It’s no secret that 2017 has been an immense struggle for Ohio State baseball. Since the first month of the season ended, the Buckeyes have struggled at home, on the road, in conference play, and even in midweek non-conference games. A club that began the year with a host of new faces and a serious lack of experience has taken more than its fair share of lumps, and it’s worn down everyone involved with the program, coaches, players, and fans alike.
Things have seem to come to a head the past couple of weeks, as Ohio State has dropped seven of its past nine games. There was the half hour postgame team scrum in left field at Bill Davis Stadium after the Buckeyes lost a pair of midweek matchups to Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan, then head coach Greg Beals saying, “If they ain’t got it by this point...then I don’t know if I can help them,” after being thoroughly outplayed by Northern Kentucky in another disappointing midweek performance, and finally, after dropping the first two games of a weekend series against UNC Greensboro, there was a frustrated Beals telling media, “Quite honestly guys, I don’t care to talk about today’s game...we weren’t very good today.”
Less than a calendar year removed from a Big Ten tournament title, an NCAA tournament berth, and seeing six players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, the angst surrounding the team is to be expected. Ohio State seemed to be moving in the right direction, but now there are serious questions about the program’s future.
This is not a “Fire Greg Beals” column. The seventh-year skipper has proven to be about the right things in his time with the Buckeyes, building a culture that goes beyond the field and navigating challenges and adversity that few head coaches would even dream of having thrown at them. He has buy-in from his players and coaching staff, and has been a relentlessly positive force, the past couple of weeks notwithstanding.
Beals hasn’t given up on his squad, and they in turn have not given up on him, as evidenced by the comeback win they pulled off in last Sunday’s series finale with UNCG. “All we can do now is win little battles, and today we won a little battle,” Beals told Press Pros magazine after the game. “All we can do right now is win one game at a time, little battle after little battle, and claw ourselves back in.”
The final month of the season brings with it a brutal schedule. Ohio State will play four of the current top seven teams in the Big Ten, a consensus national top five Texas Tech club, and three Mid-American Conference opponents. Winning even the smallest battles down the stretch of the season will be tough for the Buckeyes, and somehow clawing themselves back into the conference tournament discussion will require all-out warfare.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (23-15-1, 7-4-1 in Big Ten play)
At first glance, Nebraska’s record doesn’t exactly jump off the page at you, but Darin Erstad’s Huskers lay claim to perhaps the most impressive resume in the Big Ten. Nebraska has beaten both Minnesota and Indiana on the road, and is the only club to win a series against first place Maryland. With a month to play, the Huskers are currently very solidly an NCAA regional team.
Nebraska has done so not with an overwhelming offense, though the club scores enough runs to get the job done. It is the pitching that has Erstad’s squad eyeing the postseason. As a team, the Cornhuskers slash .270/.347/.362 and average nearly 5.5 runs per game, which is middle of the pack in the conference. But the second-best Big Ten pitching staff with a 3.39 earned run average and just under four total runs allowed per game, paired with a solid defense that seldom beats itself, will make for a tough weekend for Ohio State.
Junior right fielder Scott Schreiber is the offensive anchor for Nebraska, leading the team in batting average, slugging percentage, hits, extra-base hits, home runs, and runs batted in. A first-team All-Big Ten selection a year ago, Schreiber is slashing .316/.361/.447 with eight doubles, four homers, and 30 RBIs as he makes a play for conference player of the year consideration.
Complementing Schreiber are a quartet of hitters who have come on strong of late, in junior leadoff man Jake Meyers, sophomore shortstop Angelo Altavilla, junior outfielder Luis Alvarado, and senior first baseman Ben Miller. Myers and Altavilla set the table well, possessing the top two on-base percentages on the team. Altavilla is also second on the team in RBIs, just ahead of Miller, who provides another power hitter alongside Schreiber.
Given the Buckeyes’ struggles on the mound, both in terms of performance and health, this is not the greatest time to be seeing the Huskers, who are finding their stride at the plate after some early-season difficulties.
Should Ohio State manage to keep the Nebraska offense in check, it will still need to score to win ballgames, and few staffs have been as effective at handcuffing their opposition as the Cornhuskers. The weekend rotation is experienced and stingy, and after a sluggish beginning to the year, the bullpen is lights-out.
Friday night’s starter for Erstad is junior Jake Hohensee, considered one of the top twenty prospects in the Big Ten for the 2017 draft. The hometown guy from Lincoln is 5-2 on the season, with a 3.17 ERA, limiting opponents to a .212 batting average. Hohensee, a right-hander, doesn’t strike a lot of hitters out, but sports a 1.14 WHIP and induces weak contact.
Following Hohensee on Saturday will be senior righty Derek Burkamper, the most experienced member of Nebraska’s mound corps. Burkamper has had his issues in 2017, though, going 2-4 with a 4.50 ERA and yielding a .282 opposition batting average and a 1.74 WHIP, and may represent the Buckeyes’ best shot at getting the offense going.
The final member of the rotation is Meyers, who leaves his spot in center field to pull double duty. A left-handed hurler, Meyers is 6-1 with a 2.91 earned run average, and has displayed pinpoint command. In 55.2 innings of work, the Omaha native has issued a mere eight walks and racked up a 4.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Should the Huskers reach the late innings with a lead, they have a stable of relief arms to call upon to lock up a victory. Chief among them is sophomore Chad Luensmann, one of the top draft prospects in the conference for 2018. Luensmann, who was 2016 Freshman All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a 2017 Preseason All-American, has also had some issues this season. The Altoona, Pennsylvania product is 2-3 with an ERA of 3.99 and a WHIP of 1.43, but has saved six games and limits opponents to a .236 average.
The quartet of Alvarado, who like Meyers pulls double duty on the mound and has saved seven games, Jake McSteen, Nate Fisher, and Robbie Palkert have all appeared in at least 11 games out of the bullpen, and not one of them has an ERA higher than 2.84 or a batting average against greater than .265. Put simply, late leads are generally pretty safe in the hands of Nebraska’s bullpen.
At 4-8 in Big Ten play, Ohio State has a lot of leapfrogging to do if it is to maintain even a glimmer of hope of reaching the conference tournament. That must start at home against the Huskers, which will be anything but a tiny battle.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 28, 6:35 p.m. ET (streaming live on Buckeye Vision)
Yianni Pavlopoulos (2-5, 6.39 ERA) vs. Hohensee (5-2, 3.17)
Saturday, April 29, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on Buckeye Vision)
Jake Post (1-3, 3.38) vs. Burkamper (2-5, 4.50)
Sunday, April 30, 12:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on Buckeye Vision)
TBA vs. Meyers (6-1, 2.91)