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Baseball: Ohio State’s hot start propelled by offensive firepower with pitching and defense lagging behind

Ohio State Utility player Noah McGowan (4) hits the ball foul during the sixth inning of Ohio State’s 2-1 win against Cal State Northridge in extra innings on Friday, March 16, 2018 at Nick Swisher field in Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Ebo Amissah-Aggrey | Lantern Reporter

The Ohio State baseball team endured the worst season in program history in 2017.

It finished the campaign 22-34, placing 11th in the Big Ten standings and missing the conference tournament completely.

The season had begun with some promise, however. In just the sixth game of the year, the Buckeyes handed Oregon State one of just its four regular-season losses. But six losses and just two wins shortly after that game made the big victory an anomaly.

The team has had a much different start to this season, however. Ohio State lost both games this time to the top-ranked Beavers, but unlike last season, Ohio State has a 14-6 record with wins against No. 16 Southern Mississippi and Coastal Carolina, which has been ranked this season. The Buckeyes have done it by simply out-hitting all their opponents, consistently for extra bases.

The pitching has remained suspect, but the lineup has a different feel to it from a season ago. A lineup that seemed to have promise last season, but ultimately disappointed, looks like it is finally meeting expectations.

Last year, junior-college transfers Noah McGowan and Tyler Cowles were counted on to become impact players in the lineup — except both struggled. McGowan hit just .214 with five home runs while Cowles hit only .190 with three home runs despite both starting in more than 30 games.

The lineup overall struggled to find much consistency beyond center fielder Tre’ Gantt, who has since been drafted by the Cleveland Indians, and Jalen Washington, who graduated. It lacked that consistency until then-freshmen outfielder Dominic Canzone and infielder Conner Pohl began to hit, finishing first and second respectively with .343 and .325 batting averages.

Canzone and Pohl have continued to crush pitchers in 2018, both hitting more than .280 with impressive slash line numbers. The difference has really come from McGowan and Cowles. They have been the team’s offensive leaders, batting .392 and .368, respectively. McGowan in particular has impressed, slashing .392/.474/.696 with five home runs and a team-leading 27 RBIs, tied for 15th in the nation.

The lineup also has been bolstered by its depth so far this season. In 2017, only six people hit above .260 and five were below .250. This season, eight players are above .260 and four are below .250 — one of which has just 16 at-bats.

As a team, Ohio State is hitting 34 points higher than last season and is on pace to exceed last year’s home run total by 10.

Offensively, this team is batting as well as it could to begin the year. The pitching staff — though improved from last season — still leaves a lot to be desired. The team ERA a season ago was 5.32, nearly two runs higher than the 4.04 mark in 2018.

Two of the top starters in the team’s rotation have struggled. Junior Ryan Feltner — hailed by many as one of the top MLB draft prospects in the Big Ten — has a 6.26 ERA over 27.1 innings with 30 strikeouts, 11 walks and 34 hits allowed. Being the team’s ace, Feltner has been tasked with facing some of the tougher lineups, including allowing four runs to Oregon State. Redshirt senior Adam Niemeyer has a team-high 6.45 ERA with 22 strikeouts, 10 walks and 32 hits over 22.1 innings.

Though those two have struggled, most of the other pitchers have excelled during the season. The bullpen in particular, led by Seth Kinker and Kyle Michalik, have done a strong job holding leads or preventing the score from getting out of hand.

Part of the limited struggles the pitching staff has had comes from the result of team defense. It has a .954 fielding percentage overall — last in the Big Ten — with 26 of the 35 errors coming from the infield. The defense might continue to improve as the season moves on and the team has a better sense of the best defensive position for every player. For now, it remains an area that needs significant turnaround.

Ohio State began the season expected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten just as it did last season. Now it has emerged as one of the top teams in the conference. The Buckeyes will be tested when Big Ten season begins on March 30, but the improvements shown through the early part of the campaign suggest this team is significantly better than it was last year.

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