Midseason is rapidly approaching, and the Chicago Cubs are still making the rest of Major League Baseball look bad. They’re World Series favorites by a mile according to our Elo predictions — which also have them pegged for 104 wins — and they’ve outscored their opponents by an average of 2.3 runs per game, the most of any team through 70 games since the legendary 1939 Yankees.The Cubs have excelled on offense, scoring the third-most runs in the majors, but to an even greater degree the team owes its extreme success to run prevention. Chicago’s current 2.73 team ERA would be the lowest full-season1So, not counting the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. figure in the designated hitter era (since 1973), and the lowest relative to the MLB average since World War II.This Cubs staff is pretty good at making guys miss — it ranks fifth in the majors in K-BB rate — but that alone isn’t enough to explain such a microscopic ERA. Chicago has also allowed a .254 batting average on balls in play, 42 points below the major-league average and 19 points lower than the next-closest team. If the Cubs were to finish the year that far below the norm, their BABIP would also be the lowest relative to average since World War II. As a byproduct, the gap between Chicago’s ERA and its Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is 0.64 runs, the widest positive gap in the majors.We know of three things that could contribute to such a separation. One is flat-out luck, but the others are a good defense and a pitching staff that induces especially fieldable batted balls. Prior to the advent of Statcast, MLB’s new radar-based motion-tracking system, it was almost impossible to separate the latter two elements, parsing out a pitcher’s impact on batted balls from that of his fellow defenders. But now we can start to unravel those relationships and assign partial credit to each possible factor at work.To do that, we built a couple of models. The first model estimated each MLB pitcher’s effect on the exit velocities and launch angles he allows by comparing his rates to the same hitters’ numbers against all other pitchers.2Specifically, we used two mixed models that incorporate effects for each batter, pitcher and park to predict exit velocity and launch angle. Because 20 to 25 percent of batted balls are missed by the tracking system, all models in this piece imputed missing Statcast data using the average of similarly classified batted balls and outcomes. Then we calculated what would happen if we replaced each team’s actual pitchers with a staff full of generic arms that allowed league-average exit velocities and launch angles. The difference between those actual and generic figures gives us a number of runs attributable to each pitching staff’s contact-management skills, i.e., its tendency to allow batted balls that do less damage.Next, we modeled fielding on a team-by-team basis by estimating how much each batted ball “should” have been worth (in terms of linear-weight run value) based on its exit velocity and launch angle.3This was a random forest model, as described in an earlier piece. Then we compared those estimated values to the actual values of the same batted balls.4Using a separate model to adjust for ballpark effects. If a batted ball with an exit velocity and launch angle that would typically produce a single actually yielded an out, the model credited some of the difference to the defense, which we assume prevented the single through some combination of good range, good hands and good positioning.Finally, we combined those two values into one total figure to see how many runs each team has saved on its balls in play, relative to a team with average contact-management and defense. TEAMFIELDINGPITCHINGTOTAL Angels-6.42.4-4.1 Braves3.1-5.4-2.4 Diamondbacks4.6-23.4-18.8 Reds1.8-49.9-48.1 Pirates-6.815.58.7 Dodgers2.927.330.2 Royals0.5-12.6-12.0 Cardinals6.413.419.8 RUNS SAVED Rangers18.5-6.212.3 Indians6.7-7.1-0.4 Nationals-3.816.312.6 Phillies-3.9-31.2-35.1 Marlins5.3-2.82.5 Twins-12.1-39.0-51.1 Yankees-22.214.171.124 Blue Jays14.16.520.6 Brewers-10.9-3.4-14.4 Giants6.717.524.2 Red Sox9.7-3.85.9 Padres2.4-9.2-6.8 White Sox3.125.428.5 Mariners-0.27.67.4 Cubs12.644.557.1 Mets-4.026.422.3 Rockies9.8-24.9-15.1 There’s a moderate, statistically significant relationship5A correlation coefficient of 0.44. between a team’s ERA-FIP gap and our estimate of its runs saved from contact management and defense. Add in sequencing (as measured by Left on Base Percentage), and we can explain about 60 percent of the difference between a team’s ERA and its FIP. The rest can be chalked up to random variation, plus a variety of smaller factors6Such as the way pitchers influence other batted-ball characteristics (i.e., spray angle), the tendency of good pitch-framing catchers — such as the Cubs’ Miguel Montero and David Ross — to produce more favorable counts and make batters swing at bad pitches (which can’t be hit as hard), and the ability of batters and pitchers to restrict the running game (the rare area in which the Cubs don’t excel). and, admittedly, other unknown elements that we can’t conceive of or are unable to calculate using current