That increasingly frequent refrain manifested itself twice in one weekend, giving Ohio State less margin for error in its quest to make the postseason for the first time since 2009. With a depleted bullpen – valuable setup man Jake Post hasn’t pitched since April 14 – and a troubled rotation – OSU starters have allowed six or more runs in six straight Big Ten games – Ohio State has spent the last two weekends battling trouble in the late innings.
In a critical rubber match against Maryland on Sunday, the Buckeyes held a 4-0 lead against the Terrapins as starter Ryan Riga trotted out to the mound for the sixth inning. Three runs later, Maryland was back in it.
Ohio State undid all the damage in the next half-inning by scoring four runs to increase the lead to 8-3, and all seemed well again. Riga, nearing 100 pitches, was sent back out for the seventh. Two outs in the first three batters left Riga one batter away from getting to the stretch unscathed, but his day ended not with a final out but with three straight singles.
Back-to-back home runs off replacement Seth Kinker followed, and a five-run lead turned to a two-run deficit. Ohio State never recovered, losing 14-10.
“It was a heavyweight fight,” Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. “They took punches for five innings and were able to stay in the game.”
One day earlier, the Buckeyes had narrowly avoided the type of backbreaking loss that can sink a team for good. Entering the sixth inning with a 13-4 lead that put them well on their way to snapping a four-game conference losing streak, the Buckeyes allowed a pair of runs followed by three more apiece in the seventh and eighth innings.
The Terrapins also put runners on first and second with one out in the top of the ninth, but closer Trace Dempsey worked out of the damage by inducing a fly out and a foul out to end the game with a 13-12 triumph.
“It was a draining game and it took a lot of the guys, but it was a win we needed to get,” Beals said. “We got to a point where we were playing afraid to lose instead of playing to win, but it’s a win and a win against a good ball team.”
Ohio State held a 2-1 lead through two innings in the series opener, but the Maryland bats put up seven runs over the next three frames to chase starter Tanner Tully. The Buckeyes were unable to solve Maryland starter Mike Shawaryn, who picked up his 11th win of the season. Five runs in the eighth sealed the deal, and the Terps cruised to a 13-4 win on Friday night.
1. The Buckeye bats are back
With the exception of Friday night, when Ohio State faced arguably the best starter in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes did a good job of attacking opposing hitters. In most series, scoring 27 runs would have been enough to get the series win if not the sweep. Left fielder Ronnie Dawson's average is up to .286 after hovering in the .230-40 range a few weeks ago, and the hosts hit for power as well as average against Maryland. In the series finale, Ohio State finished with six doubles and three home runs, including two doubles from Dawson and two home runs from Troy Kuhn. That series performance followed the biggest offensive showcase of the season, a 20-7 win at Miami (Ohio) on May 5 when Dawson accounted for eight RBI. The Buckeyes need to bring that type of firepower to Bloomington, Ind., for the final regular-seasons series of the year.
2. The pitching problem needs to be solved
Against Illinois, 15 of the 20 runs scored by the Illini came in the middle three frames. Half of those 20 runs were allowed in the inning the starter was pulled. One weekend later, the Buckeyes surrendered 13 runs in the innings in which starters exited. With Post out for the foreseeable future, Ohio State needs someone in the bullpen to step up and regain the coaching staff's trust so it can pull starters before the heavy damage arrives. At the same time, the Buckeyes need their starters to stop piling up 25-pitch innings that lead to high pitch counts way too early in the game. On Sunday, for example, Maryland threw 16 fewer pitches through the first five innings despite allowing four more runs.
3. Ohio State is still in good position
The optics of five Big Ten losses in six games isn't good, but the Buckeyes still have an impressive résumé. Despite back-to-back series losses, Ohio State is No. 24 in the RPI with a chance to rise even higher before the postseason arrives. After all, OSU has series wins over projected tournament teams Michigan State (at home) and Nebraska (on the road) in addition to a midweek win over No. 3 Louisville. The Buckeyes need to avoid three remaining costly mistakes: a midweek loss to Youngstown State, a sweep at the hands of Indiana and a two-and-out appearance in the Big Ten Tournament. Doing that would almost certainly seal the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009.