On an opening day dictated by big hits and big plays, the Ohio State Buckeyes doubled up Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Canisius to launch the 2018 baseball season.
Port Charlotte, FLA. – Maybe they can win ’em all! That’s not likely, of course.
But enthusiasm and the thought – that they might – could not have been higher in the wake of OSU’s opening day double-header sweep against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Canisius Friday afternoon at the Charlotte County Sports Complex, spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
And they did it – 11-7 over Milwaukee, and 6-4 over Canisius – in a pair of games dictated by big plays and bit hits; and a big day by senior Noah McGowan who punctuated the double-header sweep with 10 (count ’em, 10) runs batted in, with a single, a pair of doubles, and a home run.
But it didn’t start out that way.
UW-Milwaukee turned out to be a gritty critter out of the Horizon League that played much tougher than their 22-34 record of a year ago. The Panthers had a starting pitcher named Austin Schulfer who spotted sliders and threw enough junk to keep the Buckeye hitters off-balance, and then when he busted them inside with a fastball they were rendered helpless. How helpless?
Well after starter Connor Curlis had retired the side in order in the top of the first, Schulfer got himself in trouble immediately in the bottom of the inning with a pair of walks that eventually became runners on second and third with Noah McGowan at the plate. McGowan fisted one of those fastballs into short center field for a base hit that drove in both runners for a 2-0 lead. And that, friends, was the last hit by a Buckeye hitter until the sixth inning.
For his part, Curlis was effective, if not efficient, surrendering 3 earned runs in the top of the fourth, and the lead, before exiting the game after five innings. Reliever Austin Woodby took over in the sixth and promptly gave up another run – followed by two more in the seventh, and before you could say Five Star Painting the Buckeyes were down 6-2.
And, offensively, they were beginning to remind the faithful of some of the empty times of 2017 – for failure to come up with a big hit when a big hit was necessary.
The Bucks left runners at second and third in the fifth inning with two out when Tyler Cowles struck out.
The Bucks left runners at first and second in the sixth inning with two out when Brady Cherry struck out.
And in the seventh they loaded the bases with two out and you could feel the panic that it might happen again. But this time Tyler Cowles crashed a bases-clearing double off reliever Elijah Goodman that ricocheted off the left field wall. It highlighted a four-run inning that tied the score at 6-6.
But reliever Seth Kinker, who followed Woodby, promptly gave up the lead on an unearned run in the top of the eighth, and the Buckeyes came to bat in the bottom of the inning off Reed Blake, the third Milwaukee pitcher used.
They promptly loaded the bases again when Conner Pohl, Dom Canzone, and Malik Jones reached base…and McGowan cleared them again with a double to left center, a shot that almost left cavernous Charlotte County Stadium. Cowles finished what would be a 5-run inning with a single and set up the top of the ninth, and closer Curtiss Irving.
Irving retired the side in order to nail down the 11-7 final.
“I liked a lot about the offense today,” said Beals later, but specifically about the manner in which his team had taken the first game.
“You know, we had eight extra base hits and five stolen bases in a double header. You heard me say that I wanted to have action out of the lineup, and I wanted to hit doubles…and we did that.”
“Conner Curlis wasn’t sharp, but he battled and he got us deep enough into the game with his five innings,” added Beals. “And defensively, I liked how we made some plays out there with new faces at new positions on the field.”
And a couple of plays by one old face in left field.
Tyler Cowles cut down another would-be Milwaukee run in the top of the third with a brilliant throw to home plate that Jacob Barnwell grabbed and swiped the runner in one motion. It was a lift when they needed a lift, and it set the stage for more Cowles, and another outfield assist to knock off a runner, in game 2.
Canisius, by the way, is a better team than one might expect from snow country, in upstate New York.
The Golden Griffins struck for a pair of runs of starter Ryan Feltner in the top of the first, principally as a result of Feltner’s lack of command – strike throwing. Canisius was patient, made him work, and his pitch counted quickly began to rise.
