For that, No. 29 Ohio State has closer Jake Hale to thank. The intimidating righthander retired the final three batters of the game with a runner on third to save a 5-4 win against Iowa for the Buckeyes on Friday night.
The Buckeyes stayed a half-game behind first-place Minnesota with each having one game to go.
"We're still not out of the woods," head coach Bob Todd said of his team, which holds just a half-game advantage on Indiana for second place and the all-important second first-round Big Ten tourney bye.
The ninth inning went a long way toward putting the Buckeyes in the clear. Leadoff hitter Dallas Burke doubled and then went to third on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Chett Zeise that OSU catcher Dan Burkhart couldn't field cleanly along the third-base line.
But Hale buckled down. No. 9 hitter Trevor Willis tried to bunt his first pitch, but it popped foul and Burkhart made up for it with a diving catch, snagging the ball an instant before it hit the ground.
"After the game, he came to me and said I had to make a play after making a bonehead play the time before," Todd said. "That's why Dan Burkhart is Dan Burkhart – because he takes pride in how he plays."
Hale, known for bringing levity to even the most important situations, saw it differently.
"Yeah, I was pretty mad that he stole (the catch) from me," Hale said, straight-faced. "At the last second I saw him going for it."
Hale then threw three straight past Kurtis Muller to earn the second out. With Iowa second baseman Mike McQuillan due up and the 2,500 fans rising to their feet, third baseman and captain Justin Miller had a word with Hale.
"He said we're not going to make a play for you, get him yourself," Hale deadpanned. "Thankfully they made the play."
In a 1-2 count, Hale got McQuillan to ground to shortstop Tyler Engle for a force, sealing the win and Hale's 14th save of the year, tying him with Matt Davis (2003) for the OSU single-season record.
"It was like, no matter what, we have to get this guy out," Hale said.
Both Ohio State and Minnesota held serve, leaving the 17-5 Golden Gophers a half game ahead of the Buckeyes (17-6) with one more day to go. Minnesota, which has taken the first two on the road at Penn State including a 4-2 win on Friday night, will face the Nittany Lions while the Buckeyes face one more contest with Iowa, though rain is predicted in both locales.
The Hawkeyes were the aggressors early on Friday night, hitting three straight singles to start the game and then plating a run on Wes Freie's sacrifice fly. OSU starter Dean Wolosiansky struck out the next two to keep the damage at one run.
"Wolo" gave up a homer to Freie in the fourth and an RBI single to McQuillan in the fifth on the way to finishing seven solid innings with three runs and one walk allowed with five strikeouts. He improved to 11-1 and dropped his ERA to 5.11.
"I know I can do better," Wolosiansky said of his season. "I personally have a lot to give. The hitters picked us up all season. I owe it all to them – and some hard work in the offseason."
The Buckeye bats battled back, getting an RBI double from Miller and a run-scoring fielder's choice from Engle in the fourth to tie the score at 2. Ohio State knotted it again at 3 in the fifth when second baseman Cory Kovanda was hit by a pitch, stole second and scored on Burkhart's single off of Iowa starter Phil Schreiber.
Hawkeye reliever Steve Turnbull (1-3) was in by the time the Buckeyes took the lead for good in the seventh. Burkhart doubled with one out and scored on DH Ryan Dew's single. Dew later came around to make it 5-3 when Engle singled deep in the hole at short.
Iowa scored one off of Drew Rucinski in the eighth, but Hale struck out the last batter of the inning to preserve the 5-4 lead.
OSU softball 5, BYU 4
The Buckeyes advanced through the winner's bracket of the NCAA softball tournament, overcoming a late 4-0 deficit to beat BYU 5-4 at New Buckeye Field.
OSU (46-9) needs to win just one of two games tomorrow against Kentucky to advance to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament. First pitch is set for 1 p.m.
The Buckeyes were wasteful throughout the day, leaving 13 runners on base, but a late rally saved OSU. It started in the sixth inning when shortstop Alicia Herron led off with a home run to left, giving her an OSU freshman record 13 on the year and making the score 4-1.
Courtney Pruner followed with a single and Tory Haddad doubled, runners that eventually came around to score in the sixth.
Down to the Buckeyes' final strike, Rachael Shepherd singled home a run in the seventh to tie the score. The winning run came home in the eighth when BYU shortstop Krista Hicks threw wide on a double play relay thanks to the slide of Vanessa Spears, and the error allowed Dee Dee Hillman to score.
Kim Reeder got the final nine outs for Ohio State to get the win, retiring the Cougars 1-2-3 in both the seventh and eighth. The win gave Reeder 76 career wins, tying her for the most in school history.