Ohio State baseball has hit the bye week in its Big Ten schedule at the exact midpoint of conference play. Four series in the rearview, four still to come. And at 4-8 in those games already played, the Buckeyes currently occupy ninth place in the standings, some two games out of the top eight and a return to the Big Ten tournament for an opportunity to defend their title.
The club’s inconsistency is clearly wearing on everyone involved.
“If they ain’t got it by this point — we’re 15-22 — if they ain’t got it figured out that they’ve got to play better,” head coach Greg Beals told The Lantern. “Then I don’t know if I can help them.”
If the first half of the conference slate has been an uphill battle for Ohio State, the four series on the horizon have the makings of Mount Everest. The Buckeyes will host Nebraska and Indiana and hit the road to take on Michigan and Iowa, all four of whom are ahead of the team both in the standings and in quality of on-field performance.
Throw in a pair of upcoming midweek games against consensus national top-five Texas Tech and this weekend’s three-game series with a battle-tested UNC-Greensboro, and the final month of the season is certain to test the mettle of every young man wearing scarlet and gray.
The questions that loomed over the club before the season began have largely played out to the detriment of the club. Back in February, there was uncertainty about the offense’s ability to score runs, which has proven to be Ohio State’s achilles heel. The Buckeyes are averaging fewer than five runs per game, and even that number is a bit deceiving. The 13 runs the team scored last Sunday against Michigan State was nearly double the combined total from the previous four games.
With results like that, bright spots have been few and far between. One has been junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt, who has been by far the most consistent member of Ohio State’s lineup. With a .300/.410/.446 slash line and team-high marks in hits, runs scored, and doubles, Gantt has made the kind of jump on the field in his third year in the program that one would expect to see.
Alongside him, freshman Dominic Canzone has been impressive, fighting off an extremely slow start to emerge as perhaps the biggest run-producing threat for the Buckeyes. Canzone, who was a Louisville Slugger High School All-American before landing in Columbus, has a .333/.389/.476 triple-slash, with two triples, three doubles, two home runs, and 16 runs batted in. That production has come in part-time duty, having played in 29 of 36 games with 19 starts, but he seems to have anchored himself into the middle of the order for the remainder of the season.
Though the offense was suspect entering the season, the pitching staff was believed to be the club’s biggest strength. It has turned out to be the most disappointing aspect of the team amid a season of disappointment. Injuries and a lack of execution have landed Ohio State in the bottom half of the Big Ten in most of the important statistical categories, and have often led to large early deficits in games that the bats have had no possibility of overcoming.
It seems every player that has taken the ball has had moments they would like to forget. Even among the most consistent pitchers, there have been command issues, a loss of focus, runs given up in bunches, and leads given away. The starting rotation, which looked to be team’s foundation, has become a weekly patchwork.
Adam Niemeyer, a redshirt junior and team co-captain, had early-season struggles and has been battling an elbow injury. Redshirt senior Jake Post, who has been the steadiest member of the mound corps, has dealt with back issues and last weekend took a comebacker to the head. Sophomore Ryan Feltner has never found his command, and despite having the stuff to be a top-flight starter, had to be removed from the rotation.
Redshirt junior Yianni Pavlopoulos lost his job as the team’s closer, and has had solid moments as a spot starter. Sophomore Connor Curlis has looked like a world-beater in midweek starts and out of the bullpen at times, but struggled when he was given a chance on the weekend. Juniors Austin Woodby and Reece Calvert have made spot starts as well, but neither has shown the ability to consistently put zeroes on the scoreboard, though Calvert’s most recent outing in East Lansing was encouraging.
All of this is to say, with one month and 20 games remaining, asking Ohio State to suddenly put it all together may be too tall a request. The Buckeyes have been plagued by inconsistency since the opening weekend of the season. It seems at this point that’s just this team’s identity.
A ballclub can get hot, though, and we’ve reached the “now or never” moment in 2017 for this squad. Having just begun a nine-game homestand with Wednesday night’s severely disappointing loss to Northern Kentucky, Ohio State must treat each game as a must-win. Because the reality is, each game is.
UNC Greensboro Spartans (22-14, 8-4 in the Southern Conference)
Fifth-year head coach Link Jarrett is well on his way to guiding UNCG to another strong season. In 2016, the Spartans won 38 games, the most for the program since 2003, and in 2017 have proven to be strong contenders in the Southern Conference. Greensboro is currently second in the SoCon standings behind a Mercer team that leads the nation in wins and finds itself on the fringe of the national rankings.
But the Spartans enter the weekend in Columbus having lost four of their last five games, and much like the Buckeyes, the offense has been experiencing a run-shortage. For the season, the club is averaging nearly 7.5 runs per game, though, so they’ll be looking to get healthy against the much-maligned Ohio State pitching staff.
Eight of the team’s regulars are hitting .288 or better, with five of those at .331 or better. Freshman Caleb Webster has tortured opposing pitching, slashing .436/.469/.609, and leads the team with 11 doubles. Sophomore Andrew Moritz has been similarly hellish for opponents, with team-highs in hits, runs scored, and triples.
Fellow sophomore Cesar Trejo has been the breakout power hitter for UNCG, mashing seven home runs and driving in 38, while redshirt senior Michael Goss has a team-high 16 extra-base hits and places second with 30 RBIs and a .603 slugging percentage.
The Spartan bats have had to score runs in droves in order to win ballgames, though, because the pitching staff has given up an average of more than six per contest. With a 5.38 team earned run average and opponents hitting a mind-boggling .324 against them, Jarrett’s hurlers have been the decided weak link for the team.
The weekend rotation is anchored by a pair of young arms in sophomore Matt Frisbee and junior Bryce Hensley. Frisbee, a right-hander, has been the most effective, sporting a 5-2 record with a 3.61 ERA in nine starts. He has held opponents to a .222 average, and yields just 1.11 walks and hits per inning.
Hensley is right behind him in terms of pure numbers, going 5-4 with a 4.20 ERA in his nine starts. The lefty is hit at a .246 clip by the opposition, has a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and records roughly one punchout per inning.
The final starter of the weekend is junior righty Dan Loats, who has split time between the bullpen and a starting role. In nine appearances, including seven starts, he’s 3-2 with a 5.53 ERA, one save, and better than a punchout per inning.
UNCG’s bullpen is held down by a pair of junior righties in Andrew Wantz and Chad Sykes. Wantz has appeared in a team-high 17 games, going 5-2 with four saves and a 4.47 ERA, limiting opposing hitters to a .227 average and striking out better than a batter per inning pitched. Sykes has been hit a bit harder, possessing a 4.79 ERA and .289 batting average against, but has saved seven games and also struck out more than one hitter an inning.
Ohio State has yet to win more than two games in a row all season long, but will have an opportunity to do so in game one with the Spartans on Friday night. Having reached the home stretch, the Buckeyes need to play their best baseball from here on out if they hope to salvage their season.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 21, 6:35 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Pavlopoulos (2-4, 5.18 ERA) vs. Hensley (5-4, 4.20)
Saturday, April 22, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Curlis (2-1, 4.64) vs. Frisbee (5-2, 3.61)
Sunday, April 23, 1:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Calvert (2-0, 8.19) vs. Loats (3-2, 5.53)