Projected to be a player on the national scene after returning a host of players from a team that made an NCAA regional final last season, Ohio State instead has observed what appears to be a perfect storm of Murphy's Law. Going into a series tonight through Saturday in Bill Davis Stadium against first-place Minnesota on the Big Ten Network, the Buckeyes are tied for fifth in the Big Ten, squarely on the bubble for the six-team league tournament.
High expectations perhaps led the team to press when things went wrong. An iffy pitching staff – not helped by injuries to ace Alex Wimmers and starter Drew Rucinski – struggled out of the gate before improving, only to watch as a ballyhooed lineup has been unable to shake a slump that leadoff hitter Zach Hurley compared to quicksand in recent weeks.
"This team has had a black cloud over it, and I don't know how to get out from under it," said head coach Bob Todd, who is retiring at season's end. "There's just a lot of things you shake your head at and go, ‘Why?' They should balance out somewhere."
The result is a 27-21 overall record, which drops to 6-12 since the Buckeyes fell at Michigan State on April 18, a loss that still left the team tied for first in the Big Ten through three series. That game also started a slide in which OSU has lost 9 of 13 league contests to fall to 10-11 in those standings.
But as the Buckeyes go into the do-or-die series with Golden Gophers, a positive spark – finally – could be provided this weekend by the return of Wimmers from a hamstring injury that has caused him to miss three straight starts.
"It's certainly a huge boost to your morale, team-wise," Todd said. "There's no doubt, we're a different demeanor with our ballclub (when he's on the mound)."
But there are no guarantees until the All-America starter, who has received the win in all nine of his starts and boasts a 1.61 ERA in his junior campaign, actually takes the hill. He told reporters yesterday that he plans to pitch tomorrow night – Rucinski will go tonight despite leaving his last start after one inning because of shoulder tightness – despite the fact that his hamstring is only 80 to 85 percent.
"This is such a huge weekend," Wimmers said. "I feel as though it's more of my decision than anybody else's. I know my body the best, and I feel as though if everybody else has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself to go out there at 90 to 95 percent by the time the game comes around, I can go out there and get the job done."
On the line for the team is continuing its season past the weekend, but Wimmers – a projected first-round draft pick before the injury – could be putting his million-dollar right arm at stake. That fact worries Todd.
"If he says he's ready to go then obviously I'm going to be happy, but there is some apprehension," Todd said. "I won't deny that. There's lots of things that are going to come into play."
Getting Wimmers back would be the Buckeyes' latest attempt to break what feels like a hex hanging over the squad. The team has tried everything, Hurley said, from encouragement to harsh words and even a secret ceremony involving a chicken almost two weeks ago. That served to loosen up the team and led to a two-game winning streak, but that ended when Ohio State could take only one of three games this past weekend at Iowa.
"I mean, there's nothing more you really can do," co-captain Cory Kovanda said. "The next three games are probably the most fun and most important games we've ever played in our lives. The biggest thing we can do is just not think about it too much, just go out there and play. The more we try to do, it seems like the more we play and the less happens."
Hurley said there's no reason for the Buckeyes not to be at their best for this series.
"What else do you want if you're a baseball player?" he said. "You play the game for stuff like this. If you're intimidated by that or don't want to be a part of that, then you shouldn't even be putting on a uniform. I sit there in my room and I dream about stuff like this, it coming down to the wire, so I think that's all the motivation in the world."
Advancing to the Big Ten tournament would provide the Buckeyes a chance to keep their season – and Todd's career – alive and reach the preseason goal of a return to the NCAA tournament. And, as Kovanda pointed out, destiny is still in Ohio State's hands.
"It's absolutely crazy to think about how this season has gone but how much we still have to play for," the four-year starter at second base said. "Baseball, it's crazy, so you just have to keep playing the game and hopefully the chips fall your way."
Minnesota, only 25-27 overall, enters having won seven of eight Big Ten games, including a sweep of visiting Penn State a weekend ago in the Metrodome. Pitching has led the way, as the starting rotation of Phil Isaksson, T.J. Oakes and Seth Rosin setting the tone and Scott Matyas serving as one of the best relievers in the league.
"The bottom line is we have to go out and play good baseball," Todd said. "Minnesota has started playing very good baseball so we've got our work cut out."
The first two contests will start at 7 p.m. on the conference's cable channel before the season finale Saturday. First pitch for that contest will be 1 p.m.