When Drew Rucinski arrived at Ohio State in 2008 as part of a ballyhooed class of freshman pitchers, his goal was to be on the mound on Friday nights, the marquee night for college baseball studs around the country.
“Obviously it was,” he said. “Who doesn’t have that goal? That’s where you want to be.”
Now a senior, Rucinski has slid seamlessly into that role as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 starter this season. Ohio State has won four of his six Big Ten starts on the way to a tie for third place in the league going into a three-game series that starts tonight against Iowa at Bill Davis Stadium.
“He’s taken it to the other teams on Friday night, and against their No. 1 he’s given us a great opportunity,” head coach Greg Beals said. “He’s been awfully tough in the Big Ten season.”
Overall, Rucinski is 5-1 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.26 WHIP heading into tonight’s start. In 60.1 innings over 10 starts, Rucinski has struck out 40 while walking only 15, and he’s kept opposing batters to a .271 batting average.
And considering his Big Ten stats are eerily similar – 3-0 with a 2.54 ERA – the righthander has to be in the discussion for the league’s Pitcher of the Year award.
“I hope I get there, obviously,” he said. “You don’t worry about it. You go out there and do the best you can, and you want to hopefully be rewarded for doing the best you can.”
If Rucinski is able to pull out the award, he would join good company at Ohio State. Buckeye hurlers have won the honor seven times in the 17 years it has been awarded, with first-round draft pick Alex Wimmers – whom Rucinski has replaced as the Buckeyes’ ace – capturing the trophy each of the past two seasons.
“It would be sweet,” he said. “It’s a tradition here and I’ll hopefully be the next guy. That would be cool.”
His success in his final campaign should come as no surprise. Rucinski got his feet wet as a freshman in 2008 upon arrival from Broken Arrow, Okla., and became a dependable reliever a season later, going 12-2 in 36 appearances as OSU made the NCAA tournament.
Rucinski was well on his way to a solid 2010, too, starting in the bullpen and moving into the rotation before suffering a blister problem on his throwing hand that led to a string of disastrous outings near the end of the season.
Improved health has been one of the reasons behind his dominant 2011 along with a few other factors. Now in his second year as a starter, Rucinski is more comfortable in that role, and he credits pitching coach Mike Stafford and volunteer assistant Josh Newman for helping him polish his mechanics.
“I’m attacking hitters, letting the defense work, getting ahead in the count and just really filling up the strike zone,” he said. “I know the guys behind me are going to make the play, so on a 1-2 count I’m not always looking for the strikeout. I just let them put it in play sometimes instead of walking guys.”
That approach has earned him plaudits from the fielders behind him.
“He’s a guy who’s going to go out there and work fast,” third baseman Matt Streng said. “He’s gonna throw strikes, he’s going to change speeds. He keeps the defense on our toes, so we know when we’re out there that we’re going to get plays, but that’s how we like it.”
Iowa On Tap
Going into the three-game set with Iowa, Ohio State couldn’t have gotten much more of a momentum boost than it did Wednesday night with a 3-2, come-from-behind win at Bill Davis Stadium vs. No. 19 Oklahoma State.
“It’s going to push right into Friday,” said cleanup hitter Josh Dezse. “Our momentum is rolling right now. We’re all fired up. We know what we have to do this weekend. If we can play this kind of baseball against a top-20 team, we should be all right against Iowa.”
At 10-8, OSU enters tied for third in the league with Purdue and Illinois, two games ahead of the sixth-place tie of Penn State and Indiana. Iowa and Northwestern are next at 7-11, and the Hawkeyes are 18-27 overall.
Still, it won’t be easy for the Buckeyes this weekend. Iowa ace Jarred Hippen enters with a 3.48 ERA and started a win vs. OSU a year ago on the way to second-team All-Big Ten honors. Saturday starter Matt Dermody is 4-5 with a 4.07 ERA and Sunday man Patrick Lala is 2-4 but boasts a 2.91 ERA.
Junior infielder Mike McQuillan is also worth watching as he boasts team highs with a .329 average, two homers and 28 RBI. As a team, Iowa is hitting .263, eighth in the Big Ten, and has a league-low eight homers.
The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes will play tonight at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 3:05 and Sunday at 1:05.
Dezse is getting it done in all facets of the game. The team’s leader with a .350 overall average, the freshman is hitting .429/.541/.667 with two homers, 24 RBI and 16 walks in 18 Big Ten games. On the hill, he has struck out 12 of the last 14 batters he has faced and hit 100 mph on the radar gun during Wednesday’s win against Oklahoma State.
Streng slumped to start his senior season, but he’s been dialed in since Big Ten play began. In 25 games since April 2, Streng has hit .359 (37 for 103) and gone hitless in only two games. In his last 10 games, Streng has 16 RBI, highlighted by a two-homer, seven-RBI performance May 7 at Illinois. In his current five-game hitting streak, Streng is 9 for 21 (.433).
Sophomore starter Brett McKinney reworked his delivery coming into the season, and that has helped of late. In his last two starts, the Hamilton, Ohio, native has posted a 3.00 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 12 innings pitched. OSU won both of those games vs. Michigan (April 30) and Illinois (May 7).
Catcher Greg Solomon was hitting .346 at the start of Big Ten play, but the sophomore has cooled off considerably since. In the Big Ten slate, Solomon is hitting only .254 along with a .295 on-base percentage, lowest of the OSU regulars. His average is down to .294 in all games, though his 14 doubles and 17 extra-base hits still lead the team.
Tim Wetzel is on a five-game hitting streak and was 2 for 3 on Wednesday vs. Oklahoma State, but in his last 10 games the Buckeyes’ No. 2 hitter is at .216 (8 for 37) with only two walks. Wednesday’s showing was the freshman center fielder’s first multihit game since April 24 at Penn State.
Sophomore first baseman/DH Brad Hallberg has hit a rough patch, going 3 for his last 25 (.120) in 10 appearances. In Hallberg’s stead, true freshman Jacob Hayes made his Big Ten debut last week at Illinois and was 3 for 10 with two runs and a stolen base in two starts.
The Fun Stuff
Ohio State will be hosting its Alumni Weekend, with former baseball players welcomed to Columbus. In particular, the 1991 and 2001 teams that won Big Ten championships will be honored, and the Diamond Club will host its annual barbecue before the Saturday game.
OSU is continuing its stretch of celebrity first pitches before games. The national championship men’s volleyball team will be on hand to do the honor before Friday’s game, and NCAA men’s gymnastics rings champion and Olympic hopeful Brandon Wynn will also get a pitch that night. Cory Cox and Mike Durant, captains of the
2001 and 1991 championship teams, will throw out the first pitch Saturday, while All-America women’s swimmer and Olympic hopeful Samantha Cheverton will do the honors Sunday.
Sunday is also Senior Day, with co-captains Brian DeLucia and Dean Wolosiansky along with Rucinski, Tyler Engle, Theron Minium, Jared Strayer and Streng set to be honored before the game.