Ohio State coach Greg Beals isn't one to shy away from challenges, that much is certain.
When Beals took over the program a couple of seasons ago, he really wanted the Buckeyes to upgrade their non-conference scheduling. Sure, getting western or southern teams to go to Columbus, Ohio, was tough anytime during the year, impossible as can be earlier in the season. But Beals made that wish a priority, and it's paid off.
As the Buckeyes approach the final couple of weekends of the regular season, they have a chance to make a real impression, even more so than they already have, on the national stage. The Bucks split a midweek series with Georgia Tech earlier this week, and now stay home for an uncharacteristic three-game set against No. 12 Oregon.
Sitting at 49 in the latest RPI, just behind Indiana in the Big Ten standings, and 7-8 vs. RPI Top 50 and 10-10 vs. RPI Top 100, chances are very good Ohio State would be in the NCAA postseason if selections were made today. However, OSU has a chance to make the ultimate statement with a series win over the Ducks. On top of that, it finishes the regular season with a home series against No. 15 Indiana to round out Big Ten action.
"With the addition of Nebraska, we had an odd weekend, and my take on it is that we told teams we've schedule them as long as they did a return trip. I had a previous relationship with Georgia Tech's Danny Hall, but not anyone at Oregon," Beals said. "I like where we are as a team right now. I'd think at this point we warrant a postseason bid, and now we have a stretch of quality opponents to further enhance our resume."
Expect that scheduling trend to continue for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a home-and-home series setup with Western Kentucky out of the Sun Belt, while they're also in talks with Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore about a home-and-home series. Either way, this is a great development for Ohio State, the Big Ten, and college baseball on the national stage.
As with many teams this season, this Ohio State club is based primarily off pitching and defense. The Buckeyes only hit .268 as a club, though, that number can be a little deceiving as they do have some talented hitters. But even Beals admits this team is about the pitching and defense, as evidenced by a 3.18 team ERA and .976 fielding percentage.
"When I got here to Ohio State, I wanted to create an idea that we were about pitching and defense. I felt like in today's college game, that would be the most consistent approach possible," he said. "The other thing is that we're starting to see the evolution of the bat, and that has made a huge difference in our game.
"You're starting to see pitchers go out there and pitch more aggressively, and you're starting to see better pitched games overall," he continued. "It's safe to say things have evolved quite a bit from just five years ago in college baseball."
Given his comments, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise the Buckeyes possess a very solid weekend rotation, which includes senior left-handed pitcher Brian King, along with senior right-hander Brad Goldberg and junior right-hander Jaron Long.
Goldberg, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, is the most intriguing arm out of this group. He has come back strong from a setback and has a 3.79 ERA in 61 2/3 innings, with teams hitting him at a .251 clip. Stuff-wise, Goldberg is 90-95 with his fastball, along with a very good slider.
Long and King aren't quite as velocity-oriented as Goldberg, but both are having outstanding campaigns for the Buckeyes. Long is a master magician on the mound and has a 3.89 ERA in 78 2/3 innings of work, while King has a fabulous 2.59 ERA in 83 1/3 innings, along with 45 strikeouts and 11 walks. Stuff-wise, Long has good feel for his pitches, and throws a four-pitch mix, while King is a traditional sinker, slider type of pitcher who Beals dubs "Mr. Consistent".
"It's nice to have Goldberg out there and active this spring. When that fastball is going, it's a pretty powerful pitch. Overall, he's a power sinker type of pitcher," he said. "As for Long, he has an amazing feel for pitching and just does a great job of throwing all of his pitches on both sides of the plate. King is the type of guy who just attacks the zone."
While the starting rotation has been solid for the Buckeyes, the bullpen also has been a plus thus far with sophomore right-hander Trace Dempsey and senior right-hander Brett McKinney leading the way.
Dempsey has made the biggest leap forward for the Buckeyes. He had a 5.06 ERA as a freshman last season, but this year, has appeared in 26 games and has a 0.30 ERA in 30 innings, along with 16 saves. Meanwhile, McKinney is a veteran who has a 2.85 ERA, is sitting 90-93 with his fastball out of the bullpen, and is showing power tilt on his breaking pitches. McKinney previously was 88-91 with his fastball as a starting pitcher.