data.According to our models, the Cubs’ defense — aided perhaps by data-driven positioning, if not frequent infield shifting — has been the third-best in baseball, behind the Rangers and Blue Jays. But fielding is a relatively small piece of Chicago’s run-preventing puzzle. Its pitching staff’s collective ability to manage contact leads the next-best team by close to 20 runs. As a group, Cubs pitchers have depressed exit velocity by 0.4 miles per hour and launch angle by almost 2 degrees, relative to average.7As of June 19.That leads to a larger takeaway from our models: Leaguewide, the impact of pitchers’ contact management is more than twice that of defense, which seems to contradict the traditional defense-independent pitching theory that most pitchers have little ability to prevent hits on balls in play. (It’s probably no coincidence that the career leader in Inside Edge’s Soft Contact rate is fabled bat breaker Mariano Rivera.) In other words, much of what appears to be good or bad defense might really be good or bad contact management, which can produce easier (or more difficult) fielding opportunities that make certain fielders look better or worse than they are. In theory, only a Statcast-derived defensive stat could account for this heretofore-camouflaged effect.Exit velocity is meaningful even over small samples, but at this early stage of the Statcast Era, we still don’t know enough about how pitchers control contact to say whether the Cubs’ BABIP is sustainable, or if it stems from a conscious pitching (or even pitching-acquisition) approach. As with any extreme observation, it seems safe to expect some regression to the mean for Chicago’s pitchers. Still, we can conclude that the Cubs’ historically low BABIP through their first 69 games isn’t merely luck. One way or another, the Cubs have earned a lot of those outs. Tigers-10.69.9-0.7 Includes games through June 19Source: MLBAM, PitchInfo Astros-10.310.0-0.3 Rays4.2-19.6-15.4 The Cubs Are The Best At Controlling Contact Athletics-5.7-8.8-14.5 Orioles-2.7-4.9-7.7
James Harden, one of the Oklahoma City trio of stars that led the Thunder to the NBA Finals in June, was traded to the Houston Rockets when he refused a $55-million contract extension offer.The news that OKC had broken up its dynamic young core of Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was met with shock around the league. But it came down to money. Harden, an all-star who was a member of the London Olympic gold-medal-winning team, wanted a maximum contract of $60 million. The Thunder, according to reports, offered four years and $55 million.“We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved,” Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.”Finally, OKC made a move, acquiring veteran scoring guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks and a second-round selection, too. Oklahoma City also sent center Cole Aldrich, Dequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Rockets, who will sign Harden to the max deal he sought.Wednesday’s deadline to extend Harden or allow him to become a restricted free agent next July had been hanging over the Thunder from the moment they reported to training camp, but sources told ESPN.com late Saturday the Rockets intended to sign the swingman to the max contract extension he was seeking before Wednesday’s midnight deadline.“We were unable to reach a mutual agreement, and therefore executed a trade that capitalized on the opportunity to bring in a player of Kevin’s caliber, a young talent like Jeremy and draft picks, which will be important to our organizational goal of a sustainable team.”The small-market Thunder had already signed Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to long-term deals, and apparently realized Harden was going to want a bigger salary than they would offer.Harden averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists last season, and joined Durant and Westbrook on the U.S. men’s Olympic team. He struggled badly in Oklahoma City’s loss to Miami in the NBA Finals, but the Thunder felt good about their chances of getting back there with another year of experience for their young stars, all 24 or younger.The Thunder got back a good scorer in Martin, who has averaged 18.4 points in his eight NBA seasons, and a promising young player in Lamb, the No. 12 pick in the draft who helped Connecticut win the 2011 NCAA championship. He led Houston’s summer league team in scoring with 20 points per game.Had the Thunder been able to ink Harden to that $13.5 million annual contract, a franchise playing in the league’s third smallest market would have owed $69 million to just five players next season. That figure would have increased to $72 million in 2014-15 for those same five players.The tax threshold for this season is $70.3 million. Starting next season, teams must pay an incremental rate starting at $1.50 for every dollar they exceed the threshold.“At the end of the day, you have to do the best thing for the organization,” Presti said at his preseason press conference. “That’s what my job is. The day that I stop doing what’s in the best interest of the organization is the day that you should get somebody else.”
Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore learned a valuable lesson in Friday’s game against the Miami Heat, never stand in front of LeBron James when he is going to dunk the basketball.The play happened in the first quarter of the game and watch as LeBron rises high over McLemore for the incredible one-handed jam.“I just went over there to try to take the charge,” McLemore said. “He dunked the ball. Afterwards, I thought I should have just fouled him.”The Heat scored a season high 122 points. They shot 61.4 percent (51- of-83) from the floor, registered 70 points in the paint — also a season high — and netted 32 points on 20 Sacramento turnovers.Miami has won 18 straight contests against Western Conference teams.
OSU then-freshman pitcher Shelby Hursh (19) throws a pitch during a game against Northwestern on April 28, 2014. Credit: Courtesy of OSUThe Ohio State softball team looked to continue and improve on a strong opening weekend when it traveled to the Atlantic Coast Conference/Big Ten Challenge in Atlanta.It turned out to be a split foursome of games as the Buckeyes (5-3) went 2-2, winning both games against the Georgia Tech but falling twice to Syracuse.The Buckeyes’ pitching staff was led by junior Shelby Hursh, who saw action in three of the matchups. Sophomore Shelby McCombs contributed on both sides of the ball, including a walk-off home run in OSU’s second matchup against the Yellow Jackets.Even with key plays throughout the four games, OSU still struggled to bring runners home or get runners on base at all. The Buckeyes left runners stranded in 14 of the 29 innings played over the weekend.Game 1In their first game of the tournament, the Buckeyes shut out Georgia Tech 6-0, moving their overall record to 3-1.Hursh (3-0) pitched her first complete game of the season and struck out 10 Yellow Jackets in her outing.The right-hander’s effort from the mound was greatly supported by OSU’s bats, who got the day going with two solo home runs from senior first baseman Erika Leonard and junior left fielder Alex Bayne in the top of the first inning. Leonard went 3-for-4 after struggling to make big plays the weekend prior.Junior utility player Jess Machovina continued her comeback with a single to center field, which drove in sophomore Becca Gavin, who was a pinch runner in the game.The game-long lead gave some of the Buckeyes, like Gavin, a chance to relieve the starters offensively and see action as either pinch runners or hitters.Georgia Tech remained hitless until the sixth inning, when freshman Jordan Deep singled to right field on a pinch hit. Hursh retired the next two batters, keeping the Yellow Jackets scoreless.In the top of the sixth inning, senior utility player Jayla Saibene scored on a walk, one of five from Georgia Tech freshman pitcher Jenna Goodrich. Goodrich pitched the full seven innings but gave up four earned runs.Despite a comfortable lead heading into the seventh, OSU kept the pressure on, stretching its lead to 6-0 with senior catcher Cammi Prantl’s two-run single. The Yellow Jackets went in order in their final at-bats of the day, solidifying the Buckeyes’ dynamic start to the tournament.Game 2Even though the Buckeyes had a strong showing on Friday, they could not extend their streak in their matchup against Syracuse, losing a pitchers’ duel 1-0.Sophomore third baseman Ashley Goodwin had one of only two hits for OSU, a single to left field. The offense never got going. OSU left runners on base in four innings, all of whom were in scoring position.The Buckeyes’ pitching staff held the Orange to four hits, but freshman Morgan Ray and McCombs could not make up for a slow offense. The duo combined for not only six strikeouts but also four hit batters, including three by McCombs.Syracuse’s only run came in the bottom of the fourth inning, an RBI single by freshman first baseman Hannah Dossett.The