The Ohio State baseball team will make the 21st NCAA tournament appearance in program history when it takes the field in Greenville, North Carolina on Friday afternoon. The Buckeyes, who have posted a 36-22 record to this point and made it to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, received an at-large bid when the field of 64 was announced on Monday.
Ohio State is the No. 3 seed in the region, and will take on second-seeded South Carolina in its opening game. That matchup will be followed by top seed and host East Carolina playing the four seed, UNC Wilmington.
”Well, I’m happy with the location and Clark-LeClair Stadium is a really cool place for college baseball,” head coach Greg Beals said. “We’ve been there, four or five years ago, we played in a tournament there in the preseason. Great college baseball atmosphere.”
The Buckeyes went 11-9 against tournament teams during the regular season, and received what many feel was a favorable draw. While there are no easy matchups at this point in the season, the club avoided the top 11 national seeds, and finds itself with the second-best RPI in the region.
“When I think about being selected in general, just really happy for our guys and a validation of the work that’s been put in, from recovering from a 2016 championship, a battling season last year to back in the NCAA tournament here in 2018,” Beals said. “This makes two out of the last three years for our program. It’s a trend that we certainly want and expect to keep rolling in that direction.”
South Carolina will prove a formidable opening opponent. The Gamecocks are battle-tested after navigating the SEC, which received 10 bids to the tourney. An early exit from the conference tournament had the positive side effect of leaving their pitching staff well-rested.
“You’re playing the University of South Carolina,” Beals said. “Obviously a very good historical program. You’re not going to play [any team] at this time of year that’s not a formidable opponent. So we’re going to dig in, put a game plan together, and get ready to go Friday at 2 o’clock.”
Let’s take a look at what the baseball Bucks will be facing in the Tar Heel State.
Greenville Regional Preview
No. 1 seed East Carolina Pirates (43-16, 14-10 in the AAC, AAC tournament champions)
ECU has qualified for a regional in 15 of the last 20 seasons, and three of the last four, and has a very balanced team. Offensively, the Pirates slashed .287/.379/.443 as a team and outscored opponents by an average of 2.5 runs per game. The pitching staff boasts a 3.28 earned run average, 1.23 WHIP, and .247 batting average against.
Head coach Cliff Godwin has the AAC’s Player of the Year in Bryant Packard anchoring his lineup, as well as three other first-team all-conference performers. Packard, a sophomore who plays primarily left field and bats leadoff, put up a .403/.460/.680 slash line with 14 home runs and 50 RBIs. This is an offense that can put on a power display, but also play small ball, as evidenced by the amount of stolen bases and sacrifices that have been tallied.
On the mound, the Pirates have a diverse set of arms, led by junior right-handed starter Chris Holba (9-1, 2.45 ERA) and a quintet of bullpen arms and swingmen who have silenced bats in every conceivable situation this season. The back end of the bullpen, patrolled by Davis Kirkpatrick, Gavin Williams, and Ryan Ross, has been particularly effective in snuffing out comebacks.
No. 2 seed South Carolina Gamecocks (33-24, 17-13 in the SEC East)
Ohio State’s first opponent in the region, South Carolina comes into tournament play as one of the hottest teams in the country. After a shaky start to the season, that was exacerbated by injuries, the Gamecocks won five straight SEC series to end the regular season, including road wins at top-notch national programs Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, and home wins over LSU, Ole Miss, and Missouri. That makes for a club with some momentum.
Offensively, South Carolina has the best power numbers of the four teams in Greenville, slugging at a .446 rate as a team and hitting 70 home runs. That power, however, didn’t translate into a run-scoring onslaught, as the Gamecocks actually put up fewer runs (355) than both ECU (368) and the Buckeyes (379). Senior Madison Stokes, who has fought a hamstring injury, paces the attack with a .342/.424/.609 slash line, 10 homers, and 40 RBIs. Sophomore Carlos Cortes was fifth in the SEC with 15 longballs.
If first-year head coach Mark Kingston’s squad has a weakness, it’s in the consistency of its pitching staff. USC hurlers logged a collective 4.31 ERA, on pace to be the program’s worst since 2009, and gave up 50 home runs.
“I won’t call it a concern because I have faith in our players, but going into this region, if we want to win this regional or the next game we play, we really need to pitch well,” Kingston said. “It all starts on the mound ... it all starts with our pitching. When we pitch well, we win. When we’re inconsistent, when we don’t throw strikes, that’s when we struggle. On some of those days our offense has been able to bail us out and some they have not.”
Kingston has four starters at his disposal, led by sophomore Cody Morris (7-3, 3.80) and junior Adam Hill (7-5, 4.08). Starters have tossed 13 quality starts for the Gamecocks this season, and the team’s record in those games is 11-2. The team is likely to go only as far as its pitching can take it.
No. 4 seed UNC Wilmington Seahawks (37-21, 14-9 in the CAA, CAA tournament champions)
The only potential opponent in the region that Ohio State played in 2018 was UNC Wilmington, a team the Buckeyes went on the road to sweep in a two-game midweek series back in March. The Seahawks have come a long way since then, though, and have a case for being considered the toughest 4-seed in the entire NCAA tournament.
At the plate, UNCW is the lightest hitting team in the region collectively, but has some big bats in its lineup. Junior catcher Ryan Jeffers, a first-team All-CAA performer, put up a .320/.472/.660 line, mashing 16 homers and 20 doubles while driving in 54 runs, all of which led the team. Senior Mason Berne, also a first-team all-conference selection, provides additional pop, slashing .335/.425/.561 with 12 dingers, 14 doubles, and 52 RBIs.
What makes the Seahawks so formidable, though, is their pitching, and in particular, their bullpen. The starting rotation of Landen Roupp, Alex Royalty, and Gage Herring have been solid, if unspectacular, but the relief corps is what skipper Mark Scalf, coaching the school for his 27th season, leans on. Junior closer Clark Cota is one of the best in the country at shutting the door, going 4-0 with 13 saves, a 1.95 ERA, a .148 batting average against, and more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. Senior Austin Warren, who went 8-0 with a 1.75 ERA in 26 appearances, gives UNCW a reliable arm for a variety of situations.
Greenville is probably not the region of death in this year’s NCAA tournament, but it’s one that should be highly competitive. All four teams have proven they can beat anyone they step on the field against. For this season’s scrappy Ohio State ballclub, the opportunity is all it needs.
“I love the character and the fight in this group,″ Beals said. “I have no worries about this team having a feeling of momentum and being ready to play Friday afternoon.″
Game time, pitching probables, and broadcast information
Ohio State vs. South Carolina
Pitching Matchup: Connor Curlis (7-4, 3.81 ERA) vs. Adam Hill (7-5, 4.08 ERA)
Location: Lewis Field at Clark-LeClair Stadium
Time: 2 p.m. ET Friday, June 1, 2018
Audio: Buckeye Vision
Live Stats: NCAA.com