"It's really good to see Dempsey grab the bull by the horns out there. With the closer spot being vacant, he has been absolutely everything we could have hoped for. It's been special to see him evolve as a pitcher," he said. "He's made the biggest jump for us. Then, you look at McKinney, who's a senior captain for us, and really just does a great job of attacking the strike zone. It's a little surprising to see how well he's adapted to things."
Moving forward, Ohio State is a very intriguing club to watch. The Buckeyes don't possess an overwhelming offensive lineup, but certainly have enough bats to put up some runs. Meanwhile, this team plays great defense and continues to excel on the mound.
Win or lose against Oregon this weekend, Beals has the Buckeyes headed the right direction, with precisely the right philosophies.
Pitching prowess: Memphis LHP Sam Moll
The words Memphis and pitching tradition typically don't go together, but pitching coach Fred Corral has helped change that tune over the past few seasons.
The Tigers made headlines last summer when hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Dan Langfield was a third-round pick to the Cincinnati Reds in the MLB draft. Now, Memphis has yet another elite arm to watch when it comes to the draft in junior left-handed pitcher Sam Moll.
Saying Moll has made just some improvements since arriving at Memphis would be quite an understatement. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound, lefty, was ranked as one of the nation's top 500 players out of high school, topping out at 88-90 at times. However, he arrived at UM throwing just 84-85 with that fastball.
Because of that and other depth issues, Moll didn't have quite as important of a role as he does this season, but he still put together a solid campaign, tallying a 2.68 ERA with 48 strikeouts and 16 walks in 40 1/3 innings of work.
"He had a few midweek starts here and there during his freshman year because he was behind some guys in the pecking order, then he got kind of thrust into the rotation last season because of some injuries," Memphis coach Daron Schoenrock. "I really thought he turned a corner the second half of his sophomore year. He became more durable, and as a result, his velocity spiked."
Despite finishing the 2012 campaign on a high note, Moll entered the summer at the Cape Cod League with something to prove before his junior campaign. He tallied a respectable 3.48 ERA as a sophomore, but also had 59 strikeouts and 44 walks in 95 2/3 innings of work, obviously numbers he'd like to improve.
Moll transformed into a different pitcher while competing for the Brewster Whitecaps last summer. He utilized a swing and miss fastball as a sophomore, but lacked a go-to secondary offering. In an effort to change that, Moll gravitated from a curveball to more of a power slider while throwing at the Cape.
"He really shored things up at the Cape Cod League. He went from a curveball to more of a power slider, and that really helped him create a true swing and miss pitch," Schoenrock said. "His curveball wasn't a real swing and miss pitch, and his changeup is still developing, so developing that power slider was crucial to his development."
Moll's summer development has translated to amazing success for the Tigers this spring. The lefty has a 2.77 ERA in 48 2/3 innings of work. But most noticeable about his overall improvements is the fact he has 67 strikeouts as opposed to 16 walks. He's causing hitters swing and miss more, while also showing better command of the strike zone.
Stuff-wise, Moll continues to flash a fastball anywhere from 92-93, while also throwing a few 94s at times. He also sits anywhere from 77-80 with that slider, along with a still-developing changeup that sits around 80-81 on the radar gun.
"Sam, by sheer velocity, has overmatched a lot of hitters. That aspect of his game has been very consistent this season. He has stayed strong throughout games velocity-wise," he said. "He has finally created a swing and miss slider, and that changeup, when he's commanding it well, is a good pitch, too."
Moll, who certainly profiles as a reliever at the next level, also has improved other aspects of his game this season. He's doing a better job of holding runners, and he's much improved in handling the defensive aspect of his position.
"He's made a lot of progress in those two areas, among other areas," he said. "He's much, much more of a complete pitcher, and I think going to the Cape had a lot to do with that."