Scarlet and Gray’s defense, however, did make key plays to keep the Orange to only one run throughout the rest of the matchup. After the Orange scored, Ray came in to relieve and got out of a bases-loaded situation. Goodwin turned a double play in the next inning, which gave the Buckeyes a renewed spark, but they could not get the run needed to avoid the defeat.Game 3OSU’s second matchup with Georgia Tech ended in a much tighter outcome than their Friday shutout. The two teams went into extra innings after a seven-inning battle, but the Buckeyes eventually came out on top 4-3 on a walk-off home run by McCombs.Georgia Tech went down in order in the top of the first inning, and OSU left the bases loaded after a pair of singles from Bayne and senior shortstop Maddy McIntyre.The Yellow Jackets scored first in the second inning on a single by freshman catcher Kaylee Ellebracht. The inning began when OSU junior Lena Springer hit a batter and the Yellow Jackets’ senior first baseman Courtney Ziese reached on an error.After Georgia Tech took the lead, Hursh came in to relieve Springer. The Yellow Jackets extended their lead to 2-0 with a home run by junior third baseman Jessica Kowalewicz in the top of the fourth.The Buckeyes responded in the bottom of the inning with a two-run homer by Bayne, her second of the weekend. The junior totaled four home runs all of 2015 but already has three after only two weekends.OSU made another change on the mound in the fifth inning, sending Hursh to the bullpen for Ray. Hursh finished her two innings with three strikeouts and two walks.A pair of errors by Georgia Tech in the fifth allowed the Buckeyes to jump ahead 3-2. The Yellow Jackets tied it up in the seventh with a triple by sophomore shortstop Kelsey Chisholm, and the Buckeyes could not capitalize on a single by Goodwin in the bottom of the inning.McCombs came on with one out for Ray in the eighth with Yellow Jackets on first and second base. However, the Buckeye infield made two key outs to get out of the situation and take their turn at the plate.And the Scarlet and Gray made it count, ending the game on the walk-off shot by McCombs. The junior also got the win, giving her a 1-1 split for the day.Game 4The Buckeyes’ final matchup of the tournament was a tight battle with Syracuse, who was coming off an undefeated Saturday with wins against OSU and Purdue.Two consecutive walks gave the Buckeyes their first two baserunners of the game, but a double play by the Syracuse defense kept the game scoreless in the bottom of the second.In a one-out, bases-loaded situation in the top of the fifth, Hursh hit a batter to give the Orange a 1-0 lead. Ray came into the circle to relieve, but the pitching change could not stop Syracuse from scoring another run.OSU could not respond in the bottom of the inning, despite a leadoff triple by McIntyre. Momentum remained with Syracuse when freshman first baseman Andrea Bombace soloed a home run to left field, expanding its lead to 3-0.The Buckeyes responded in the top of the seventh, first with a double by Goodwin to move sophomore pinch runner Cassidy Clough to third. McCombs, playing as the game’s designated hitter, followed up with a one-out, two-run double of her own.After Prantl grounded out to the right side, sophomore pinch runner Maddie Marotti moved to third. Saibene could not take advantage, though, and struck out to give Syracuse the 3-2 win.Hursh and Ray combined for eight strikeouts, compared to only three by Syracuse’s pitchers, senior Jocelyn Cater and sophomore AnnaMarie Gatti. Only three Buckeyes had hits, but all of them were of the extra-base variety.Coming upThe Buckeyes are next scheduled to travel to the University of South Carolina Upstate Tournament from Feb. 26 to 28, where they are slated to play in five games. Their first matchup against Virginia Tech is set to start Friday at 2 p.m.
