After the Buckeyes lost game one of a doubleheader at Minnesota, they sat at 11-11 in the conference with a pair of teams breathing down their necks for the last spots in the tournament. To clinch a berth in the event at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus, the Buckeyes likely needed to finish with two wins to complete their first series win in Minneapolis since 1949.
So, calmly, the Buckeyes went out and did it. They claimed the second game of the doubleheader by a 5-1 score, sat through a rainout the next day and then won the series and season finale by a 3-0 score.
"Really, the thing I like most is Saturday we decided our fate ourselves on the field," first-year head coach Greg Beals said. "We took care of business in what was pretty much a must-win game, and we played maybe our cleanest game that we've played all season in that big situation."
Though other results around the Big Ten confirmed OSU's trip to the Big Ten tournament before the final out was recorded in Target Field, the win vs. the Golden Gophers – well, the last two, really – showed a trait the Buckeyes have cultivated all year: the ability to bounce back from adversity.
That started in week one, when OSU brushed off two season-opening losses to beat nationally ranked St. John's for the first win of the Beals era. Over spring break, the Buckeyes lost five straight games and sat through three days washed out by rain before closing the trip with a win against a rising Cal State Bakersfield squad.
In the Big Ten, OSU (25-25, 13-11) has had its share of close, heartbreaking losses but rarely let them fester. To close the year, Ohio State avoided a sweep vs. Iowa at home in a near must-win situation and then went to Minneapolis to post the crucial series victory.
"It's fun to be a part of it," senior shortstop Tyler Engle said. "Once you start believing it's going to happen, it'll happen for you. Everybody has bought into their roles, and we're a fun team to play with."
Throughout the year, the players have credited much of that never-give-up nature to the youthful, exuberant coaching staff. Beals, pitching coach Mike Stafford, assistant Chris Holick and volunteer assistant Josh Newman took over a team of newcomers and inexperienced veterans – OSU returned only three starters on the field from a year ago – and molded them quickly into a unit in their own image.
"Our competitive nature is something we've tried to instill from day one," said Beals, who teamed up with his coaching staff to beat the team's most athletic players in a basketball tournament held one rainy March day in California. "Our coaching staff, if you know us personally, you know what type of competitors we are. I think our team has that tough competitive mind to them."
That competitive nature has helped the team overcome its shortcomings, including inconsistencies in all three arenas of the game this season – offense, pitching and defense. As a team, the Buckeyes were fourth in the league in hitting at .283. Only three Buckeyes finished above .300, led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Josh Dezse, who led all three Triple Crown categories with a .341 average, four homers and 42 RBI. OSU also had a 4.91 team ERA and allowed 64 unearned runs in 50 games.
But when all was added up, the Buckeyes – who were picked sixth in the league to start the season – a tournament bid, something Beals hopes becomes assumed each season.
"It was something that was on our bucket list," Beals said. "It was kind of a must-do. We felt like this was something we needed to do. There was energy around the new coaching staff and the program. Being in the conference tournament is a big part of that. Hopefully we get back to where we were in the ‘90s and the early 2000s where qualifying for the conference tournament is something that we just do."
Of course, winning it to advance to the NCAA tournament would be good too – something Ohio State has done eight times, second most in the league, since the event was established in 1981.
"We're hot, and we can win this thing," Engle said. "No doubt."
OSU Will Win Because Of…
1. Starting pitching. In the last seven games, Ohio State starters Drew Rucinski, Brett McKinney, Greg Greve and John Kuchno have combined to post a 2.65 ERA with 9 walks and 35 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. If that keeps going, the Buckeyes will have the chance to go deep into the tournament.
2. The bullpen: OSU has used righthanders David Fathalikhani, Jared Strayer and Josh Dezse along with southpaw Andrew Armstrong with success for most of the season. Combined, the four have 104 appearances, an 11-5 record, seven saves and a 3.94 ERA.
