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Maryland baseball: Preview of crucial series against Ohio State

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After being swept at home by Indiana, the Terps are now on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. Taking the series against Ohio State would put them squarely back in the national conversation. But can they do that?

Being swept by a team that's on the downswing can really hurt. It did last year when the Terps went to Boston College and were thoroughly outplayed by a lowly Eagles team. While Indiana is much better than Boston College, the sweep last weekend took place in the Terrapins' back yard. Time to panic? Not quite yet. Last year the Terps rebounded from the debacle in Chestnut Hill to win virtually all of their remaining regular season games, and come within three innings of winning the ACC Tournament. The rest is history.

Can the Terps do likewise this season? They have seven games remaining, three of which are at Ohio State this weekend, and next Tuesday at home against a good Liberty team. Those next four games will weigh heavily on the Terps' NCAA hopes, as the final weekend of the regular season is against a dismal Northwestern team.

I had the fortune to trade Q&A's with Ben Martin of Land-Grant Holy Land, SB Nation's site for all things Ohio State. You can read my answers to his questions about the Terps here. Ben's answers to my questions appear below, following my general thoughts on the Buckeyes.

A B1G surprise

Ohio State wasn't on anyone's "teams to watch" list prior to the start of the 2015 season. When the Terrapins' 2015 schedule was announced last December, I viewed the series against Ohio State as a tune-up for the post-season. Oh my, how things have changed! This is now very much a competitive series. Before last Friday the Buckeyes were 31-10, ranked nationally, and considered a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament. Then Illinois came to Columbus and swept a series that the Buckeyes let slip away from them. So in some ways they're in the same position as the Terps.

The Buckeyes are built on speed. They rank first in the B1G in stolen bases, going an impressive 74-94 on steal attempts. However, the Buckeyes also have some legitimate hitters. Lead-off batter and CF Troy Montgomery (.310 ba, 46 runs, 29-32 sb-att) is a quintessential table setter. RF Pat Porter has the team lead in batting average (.322) and rbi (37), and is tied for the lead with seven home runs. Ronnie Dawson (a 2014 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American) also has seven home runs, and while he is batting "just" .275, he can also wreak havoc on the base paths: 14-20 sb-att.

Ohio State's pitching has been their bread and butter. The starting rotation of Tanner Tully (last year's B1G Freshman Pitcher of the Year), Travis Larkin, and Ryan Riga have been strong. Set-up man Adam Niemeyer (2-0, 1.59 era), as well as OSU's all-time leader in saves, closer Trace Dempesey (9-1, 1.88 era, 7 s) anchor a very solid bullpen.

This is a talented team that (barring a collapse) will make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Q & A with Land-Grant Holy Land

Ben Martens (@wbennomartens) from LGHL answered five of my questions about Buckeye Baseball. Here are my questions and Ben's respones.

1. Ohio State wasn't on too many people's radar at the beginning of the season. What has this team done to exceed most pundits' expectations?

Coming in to the season, I think the common belief was that this was a team that was still a year away. In a lot of ways, Ohio State's performance has served as vindication for Greg Beals and his staff. Beals took a lot of criticism in his first four years on the job after taking over for the legendary Bob Todd. It's taken a little time, but the Buckeyes have rebuilt the talent and depth up and down the roster.

Consistency of the pitching staff has been huge. The weekend rotation of Tully, Lakins, and Riga hasn't missed a start all season, and all three have been incredibly solid. Ohio State already has 22 quality starts as a team. The bullpen has been lights out, too. In the last 11 games, the relievers have allowed one earned run.

The team hasn't lost a midweek game this season (as of this writing), and they've had seven last at-bat wins. This is a direct result of the work the staff has done on the recruiting trail. Ohio State now has the pitching depth to throw quality arms on weeknights without depleting the bullpen.

2. Can you tell me a bit about Trace Dempsey? How does your closer also end up with nine wins?

Dempsey broke Ohio State's career saves record earlier this season, and was a third-team All-American following his sophomore year when he led the Big Ten with 17 saves. He has a sidearm delivery and a sinker that has good action in the 88-91 range on the gun. He's been a great leader, and someone that the Buckeyes rely on heavily. When games are close late, not even necessarily save situations, Beals does not hesitate to bring Dempsey in.

As a result of all of those late-inning, last at-bat, walk-off types of wins the team has had this year, the 9-1 record is just a matter of circumstance. Having your closer lead the team in wins was probably not how Ohio State or Dempsey envisioned the season playing out, but it speaks to the team's confidence in him in pressure situations.

3. OSU loves to run. Are the Buckeyes a team that thrives on manufacturing runs?

This is definitely what I would call a small-ball team. There are guys in the lineup who have home run power, but this is mostly a gap-to-gap team. With so much team speed, the fundamentals and situational hitting are really important. Starting runners, bunting guys over, advancing the extra base on a single. The Buckeyes have been very effective in doing the little things to put runs on the board.

It all starts with Troy Montgomery at the top of the order. He's leading the Big Ten in stolen bases and near the top in runs scored, and his speed is really disruptive. The overall team speed is a big advantage for Ohio State. Collectively, the Buckeyes are scoring about a half a run more per game than last season, and team batting average, slugging, and on-base percentage are all significantly higher.

4. Which freshman has shown the most potential? Other than Pat Porter, which position player has shown the greatest growth this season?

The position player who's growth I've been most impressed with is Troy Montgomery. He had a solid summer after his freshman season, and has taken ownership of both center field and the leadoff spot. He's currently hitting about 80 points higher than last season, and in addition to leading the team in on-base percentage and all of the stolen bases, he's actually second on the team in slugging.

Among the freshmen, I think Tre' Gannt has the opportunity to be a really special player. His speed is a complete game-changer, and he's shown in his first year that he knows how to play. Since being inserted into the starting lineup as the DH in Ohio State's big midweek win against Louisville last month, Gantt has definitely given the team a spark, hitting .382 in his ten starts.

5. In order to beat Ohio State, Maryland is going to have to ___________________?

Take advantage of opportunities if the Buckeyes don't play a clean game defensively. Ohio State showed against Illinois last weekend that it can be susceptible to miscues, and the Illini made them pay for it. If the Terps capitalize on those and can turn in a big inning or two as a result, they'll be in good shape.

How to Follow

Projected starters (subject to change):
Friday 6:35 p.m. Mike Shawaryn (10-1, 1.71 era) vs. SO LHP Tanner Tully (4-3, 3.58 era)
Saturday 3:05 p.m. Robert Galligan (2-3, 2.77 era) vs. SO RHP Travis Lakins (3-3, 3.55 era)
Sunday 1:05 p.m. Brian Shaffer (4-0, 4.97 era) vs. SR LHP Ryan Riga (5-3, 2.30 era)

Video: Fri, Sat at OSU's streaming video ($$$), Sunday on BTNplus (subscription required)
Audio: Maryland Baseball Network
Stats: Game Tracker
Twitter: @terpsbaseball and @mercator88