But the Buckeyes scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the inning, courtesy of a Noah McGowan single that scored Kobie Foppe and Dominic Canzone.
Feltner got through the third unscathed, but left enough fastballs up in the zone in the third for Canisius to walk twice and score twice on an rbi single by Joe Preziuso. But that was it…all he allowed as the junior righthander settled down before no fewer than 15 professional scouts to pitch a scoreless fourth and fifth.
He left after five with the lead, courtesy of McGowan and a four-run Buckeye second inning. After Brady Cherry had doubled home Kobie Foppe to start the inning, McGowan launched a rocket to left field, the first home run of the year, scoring Cherry and Conner Pohl, who had walked.
That was the sum total of the scoring, 6-4, and from that point the bullpen came on the in the sixth to pitch scoreless, no-hit baseball over the final four innings.
Feltner did not disappoint the scouts, by the way. He routinely lit up the radar runs at 93 to 95 miles per hour. His top fastball of the day registered 97!
Freshman Griffan Smith took over in the sixth, throwing about ten miles per hour slower, and completely flummoxed the Canisius hitters. Smith, who had an impressive fall campaign, was efficient, needing just 21 pitches to retire the side in order in the sixth and seventh.
Kyle Michalik came on in the eight to strike out two of the three hitters he faced.
And then the ‘horse’, Seth Kinker, who had surrendered an unearned run in the first game, slammed the door in the top of the ninth to record the save…striking out three in a row!
“We got all six of our runs in the first two innings,” said Beals, assessing the day. “And I was disappointed that we missed some scoring opportunities, at least three runs, when we didn’t execute in the final five innings.
“But our pitching was good enough to get us a pair of wins. Neither starter was sharp, they’re both going to pitch better going forward than they pitched today, and they got us five innings deep, which we needed them to do. We were looking for a good outing from Ryan and I think it becomes a matter of him not trying to amp things up too much. Plus, he knew the scouts were here which brings some added pressure, and he just needs to keep pitching, trust his stuff, and he’ll be fine. He did not ‘pitch’ the baseball very well today. He ‘threw’ it really well, but he didn’t pitch it as well as he’s capable of doing.”
The bullpen, with the exception of a spotty inning from Austin Woodby in the first game, was spot on.
“Griffan Smith was tough, following the way Feltner was throwing,” added Beals. “And Kyle Michalik and Kinker did what we expect them to do. And Curtiss Irving did a great job to finish game one. I was really pleased with how those guys threw.”
But the day belonged, stat-wise, to Tyler Cowles…and Noah McGowan. Cowles finished with four hits and four RBIs, and McGowan reprised his best game of 2017 (against Xavier) and then some, with four hits, a home run, and TEN RBIs.
“I saw the ball well,” said McGowan afterwards, flashing a broad smile. “I tried not to chase balls in the dirt, take good swings, and make good contact.”
But in his wildest dreams of opening day success….!
“Yeah, it was better than you expect, but I was just happy that everyone was feeling good, we played well together…Feltner threw well, all the pitchers threw well, the bullpen threw well…it just feels good when everything comes together.”
Some other highlights:
Tyler Cowles had four hits and four RBIs…plus a pair of fine outfield assists.
Noah McGowan’s 10 RBIs…all came with two outs!
Brady Cherry went 3 for 10 in the doubleheader.
Kobie Foppe had a pair of hits and scored four times.
Jacob Barnwell had a big double in the first game; and the other catcher, freshman Dillon Dingler, made an impressive debut in the second game with his first collegiate hit, a double.
And JUCO transfer Malik Jones had a pair of hits in his first opening day.
The Buckeyes resume their four-game weekend series on Saturday afternoon with a 3 pm date with Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“We saw a lot of good things today,” concluded Greg Beals. “And you can’t win ’em all if you don’t win the first two. But we got the first two and I told the guys in the huddle that we know we’re going to get better. We’ll come back and do that tomorrow.”