3. That never-say-die attitude. The Buckeyes could have folded their tent many times this year but instead chose to battle back each time. May wins against North Florida, No. 19 Oklahoma State, Iowa and Minnesota came after losses that could have been gutting, and that spirit will come in handy should OSU reach the losers bracket.
OSU Will Not Because Of…
1. Defense. Ohio State committed 76 errors, second most of any team in the tournament. Engle led the way with 16, while third baseman Matt Streng had 12, second baseman Ryan Cypret had 11 and catcher Greg Solomon had 11 as well. The Buckeyes had only 13 error-less games in 50 tries, though OSU did not commit an error in the last four league contests.
2. The bullpen: Slightly worrying is the fact that all four of the above relievers had at least one tough outing in May in a crucial situation. Now, that happens to every pitcher, but the memories are close enough to make one wonder if the load carried by the quartet of relievers has taken its toll.
3. Inconsistency: Ohio State had a pair of three-game Big Ten winning streaks this year but none longer, while the Buckeyes also had a pair of three-game losing streaks as well. The fact of the matter is the Buckeyes haven't often showed the ability to rip off long streaks either way, and a big run of winning is necessary to get to the end of the road.
No. 1 Illinois (25-25, 15-9)
Vs. Ohio State: 2-1 in Champaign
Picked ninth in the Big Ten to start the season, the Fighting Illini started 4-6 in league play before finishing the slate on an 11-3 run, including a five-game winning streak to end the campaign that allowed them to earn the top overall seed. Illinois led the Big Ten with 87 steals and was second in the league in fielding.
All-Big Ten: C Adam Davis (second team), .294/.352/.437, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 14 SB; 2B Pete Cappetta (second team), .333/.417/.450, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 14 SB; SS Josh Parr (second team), .326/.378/.416, 0 HR, 28 RBI; OF Willie Argo (third team), .273/.377/.393, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 21 SB; OF Casey McMurray (third team), .255/.347/.349, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 22 BB, 8 K; RP Wes Braun (third team), 2-0, 0.49 ERA, .136 BA, 18.1 IP.
Quote: "It's been an interesting year. Going into the season I really thought we could contend for a Big Ten title. As the year started out and we got halfway through, we struggled tremendously. I'm very pleased with where we're at. The one great thing about this team is at no point did they ever waver on their dedication and their work ethic." – head coach Dan Hartleb
No. 2 Michigan State (34-19, 15-9)
Vs. Ohio State: 1-2 in Columbus
MSU was among the top teams in the Big Ten all season and boasts a number of the conference's top individual honorees. Led by all-time school hits leader Brandon Eckerle, the Spartans won their fourth Big Ten title in school history. MSU leads the league in hitting (.322) and committed the fewest errors in the league (51).
All-Big Ten: 1B Jeff Holm (Player of Year, first team), .379/.443/.607, 9 HR, 61 RBI, 20 SB, 25 BB; SP Kurt Wunderlich (Pitcher of Year, first team), 9-2, 3.36 ERA, 26 BB, 60 K; 2B Ryan Jones (first team), .350/.451/.458, 1 HR, 26 RBI, 17 2B, 32 BB, 12 K, 11 SB; 3B Torsten Boss (first team), .369/.440/.601, 7 HR, 57 RBI, 16 2B; OF Eckerle (first team), .386/.433/.428, 0 HR, 19 RBI, 21 SB, 18 BB, 16 K; SP Tony Bucciferro (first team), 8-2, 3.22 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 14 BB, 61 K, 3 CG; DH Jared Hook (third team), .348/.402/.398, 0 HR, 27 RBI; RP Tony Wieber (third team), 5-0, 3.54 ERA, 7 SV, 40.2 IP, 37 K.
Quote: "It's been a long time since (our last title) in 1979, so to get a chance to be part of something special where we're going to be remembered along with that '79 team and two others that have won championships is really overwhelming." – Coach of the Year Jake Boss
No. 3 Purdue (36-18, 14-10)
Vs. Ohio State: DNP
Purdue has qualified for the tournament for the fourth straight time, the longest streak of any Big Ten team. Manager Doug Schreiber is known for liking small-ball action on the offensive end, but this Purdue squad is second in the league with a .312 average to go with a conference-high 163 extra-base hits. The Boilers come in having swept Iowa to finish the season.
