They did a lot of things right, including tie a program record for home runs by an individual in a game. But enough things went wrong to turn Sunday into a quiet, and questioning, bus trip home.
Cincinnati – There was a play in the bottom of the second inning of Sunday’s double-header with Xavier that characterized what coach Greg Beals would later say about the 2017 Buckeyes after 19 games.
It was a towering pop foul fly just outside home plate. Catcher Jacob Barnwell ripped off his mask and called for the ball, just as third baseman Brady Cherry came charging in from his position down the line to assumably help. What happened was neither of them, Barnwell or Cherry, caught the ball, as each cast a frustrating frown at the other.
A lack of communication, for sure. And a lack of executing the basics of baseball, apparently.
An omen? Absolutely, as seven innings later the Buckeyes, after a stirring offensive performance by right fielder Noah McGowan, would cough up a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the ninth when Xavier first baseman Joe Gellenbeck launched a two-run walk-off homer to right center field off closer Yianni Pavlopoulos to win the game, 6-5.
Misery? Frustration? Concern? All of the afore-mentioned, because it marked the exact same way the Buckeyes lost the day’s first game, in the bottom of the bottom of the ninth, when Pavlopoulos surrendered a SAC fly to the only batter he faced, shortstop Mitch Gallagher, as X claimed that game, 5-4.
Afterwards Beals was classic, even stoic, when he curbed whatever inner feelings he must have harbored, saying simply, “We’re finding ways not to win games, where last year’s team got in a point of the season where they found ways to win. That’s the difference.” By rights, he could have chewed a tire off the team bus.
Yes, through 19 games that is a difference. Because Sunday’s twin meltdown negated a positive starting performance in the first game by sophomore Ryan Feltner, who surrendered three runs in the bottom of the second, then pitched scoreless baseball into the seventh when lefthander Joe Stoll took over for an inning and a third of no-run, no-hit baseball.
Stoll gave over to junior Kyle Michalik in ninth, who loaded the bases with a hit batter, a walk, and a base hit before turning his ankle. With one out in the inning Pavlopoulos was summoned to the mound to protect a 4-4 deadlock, but gave up the run-scoring fly ball to center to Gallagher that scored catcher Nate Soria with the winning run.
The bullpen’s failure also negated a spirited comeback from that early 3-0 deficit that saw left fielder Tyler Cowles leave the yard with a line drive screamer to left in the third – and Jalen Washington touch ’em all in the top of the fourth with a towering shot to left center field.
Hardly through, Washington encored in the top of the fifth with an even longer two-run bomb that bounced onto Victory Parkway beyond the left field wall.
But that was sum of the Buckeyes’ offense as Xavier reliever Trey Schramm came on in place of starter Garrett Schilling and pitched four scoreless innings to record the win. Michalik, who was termed “questionable” for his immediate availability after the double-header, was the hard-luck loser.
In the second game, there was that ‘omen’ in the bottom of the second, but starter Adam Niemeyer adeptly steered around it to pitch one-run, three-hit baseball one out deep into the fifth. He struck out five, walked two, and appeared to be cruising when he left the game with apparent tightness in his throwing arm.
But his performance was matched, and later trumped, by right fielder Noah McGowan, who gave the Buckeyes a 1-0 lead in the top of the third with a towering home run to left field off an 88 mile-per-hour fastball from starter Greg Jacknewitz, his third of the season. Xavier would tie the game in the bottom of the inning on a run-scoring double by Blaine Griffiths, but the drama was just unfolding for McGowan and the Buckeyes.
With the score still 1-1 in the seventh, McGowan came to the plate after second baseman Noah West had singled, and Barnwell had walked, an drove a 92 mile-per-hour fastball off reliever Connor Grammes out to left field for his second homer of the day, and his fourth of the season. It game the Bucks a short-lived 4-1 lead.
In the bottom of the inning that same Grammes would lead off the frame against reliever Austin Woodby with a home run of his own to cut the lead to 4-2.
