Unfortunately, the Buckeyes ran into a team Thursday night that can beat them at their own game.
Big Ten regular-season champion Illinois won its fifth straight game in its last at bat, scoring four runs in the ninth to overturn a 4-1 deficit and capture a 5-4 win in Game 5 of the Big Ten tournament late Thursday evening.
With the win, Illinois moves on to a semifinal matchup with co-champion Michigan State on Friday evening in Huntington Park, while fourth-seeded OSU will face fifth-seeded Minnesota at noon in an elimination game in downtown Columbus. It will be the fifth matchup between the teams in a week's time.
OSU appeared to have wrapped up its win with three runs in the eighth inning, but Illinois got to closer Josh Dezse – a freshman who was tasked with picking up a two-inning save for the first time – for all four runs in the ninth. Center fielder Willie Argo tied the score with a single and Davis Hendrickson followed with another base hit to end the contest and set off a raucous celebration while Ohio State was forced to trudge off the field.
The game started as a pitching duel between a pair of sophomore righthanders, OSU's Brett McKinney and Illinois' Kevin Johnson. McKinney went six innings and allowed one run, while Johnson went 7.2 and gave up all four.
However, the Illini starter was excellent through the first seven innings, allowing only a single run when OSU senior Brian DeLucia lined a home run to the deepest part of the park to start the fourth. That run answered an RBI single by Justin Parr in the third that scored brother Josh Parr and gave Illinois a 1-0 lead.
Reliever Jared Strayer struck out three in the seventh as the game went to the eighth tied at 1, and OSU again blew up in that frame for the second night in a row.
Left fielder David Corna opened the inning with a walk, and one batter later catcher Greg Solomon sent a low liner to center field. Argo raced forward and dove but missed the ball completely, then fell trying to get up and helplessly watched it roll all the way to the wall. Hendrickson came over from right field but Solomon beat the throw home, slamming into catcher Aaron Davis before swiping at the plate.
DeLucia – who had his 10th outfield assist of the year in the second inning – helped OSU add to the lead, singling with two outs, stealing second and coming home on freshman center fielder Tim Wetzel's RBI single.
From there, OSU head coach Greg Beals decided to bring in Dezse for the start of the eighth, and the freshman hit a batter and walked another but got out of the inning when first baseman Brad Hallberg made a great scoop at first base on Josh Parr's grounder to short.
The Buckeyes went quickly in the ninth, and Pete Cappetta led off the Illini half of the frame with a double that short-hopped the wall in left. Justin Parr followed with an RBI single off the first-base bag that made it 4-2.
After Davis grounded out, Brandon Hohl singled in Parr to make it 4-3 before leaving for pinch-runner Pat Sheehan. Dezse coaxed a fly out from Casey McMurray and had Matt Dittman down to the last strike, but the Illinois first baseman worked a walk to keep the rally alive.
Next up, Argo singled to right to tie the score at 4, with Sheehan beating DeLucia's throw home as it sailed just a bit up the first-base line. Finally, after 55 pitches and with his velocity dropping, Dezse was removed for Andrew Armstrong, but the southpaw was greeted on the first pitch by Hendrickson with a bouncing single to center that allowed Dittman to score the winning run.
Dezse fell to 4-2 and gave up four runs in the ninth for the third time in Big Ten play. Chris Pack got the win for Illinois, improving to 7-1.
Cappetta, Justin Parr and Argo each had three hits for UI, while DeLucia was the only Buckeye with two. Illinois banged out 14 hits to OSU's six.