OSU senior attacker Cian Dabrowski (14) fires a shot in a game against Penn State on April 9. OSU won, 16-13. Credit: Courtesy of OSUA short memory often one of the keys to any successful athlete. The No. 9 Ohio state women’s lacrosse team will have to put that skill to the test as it regroups from a blowout loss and travels to Rutgers for a Thursday evening matchup.The first setback OSU (11-2, 2-1) faced in 55 days was a 15-5 loss at No. 1 Maryland last weekend which ended its nine-game winning streak. If they’re able to bounce back with a win over Rutgers (3-11, 0-3), the Buckeyes would end being no worse than the No. 2 seed in the 2016 Big Ten tournament. Rutgers is coming off a 20-9 loss to Northwestern. The Buckeyes are 3-1 all-time against the Scarlet Knights, as they beat Rutgers 17-7 in the 2015 Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, as well as twice in conference play.A closer look at OSUOSU has decorated players all over the field that play a huge role in the team’s success.Sophomore attacker Molly Wood ranks 13th in the country with 4.7 draws per game and is on track to set an OSU single-season record. Wood is also second on the team with 30 goals, and is one of only two Buckeyes to score a goal in every game this season.Senior attackers Cian Dabrowski and Rainey Hodgson rank in the top five in the Big Ten in almost every offensive category. Dabrowski leads OSU and ranks second in the Big Ten with three goals per game and leads with 4.1 points per match. Hodgson ranks second in the Big Ten with 3.8 points per game and is first with 1.9 assists per contest.Defensively, senior goalkeeper Katie Frederick is 11-2 as a first-year starter. Frederick is third in the conference with 6.46 saves per game.As a team, OSU ranks second in the Big Ten in shot percentage and goals against, and sits third for goals, assists, draw controls and saves.Game time against the Scarlet Knights is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Thursday in Piscataway, New Jersey.Up nextThe Buckeyes are set to return home and get back on the field quickly when they welcome No. 6 Notre Dame to Ohio Stadium at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Anything worth having is worth waiting for.That old maxim applies to both Carlos Hyde’s yearlong wait to take the field with his Ohio State football teammates and also to the wait Buckeye fans have endured to see him suit up.Because when he does suit up, Carlos Hyde is impressive indeed.At an imposing 6-feet-1-inch and 230 pounds, Hyde is the type of big, physical back that gives opposing defensive coordinators fits, as well as any defensive backs unlucky enough to be caught in his path if he breaks into the secondary.The reason for Hyde’s wait is academic, literally. Reports indicate that Hyde did not manage a high enough ACT score to be eligible at the same time as his fellow recruits from last year’s class. He spent some time at the Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia while improving his score and he played on the post-graduate team there. In the process, he missed out on a Big Ten championship season and a Rose Bowl victory. Those should be reasons enough to drive the Naples High School product this season.When Hyde is on the field, he is a force. Over the span of his junior and senior years in high school, Hyde totaled 2,599 rushing yards to go with 29 touchdowns. A year ago, SuperPrep.com had him listed as the No. 61 overall prospect.The general consensus on Hyde amongst the many different recruit-monitoring Web sites is that he is a four-star talent. They all agree that his combination of size and strength will be a valuable asset to the OSU backfield.What remains to be seen is whether it will be as a change-of-pace runner or as a bruising back capable of carrying the ball 20 to 25 times a game, a la former Buckeye Chris “Beanie” Wells.Kevin Noon, managing editor of BuckeyeGrove.com, says the comparisons may not be fair and that Hyde will have a lot of work to do if he is to reach the level of production from Wells’ freshman year, which saw him play a key role in a victory over Michigan.