Nine games are all that remain of the Big Ten schedule for the Ohio State baseball team. Nine chances to defy what have become nearly impossible odds to secure a berth in the conference tournament at season’s end. At 5-10 in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes sit in a tie for 11th in the standings, but just two games behind the eight spot needed to reach the postseason.
It will not be easy, as Ohio State will spend the next two weekends on the road against Michigan and Iowa teams that are currently tied for third in the conference. But the Buckeyes have been playing an improved brand of baseball lately, even if it hasn’t manifested into wins. The club played Nebraska incredibly tough last weekend, and hung with Texas Tech, the fourth-ranked team in the country, in a midweek game.
One reason head coach Greg Beals’ squad has looked better of late is the maturation of this season’s freshmen class. A handful of first year players have seemed to find a comfort zone, and their playing time has increased as a result. Instead of lamenting the frustration this season has been dishing out, let’s turn our attention to a few encouraging signs for the future.
At the top of this list is right fielder Dominic Canzone. The Walsh Jesuit High School product has become an anchor in the middle of the lineup, proving to be the most dangerous hitter Ohio State has. Canzone is currently working on the team’s longest hitting streak of the season at 10 games, the second time he has reached that mark in 2017.
After a slow start to the season found him on the bench for likely the first time in his life, Canzone has come alive over the past month. A Louisville Slugger High School All-American a season ago, he leads the team with a .351 batting average and .474 slugging percentage, and ranks second with a .395 on-base percentage and 24 runs batted in despite being eighth on the team in plate appearances.
Canzone’s success recalls that experienced just a few years ago by Ronnie Dawson, who slashed .337/.396/.454 with four home runs and 25 RBIs in his first season in scarlet and gray. Dawson went on to be named a 2014 Freshman All-American and, last June, was the highest selected Buckeye in the Major League Baseball draft since 2009.
While Canzone may not be the same kind of athlete and has a lot of development ahead of him if he hopes to replicate that kind of success, the start to his career in Columbus indicates it’s a possibility.
Also making contributions as freshmen have been Noah West and Connor Pohl, who have split time at second base, and right-handed pitcher Jake Vance. West had the hot hand early in the season, only to come back to earth and struggle. He’s got a .232/.333/.357 slash line, showing some pop in his bat and a smooth glove in the field.
When West began to falter some at the plate, Pohl was inserted, and he has responded with a .271/.327/.354 triple-slash. While his defense is more of a work in progress, the duo of Pohl and West could be the future of the middle infield for the program.
Vance comes to mind due in part to the maturity and execution of pitches he showed this week against the potent Red Raiders’ lineup. Though he ran into trouble after just 3.2 innings, he struck out a career-high five and held one of the most high-powered offenses in the country largely in check.
The overall numbers for the season aren’t eye-popping (0-2, 5.60 earned run average, .343 opposition batting average), but Vance has competed and improved each time out. If he learns to command his stuff better, he should find a place as a useful arm for Beals as his career moves forward.
Michigan Wolverines (33-10, 9-6 in Big Ten Play)
Michigan enters the weekend ranked No. 19 in the country according to the NCBWA poll, fresh off a series victory at Rutgers, and winners of seven of their last 10. Head coach Erik Bakich has a team that is especially lethal at home in Ann Arbor, posting an 18-4 record. Only Illinois and Indiana (twice) have defeated the Wolverines at the Wilpon Complex in Big Ten play.
The maize and blue are the most complete team in the conference, period. They lead the Big Ten in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored, hits, walks, total bases, and RBIs at the plate, and earned run average, opponent batting average, runs allowed, hits allowed, and strikeouts on the mound. For good measure, the team also sports the highest fielding percentage and has made the fewest errors in the field as well.
As a team, Michigan is slashing .298/.397/.424 and averaging more than seven runs per game. The Wolverine lineup can mash from one through nine, boasting seven regulars with batting averages over .300, seven with 20 RBIs or more, and five with at least 12 extra-base hits.
About the only solace for Ohio State heading into the weekend is knowing that, in all likelihood, two of those players will not be in the lineup. Sophomore second baseman Ako Thomas, the team’s leader in batting average, on-base percentage, runs scored, and stolen bases, broke his hand two weeks ago, and senior center fielder Johnny Slater, second on the team in extra-base hits and RBIs, sprained an AC joint in his shoulder last weekend.
That said, there’s still plenty for Buckeye hurlers to worry about. Most notably, junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer and senior shortstop Michael Brdar. Lugbauer is the cleanup hitter, and he’s among the very best sluggers in the Big Ten with 11 homers and 50 RBIs. Brdar, who hits one spot ahead of him in the three-hole, leads the team and places fifth in the conference with 57 hits, while adding 32 RBIs of his own.
Junior first baseman Jake Bivens, sophomore right fielder Jonathan Engelmann, sophomore designated hitter Nick Poirier, and Thomas’ replacement at second, sophomore Jimmy Kerr, have all proven themselves dangerous with a bat in their hands, and add to the stress of attacking the Michigan lineup.
For as good as the Wolverines have been at the plate, they can win games purely based on their pitching talent as well. With a trio of juniors in the weekend rotation and one of the deepest, toughest bullpens in the Big Ten, runs promise to be at a premium for Ohio State.
The rotation consists of a pair of lefties in Oliver Jaskie and Michael Hendrickson and right-hander Alec Rennard. All three have been workhorses, but Jaskie has been by far the most dominant, going 5-2 with a 3.77 ERA in 11 starts covering 59.2 innings, limiting opponents to a .229 average, and averaging nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings.
Rennard and Hendrickson each rely more on command and pitching to contact, and their numbers are remarkably similar. The former is 5-1 with a 4.34 ERA and just nine walks issued in 45.2 innings of work. Hendrickson is also 5-1, with a 4.50 ERA, .244 opponent batting average, and a meager eight extra-base hits allowed in his 52 innings on the bump.
Behind the starters, the bullpen has been straight up lights out for Bakich. Redshirt junior closer Jackson Lamb has yet to allow an earned run in his 20 innings, saving nine games, holding opponents to a .167 average, and sporting a 0.85 WHIP.
Like Lamb, senior Mac Lozer has an ERA of 0.00, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out 20 in 13.2 innings of work.
Freshman Tommy Henry, sophomore William Tribucher, and junior Jayce Vancena eat up relief innings without conceding much to opposition, offenses either. None has an ERA above 2.60 or an opponent batting average over .225, with Henry and Vancena both striking out more than a batter per inning.
On paper, the Buckeyes have a steep hill to climb if they hope to keep the tiniest glimmer of hope for the postseason alive. Ohio State won all five meetings between the two sides in 2016, including two games to eliminate Michigan from the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines will no doubt have revenge on their minds when the rivalry is renewed on Friday.
Game times and probable pitching matchups
Friday, May 5th, 6 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Jake Post (1-4, 3.51 ERA) vs. Jaskie (5-2, 3.77)
Saturday, May 6th, 2 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
Connor Curlis (3-2, 4.74) vs. Rennard (5-1, 4.34)
Sunday, May 7th, 4 p.m. ET (streaming live on BTN Plus)
TBA vs. Hendrickson (5-1, 4.50)