Well, mostly. Before swarming the Superdome and AT&T Stadium for the College Football Playoff, Buckeye fans led the nation in attendance at Ohio Stadium. On the same day the men’s basketball team hosted Wisconsin, OSU fans still packed St. John Arena to see the wrestling team win its first Big Ten title since 1951. Even national championships in non-NCAA sports like pistol and synchronized swimming teams drew praise on social media.
But there’s an exception. Thus far, the No. 23 baseball team (which will enter tonight’s game ranked No. 11 in the all-important RPI) hasn’t reaped the benefits of playing for a school with one of the nation’s largest fan bases. Ohio State’s largest home crowd this season has been 1,454 – one tenth of the crowd averaged by national leader LSU – and the Buckeyes have drawn an average of roughly 858 fans. In 21 games at Bill Davis Stadium – where the Buckeyes hold a 17-4 record – OSU has hit the 1,000 mark just six times.
That average puts the Buckeyes well out of reach of qualifying (an average of 1,200 fans is needed) to be listed among the attendance leaders posted by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. As of the April 27 posting, 53 teams averaged 1,200 or more fans per home game. The list places Ohio State’s attendance well behind the likes of also-rans such as South Alabama (RPI No. 114), Texas State (No. 158), Georgia Southern (No. 132) Louisiana Monroe (No. 220) and Hawaii (No. 228).
That needs to change, at least for a few days. On a superb sports weekend that includes the NFL Draft, the Kentucky Derby and the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match, Ohio State fans should also carve out some time to see Ohio State take on No. 8 Illinois, owners of a nation-leading win streak spanning 18 games. It will be the first series between two ranked teams at Bill Davis Stadium since 2009.
The combination of Ohio State’s record and the size of its fan base should be enough to justify the hope for bigger audience numbers than the Buckeyes have produced, even allowing for the significantly worse weather Columbus experiences than its southern peers. But this year, there’s more. One year ago, when the Buckeyes lost 15 games by two or fewer runs, scored less than five runs per game, dropped home contests to Ball State and Dayton and suffered a 17-2 home defeat to Iowa, the title of this column might have been If I Have To Be There, So Should You.
But this year’s group is a legitimately entertaining bunch. Ohio State’s scoring is up by nearly a run per game, its team batting average has jumped to .278 and the Buckeyes collectively own the No. 7 ERA in the country. Head coach Greg Beals is pushing all the right buttons. Inserting new starters Jalen Washington and Tre Gantt into the lineup has paid off brilliantly, and using closer Trace Dempsey in tie games in addition to traditional save situations has led to a 9-1 record for the senior closer. OSU is 21-0 when leading after seven innings, has four wins in 13 chances when trailing after seven innings and is unbeaten (4-0) in extra innings.
“Our staff is unbelievable, and our position players have been doing what we need to do to get our pitchers some wins,” said Nick Sergakis, who switched from second to third base because of an injury to Troy Kuhn. “There’s been plenty of times when guys have had to fill roles, sort of like the football team when we had our quarterbacks fill a role. We have guys on the field coming in and filling roles and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. When you have that going, you have the one through nine going and your pitching staff is doing well, you’re going to be a tough club to beat.”
There are national implications in this series. Taking two out of three from Illinois would almost assure the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009 and would also position the Buckeyes to make a run at hosting a regional. With the hottest team in the country showing up at a time when the OSU is also playing its best baseball of the season, players are hoping to play in front of the type of crowd that to this point they've only seen on the road.
“That’s going to be nice,” sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson said. “Hopefully it could be sold out. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but we’re going to have a big crowd.”