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Buckeye baseball begins conference play

The pitching is getting stronger, and the bats more active

No. 24 Mitchell Okuley rounds third on his way to the plate against Wright State.
Ohio State Athletics

I last reported on Ohio State baseball about three weeks ago, and things weren’t going so well at the time. Although the Buckeyes snapped a long losing streak with a win over Army, they still sat 4-7 for the year. The hitting that had looked so solid in the opening Florida tournament had cooled considerably, and the starting pitching was unreliable.

Now, after 21 games, things are looking up — at least a little — as the Buckeyes have solved some of their problems and are now 8-13 for the year, after the 6-7 loss to Toledo on Wednesday night.

First, the starting pitching has improved. After Isaiah Coupet, OSU didn’t have arms they put on the mound with much confidence. Recently, however, not only Coupet but also Nate Haberthier and Wyatt Loncar have had strong starts. All three starters now have ERAs between 5.20 and 5.60. In the high-scoring college game, that’s not bad. And three good starters will carry a team through the standard three-game weekend series. The odd, mid-week game is another story, and often provides an opportunity to try out some new arms.

Ace reliever T.J. Brock has struggled at times. Part of the problem is that he often finds himself pitching two or three innings of relief, rather than simply closing the game for the save. He’s getting spread a little thin.

Last time I lamented Zach Dezenzo’s fielding. Coach Greg Beals has solved that problem by Moving Dezenzo to DH for most of the recent games, while also using him at first base. Kade Kern’s hitting was another issue a few weeks back. He now seems to be back on track and has practically doubled his batting average.

For the year, so far, the Buckeyes are outhitting their opponents .266 to .253 and outscoring them 135-132. The pitchers, too, are outperforming their counterparts. OSU hurlers have accumulated an overall 5.22 ERA, compared to their opponents’ 5.33. The opponents’ batters have struck out 207 times, with the Buckeyes’ batters combining for 175 strikeouts.

The games

With the unpredictable spring weather, a number of games have been canceled, and a couple have been added into the schedule.

In mid-month, the Buckeyes traveled to Morgantown for a three-game series against the West Virginia Mountaineers. It ended up being a two-gamer – a doubleheader on Friday, March 11, with the third match canceled. The Bucks split the doubleheader, winning the opener 10-4 behind the strong pitching of Coupet. In the nightcap, Haberthier also pitched well, sailing through the first five innings, then running into trouble in the sixth. The lead changed hands several times, until Brock, pitching his third inning in the ninth with a one-run lead, gave up a walk and a walk-off single to give West Virginia the win.

A hastily-schedule game against the Marshall University Thundering Herd was played on Monday, March 14. It was, in fact, the Buckeyes’ first home game of the season, and the home team prevailed, 14-2. It’s hard to claim a home-field advantage, because Ohio State also clobbered Marshall in the season opener back in February in Florida. The Bucks’ offensive onslaught was led by Dezenzo, who went 3-for-4, had five RBIs, and hit a grand slam. Wyatt Loncar started for OSU and pitched well. A harbinger of games to come, I hope.

Ohio State then traveled to Wilmington, NC, for a four-game series against the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks. The Bucks won the second game of the series, 9-7, but dropped the other three contests. The win witnessed a strong five innings from Coupet, but lack of timely hitting left the Buckeyes trailing 4-2 after seven. In the top of the eighth, though, OSU rallied for six runs and held on for the win. In the three losses to the Seahawks, Buckeye bats went cold, as the team managed only six runs across the games. The 2-0 loss in the third game of the series, however, had a bright spot, as Haberthier pitched the only complete game of the season thus far. He yielded only six hits and one earned run over eight innings.

In what had been the originally-scheduled home opener for the Buckeyes, a visit from in-state rival Wright State, resulted in the Bucks’ second straight home win, 7-5. It was in this game that Kade Kern came to life, going 3-for-4 at the plate, with two doubles and two RBIs.

Ohio State and Purdue both opened their conference seasons on Friday, March 25 in West Lafayette. March snow isn’t unusual in the Midwest, and, sure enough, there were flurries as the game got underway. Coupet was hit hard in the third inning, and the Buckeyes never caught up, losing the contest 7-5. The OSU record fell to 8-12 for the year, while the great season for the Boilermakers continued, and their record soared to 18-1. The Saturday and Sunday games between the conference foes were canceled because of the weather.

On Wednesday, the Buckeyes played host to the Toledo Rockets. Things looked good for Ohio State early on, with back-to-back homers by Dezenzo and Kern put the home team up, 2-0 in the first inning. OSU would extend the lead to 3-0 and later 6-3 before a four-run sixth inning for the Rockets ultimately led to a 7-6 loss for the Buckeyes. Despite the loss to the in-state foe, Ohio State pitchers struck out 14 batters, including a game-high four K’s by reliever Tim Baird.

Statistical leaders

Marcus Ernst continues to have the hot bat and leads the Buckeyes in hitting with a sparkling .420 batting average, with 34 hits in 81 at bats. Freshman Tyler Pettorini (.288) and Archer Brookman (.286) round out the top three among the regulars (Caiden Kaiser is hitting .400, but in just 10 at-bats. Dezenzo leads in the power categories with seven homers and 21 RBIs. Kern has batted in 17 runs, and Trey Lipsey has three home runs and 12 RBIs.

On the mound, Coupet has started six games and is 2-2 for the year, with an ERA of 5.40. Haberthier is 0-2 in his five starts and sports an improved 5.47 ERA. Loncar, in his four starting efforts, is 1-2 with a 5.49 ERA. Jake Johnson and Ethan Hammerberg remain the stars of the bullpen. Both have good ERAs, with Hammerberg’s sitting at 1.29, with a pair of saves.

The Buckeyes will enjoy an extended home stand with a three-game series against Nebraska this weekend, followed by a Tuesday game against Youngstown State, and a weekend series (April 8-10) against the Michigan State Spartans. As the weather warms up, try to take in a couple of these games and cheer on the Buckeyes, as they enter a crucial part of the schedule.