There was thunder in more ways than one at Bill Davis Stadium on Wednesday night. Thunder from the inclement weather that ultimately ended Ohio State’s game with Kent State prematurely. Thunder from the Golden Flashes’ bats as they roared out of the gates to take a 7-0 lead. And thunder from the Buckeyes’ offense as well, as they mounted a furious comeback - aided by a grand slam from Zach Ratcliff - to come away with a 9-8 victory.
It was the kind of outcome that has been increasingly rare for Ohio State, having lost eight of its last eleven games since turning the page to the second month of the season, but could be just what the club needs to begin turning things around.
“With a team that’s been struggling, they may start questioning themselves,” head coach Greg Beals told The Lantern after the game. “A win like today means a lot more than just one win because it gives them that belief. It should rekindle that believing factor that we certainly need to finish strong.”
Kent State wore out starter Austin Woodby and reliever Connor Curlis in the first three innings, banging out seven of its eight runs on the night and 11 of its 14 hits. Staring down such a large deficit early, it would have been easy for the Buckeyes to resign themselves to another loss. That Beals’ squad battled back says something about the character of the guys in scarlet and gray, regardless of what their record might say.
“That believing factor, it’s critical because if you stop believing, maybe you start trying to do too much,” Beals said.
Ohio State will need that belief, and some of the thunder, to carry over to the weekend as the team hits the road to take on Penn State. With a 1-5 start in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes cannot afford to lose even a single series going forward if they hope to be making the trip to Bloomington to defend their conference tournament title.
Penn State Nittany Lions (10-17, 0-3 in Big Ten play)
Fourth-year head coach Rob Cooper has done a remarkable job in turning Penn State into a program on the rise in the Big Ten. After totaling 18 wins in each of his first two seasons, Cooper guided the Nittany Lions to a 28-27 record in 2016, the first time the club had been above .500 since 2012. But Penn State’s won-loss situation has fallen off a bit thus far in 2017, due in part to the team playing a significant amount of elite competition, though also in part to players flat-out struggling.
Penn State’s offense has cratered a bit this season, collectively slashing .230/.317/.339 and being outscored by an average of more than two runs a ballgame. But there have been encouraging performances by a pair of sophomores that indicate Cooper has things moving in the right direction from a recruiting standpoint.
Center fielder and leadoff man Jordan Bowersox is by far the best player on the field for the Lions. The Winter Springs, Florida product comes into the weekend sporting a .359/.426/.534 slash line, with team-high marks of 11 extra-base hits, seven doubles, and seven stolen bases. Bowersox is also second on the club with three home runs and 17 runs batted in.
Hitting two spots behind him in the three-hole is classmate Willie Burger. The team’s first baseman, Burger has a .290/.333/.462 triple slash, and leads the team with four homers and 22 RBIs, while placing second in runs scored with 16.
The trouble for Penn State has been the lack of production elsewhere throughout the lineup, as the squad strikes out nearly two and a half times more often than it walks and averages a tick below four and a half runs per game.
Of course, some of the offensive difficulties may have to do with the Nittany Lions playing catch-up a lot of the time. The pitching staff has been less than stellar, giving up more than six and a half runs per outing, sporting a 5.77 team earned run average, and allowing opposing hitters a .261 batting average.
The weekend rotation for Cooper has taken its lump after being solid a season ago. Junior Sal Biasi and sophomore Justin Hagenman have both seen robust increases in their ERAs, and the team is still searching for a third arm to emerge and really claim the final spot.
Biasi is 3-3 through his first seven starts, amassing an ERA of 5.01 despite having solid statistics that would seem to impart some tough luck. The right-hander has a WHIP of 1.20, a nearly 2.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, almost 1.5 strikeouts per inning pitched, and an opposition batting average of just .179. The numbers just don’t add up to an ERA north of 5.00.
Hagenman, by and large, has the stats to back up his 1-5 record 5.22 ERA. A Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in 2016, the righty has yielded a 1.46 WHIP and a .294 opponent batting average, and is tied for the team lead in extra-base hits allowed.
The Penn State bullpen has also had its issues, with no member of the staff claiming an ERA under 3.00, and several in the 5.00 and above territory. Right-handers Nick Distasio (5.48) and Dakota Forsyth (4.91) and lefty Taylor Lehman (9.00) have been the workhorses out of the pen, but have not found the consistency or dependability to shut down opposing offenses late in games.
If the Buckeye pitching staff and defense execute their gameplan and play clean baseball, the offense should have plenty of opportunity to provide the run support needed to win.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, April 7, 6:30 p.m. ET
Yianni Pavlopoulos (2-2, 5.16 ERA) vs. Biasi (3-3, 5.01)
Saturday, April 8, 2 p.m. ET
Jake Post (1-2, 3.16) vs. Hagenman (1-5, 5.22)
Sunday, April 9, 3 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN2Go)
TBA vs. TBA