Buckeyes Aim For B1G Title Run

The Ohio State baseball team had visions of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but a rough start to Big Ten play quickly ended that goal. With the regular season complete, the seventh-seeded Buckeyes head to the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, Neb., looking to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament via a conference tournament title.

Members of the Ohio State baseball team are not shy about discussing their lofty preseason goals or admitting that, to this point, they've fallen short of where they planned to be.

The Buckeyes pieced together a solid non-conference schedule designed to bolster their RPI in the hopes of landing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They emerged from that slate in good position, and their RPI hovered in the low 30s after they won their first Big Ten series against Michigan State.

Just six games later, the possibility of an at-large bid was wiped off the board. Ohio State was swept by 2013 College World Series participant and reigning Big Ten champion Indiana, an offense that would have been less grave had it not happened at Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus. The next weekend, the Buckeyes traveled to Nebraska and suffered a devastating sweep in which the Cornhuskers won three straight one-run games in their final at-bat.

More than a month later, Ohio State bolsters an RPI of 119, sandwiched between Virginia Military Institute and Tennessee Tech.

"We started out our season with the idea of representing Ohio State University in the NCAA Tournament, and that's what we wanted to do," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. "We thought with our strength of schedule, had we been able to play the way that we wanted to and the way our season started out, that we might have a chance at an at-large. Obviously, that fell quickly in Nebraska. So hopefully we have a better weekend in Nebraska than our last weekend in Nebraska."

While most teams dream of playing in Omaha for the College World Series, Ohio State heads to Nebraska's largest city for the Big Ten Tournament just hoping to earn an invitation to the dance. The No. 7 seed Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them to win the title, and the first round offers them a chance for revenge against the second-seeded Cornhuskers. With Lincoln less than an hour away, TD Ameritrade Park (capacity: 35,000) will likely be a sea of red over the next five days.

With the Big Ten tournament expanding to eight teams this year, it will follow the same format as the College World Series -- there will be two pods of four teams each, with the winners of each double-elimination bracket facing off for the league's postseason crown.

BSB breaks down the other three teams in OSU's pod, starting with opening opponent Nebraska. (RPIs listed are from Boyd Nation).

No. 2 Nebraska (37-18, 18-6)
RPI: 27
Vs. Ohio State: 3-0 in Lincoln
Darin Erstad's crew should be NCAA bound after staying within shouting distance of Indiana until the final weekend of the Big Ten regular season. After a choppy start, the Huskers won 22 of their last 27 games, including eight of the last nine in league play. One of three conference teams to top 300 runs on the season, Nebraska finished second in the league in batting at .296 and led the league with 201 walks. The team's 3.56 ERA is sixth in the league, though.
First-team All-Big Ten: 2B Pat Kelly, .319/.380/.427, 4 HR, 51 RBI, .989 fielding; OF Michael Pritchard, .318/.382/.488, 19 2B, 4 3B, 3 HR, 42 RBI; SP Chance Sinclair, 9-1, 1.88 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 1 HRA

No. 3 Illinois (31-19, 17-7)
RPI: 52
Vs. Ohio State: DNP
Illinois is fighting for its lives as an NCAA bubble team despite two early wins vs. RPI No. 2 Florida. Unfortunately for the Illini, it was just 12-12 in the rest of its nonleague games, but the Orange and Blue posted regular-season sweeps of Northwestern, Michigan State and Iowa before losing the second seed on the final day of the campaign when it fell in extra innings at Nebraska. Illinois hits .273 as a team, fifth in the league, and its ERA of 3.22 places fourth while the squad issued the least walks of any Big Ten team.
First-team All-Big Ten: None.

No. 6 MSU (29-24, 11-13)
RPI: 101
Vs. Ohio State: 1-2 in Columbus
Michigan State will try to advance on the strength of its pitching, as the team's 3.12 ERA finished second in the league behind champ Indiana. Unfortunately, the team's fielding percentage of .969 placed tied for eighth. MSU hit .270 as a team, sixth in the league, and led the way with 83 steals. The Spartans were swept by the Illini in Champaign during the regular season, losing three one-run games, but did sweep Penn State to finish things off.
First-team All-Big Ten: OF Jimmy Pickens, .324/.428/.489, 5 HR, 34 RBI, 10 2B, 3 3B, 30 BB, 21 SB
-Jeff Svoboda

"I think it's cool that we get to play there," said freshman outfielder Ronnie Dawson, a Grove City native who leads the Buckeyes with a .400 on-base percentage. "Not everybody gets to play there. Hopefully we play our best. I'm hoping we get it together and start rolling like we did at the beginning of the year. If we do that, we can be deadly. Just to get a chance to get a taste of Omaha, hopefully we get back there."

Although he's a freshman, this won't be Dawson's first Big Ten Tournament experience. Two years ago, while working with the Columbus Clippers, Dawson served as a batboy when the tournament was played at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus.

"I was down there when Ohio State was playing," he said. "Just seeing Purdue – that's when Purdue was the big dogs – it was just eye-opening. Now I'm actually playing in the tournament that I was watching as a junior in high school."

There will be no time for wide eyes for the young Buckeyes, who feature just three seniors in starting pitcher Greg Greve, relief pitcher Tyler Giannonatti and outfielder Tim Wetzel. They'll need big performances from freshmen like Dawson and starting pitcher Tanner Tully (2.08 ERA), who was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year on Tuesday and figures to start against Nebraska.

"We have to shift into that mind-set that when you go into a tournament, there's only going to be one team that wins," Beals said. "There's going to be seven teams that go home disappointed, and we can't spend a single second between now and then worrying about being one of the teams going home. We have to spend every minute just going out and trying to win.

"This team is going to be challenged to do that. We're not going to be the most talented team in Omaha. We're going to be challenged to do that. So we're going to have to do it with our mind-set, and offensively, we have to get rid of some things and not carry over at-bats. We just have to go out and kind of let it all hang out and go for it."

One thing Beals views as a positive is that the tournament obviously won't mirror Big Ten play with three-game series. Instead, it will look like the first three weekends of the season, when OSU faced three or four different teams in as many days and amassed a 7-3 record over that span.

"The tournament acts as your second chance and another opportunity for us and basically a new season," Beals said. "It's four games. We can go there and get crazy and play our tails off for four games, and who knows what will happen?"

Game Schedule (all times EDT)
Game 1: No. 6 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Illinois, 10 a.m.
Game 2: No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Nebraska, 2 p.m.
Game 3: No. 8 Iowa vs. No. 1 Indiana, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 4: No. 5 Michigan vs. No. 4 Minnesota, 10 p.m. (BTN)

Game 5 (elimination): Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 10 a.m.
Game 6 (elimination): Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4, 10 p.m. (BTN)

Game 9 (elimination): Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, 4:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 10 (elimination): Loser 8 vs. Winner Game 6, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)

Game 11: Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, 10 a.m. (BTN)
Game 12: Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Game 13 (if necessary): Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 14: (if necessary): Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, 10 p.m. (BTN)

Championship: Winner Game 11/13 vs. Winner Game 12/14, 2 p.m. (BTN)

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