The Ohio State baseball team (24-12-1, 4-5-0) is now looking ahead to the most crucial part of its season as it heads on the road to take on Illinois (18-16, 4-5).
All one has to do is take a quick look at the Big Ten standings to understand how much significance this weekend series holds. In order to qualify for the Big Ten tournament, a team must finish in the top eight of the standings by conference winning percentage. As the standings are right now, OSU is tied with Illinois for ninth. OSU coach Greg Beals is definitely one person who understands the importance of this series more than most is.
“It certainly is critical,” Beals said. “One, because of where we are in the standings. Two, where they’re at in the standings. And three, we need to go on the road and play well on the road. We’ve proven we can play well at home, and we need to do that on the road.”
After winning a conference series against Rutgers, the Buckeyes on Tuesday faced Cincinnati, a team that was coming in fresh off a 2-1 series victory over previously ranked Tulane, and won by a final score of 9-0. To Beals, that win proved that his ballclub is ready for the challenges of this weekend.
“It was good to play that midweek game against a solid opponent. The University of Cincinnati has been playing very good baseball,” Beals said. “We came out (Tuesday) night and played a really good ballgame, scoring nine runs, throwing a shutout on the mound, great to see, especially from the bullpen that we used in last night’s game.”
The Fighting Illini come into this series against the Buckeyes as winners of their last five games, but in conference play, Illinois hasn’t had much success recently. The Fighting Illini have gone 1-2 in their last two three-game series against Big Ten opponents, first against Nebraska and then Iowa.
The big strength for Illinois is its pitching staff, which currently ranks sixth in the Big Ten in ERA and seventh in strikeouts. Its pitching staff is led by junior right-handed pitcher Cody Sedlock, who will likely start Friday’s game against the Buckeyes. Sedlock has a 4-1 record with a 3.49 ERA on the season. The right-hander has walked 20 batters and struck out a whopping 70 in 56.2 innings of work. Sedlock is currently viewed as one of the top upcoming draft picks and is ranked 43rd on MLB.com’s Top 50 Draft Prospects list.
The pitching will have to be what gets it done for the Illini, because their hitting has struggled mightily this season. They currently rank 11th out of the 13 Big Ten teams in batting average, have struck out the fourth most of all conference teams and hit for virtually no power (their .367 slugging percentage ranks 10th in the Big Ten).
The one hitter for OSU to watch out for is senior catcher Jason Goldstein, who is currently batting .358 on the year with four home runs, which is tied for the team lead.
Beals said he expects good things for his team in Champaign, Illinois.
“We match up well with them,” Beals said. “Their Friday night guy is an arm strength guy. He’s going to come at us with a lot of fastballs and he likes his fastball … We need to make sure we are fastball-ready offensively, but I think the big thing is that we continue to pitch and play defense. If we pitch and play defense the way we have, we’re going to be in all the ballgames and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Last season, OSU welcomed Illinois into Bill Davis Stadium toward the end of the season and the Fighting Illini took care of business, sweeping the Buckeyes in three games. To sophomore right-handed pitcher Seth Kinker, this gives the Scarlet and Gray some extra motivation to go into Champaign and win the series.
“They came here last year and took three from us, so it’s one of those things where we have to go up there ready to play,” Kinker said. “And I’m sure if we play Buckeye baseball and execute well, we are going to come away with the series win.”
Home sweet home vs. roadhouse blues
There have been two entirely different OSU teams so far this season. There’s the team that plays at home and often dominates, and the one that travels and struggles.
So far this season, the Buckeyes have the best record at home (15-2) among all Big Ten teams, but sit at No. 8 (4-7) when playing at the home of another team. The struggles away from home were exposed in their last away series where they went to College Park, Maryland, and were swept by the Terrapins in three games.
Freshman right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner said he wants to see this team reverse the script and start winning games on the road.
“It’d be really good for us to prove to ourselves that we can win anywhere,” Feltner said. “We’re really comfortable at home. It would be really great to be able to keep that going somewhere else besides our home turf.”
The series is scheduled to start on Friday at 6:35 p.m. with junior left-hander Tanner Tully set to take the bump for OSU versus Sedlock of Illinois. Senior left-hander John Havird is slated to start Saturday, with redshirt sophomore Adam Niemeyer on Sunday.