Joe Stoll came on in the eighth to pitch for the Buckeyes and got one out before giving up the ball to Curtiss Irving, the hard-luck loser in Saturday’s 13-inning arctic affair in Columbus. This time Irving had trouble finding home plate, giving up a pair of walks, a pair of hits (and the lead) before surrendering the duty to Jake Vance.
Vance had his own issues with command, but finally retired center fielder Matt Fallon for the final out with the score tied at 4-4.
To the top of the ninth and the heart of the Buckeyes’ order, headed by catcher Barnwell. Barnwell took a called third strike from the Muskies’ fourth pitcher of the day, fireballer David Williams.
Williams was throwing gas, 93, 94, and 95 miles per hour, and McGowan, with one out, touched off on one of those 95 mile-per-hour missiles with the longest home run of the day – his third – that actually cleared Victory Parkway. Xavier left fielder Will LaRue never moved a foot, just turned to watch where the ball would eventually land.
It tied a record for individual home runs in a game, held by Josh Dezse from 2012, and Chad Ehrnsberger in 1998. McGowan also notched five RBIs for the day and score three times.
“I just saw the ball well all day,” said McGowan, a JUCO transfer from Houston, Texas. “I was just able to get my foot down, hit the fastball and get the barrel on the ball. It was good day at the plate but you always want to win very game.”
And to Beals’ words about finding a way to do that, up 5-4 after McGowan’s blast, it came undone on that one swing off the bat by Joe Gellenbeck.
Pavlopoulos came on to pitch the bottom of the ninth and protect the would-be win, but hit the leadoff hitter, Gallagher, in the ankle with his second pitch. The second pitch that Gellenbeck saw, hitting behind Gallagher, he drove over the right center field wall as Tre’ Gantt looked up, and then back, in disbelief. Game over, series swept, and concerns on how to regroup in time for the Big Ten open this Friday with Minnesota coming to Bill Davis Stadium.
“We put ourselves in position a couple of times today but we just couldn’t put it away,” said Beals. “Give Xavier credit – they fought really hard and play and pitched well. We got some big hits and scored some runs, but we just couldn’t get out of some innings when we needed to make pitches and couldn’t.”
The bullpen, after 19 games, and the three-game sweep by Xavier, is at the moment a concern.
“We’ve gone to the well a lot out in that bullpen,” admitted Beals. “Yesterday’s extra-inning game spent Kinker and we felt with conference starting this week we needed to protect him today. We were even apprehensive about ‘Pav’, but he’s our closer and after we took the lead in the top of the ninth we ran him back out there because that’s his job.”
As to the mentality of his relievers after such a devastating weekend….?
“We talked about it after the game, and you just can’t let games like this change what we believe about ourselves. We just gotta’ dig in and stick to our principles. We’re not changing any philosophies, we just have to find a way to believe in ourselves.”
But that’s got to be tough for Beals, who wore his frustration well as to his confidence going forward. They have but one mid-week game, with Youngstown on Tuesday, to regroup and become believers again.
“Well, we need the guys who are going to fill up the strike zone, and really compete for us. But I know I have a good group of guys out here, and I’m concerned about Michalik and his injury. But we’re going to have to get some guys who can step up.
“We got a couple of good starts today,” he concluded. “Feltner and Nemo did what we needed them to do – got us in a position to win. But we’re finding ways not to win games, where last year’s team got in a point of the season where they found ways to win. The beauty of it is, this week starts the second season within the season with conference play starting Friday. We swung the bats really well today, but we have find ways to get better all the way around, every aspect of our game.”
Needless to say, they had a good hour and a half bus ride back to Columbus, some quiet time, to think on ways to do that. Xavier was thought to be another tune-up by some, following the Buckeyes’ three-game win streak coming out of Florida last weekend.
Now, beware of Youngstown, who only stands between the Buckeyes and that second season within the season when Minnesota comes to town on Friday.
And coincidentally, the Gophers won two out of three this weekend on the road at Sacramento State.