Since Greg Beals became head coach of the Ohio State baseball team three years ago, everything the Ohio native has done has been about returning the Buckeyes to the prominence that he believes the program deserves.
One of his thoughts on how to do that was beefing up the nonconference schedule at the end of the season. The Buckeyes brought ranked Georgia Tech, Oregon and Louisville programs into Bill Davis Stadium in the last two weeks to see how the program could compete nationally.
Add in a final Big Ten series against a ranked Indiana team that seems sure to make the NCAA tournament and the Buckeyes finished with a nine-game gantlet that was designed to show where Ohio State stood.
The result was a 2-7 record in those nine games that ended the season on a sour note, but there is another way for the Buckeyes – who enter the game in the running for an at-large bid to the 64-team NCAA bracket – to show the program can compete with the best.
Do enough at this weekend’s Big Ten tournament – which begins for the second-seeded Buckeyes today with a 4:35 p.m. game against third-seeded Nebraska in Minneapolis’ Target Field – and Ohio State (34-21) will be back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 with a chance to match up again with some of the best teams in the country.
And while the team didn’t do what it wanted to when it came to wins and losses against No. 30 Georgia Tech, No. 6 Oregon, 10th-ranked Louisville and No. 21 Indiana, the fact that Ohio State was in most of the losses showed that the team isn’t far away from making some noise against the best of the best.
“We are definitely really close,” said senior shortstop Kirby Pellant, a first-team All-Big Ten choice. “You can look at it two ways, saying we’re not quite there, or we can say we are there, we just need that extra spark, one thing to get us over the hump. That’s what we’re hoping for in this Big Ten tournament, and if we can get that done, it’ll definitely be a huge spark going into a regional.”
Ohio State – which enters the weekend ranked 60th in RPI, one of the major determining factors for the NCAA tournament – would be in better shape for the postseason and would have earned a share of the Big Ten title if the regular season hadn’t ended on a bitter note.
The Buckeyes tied Indiana in the opener of that series for first place in the big Ten and needed just one more win to clinch a share of the league crown, but the Hoosiers came back to win the last two games – including the middle game of the set after going into the ninth inning down by a 2-0 score and facing first-team All-Big Ten closer Trace Dempsey, who hadn’t allowed an earned run in three months.
But Ohio State has had a bounceback team all season and doesn’t expect to have much of a hangover.
“That was a different season,” senior catcher Greg Solomon said. “This is a whole new season. We have to play the games in front of us, and we’ve played these teams enough to where we have a good scouting report on them. I think we’re going to be fine.”
In fact, the Buckeyes hope that the end-of-season schedule the team faced, even if it did not lead to more wins than losses, will be beneficial.
“These last two weeks from a win-loss standpoint haven’t been what we anticipated, what we were hoping for, but it has prepared us,” said third-year head coach Greg Beals, who has piloted his team to a Big Ten tourney win each of his first two campaigns. “We’ve been in tough games against very tough competition. We aren’t going to see anything this weekend in the tournament that we haven’t seen from a competitive standpoint. It’s going to be a matter of us executing.”
The Buckeyes have a reason to believe they can do some damage as the No. 2 seed behind Indiana in the tournament, whose winner will receive an automatic NCAA bid. The first-round bye will certainly help, as that’s one fewer game the team has to win, and it allows the squad to set up its pitching.
With seniors Brad Goldberg (6-1, 3.13 ERA) and Brian King (7-5, 2.62) and junior Jaron Long (6-6, 4.04) ready to go, the Buckeyes think they have the arms to get through the tournament, especially when considering the defense – led by a trio of speedy outfielders who can chase down balls in the vast confines of Target Field’s outfield – is also a team strength.
“I can’t wait to watch what they do to those teams,” Pellant said after each of those pitchers turned in at least one quality start in the crucial end-of-season run. “They’re going to use these pressure situations and they’re going to build off of them, and it’s going to make them compete. It’s going to be fun.”
The issue, though, for the Buckeyes of late has been the offense, which is eighth in the Big Ten in hitting. In the last nine games, Ohio State scored a total of 14 runs, but Beals think that can be corrected with the increased practice time before the tournament.
“The nice thing is for the first time in 2½ weeks, we’ve been able to practice,” Beals said. “We had a good practice today with our hitters to do some drill work. Since we left to Northwestern two weeks ago, we haven’t had a day of practice. We’re going to have three practices this week. I’m excited about that – one to freshen ourselves up but second to get some quality reps, especially for our hitters.”
Ohio State played at Nebraska this season, taking two of three games April 12-14.
Game Schedule (All on BTN)
Game 1: No. 4 Minnesota vs. No. 5 Illinois, MIN wins 3-2 to advance to Game 5
Game 2: No. 3 Nebraska vs. No. 6 Michigan, NEB wins 11-2 to advance to Game 4
Game 3 (elimination): Illinois vs. Michigan, 1:05 p.m.
Game 4: Nebraska vs. No. 2 Ohio State, 4:35 p.m.
Game 5: Minnesota vs. No. 1 Indiana, 8:05 p.m.
Game 6 (elimination): Loser Game 4/5 vs. Winner Game 3, 1:05 p.m.
Game 7 (elimination): Loser Game 4/5 vs. Winner Game 6, 4:35 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 8:05 p.m.
Game 9 (elimination): Winner Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8, 4:35 p.m.
Game 10 (championship game 1): Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, 8:05 p.m.
Sunday (if necessary)
Game 11 (championship game 2): Rematch of Game 10