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Reeling Ohio State baseball hits the road to play Michigan State

The Buckeyes are struggling and need a Big Ten series win against the Spartans in the worst way.

Ohio State baseball

There’s no way at this point in the season to sugarcoat the struggles of the Ohio State baseball team. The Buckeyes dropped midweek games on Tuesday and Wednesday to sub-.500 Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan programs—collecting a mere nine hits and scratching out two runs total. Ohio State has seen its record on the year dip to 14-19, and even worse, to 4-8 at home.

Things have reached the point where after Wednesday night’s defeat the team spent half an hour huddled around head coach Greg Beals in left field at Bill Davis Stadium. The Buckeyes’ skipper is looking for answers to the team’s poor performance at the plate just as us outside observers are.

“We’ve got to keep mixing up what we’re doing to find the right thing,” Beals told The Lantern after the game. “And it’s not necessarily as much from a personnel standpoint as much as it is what’s going to spark this team, and sometimes there’s personnel decisions to help spark the team and other things that we do from a preparation standpoint to help spark the team.”

The offensive woes are nothing new. This is a club that has had issues hitting all season, ranking in the bottom half of the Big Ten in a host of statistical categories. Ohio State had to expect some drop-off with its bats after losing standouts Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery, along with a solid senior class, after the 2016 season.

But the sharpness of the decline in production is striking. This 2017 iteration of the Buckeyes is batting more than 30 points lower as a team than a season ago, to go along with similar decreases in on-base percentage and slugging, and is scoring roughly two fewer runs per game.

“It’s hitting, and it’s on top of us right now,” Beals said. “We’re simply struggling with the confidence thing. You can just see that in our approach.”

The impact of less offense could perhaps have been absorbed if the pitching staff had duplicated its stalwart efforts from last year, but the team earned run average has jumped nearly 1.50 without the presence of arms like Tanner Tully, Michael Horejsei and John Havird. Injuries and inconsistency have been major issues, too.

Ohio State now must hit the road to take on a solid, balanced Michigan State club in East Lansing, Mich., knowing full well that at 3-6 in conference play, a series win is a necessity. Only the top eight teams in the standings get an invitation to the Big Ten tournament, and right now the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in. Unless something drastically changes, this is not a squad that will see the postseason.

“As a coaching staff and team we’re going to continue to fight,” Beals said. “We gotta’ find that thing that’s going to spark this ballclub.”

Michigan State Spartans (18-11, 2-3 in Big Ten play)

Whereas Ohio State has been anything but a juggernaut offensively, Michigan State comes into the weekend as arguably the most dangerous lineup in the entire conference. Ninth year head coach Jake Boss has the green and white at or near the top of every important statistical category in the Big Ten, placing first or second in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, runs scored, runs batted in, doubles and home runs.

To put it mildly, the Spartans are the polar opposite of the Buckeyes at the plate. Boss’ bunch combines experience and youth in a well-blended attack that collectively slashes .298/.390/.468 and scores an average of nearly 7.5 runs per game.

At the top of the order, Bryce Kelley, Marty Bechina, and Dan Durkin are all on-base machines and score runs in droves. Bechina also happens to lead the team with six home runs, as he puts together a solid case for all-conference honors in his second season.

The Michigan State lineup is long, meaning that even as a pitcher works his way to the bottom, there is very little change in production and no “easy outs.” The team’s run producers look like this:

  • Alex Troop: .339/.464/.643, six doubles, three home runs, nine RBIs
  • Brandon Hughes: .336/.394/.508, seven doubles, four home runs, 28 RBIs
  • Dan Chmielewski: .282/.336/.409, eight doubles, two home runs, 14 RBIs
  • Matt Byars: .273/.385/.477, nine doubles, three home runs, 17 RBIs
  • Zack McGuire: .297/.368/.532, 11 doubles, five home runs, 21 RBIs

Ohio State’s pitching staff has been knocked around at a .277/.360/.392 clip this season, which could turn this matchup into a very long weekend indeed.

Further complicating matters for the Buckeyes will be a Spartan stable of arms that has been nearly as formidable as its offense. As a staff, MSU allows just over four runs an outing, with a 3.23 earned run average, a .255 opponent batting average and a 1.29 WHIP.

Troop is a powerful bat in the lineup, but doubles as the Friday night starter as well. The redshirt sophomore lefty has been dominant, going 4-2 in eight starts with a 1.69 ERA. In 48 innings of work, Troop has limited opponents to a .222 batting average, sports a WHIP of 1.06 and averages more than four strikeouts per walk allowed.

Following him on Saturday is redshirt junior right-hander Ethan Landon, who has amassed a 2-1 record with a 4.67 ERA in eight appearances that includes seven starts, and junior righty Andrew Gonzalez, who is 3-1 with a 4.40 ERA in seven outings that includes six starts.

But the undisputed strength of Boss’ staff is the bullpen, anchored by senior setup man Walter Borkovich and sophomore closer Riley McCauley. Borkovich, a right-hander from Traverse City, Mich., was already one of the most well-established bullpen weapons in the Big Ten entering the year, and has does nothing but back up that claim with his performance. In 15 relief appearances covering 32 innings, he’s 4-2 with a 1.97 ERA.

McCauley was an instant contributor as a freshman in 2016, and has built upon that success. In 11 appearances, the righty has notched six saves, allowing a total of three runs to score. Providing depth behind he and Borkovich are right-handers Nathan Witt and Jake Lowery, and southpaw (and former Walsh Jesuit High School standout) Joe Mockbee.

The Buckeyes average a shade under five runs per game, though that number is buoyed a bit by a few double-digit explosions throughout the season. Since the calendar turned to April, Ohio State has been outscored 35-27, scoring two runs or fewer in five of its eight games. Against a stingy Michigan State staff, scoring opportunities will be at a premium for the Scarlet and Gray this weekend.

Game times and probable pitching matchups

Friday, April 14th, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)

Yianni Pavlopoulos (2-3, 5.46 ERA) vs. Troop (4-2, 1.69)

Saturday, April 15th, 1:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)

Jake Post (1-2, 3.21) vs. Landon (2-1, 4.67)

Sunday, April 16th, 1:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)

Reece Calvert (1-0, 8.51) vs. Gonzalez (3-1, 4.40)