“While Hyde is a physical runner, he is not as fast as Wells was when coming out of Akron Garfield,” Noon said.When Noon refers to Hyde as a physical runner, there is plenty of tape to back it up. Hyde was originally listed as a fullback, and he was adept enough at the position to be listed as the No. 1 fullback prospect in the country by Scout.com and Rivals.com.But OSU coach Jim Tressel and his brother, running backs coach Dick Tressel, envision Hyde as a power-back to complement the speedsters who are already in a crowded OSU backfield.The Buckeyes return running backs by committee Dan “Boom” Herron and Brandon Saine, who handled the bulk of the duty last season, as well as speedster Jaamal Berry. That doesn’t even account for Hyde’s fellow incoming freshman back Roderick Smith.Noon sees Hyde with an advantage, as he is already enrolled at OSU.“He will have a leg up on other members of his class, being a year older,” Noon said. “He will be a solid change of pace for the Ohio State running game, being very unique to the current stable of runners.”Hyde came to the colder climes of Columbus from Naples, Fla. But he was not wholly unfamiliar with Ohio, as he has family in Cincinnati.The temperature change will be the least of Hyde’s worries as he adjusts to play in the physical Big Ten. Like any high school player transitioning to college, he may not be fully prepared for the sheer size of the defensive linemen and linebackers he will be facing on a routine basis. Steve Helwagen of Bucknuts.com thinks he has the skills to handle it.Helwagen describes Hyde as “a big power-back with deceptive fluidity between the tackles.” Helwagen said Hyde appears to be a strictly “north-south” runner when you look at his size, but that he will be able to surprise some with his quick first step.These will all be tools Hyde will need if he wants to join the pantheon of great running backs who have taken the field for the Scarlet and Gray.
The No. 8 North Dakota women’s hockey team swept Ohio State this weekend, winning two physical games by a goal each. OSU coach Jackie Barto sees these close losses as a positive, knowing her team is just one step away from getting over the top. “I thought we competed hard and played six good periods this weekend,” Barto said. The Buckeyes (14-14-2, 8-14-2-2 WCHA) have lost three games to the Fighting Sioux (17-8-3, 15-7-2-0 WCHA) by one goal this season, losing Friday, 4-3, in overtime and Saturday, 3-2. “We need to take that step and get over that last hurdle in these games,” Barto said. “Stay positive, keep working and keep getting after it.” On Saturday the Buckeyes led North Dakota in shots, 32-31, but failed to cash in on five power-play opportunities. “The power play never really got settled,” Barto said. “It’s a combination of winning face-offs, winning battles, outnumbering the puck, having good retrieval skills and then having the poise to set your power play up under pressure.” The referees had to break up a number of skirmishes over the weekend after a few big hits and several rushes on goal left players down on the ice. “We knew we were in a war and we had to battle,” Barto said. “North Dakota’s a physical team and the refs let them play.” Junior forward Laura McIntosh continued to shine, adding two more points to her career assists record and cashing in a goal this weekend. With the Buckeyes down, 1-0, on Saturday, McIntosh led a three-on-one breakaway that featured a nifty pass across the crease to junior defenseman Kelly Wild, who passed it back across the crease where sophomore forward Paige Semenza buried the puck in the net to tie the game. “When everyone gets involved it’s good for the team,” McIntosh said. “I think this weekend we played really well and a lot of people were involved.” The Buckeyes ran out of time in both games, though, as North Dakota scored with seconds left in overtime Friday night, and the Buckeyes failed to score in the third period Saturday. “Getting down to the end of the season we’re just gonna have to keep working hard,” McIntosh said. “Other teams know that we work hard, so if we keep doing that and battling through we’ll be good the rest of the way.” The Buckeyes host Minnesota Duluth (16-7-3, 14-7-3 WCHA) at 7 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday at the OSU Ice Rink. “We need to keep our heads up,” senior defenseman Shannon Reilly said. “We played two awesome games this weekend and we didn’t get the bounces we wanted. I think that we can carry how hard everyone worked and gave 110 percent on every shift into next weekend and then the following weekend to come.”