Series to watch
2 Vanderbilt at Kentucky: With a rather unimpressive SEC record at this juncture in the season, the Wildcats desperately need to find some magic this weekend against Vanderbilt to feel good about their postseason chances heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Commodores have been arguably the nation's most consistent team, along with North Carolina, this season, and have passed every test presented. We don't expect that to change this weekend. -- THE PICK: Vanderbilt
1 North Carolina at Georgia Tech: Speaking of teams that could use a boost heading down the stretch, how about the Yellow Jackets? They haven't exactly played the best brand of baseball as of late, and though they're still in good shape to make the NCAA postseason, it's not a given at this point. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels once again won't have outfielder Skye Bolt in the lineup, but that hasn't seemed to matter the past few weeks. Though Tech provides a stiff road test this weekend, the Tar Heels should prosper. -- THE PICK: North Carolina
7 Oregon State at 25 Stanford: This is by far the biggest series of the year for Stanford. The Cardinal hit the road last weekend and kept their postseason hopes alive with a road series win over Arizona State. Now, they return home with a chance to take a huge series over the Beavers. Stanford certainly can matchup on Friday night with Mark Appel against OSU left-handed pitcher Matt Boyd, but the rest of the weekend definitely is in doubt with the Beavers having a substantial mound advantage with fellow weekend starters Andrew Moore and Ben Wetzler leading the charge. -- THE PICK: Oregon State
12 Oregon at Ohio State: Sitting second place in the Big Ten with a solid RPI and decent overall resume, the Buckeyes are a safe bet for the NCAA postseason at this point. However, the Bucks could eliminate all doubt this weekend with a home series win over the Ducks. Both the Ducks and Buckeyes possess very good pitching staffs, with the big bat of UO first baseman Ryon Healy a big key to the weekend. Healy tends to go wild on the road, so keep an eye on him this weekend. -- THE PICK: Oregon
8 Florida State at 5 North Carolina State: There's a very good chance this three-game series will decide who exactly gets the third ACC national seed. The Seminoles played a very good brand of baseball last weekend against UCF with right-handed starting pitcher Luke Weaver putting together another solid start, while the Wolfpack has played an exceptional brand of baseball the past few weeks. This should be an absolute dandy of a series this weekend. -- THE PICK: N.C. State
14 Mississippi State at Mississippi: The Rebels remain safely in the NCAA postseason mix as an at-large team, but likely saw their hosting chances sail away last weekend with a road series loss to Auburn. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs hit the road this weekend in good shape for an NCAA host site, but likely need to finish strong to feel safe about it. Ole Miss has an excellent one-two punch in the weekend rotation in Bobby Wahl and Mike Mayers, but must play a more consistent overall brand of baseball. -- THE PICK: Mississippi State
18 Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State: The Sooners' hosting chances took a huge hit last weekend with a road series loss to West Virginia, but things could very well be different this weekend with the return of left-handed pitcher Dillon Overton, who missed last weekend's series against the Mountaineers. Oklahoma State could really help its postseason case with a series win over the Sooners this weekend. A postseason berth for the Cowboys would be a huge step in the right direction. -- THE PICK: Oklahoma State
23 South Alabama at Louisiana-Lafayette: These two teams are very similar, so it's absolutely no surprise they're sitting atop the Sun Belt standings entering this weekend's huge series in Lafayette, La. The Ragin' Cajuns boast one of the nation's best offensive lineups with Tyler Girouard, Caleb Adams and others leading the charge, while the Jaguars are fun to watch with an excellent bullpen tandem in Dylan Stamey and Kyle Bartsch. In a bout between two rather evenly matched clubs, the home team gets the nod. -- THE PICK: Louisiana-Lafayette
Kansas State at Kansas: This is certainly a big series for the Wildcats, who would love to take a series from their arch-rivals, while also helping their potential NCAA Regional hosting chances. But there's no doubt this series is even bigger for the Jayhawks, who need to build off last weekend's home series sweep over Baylor to feel safe about their postseason. This should be a great series with K-State having the offensive advantage and KU having the pitching advantage. -- THE PICK: Kansas
3 LSU at Texas A&M: The Aggies at least kept their extremely long shot hopes of NCAA postseason contention alive last weekend with a wild home series sweep over Missouri. Now, they get an opportunity to knock off the sizzling Tigers. A&M needs a strong start to the weekend from right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden, while for LSU, Cody Glenn, Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades should be more than enough to take care of business on the road. It's business as usual for the Bayou Bengals. -- THE PICK: LSU