Buckeyes Ready For Challenge Of Regional

Months of baseball have established the identity of Big Ten regular-season champion Ohio State. That went out the window last weekend as the Buckeyes were beaten in the conference tournament. Now facing a tough NCAA regional, Ohio State hopes to have learned from last weekend and play to its strengths with their backs against the wall – a scenario in which they have played well all year.

The Ohio State baseball team has seemed to thrive the most this season when facing their steepest uphill climbs.

When 3-3 in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes ripped off eight straight league wins to earn first place in the conference standings. When 1.5 games out of first with five games left, Ohio State won out to earn the title on the season's last day. In that game, the team battled back from a 4-0 deficit against Iowa to score the winning runs in the eighth inning.

The team has thrived on challenges, and that is exactly what the Buckeyes have now as they begin NCAA tournament play tomorrow afternoon in Tallahassee, Fla. Grouped in a regional with two top-20 RPI teams and Southern powers in Florida State and Georgia, third-seeded Ohio State will need to muster all of its talent to keep alive what has been a dream season when it faces the second-seeded Bulldogs to start the regional at noon on ESPNU.

So it's no wonder that all of the team members interviewed after Monday's announcement of the NCAA brackets had one word on their mind: challenge.

"Our team loves to take on challenges," junior second baseman Cory Kovanda said. "With our mind-set, we think we have the team to do big things this year. We're just going to try to do what we've been doing all season and take care of business."

The Buckeyes plan to win games – 40 this season against 17 losses – has been fairly simple, focusing on timely hitting, increased power, solid defense and the arms of ace Alex Wimmers and closer Jake Hale.

The problem going into the NCAA tournament is that the plan sprung some leaks during last weekend's Big Ten tournament at Huntington Park where OSU went 1-2 and lost in the semifinals.

Of the team's 33 hits, 28 were singles. OSU committed six errors in its two losses and second and third starters Dean Wolosiansky and Eric Best weren't able to get deep enough into games to get to set-up man Drew Rucinski and Hale with Ohio State ahead. Even Wimmers was off his best game, giving up four runs in 6.1 innings in the Buckeyes' tourney opener against Illinois, a 7-4 win for OSU.

"I think we just have to do a better job of our pitchers have to throw strikes," Kovanda said. "We have to play a lot better defense. I think we're hitting the ball, we just have to get on the same page a little bit with our lineup."

Ohio State hopes that the five days off after the tournament, which came at the conclusion of a grueling regular-season race, will help, as will the previous introduction to the microscope of postseason baseball.

"I think this rest will definitely help us," catcher Dan Burkhart said. "We came out a little flat, I'd say, the last two games in the Big Ten tournament. We can't do that in a regional."

The Bulldogs under head coach David Perno are making the 10th regional appearance in school history and sixth in nine years.

Georgia hit .290 as a team this year, averaged more than seven runs per game and belted 98 home runs. The top hitter is Golden Spikes Award semifinalist Rich Pothyress, a first baseman who hit .370 with 21 homers and 77 RBI. Catcher Bryce Massanari hit .321 with 19 homers and 57 batted in.

They will be tasked with scoring runs against Wimmers, the Big Ten's Co-Pitcher of the Year and another semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award.

"I'm up to the challenge," he said. "I love facing the best of the best. Just give me your best shot and I'm going to give you mine. That's how it goes."

Georgia will counter with either sophomore Justin Grimm (3-4, 4.19) or senior Trevor Holder (7-4, 4.34), who started the year ranked as one of the top 100 prospects in college baseball according to Baseball America.

No. 1-seeded Florida State (42-16) will face Marist in the later game. The winners are set to meet Saturday afternoon while the losers will play that day in an elimination game.

For a program making its 19th NCAA appearance but still four decades removed from a last trip to the College World Series, Ohio State knows its goals are starting to become within reach – or their season is two losses away from being over.

"We always want to get to Omaha, but this is just a stepping stone right now," Wimmers said. "Hopefully we just take it game by game and get through the region and advance from there."

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