After struggling through the heart of its season, the Ohio State women’s basketball team finished strong, winning its final nine games and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes (22-9, 10-6 Big Ten) are playing their first game of the tournament in Columbus against the University of Central Florida, the No. 13 seed in the Dayton region. If OSU beats the Knights (22-10, 12-4 C-USA), its second game will be against the winner of No. 5 Georgia Tech (23-10, 9-5 ACC) and No. 12 Bowling Green (28-4, 13-3 MAC), also in Columbus. Led by senior forward Jantel Lavender, four-time Big Ten Player of the Year, the Buckeyes will look to make a run out of Columbus, possibly to meet No. 1 Tennessee (31-2, 16-0 SEC) in Dayton. The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament is UConn (32-1, 16-0 Big East). The Huskies have won the NCAA Tournament championship the past two years, and look to repeat this year out of the Philadelphia region. OSU plays UCF in the first round at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at St. John Arena.
With the Ohio State baseball team coming into the 2011 season with a new coaching staff and six first-time starters in the lineup, it’s imperative that there be senior leadership. Although senior shortstop Tyler Engle came into the year with the most games played for the team, he, like most of his teammates, struggled out of the gate. Engle has played in 190 games for OSU, starting 186. He made his first appearance as a Buckeye in the third game of the season against Seton Hall in 2008. He played his first game as the shortstop two games later, and took over as the starting shortstop that same year, March 9 against Connecticut. Through 18 games this year, OSU had an 8-10 record and was heading into Big Ten play with a weekend series against Northwestern. Engle went 1-for-3 as the Buckeyes had just defeated Xavier, 4-1, in OSU’s home opener. To that point, Engle was batting .214 and had racked up nine errors — both uncharacteristic numbers for the four-year starter. Before this season, Engle was a .252 career hitter and was coming off his best defensive season with just 10 errors. About the time of the Xavier game, Engle said he re-evaluated his season and decided it was time to step up his game as he had done many times for the Scarlet and Gray. He said he knew his days as a Buckeye were numbered. “It kind of hit me that I was having a rough year, and it’s about to end,” Engle said. “I only had so many days left to play as a Buckeye and play ball.” Coach Greg Beals agreed. “They can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they’re trying to push that light further and further away,” Beals said. “They want to play as long as they can, and they’re just playing with great determination.” As Big Ten play began, Engle became a threat with his bat at the bottom of the lineup. He had the second-highest batting average on the team and the highest among Big Ten shortstops this year, .353 against conference opponents. “My approach is different at the plate,” he said. “I like to be more patient than I used to be. I was scared of striking out, and now they’re a part of the game.” Beals said Engle and senior third baseman Matt Streng’s second half of the season made an impact on the team’s young lineup. During that time, Engle raised his batting average to .275, which is tied for fourth on the team. “We need that leadership,” Beals said. “We need those seniors to pull the younger guys that don’t have that experience yet. If you look back four weeks in the season, it has been a huge boost to us.” Engle’s performance in Big Ten games is one of many reasons the Buckeyes were able to get back into the conference tournament a year after they barely missed playing in it. Engle said last year was disappointing and that, although several people counted out OSU early in the season, he is thankful to the coaching staff for keeping the team focused enough to play until the end. “We have a lot of young guys playing, and as a team we have never really thought that way,” Engle said. “The coaches would not allow us to get that way. They deserve a lot of credit for getting our minds right.” The Buckeyes begin the Big Ten Tournament at 12:05 p.m. today against Minnesota, and, for most of the team, it will be the first time playing postseason ball at the Division I level. It will be Engle’s sixth conference tournament game. Engle hails from the small town of Beverly, Ohio, about two hours southeast of Columbus. Playing at a big university such as OSU was a big deal for his hometown. When he signed with the Scarlet and Gray four years ago, it was front-page news in The Marietta Times. He said there would be a big Beverly crowd in the stands at Huntington Park and that he is happy his friends and family will be there. “It’s just a great atmosphere,” Engle said.
