Ohio State softball manager Kelly Kovach Schoenly didn’t arrive in Columbus with designs on building the deepest pitching rotation in the Big Ten.

Injuries and other issues forced Schoenly to duct-tape together a staff that combined for 34 wins in 2013, her first year with the Buckeyes.

“We had a couple girls (hurting) when I first got here,” she explained. “I would tell them, ‘Let’s get one time through the (batting) order. Can you get me nine batters? You won’t have to see the same kid twice.’ It was a pitch-by-committee approach so their arms could last the whole season.”

Out of necessity has grown a diverse rotation that includes four starters, a rarity in the conference and a strength the Buckeyes hope to use this weekend in the Big Ten tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The third-seeded Buckeyes (33-15) open play tonight against Wisconsin.

Ohio State finished the regular season with a 2.42 ERA — third-best in the conference — and had three starters ranked among the circuit’s top 10 in that category.

“I think it’s more of a relief that the pressure isn’t on one or two people to get it done,” said Lena Springer, who sports an 8-4 record and 2.79 ERA. “We have five people who, at any given moment, can get the job done for us.”

Shelby Hursh (14-5, 2.30 ERA) leads a rotation that almost never starts the same pitcher twice during a three-game weekend. Beyond keeping arms fresh — no one on the staff  threw more than seven complete games — the Buckeyes like to think it gives them an advantage by not letting the opposition get a chance to see a pitcher too often. Ohio State went 6-1 in Sunday conference games.

A rotation of Hursh, Springer, Shelby McCombs (6-1, 2.46), Morgan Ray (5-4, 2.08) and Kat Duvall (0-1, 3.00) provides the Buckeyes with an array of options. Some pitchers throw fast, others rely on movement and still others fool hitters with off-speed offerings.

“We all contribute differently,” McCombs said. “We all have different strengths.”

Schoenly, a former All-America pitcher at the University of Michigan, preferred a three-pitcher rotation, but when Springer and McCombs transferred to Ohio State several years ago, the coach made more room on her staff.

“When someone says they want to come to Ohio State with that skill set and talent, I couldn’t turn them away,” Schoenly said.

Most good pitchers want to throw as often as possible, but the Buckeyes have been willing to sacrifice innings for wins. Hursh paces the club with 118.2 innings. By contrast, Michigan staff ace Megan Betsa (23-7, 1.18) has thrown 207 innings.

Although the Buckeyes are a good bet to earn an NCAA at-large bid, they head to Ann Arbor wanting to win the conference crown. Minnesota, riding a 22-game winning streak, is the clear favorite. But anything can happen in a weekend tournament, and if pitching depth becomes a factor, Ohio State is well-positioned.

 

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