All-Big Ten: C Kevin Plawecki (first team), .355/.442/.455, 2 HR, 38 RBI, 18 BB, 10 K; OF Barrett Serrato (first team), .320/.411/.430, 2 HR, 42 RBI, 31 BB; OF Tyler Spillner (second team), .323/.410/.450, 3 HR, 31 RBI, 17 2B, 30 BB, 11 SB; RP Nick Wittgren (second team), 2-3, 3.33 ERA, 12 SV, 1.14 WHIP, 48.2 IP, 52 K; 3B Cameron Perkins (third team), .351/.417/.559, 8 HR, 53 RBI, 4 3B, 11 SB; OF Stephen Talbott (third team), .306/.398/.419, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 16 SB.
Quote: "We've got a catcher now that's a finalist for the top 13 catchers in the country. We have our closer is listed on a national stopper list. We're pretty excited about what we're doing, and we have only three seniors on this team." – Schreiber
No. 5 Minnesota (22-22, 13-11)
RPI: 136 Vs. Ohio State: 1-2 in Minneapolis
Minnesota nearly made a Super Regional last year but lost a lot, and that includes a home field – the Metrodome was rendered unplayable by a winter roof collapse, leading to massive scheduling headaches. The Gophers are ninth in the league in hitting (.253) but are second in ERA (3.97) and second in fielding.
All-Big Ten: SS A.J. Pettersen (first team), .335/.392/.412, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 15 BB, 16 K, 8 SB; RP Scott Matyas (first team), 1-0, 1.95 ERA, 10 SV, 0.66 WHIP, 27.2 IP, 6 BB, 38 K; 1B Nick O'Shea (third team), .307/.353/.514, 6 HR, 27 RBI, 11 BB, 15 K; SP T.J. Oakes (third team), 5-5, 3.45 ERA, 20 BB, 49 K.
Quote: "The only normal part of our season was it was abnormal. We've had lots of challenges. I complement our kids. They've shown some toughness all year. They've never complained about it. I don't think it's difficult to come back and play the same team again. We know a lot about each other. You don't have to do much homework." – head coach John Anderson
No. 6 Penn State (32-20, 12-12)
Vs. Ohio State: 2-1 in State College
The Nittany Lions went 4-2 in the last two Big Ten weekends to clinch the last spot in the tournament. Penn State led the league in pitching, posting a 3.28 ERA that was more than half a run better than the next competitor. The Nittany Lions also led the field with 33 homers – which was mitigated by a league-high 416 strikeouts.
All-Big Ten: OF Sean Deegan (first team), .338/.402/.638, 12 HR, 40 RBI, 18 2B, 5 3B, 14 SB; SP Steven Hill (second team), 6-4, 2.20 ERA, 11.6 WHIP, 11 BB, 58 K, 4 CG; SP John Walter (third team), 6-3, 2.94 ERA, .234 BA, 52 BB, 57 K
Quote: "I really like our team still. We're excited to be in this thing. One of our older kids said, ‘Hey, it's a new season.' We're in a new season right now." – head coach Robbie Wine
Game Schedule (All on BTN)
Game 1: No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Minnesota, 12:05 p.m.
Game 2: No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 6 Penn State, 3:35 p.m.
Game 3 (elimination): Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 12:05 p.m.
Game 4: Winner Game 1/2 vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 3:35 p.m.
Game 5: Winner Game 1/2 vs. No. 1 Illinois, 7:05 p.m.
Game 6 (elimination): Loser Game 4/5 vs. Winner Game 3, 12:05 p.m.
Game 7 (elimination): Loser Game 4/5 vs. Winner Game 6, 3:35 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 7:05 p.m.
Game 9 (elimination): Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 3:35 p.m.
Game 10 (championship game 1): Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday (if necessary)
Game 11 (championship game 2): Rematch of Game 10, 12:05 p.m.