Buckeyes Start Tourney Tonight Downtown

After winning the Big Ten's regular-season title for the first time since 2001, Ohio State would like to add the league's postseason crown and an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament as well. Following a first-round bye, the Buckeyes start play tonight at 7 p.m. in downtown Columbus' Huntington Park against fourth-seeded Illinois.

As members of the Ohio State baseball team left Bill Davis Stadium on Saturday afternoon with their Big Ten championship fate out of their hands, most said they couldn't decide whether they wanted to watch how the title race would shake out.

Minnesota, the team with whom the Buckeyes were tied, was ahead of Penn State 8-5 in Happy Valley during a fourth-inning rain delay. Watching their dream get away from them didn't sound like a fun way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Junior designated hitter Ryan Dew and a couple of teammates went back to their apartment and did what seemed like the prudent thing: they put on a taped version of the NBC sitcom "The Office" that aired Thursday night while the Buckeyes were beating Iowa.

"I liked it," Dew said of the episode. "It was a good little twist in there."

By the time the DVR came to a stop, Dew, watching with a few teammates including second baseman and classmate Cory Kovanda, put the Big Ten Network back on to see Penn State eke out a run in the fifth that made it 8-6. Their interest piqued, the Buckeyes stayed tuned in to watch Penn State take the lead with three runs in the sixth, score another in the seventh and then hold off Minnesota by a 10-8 final.

It wasn't easy, though, as Penn State second baseman Landon Nakata committed an error what should have been the final out, giving Minnesota a little more life than the Buckeyes would have liked.

"When that ball was hit to second base, I'm jumping in the air going crazy because I think the game is over. I see the error, I fall down," Dew said with a laugh. "After (the final out), our apartment was coming down, pretty much."

With that, the Buckeyes' conference record of 18-6 was enough to earn them the 15th regular-season Big Ten championship in school history and the eighth under head coach Bob Todd. The 22nd-year mentor has always been quick to tell his players that the league regular-season champs – not the tournament victors, as OSU was in 2002, '03, '05 and '07 – receive rings, a fate they had not accomplished since 2001.

"Every championship is important," Todd said. "It means something to you. I'm happy for the players. We have some players on this team that before the season they talked about they're the one group that hasn't won a championship. They don't have to worry about that anymore."

"When I signed to come here, you expect to win the Big Ten," Dew said. "When we hadn't even come close the last two years, it was really frustrating."

The league crown is perhaps a fitting accomplishment for an Ohio State team that has been ready to go from the first game. The Buckeyes started 7-0 and increased that mark to 19-2, then beat then-No.2 Miami (Fla.) on the road by a 7-1 score on March 24. After starting the Big Ten slate at 3-3, Ohio State, which finished 39-15 overall, won eight in a row to take the league lead.

"It's been a lot of fun," senior captain Justin "Gus" Miller said. "Everybody knew what we needed to do every day and everybody got their work done. Ultimately it paid off with the Big Ten championship."

The road to another tournament title could be easier this time than some in the past. The Buckeyes enter now as the top seed in the six-team, double elimination tournament that started last night in Huntington Park, the downtown Columbus home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. The Buckeyes begin their tourney run tonight with No. 4-seed Illinois, who beat No. 5 Michigan State in the opening round.

On the way to the championships in 2005 and '07, the Buckeyes had to play on Wednesday, making their championship runs all that more improbably – and impressive. This time around, they could reach the championship series with just two wins to open the event and win the whole thing with three consecutive victories, a fate that is crucial because of shaky pitching depth.

Of the 212.1 innings pitched in Big Ten play by the team's hurlers, 197 were thrown by five pitchers in starters Alex Wimmers, Dean Wolosiansky and Eric Best and relievers Drew "Boomer" Rucinski and Jake Hale.

"That bye is going to be really helpful for us," Dew said. "With our pitching situation, we just have to win three games. We've been playing these three-game series every weekend so we're used to it. We know what to expect from it, so if we can come and put three good games together we know what it's going to take."

That also puts pressure on Wimmers, tonight's starter and the Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Year, to put the Buckeyes into the winner's bracket. He should be ready, though, having posted an ERA of 1.37 in his last six league starts.

He'll also be backed up by one of the league's top offenses. In conference games, Ohio State was among the top two teams in the league in doubles, total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and hits and was third in batting average and runs. In addition, the Buckeyes struck out the least amount of times of any league squad. OSU scored six or more runs in 15 of 24 conference games.

That offense helped propel the team to wins in their last five league contests, just enough to edge Minnesota by a half-game for the title.

"You have to like going in on top," said Miller, who has six straight multihit games and is 17 for 25 (.680) in that span. "I think we can carry a lot of momentum. I feel like this is like the first couple of weeks of the season where we were just on a roll and we could get down by a couple of runs and we still knew we were going to win the game. Hopefully we can keep it going."

Working against the Buckeyes is the fact that Big Ten tourney history is rife with upsets. In the nine times the tournament has been staged with six teams, just three times has the regular-season winner emerged on top. The Buckeyes haven't won as the top seed since 1995, falling shy of even the title game in 1999 and '01.

"We've got to maintain some consistency," said Todd, who presides over the team with the best overall Big Ten tourney record in league history. "What we have to do now is take a look at this as postseason play. This is the third season, so to speak. We need to be playing our best baseball right now."

Second-seeded Minnesota as well as third-seeded Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State and No. 6 Purdue are still alive, though the Buckeyes will start with the Fighting Illini, a team that Ohio State took two of three from in the season's second to last week.

Illinois is led by outfielder Pete Cappetta, a .379 hitter who tied a tourney record with three doubles in the Fighting Illini's win against the Spartans in the first round. Third baseman Dominic Altobelli hit .374 this year with eight homers and 53 RBI, while shortstop Brandon Wikoff batted .373. Willie Argo, the DH against MSU, had three hits against the Spartans and leads Illinois this season with 11 homers.

Dan Hartleb's squad is expecting to send freshman righthander Will Strack, who finished 6-0 with a 3.48 ERA, to the hill for the game against Ohio State. Strack gave up four runs on four hits and three walks in 3.2 innings in his first start against the Buckeyes.

OSU will counter with Wimmers, who gave up two runs in 7.2 innings at Illinois Field. Ohio State's bats earlier this season were led by Miller, who earned Big Ten player of the week honors against UI thanks to a .667 average (8 for 12) along with two homers and five RBI. Kovanda hit .500 in 14 at bats while Dew, shortstop Tyler Engle, center fielder Michael Stephens and catcher Dan Burkhart, the league's Player of the Year, had single homers in the series.

The Buckeyes won't have a chance to thank Penn State in person this weekend, but Dew said he'd use a little modern technology to do so. He said during Saturday's Minnesota-Penn State contest that he'd send a thank-you Facebook message to the Penn State players if they helped OSU earn the title, and he's being held to his word by his girlfriend.

"She's holding me to it," Dew said with a laugh. "I don't know really any of them except for playing against them. They'll have a bit of a surprise coming."

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