the mound. Starter Jake Post has been solid, if unspectacular, keeping Ohio State in a position to win ballgames. And sophomore Connor Curlis has used to two straight superb midweek starts to vault himself into a crack at the weekend rotation. The last two times out, the southpaw from Findlay, Ohio has tossed a combined 8.1 scoreless innings, yielding just five hits and two walks (0.84 WHIP) while striking out 12. Co-captain Adam Niemeyer, who has been in the rotation since opening day, has an elbow injury, necessitating the change.

The real season starts now for the Buckeyes. Big Ten play helped propel them to the NCAA tournament a year ago, but this is a very different team. Ohio State will face a tough road though the conference to find its way back to a regional, and given the identity the club has forged through the first 20 games of the season, the terrain may prove too challenging to navigate.

“So these first 20 games have been ‘get your feet wet, learn the ropes,’” head coach Greg Beals said on Thursday. “The message has been, ‘we’re starting at zero.’ This is a new season, it’s Big Ten play.”

Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-8)

As stalwart as any head coach in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s John Anderson, who took over the program in 1981, is fresh off a regular season conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tourney. The Golden Gophers are trying to replace the production of four players drafted last June, including Matt Fiedler, 2016’s Big Ten Player of the Year, and at 11-8, have showed well against solid competition.

Minnesota has had similar success scoring runs as Ohio State through its first 19 games, averaging just over five per contest. The Gophers have the superior team batting average (.275) to the Buckeyes, but have gotten on base at about the same rate (.351 OBP), and have not produced nearly the amount of power (.380 slugging percentage, nine team home runs).

Leading the charge at the plate is junior third baseman Micah Coffey, a second-team All-Big Ten performer a season ago. Coffey is slashing .308/.387/.446 with four doubles, a home run, and a team-high 13 RBIs, while excelling with the glove at the hot corner.

Complementing Coffey in Minnesota’s lineup with solid starts at the plate are second baseman Luke Pettersen and left fielder Jordan Smith. Pettersen, a junior, has a .379/.408/.379 slash line, though he hasn’t collected a single extra-base hit, and Smith, a redshirt senior, has put up a .303/.387/.530 line, smacking four doubles, a team-high three longballs, and driving in 11.

The issue for the Gophers is that the pitching staff has yielded as many runs as the offense has collected. The staff has a 4.400 earned run average, a WHIP just under 1.40, and has given up 55 extra-base hits in 19 games.

Junior Lucas Gilbreath leads the rotation in his first season as a starter. The left-hander is 1-0 in five starts, posting a 3.13 ERA, striking out more than a batter an inning, and limiting opponents to a .213 batting average. Where Gilbreath has struggled is with his command, having walked 16 batters in his 23 innings of work, and sporting a WHIP just under 1.40.

Behind Gilbreath are senior Toby Anderson and freshman Brett Schulze. Schulze, a right-hander from Maple Grove, Minnesota, leads the club with 25.1 innings pitched in five appearances that include four starts. The rookie is 2-2 with a 3.20 ERA, and limits the opposition to a .191 batting average.

Anderson, also a righty, has had his struggles, going 2-2 in five starts with an 8.62 ERA. Opponents have teed off to the tune of a .343 average against him, and he’s amassed a WHIP over 1.50 while striking out just nine batters in 24 innings.

Out of the bullpen, Minnesota has gotten big contributions from the senior pair of Brian Glowicki and Tim Shannon. The right-handers have combined to make 19 appearances already, allowing just five runs and saving seven games in 23.1 innings. Glowicki, in particular, has been a nightmare for opposing hitters, giving up only a single run, yielding a .105 batting average, posting a 0.44 WHIP, striking out more than a batter an inning, and racking up an astounding 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In a close game late, the Buckeyes will have their hands full against the back-end of the Gopher pen.

Game times and probable pitching matchups

Friday, March 24, 5:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)

Post (1-1, 3.96 ERA) vs. Gilbreath (1-0, 3.13)

Saturday, March 25, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)

Curlis (2-0, 2.70) vs. Schulze (2-2, 3.20)

Sunday, March 26, 12 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN2Go)

Ryan Feltner (0-3, 6.43) vs. Anderson (2-2, 8.62)