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Ohio State baseball: Opening weekend preview of George Mason, Saint Louis and Pittsburgh

Escaping Columbus' frozen tundra Ohio State's baseball season begins this weekend with three games in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Florida.

Senior Ryan Riga anchors the Buckeye rotation as the Sunday starter.
Senior Ryan Riga anchors the Buckeye rotation as the Sunday starter.
Chris Webb

For a second consecutive weekend the Ohio State baseball team is off to Florida. This time, instead of using the baseball-friendly locale to scrimmage and practice in a game-like environment, there will be an opponent wearing colors other than scarlet and gray. The games will count and Ohio State's road to Omaha begins.

Participating in the Snowbird Classic, Ohio State, Big Ten peer Iowa, and four other northern clubs will escape winter's grip to open the season in Port Charlotte.  Looking to participate in its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, Ohio State is expected to be deep on the mound, with a lineup bolstered by a strong outfield play and depth behind the plate.

Game 1: Friday, Feb. 13, 6 p.m. vs. George Mason

Probables: Tanner Tully (6-3, 2.22 ERA in 2014) vs. Tyler Zombro (6-2, 1.91)

Ohio State will open the season by giving the ball to incumbent ace, sophomore left-hander Tanner Tully. After being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Tully emerged as Ohio State's top starter thanks to pinpoint command. Over 93.1 innings, the native of Elkhart, Ind. struck out 53 batters against only seven walks.

In George Mason, Tully will be up against a team coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance. George Mason earned a berth in the field of 64, participating in the Houston Regional held by Rice as the No.4 seed, thanks to winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament. George Mason went 16-9 in A-10 play, finishing in third, but swept through the tournament field to earn the conference's automatic berth to NCAA Tournament, their seventh appearance.

George Mason batted .270 as a team last year, slugging .357 next to a .360 on-base percentage. The Patriots weren't much of a threat on the bases, stealing 39 bags in 56 attempts. Though the Patriots lost six position starters to graduation, the team returns its top two hitters from a year ago. Junior shortstop Brandon Gum paced the club with a .307 while senior outfielder Luke Willis carried a .302 average, picked up 12 doubles and stole 21 bases.

Predominately a reliever as a freshman, sophomore right-hander Tyler Zombro will square off against his classmate counterpart. Zombro led George Mason with five saves as a freshman, appearing in 20 games, of which three were starts. Over 47 innings, Zomrbo allowed 44 hits, only eight extra-base hits, striking out 28 while walking 10. As a team George Mason held a 3.28 ERA, but are without its top two pitchers, Jared Gaynor (8-5, 2.03) and Anthony Montefusco (9-4, 2.19) two of the then 14 seniors who helped George Mason to postseason promise.

Last series meeting: Feb. 28, 2009, Ohio State, 11-5

Game 2: Saturday, Feb. 14 2:30 p.m. vs. Saint Louis

Probables: Travis Lakins (1-3, 2.45) vs. Clay Smith (1-1, 0.56)

Sophomore right-hander Travis Lakins preformed well in his role as freshman, a late-inning reliever, either setup man or closer. Lakins appeared in 25 games, tossing 55 innings, striking out 55 batters. Ohio State could have elected to keep Lakins in the role but the stuff Lakins presents is too good to limit to 55 innings. With a mid-90s fastball, and a bevy of off-speed pitches which range in quality from filthy and sick, to wicked and disgusting, Lakins has emerged as a top MLB Draft prospect. He'll get his chance to show he's one of the nation's top pitchers in taking the No. 2 spot in the Ohio State rotation.

Lakins' debut in the Buckeye rotation comes against Saint Louis, the team which finished two wins above George Mason as last year's Atlantic-10 champion. The premier team in the A-10 the last few years, Darin Hendrickson has turned the Billikens into an annual regional-worthy program. An NCAA Tournament club in 2013, Saint Louis went 34-21-1 a year ago, 18-7-1 in conference play.

Senior first baseman Mike Vigliarolo is Saint Louis' leading returning hitter. The masher is coming off a 17-double, 7-home run season as he batted .328, slugged .496 and stole 13 bases in 19 attempts. While Vigliarolo is the lone returning .300 batter, a pair of .291-hitters are back. Senior outfielder Danny Murphy added 10 doubles, four triples and five home runs next to his strong average while junior second baseman Braxton Martined went toe-to-toe in matching the average and double output. As a team Saint Louis carried a .275 average and .750 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Saint Louis is scheduled to pitch fifth-year senior Clay Smith against the Buckeyes. A right-handed pitcher, Smith opened the 2014 in brilliant fashion, pitching 16 innings over three starts, conceding just one run before injury cut short his season. Until he went down, Smith struck out 13 batters, walked just five.

Last series meeting: March 6, 2011, Saint Louis, 10-9

Game 3: Sunday, Feb. 15 1:30 vs. Pittsburgh

Probables: Ryan Riga (4-4, 4.33) vs. Aaron Schnurbusch (12-2, 2.42 ERA)

The lone club from a power conference the Buckeyes are set to face in the first weekend is one they've easily handled. Closing out the opening weekend with a contest against Pittsburgh, the Buckeyes head into the game with an 18-1 all-time record against the Panthers. Pitt is looking to reverse the fortunes of its program, seeking its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1995.

Also looking to turn the corner is Ohio State senior left-hander Ryan Riga. After a strong 2013 season as a sophomore transfer from Wabash Valley, Riga was hampered by injury in a move to last year's weekend rotation. The southpaw showed flashes of brilliance, pitching a five-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts and one walk at No. 14 Oregon, but his arm wasn't healthy for the duration of the season, producing uneven results. Back to full form, Ohio State expects Riga's numbers to be more in line with the 2013 season where he carried a 2.14 ERA over 46.1 innings and a 1.7 BB/9 ratio.

Finishing the season with six consecutive losses, Pitt limped to a 22-30 season, 11-19 conference mark to finish sixth in the ACC's Coastal Division, 13 games behind Miami. With a .237 team average, the Panthers struggled mightily at the plate, no qualified player with a season average above .275. From Cardinal Mooney, Youngstown native Boo Vazquez is a senior outfielder, expected to lead Pitt, posting a .246 average with six home runs in 2014.

The Panther pitchers fared a bit better than their positional teammates, going through the 2014 season with a 3.97 ERA. Losing their top two pitchers to the draft, an Ohio product is set to emerge as their ace. From Mason, sophomore right-hander TJ Zeuch went 2-6 with a 2.75 ERA as a freshman, striking out 41 batters. Set throw against the Buckeyes is junior left-hander Aaron Schnurbusch. A junior college transfer from Johnson County Community College, the 6'5, 235-pound Schnurbusch was a third-team JUCO All-American in 2014, helping JCCC to the JUCO World Series.

Last series meeting: Feb. 28, 2014, Ohio State, 6-2