One year ago, the Buckeyes needed a good performance in the final weekend of the regular season to quality for the Big Ten tournament. Instead, OSU lost two of three to Minnesota in Columbus and fell short of the postseason event in Bob Todd's final season.
This time around, the stakes are similar. Ohio State enters a three-game set at the Golden Gophers to close the regular season on the right side of the tournament bubble, but the Scarlet and Gray's spot is as precarious as can be. The Buckeyes are in a fourth-place tie with Purdue and Indiana, one game ahead of seventh-place Penn State, 1½ ahead of Northwestern and two ahead of Iowa.
Two wins should be enough, but it's safe to say all three games will be huge for the Buckeyes. Add in the rivalry aspect and the thirst for payback and the games today and tomorrow in Target Field are as big as they get for Ohio State baseball.
"It's a big weekend," senior shortstop Tyler Engle said. "We've always had it out with Minnesota. We don't really get along with them that well, but we get to play at Target Field. It'll be a great atmosphere, and I don't plan on it being my last week here."
As Engle alluded to, the teams have a long history of rivalry, one that became fierce in the era in which Todd and longtime Minnesota coach John Anderson ruled the league. The two schools have combined to win 15 conference tournament titles and 13 regular-season titles since 1988. In all, Minnesota holds a taut 82-79-2 advantage in the series.
This season, the Golden Gophers are tied for second in the league, entering with a record of 12-9 just one game ahead of OSU. Second baseman A.J. Pettersen leads the team with a .347 average, while first baseman Nick O'Shea has five homers and 25 RBI for the light-hitting Gophers. On the hill, all three weekend starters have been solid, led by Phil Isaksson's 2.97 ERA, and closer Scott Matyas has been nothing short of dominating with 10 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 27.2 innings.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has yet to win a conference road series and has lost four of six in league play, including two of three to Iowa last weekend. The good news is that the Buckeyes won the series finale by a 10-4 mark, perhaps gaining some momentum on the way to the Twin Cities.
"We need to go up there and get that elusive road series win," head coach Greg Beals said. "If we do that we'll be in great position going into the tournament."
The teams will play a doubleheader today before completing the series tomorrow night at 7 p.m. in a game that will be shown live on the Big Ten Network.
Greve Is Gravy
There's a good chance that Ohio State will take the field Friday in need of a win – and with a true freshman on the mound.
However, Beals has plenty of faith in Greg Greve, who is in his first year with the Buckeyes after prepping at Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit. That faith was rewarded in last Sunday's win against Iowa in which Greve threw five scoreless innings bisected by a two-hour rain delay.
"It was a big game and the freshman handled it," Beals said. "He's pitched in big games in high school, and his high school teams went deep into the state championship playoff the last couple of years. He's been in some big games, but it was a big game for us today and he was good."
For his part, Greve – who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants coming out of high school – admitted nerves but said that was that was a good sign, showing he was in the moment going into what Beals basically labeled as a must-win situation.
"I was definitely nervous," he said. "I wanted to have a good outing for the seniors. I wanted to go out there and put my team in position to win, and I think I did that. I had a fastball down in the zone, which was big, and I threw some good sliders too."
That excellent outing was the second in three starts for Greve, who also gave up only a single run in seven innings to lead OSU to a sweep-clinching win vs. Michigan on April 30. In between, he went only 2.2 innings at Illinois, showing the typical inconsistencies found in freshmen.
However, it's safe to say Ohio State will take the 4-3 record the team has posted in his Big Ten starts, while Greve's 1-1 record and 4.36 ERA are solid for a game three starter.
Reaching Their Goal
Before the season, observers weren't sure what to expect out of Ohio State. With Beals in his first year in charge and the team returning only three position players and boasting 15 newcomers, there was plenty of doubt as the Buckeyes kicked off the season in February.
However, at the time, Beals did set one goal – make the postseason tournament, to be held at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus.
"We need to be at that level," Beals said. "We know that the tournament is here in downtown. What a great venue that is, and we need to find a way to get ourselves into that tournament. That's a major goal of mine."
Now, the Buckeyes are just one weekend away.