Miller Leads Baseball Into Michigan Battle

The Ohio State baseball team faces a critical home weekend starting tonight when the No. 27 Buckeyes take on Michigan. They should be helped out by captain Justin Miller, who is showing signs of emerging from a slump to becoming the dynamic hitter the Buckeyes are used to.

Ohio State third baseman Justin Miller has eased into his role as a two-year captain for the Buckeye team.

He arrived in Columbus without huge fanfare as a modest 6-0, 190 pounds of hitting talent coming to Ohio's capital from "the sticks," as Miller put it, of the western Virginia burgh of Dayton.

By the end of his first season, he was a starter. By the end of his second season, his bat had plenty to say, and though the soft-spoken Miller would deny it, his personality as the face of the Buckeye team has caught up.

"I'm not really all that vocal in the locker room," Miller said as the Buckeyes prepare to face rival Michigan in a three-game series starting tonight. "I don't call the guys in and have a lot of meetings and stuff, but I just try to go out there and lead by example."

Buckeyes Face U-M

Tied for first place in the Big Ten with nine league games left on the slate, No. 27 Ohio State (32-10, 11-4) will put its record on the line this weekend with three games at Bill Davis Stadium against rival Michigan.

The Buckeyes will be attempting to put an end to the Wolverines' recent dominance in the series. Michigan has won 22 of 30 games overall in the series including 14 of the last 15 regular-season games.

"Everybody knows this is going to be a big weekend," captain Justin Miller said.

After having lost a number of stars to the MLB draft from last year's Big Ten championship team, the Wolverines enter at 23-19 and just 6-9 in league games.

The rivalry, especially when one is wounded, looms large.

"I didn't get it, I'm not going to lie, but coming out here and being a Buckeye now, it's a whole new world," Californian and center fielder Michael Stephens said. "I'm ready to go."

All three games will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network and on 103.9 Talk FM. Tonight's game commences at 7 p.m. with the Saturday and Sunday tilts scheduled for 1 p.m.

The man known almost universally as "Gus" is clearly doing something right, though, as he's just the 14th Buckeye to be named a captain for multiple times. The first solo captain since 1986, Miller has led the 27th-ranked Buckeyes to a 32-10 record and first-place standing in the Big Ten. All the while, he's been following in the footsteps of the only three-time captain in Dan DeLucia.

Not bad.

"You always have somebody to look to if you need to voice your opinion on the team and you don't want to do it publicly in front of everybody. You can always go to Gus," said catcher Shawn Forsythe, one of Miller's best friends on the team. "He presents himself on the field in the way that you would look for as a captain. He's a great captain on the field and off the field."

On the field has been a struggle for Miller this year in a way that it hasn't been in years past. He's batting just .278 on the season, a mark well below of his career mark entering the year of .348. His RBI have fallen from 61 last year to 39 this year, though he does have a career-best six homers.

Production has never been an issue before for the Turner Ashby High School graduate who took over as Ohio State's first baseman halfway through his freshman year in 2006 and responded by hitting .351 in Big Ten play.

In 2007 he jumped his average to .346 overall, hit his first career homer and bashed .417 in conference games. Last year, Miller added power to his repertoire, hitting four homers with 61 RBI to go with a .395 average.

"He's been pressing," head coach Bob Todd recently said. "It's almost like he's put too much pressure on himself. He needs to get back and relax and play this game with a smile on his face."

Teammates say smiling has rarely been hard for Miller, who is quick with a laugh when it comes to his shortcomings, whether they are his lack of foot speed or his defense. The latter improved immensely as he became comfortable at first base, but Miller has moved to third base for most games this year in order to get hot-hitting Matt Streng into the lineup.

"He's a pretty lighthearted guy," Forsythe said. "He laughs about everything."

Maybe those guffaws of late have translated to performance. Going into the Michigan series, Miller is riding a seven-game hitting streak in which he's batted .344 with 11 RBI. He hit into a game-winning fielder's choice against Northwestern last Friday and then followed that with a 6 RBI performance including a grand slam on Saturday against the Wildcats.

"I wasn't getting the hits that I thought I should be getting, and I just kept swinging and finally they started falling for me," he said. "When you start hitting the ball well, you start seeing it a lot better. When you hit it really hard, they finally drop instead of finding somebody's glove all the time."

Away from the diamond, Miller can be found hunting or fishing with Forsythe or teammate Ben Toussant.

"He's not quite me or Ben, but he's all right," Forsythe said before recounting a tale in which Miller had a straight shot on a buck only to realize he had forgotten his gun.

Getting Miller away from the field, though, is the hardest part. Professional baseball might not come calling so the criminology major is considering a career in coaching, possibly as a graduate assistant next year at Ohio State.

"I just try to pick up little things from the coaching staff," he said. "Hopefully if I get a chance to coach some day I can use some of that stuff."

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