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Ohio State softball tries to regain top spot against Penn State and Rutgers

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OSU freshman pitcher Morgan Ray (6) throws a pitch during a game against Maryland on March 26. Credit: Gabriella DiGiovanni | Lantern photographer

OSU freshman pitcher Morgan Ray (6) throws a pitch during a game against Maryland on March 26. Credit: Gabriella DiGiovanni | Lantern photographer

Although the Ohio State softball team is no longer first in the Big Ten, it is hoping to get back on top when it plays five games this week. In their first midweek matchup of the season, the Buckeyes (19-8-1, 4-1-1) are set to face off against Penn State (17-14, 6-0), the current conference leaders, in a home doubleheader Wednesday starting at 4 p.m.

OSU is then scheduled to have Thursday off before traveling to New Jersey to face Rutgers (17-20, 2-4) in a weekend series after going 1-1-1 at Wisconsin last weekend. The first of three games is slated to begin at 3 p.m. Friday.

OSU coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly expressed no concern about her players being able to handle the packed schedule.

“This is actually their favorite part of the season because they get into a groove and want to play every day,” she said. “I don’t worry about their energy at all.”

Scouting Penn State

In its first two Big Ten weekend series, Penn State swept both of its opponents, Rutgers and Michigan State, averaging nine runs per game along the way. This torrid start comes after the Nittany Lions finished with a .507 win percentage in 2015 and only went 9-14 in the Big Ten.

Led by senior Macy Jones, Penn State’s offense is outhitting its opponents .327 to .276, and seven Nittany Lions are batting above .300. Jones, who splits her time between the mound and the outfield, has a .747 slugging percentage. In the team’s final game against Michigan State, Jones tallied two home runs and four RBIs.

Both the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes have seven players hitting above .300, but Penn State’s top seven ekes out OSU’s by 18 in the RBI column.

From the mound, Penn State boasts this week’s Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, junior Marlaina Laubach. The right-hander has a 0.66 ERA against conference opponents this season and a 2.20 ERA in her 24 appearances overall.

OSU junior Shelby Hursh is still putting up destructive numbers when she steps inside the circle for the Buckeyes, notably a 1.93 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 76.1 innings.

Against Wisconsin, OSU’s pitching staff had trouble at times limiting big hitting from the offense. Schoenly noted that taking away these decisive innings is a goal for Hursh and her teammates as the season progresses.

“We will need to execute some clutch pitches with runners in scoring position. We have done a great job of that in the past and will need to focus in more,” Schoenly said.

Scouting Rutgers

For the Scarlet Knights, 2016 has not been as fruitful. The team is currently 2-4 in Big Ten play. After being swept in a three-game series by Penn State, Rutgers, which is led by five seniors, clinched two wins against Illinois last weekend.

When comparing the Scarlet Knights with their opponents, they are being outhit in all categories except doubles. In the team’s 3-1 win against the Fighting Illini, however, sophomore catcher Sierra Maddox went 3-for-4, including a home run.

Infielder Stephanie Huang is currently hitting .385, while shortstop Melanie Slowinski has a .314 batting average and three home runs. The senior duo has combined for 39 RBIs so far this year, already just seven fewer from what they contributed a season ago.

The Rutgers pitching staff has a combined 4.18 ERA. Junior Shayla Sweeney has exuded stamina in the circle this season, pitching four complete games so far. The right-hander has also added two saves to her statistics.

Clutch hitting

Against Wisconsin, the bottom of OSU’s order came up big. In Sunday’s doubleheader, sophomore Taylor White and freshman Emily Clark went 5-for-7 and 6-for-8, respectively. White added one home run and a triple to her 2016 total, while Clark chipped in two RBIs and a double.

The bottom of the order on Friday, guided by junior Anna Kirk, went 5-for-9, bringing in two runs. Sophomore Becca Gavin, the ninth batter, paved the way for the top of the order with two walks and a sacrifice bunt.

Schoenly, while also mentioning the spark Gavin has brought to the team, said she loved the way the bottom of the order delivered.

“I love that Taylor White, Emily Clark and Anna Kirk were the catalysts to our success,” she said. “All three are very capable players, and they got hot at the right time.”

Aiming for the record book

For two Buckeyes, 2016 provides a chance to set new program records. Redshirt junior Alex Bayne, a slugging powerhouse despite her 5-foot-5 stature, has already sent 12 shots over the fence this season. The single-season record, held by Sam Marder since 2009, is 19, but Bayne has 23 more games to take the crown for herself.

Schoenly acknowledged Buckeye Field’s friendliness toward home runs, though she continued to be enthusiastic about the power her players are showing.

“We really hadn’t been hitting too many home runs until we returned home. Now we’re going,” she said. “It’s always nice to see them use their bats in a big way.”

Senior catcher Cammi Prantl is pacing toward the career record for doubles. She currently sits in second with 52. The record, held by Krinon Clark, has stood since 1994, but Prantl is only six doubles away from breaking the longstanding number. She already has eight this year and has never put up fewer than 12 during her first three years in Columbus.

Coming up

The Buckeyes are set to return home on Wednesday with a nonconference game against Dayton before heading into a weekend series with No. 2 Michigan from April 15 to 17. OSU’s matchup against the Flyers is slated to begin at 6 p.m.

This fast-paced schedule is exactly what the Buckeyes need, Schoenly said.

“The team has their goals they are working toward, and having less time in between games means they can get there faster,” she said. “And that’s extremely motivating.”

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