Playing their first contest ever in the new downtown Columbus ballpark, the Buckeyes were off their game for much of their Big Ten tournament opener. But two runs apiece in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings gave Ohio State a 7-4 win against Illinois in Game 5 of the league postseason event and advanced the Buckeyes into Friday night's semifinals where they will face third-seeded Indiana.
"I take my hat off to our hitters," said OSU head coach Bob Todd, who won 40 games in a season for the 12th time after the Buckeyes improved to 40-15. "I think they continued to battle and battle and battle and in the end I really thought like our hitters made the difference in this ballgame."
Most of the single-day crowd of 4,575 – more than the average total attendance of the past five Big Ten tourneys – was wearing scarlet and gray and in the park for the night contest between the regular-season champion Buckeyes and fourth-seeded Fighting Illini (34-19).
The fans were restless as Ohio State fell into a 4-1 hole in the sixth inning, but the late offensive firecrackers gave the partisan fans something to cheer about. By the time closer Jake Hale finished off his school-record 16th save of the year, the night at the beautiful new home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers was one to remember for the Scarlet and Gray.
"It was a lot of fun, man. I tell you what, we had a great time tonight on a ‘neutral site,' " Hale said, adding air quotes to the final two words. "It was a lot of fun. The crowd was in the entire game, cheering when we were down, getting us right back and the attitude that we were going to come back and win this game."
The Buckeyes were put into their hole because ace Alex Wimmers, the Co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, didn't have his best stuff. Struggling to find his breaking pitches, Wimmers allowed four runs on six hits and four walks while striking out nine in 6.1 innings.
The early doldrums from the OSU hitters – aided by a solid performance from Illinois freshman starter Will Strack – didn't help. Senior right fielder Michael Arp doubled home captain Justin Miller in the second, but the Buckeyes were dormant again until facing a three-run deficit.
"Hats off to their pitcher," left fielder Zach Hurley said. "He never gave up anything big to us. We just had to start chipping away. We had to manufacture some runs, and we were finally able to get them at the end.
Even the rallies that allowed the Buckeyes take the lead weren't full-fledged attacks, with all four runs coming home without the benefit of an RBI base hit. In the sixth, the Buckeyes started the inning with three singles – one that didn't leave the infield, a purported sacrifice bunt that Strack misplayed into a hit – and plated two runs thanks to a sacrifice fly by Miller and an RBI fielder's choice by Arp that made the score 4-3.
In the seventh, Strack (6-1) walked Matt Streng and Hurley before Cory Kovanda bunted for a base hit. Lee Zerrusen came on but allowed RBI ground outs to Michael Stephens to score Streng and designated hitter Ryan Dew that brought Hurley home with the game-winning run.
"Balls either trickled in or fell through," Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said. "Tonight it just wasn't our night. We played a quality team that took advantage of every little mistake we made."
Streng added an RBI single in the eighth and Hurley tripled him home – getting thrown out at the plate trying to make it into an inside-the-park homer – in the eighth for insurance runs.
By then, it was clear that Ohio State's bullpen wouldn't need any more help from the bats. Wimmers departed in the seventh with two on and one out after having allowed a two-run homer in the second to catcher Aaron Johnson and RBI hits to Brandon Wikoff and Johnson in the sixth, but Drew Rucinski came in to put out the fire thanks to a short fly out and a line out.
"I came out and I tried to throw strikes, do what I've been doing all year," he said. "That's the kind of situation that relievers get tossed into all the time, and that's happened all year."
Rucinski also pitched a perfect, dominating eighth to improve to 10-2.
Hale was just as good, fanning two batters after allowing a leadoff single. Afterward, he said he had his best stuff of the year, and in the end it was good enough to move OSU into the winner's bracket.