In many ways, at the opening of the 2017 season Ohio State and Iowa were in similar positions. Both had watched the core talent of their rosters exit their respective programs, either due to graduation or the MLB draft, and both had myriad questions about whether they would be able to reload or be forced to rebuild.
For the Buckeyes, the answer to that question is clear after 49 games. A team that won 44 in 2016, won the Big Ten tournament, and played in its first NCAA tournament regional in nearly a decade simply lost too much, and had too little in reserve, to compete at the same level.
Ohio State brought in 17 new players this season between freshmen and junior college transfers, and transitioning to a higher level of competition has been anything but smooth. There have also been multiple injuries throughout the year, particularly affecting the pitching staff, which was thought to be the club’s strength.
Yet, simple inexperience and injuries cannot explain away the fact that, far too often, the Buckeyes have beaten themselves. Wins over nationally-ranked Oregon State and Michigan and a close call with Texas Tech have shown that head coach Greg Beals has some talent on the field, and that the team can hang with anyone. But noncompetitive at-bats, fielding errors in droves, base-running mistakes/pickoffs/TOOTBLANs, and frequent pitching execution issues seem to bite Ohio State in nearly every game.
“It’s a lot of the same,” Beals told Press Pros Magazine after a defeat last Saturday at the hands of Michigan. “That’s the disappointing part, and we know that. It’s a young ballclub, yes, but still, we have to make better and more adjustments in order to compete. We have to do that to have better success than we’re having presently. You see signs throughout a game, positive things, but when the going gets tough we need to be the ones to find a way to get the hit or the big out when we need it. We’re just not doing that right now.”
This season has been a monumental test for Beals and the coaching staff, with “a lot of the same” rearing its head since opening day. It’s natural to become frustrated, to write the entire season off as a failure. And maybe it is. But there have been pockets of improvement, young players beginning to come into their own, quick flashes of potential that suggest one rough season can serve as a stepping stone back to contention.
Perhaps that’s just blind optimism. In any case, the Buckeyes have six conference games remaining on the schedule, and sitting two games behind the eighth spot in the standings needed to punch their ticket to Bloomington for a chance to defend their conference crown; it goes without saying that they essentially have to win them all. Even then, it may not be enough.
Beals, the coaches, and the players need a positive finish to the season. An Ohio State program that crashed back down to earth in 2017 must finish strong as the offseason approaches. A series win in Iowa City would represent a much-needed beginning to the Buckeyes’ using this season as just one stumble on their way back to relevance.
Iowa Hawkeyes (29-17, 11-7 in Big Ten play)
Whereas Ohio State has struggled mightily this year, Iowa has barely skipped a beat. Head coach Rick Heller has his squad in line for its fourth straight trip to the Big Ten tournament. Hellerball, as the Hawkeyes’ style of play is often referred to, is highlighted by a sound defense, grind-it-out pitching, and an offense that can win games with station-to-station play or the longball.
Iowa scores just under six runs per game, and ranks in the top half of the conference in nearly every important statistical category. This is a balanced attack, with five regulars hitting .295 or better, and one of the premier power hitters in the Big Ten.
That slugger would be junior first baseman Jake Adams, who leads the conference in home runs (16), runs batted in (52), slugging percentage (.672), and ranks tied for third in doubles (14). Much like Drew Lugbauer last weekend in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes will have to be selective in pitching to Adams, who can turn the outcome of a game with one swing.
Complementing Adams is the trio of redshirt sophomore left fielder and leadoff man Chris Whelan, senior shortstop Mason McCoy, and sophomore right fielder Robert Neustrom. Whelan and McCoy both sport on-base percentages north of .400, meaning they get on ahead of Adams and Neustrom and provide numerous RBI chances. McCoy also has some pop in his bat, tallying 18 extra-base hits, good for third on the team.
Neustrom hits cleanup behind Adams, and has put up impressive numbers of his own. The Sioux City native is slashing .335/.377/.487, leads the Big Ten with 15 doubles, and places second on the Hawkeyes’ roster with 43 RBIs.
Another similarity between Iowa and Ohio State entering the season was the belief that the pitching staff would be a strength, but unforeseen injuries have proven a challenge. Where the Hawkeyes’ story departs from the Buckeyes’, though, is that Heller’s stable of arms has stepped up. Iowa’s staff gives up just 4.5 runs per contest, and has a deep bullpen capable of holding leads.
The weekend rotation is anchored by junior right-hander Nick Gallagher, who is 6-1 with a 2.30 earned run average in 11 starts covering 70.1 innings. Gallagher limits opposing hitters to a .230 batting average, sports a WHIP of just 1.09, and has excellent command, with a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Following Gallagher on Saturday is senior Ryan Erickson, who is also enjoying a successful season. In 12 appearances that include eight starts, the southpaw is 2-2 with a 2.70 ERA, pitching to contact and allowing his defense to make plays behind him.
Rounding out the starters is another lefty in junior Elijah Wood, pressed into the rotation due to the aforementioned injuries. In 12 appearances that include four starts, the JUCO transfer has been hit around a bit, giving up a .313 opposition batting average and 1.52 walks and hits per inning, but has limited damage to the tune of a 2.93 ERA.
Heller has a number of arms to call on in the bullpen to attack the opposition late in games, highlighted by senior Josh Martsching and sophomore Zach Daniels. Martsching has five saves, a 2.12 ERA, and holds opponents to a .202 batting average, while Daniels has gone 7-3 as a reliever and strikes out more than a batter per inning.
This is the last time Ohio State will travel away from Columbus this season unless the team can catch fire and sneak into the Big Ten tournament. Iowa is secure in its conference tourney standing, but will be fighting to improve its seeding. Finishing the season in a winning way will be a tall task for the Buckeyes.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, May 12th, 7:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Jake Post (1-5, 3.98 ERA) vs. Gallagher (6-1, 2.30)
Saturday, May 13th, 3:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Connor Curlis (3-3, 4.53) vs. Erickson (2-2, 2.70)
Sunday, May 14th, 2:05 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
TBA vs. Wood (0-0, 2.93)