The Ohio State men’s basketball team suffered its first home loss of the season Saturday, as Michigan State out-muscled the Buckeyes for a 58-48 win. The loss snapped a 39-game home win streak for OSU and dropped the Buckeyes into a tie atop the Big Ten standings. The Buckeyes struggled shooting all night and the Spartans found their edge inside, totaling 14 offensive rebounds for the game. OSU’s 48-point output was their lowest of the season. “I feel fortunate because I think they missed some shots they normally make,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “Defensively we were as good as we’ve been all year.” MSU senior forward Draymond Green and sophomore center Adreian Payne dominated, combining for each of the Spartans’ first 15 points. It wasn’t until 9:12 remaining in the first half that another MSU player scored a bucket when sophomore Keith Appling hit a 3-pointer to give his team the 18-14 advantage. OSU went on a 3:46 scoring drought that saw MSU take an 8-point lead in the opening period. Sophomore guard Aaron Craft broke the streak with a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer from sophomore forward Jared Sullinger cut the lead to three. The Spartans continued to have success in the paint. Payne followed an MSU miss with his second tip-slam of the game and Sullinger had the ball poked away on the inside on the other end. The turnover by Sullinger — his fifth of the game — occurred with OSU trailing 33-25 with under a minute remaining in the half. An acrobatic layup by Appling gave MSU a 35-25 lead at intermission. “We looked out of synch,” Sullinger said of the Buckeyes’ first-half performance. “We didn’t run our offense.” The Buckeyes cut MSU’s lead to four at one point in the second half, but couldn’t get closer. OSU tried to work the ball into Sullinger down low throughout the final 20 minutes, but the Buckeyes’ big man continued to struggle finding his touch. Sullinger finished the game on 5-of-15 shooting. The rest of the Buckeyes didn’t fare much better as the team connected on just one of their first nine shots of the half. OSU head coach Thad Matta said the shots just weren’t falling. “We opened up the second half. We got the ball at the rim,” Matta said. “We’re getting fouled and it just wasn’t going in.” The Spartans’ lead swelled to 12, but an alley-oop finished by senior guard William Buford brought the sold-out crowd to its feet and cut the lead to 10 with 14:37 remaining. After an Appling layup with 11:48 remaining, the Buckeye defense stepped up and MSU was held scoreless for the next six minutes. Sullinger was able to put in a bucket from the left block and bring OSU’s deficit down to six, 44-38. He then connected again on a baseline jumper to bring OSU within four, but poor shooting killed any chance of an OSU comeback victory — the Buckeyes shot 26 percent from the floor and 13.3 percent from behind the arc. A layup by Green and pair of free throws by Appling again put MSU up by double digits and OSU never threatened again. Sullinger finished the game with 17 points and 16 rebounds, but also had 10 turnovers. He said MSU’s double team gave him trouble. “I wasn’t expecting the double because that’s not what Michigan State shows if you look at the film,” Sullinger said. “They had a great game plan and they stick to their system and that’s what happens when you stick to the system.” Craft added 15 points and was the only other Buckeye to finish in double figures. Payne was the high scorer for the Spartans finishing with 15 points, hitting all six of his shots. The loss drops OSU’s record to 21-4 overall and 9-3 in the conference. Matta said his team needs to move forward. “It’s got to be a learning experience for a relatively young basketball team,” Matta said. “You’ve got to stay together. You’re still sitting atop the conference. As a I told them, we’ll see what kind of team we have tomorrow.” OSU next travels to Minnesota where to take on the Golden Gophers Feb. 14. Tip is for 9 p.m.