Behind a sterling six-inning start from senior Brad Goldberg and a 3-for-4 effort from freshman Zach Ratcliff, Ohio State knocked off No. 15 Indiana, 2-1, to move a game away from claiming a share of the program's 16th Big Ten championship.
The prior eight days provided a great opportunity for the Bucks. With six games against three nationally-ranked, well-recognized programs, Ohio State had a chance to cement its place in the NCAA Tournament picture, to show the country the Scarlet and Gray are on their way back.
The Buckeyes went 1-5 against Georgia Tech, Oregon and Louisville, ending the grueling stretch with a season-high four-game losing streak in which they were mustered up only four runs.
It would be easy for the club to collectively hang its head, to wondered if they would make the tournament, had what it took to compete against the best. But there was no time to sulk. Next on the schedule was a three-game season-ending series against Big Ten-leading, No. 15 Indiana and Ohio State skipper Greg Beals made sure his team had their focus on the Hoosiers.
"We talked about it after the game against Louisville as a way to start shifting gears," the third-year head coach said on whether his team needed reminded Big Ten championship was on the line.
"We have gone through the gauntlet, although we did not get the wins we wanted to in that competition, we were absolutely going to be prepared for the championship-weekend."
Though not enjoying the desired success, Beals spoke to iron sharpening iron, the gauntlet setting the stage for greater success in the form of the programs 16th Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes are a win away from such feat, two wins away from an outright title following their 2-1 win over Indiana.
"We honestly think we faced the best pitching staff in the country this past weekend in Oregon," said right-handed senior Brad Goldberg following his final home start. "We faced the best pitching staff in country, I put zeros against them and felt I could do it again tonight. Our hitters did a great job grinding it out and two runs is what we needed, it's what we identify ourselves as with pitching and defense."
Against the Big Ten's best offense, Goldberg stymied the Hoosiers, holding the .304-batting club to four hits in six innings pitched, walking three with three strikeouts, allowing only an unearned run. Goldberg wasn't his sharpest, in the 92-pitch effort he threw 52 strikes to 40 balls, but behind a heavy-fastball that was sitting 93-96 MPH, lighting up the radar gun at 97 MPH in his last inning, Goldberg had plenty of juice, powering his was through six innings.
"I was a little erratic, my heart rate was going," the fifth-year senior said. "I had to calm myself down because I knew how big this game was, that we need a sweep. I was definitely up for it, maybe a bit too much."
His coach agreed.
"He was ready to go and he was hot. My concern was that he would be too hot and come out a little too juiced and he probably was. He was up in the zone which is not his strength, his strength is the power sinker. I kept telling him middle-down, middle-down, but he was hot. He was hot when I said we were going to McKinney in the seventh too, he didn't want to come out of the game."
Goldberg admitted to not being overly thrilled with Beals' decision to turn to the bullpen following the sixth inning. But that Goldberg escaped with one unearned run key.
Ohio State jumped out to a 1-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning behind a two-our RBI-single from freshman Designated Hitter Zach Ratcliff. It was the second two-out hit of the game for the first-year player making his fourth start of the season, driving in sophomore Pat Porter who led off the inning with a single to left, advancing to second on a sacrifice bunt.
"When I saw the rotation for the week, two left-handed pitchers, I was mentally preparing myself to be ready, due whatever it takes to win," Ratcliff on said stepping into the lineup in a big game, delivering with a 3-for-4 effort.
Indiana tied the game 1-1 in the top of the sixth, an inning where the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot, but capped with a signature moment.
Following a one-out walk, Indiana sophomore Kyle Schwarber collected his lone hit of the contest with a single to right. Schwarber entered the game batting .384 using a Big Ten-leading 13 home runs to slug a conference-best .680. Following Schwarber, classmate first baseman Sam Travis, the 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the year, rolled over a grounder to third that appeared to be the inning-ender.
But freshman third baseman Jacob Bosiokovic was unable to corral the ball on the run, loading the bases. A full-count slider slipped from Goldberg, allowing Indiana's Michael Basil to draw a walk, for Indiana to plate the tying run.
Stepping to the plate would be Indiana junior third baseman Dustin DeMuth. With a runner at every bases, Goldberg squared off against the nation's fifth-best hitter, DeMuth entered the contest batting .413. After working predominantly fastball-slider, pounding Indiana batters with mid-90s heat, Goldberg's 3-2 pitch was a 86 MPH cutter that froze DeMuth, ending the inning.
"A back-door cutter wasn't the plan," Goldberg chuckled after the game, "But we got the call, we'll take it."
With senior Brett McKinney recording a pair of strikeouts over the three batters he faced in relief and sophomore Ryan Riga pitching an additional 1.1 innings of scoreless baseball, the Buckeye relief corp put zeros on the board, hoping the bats would come through.
In the bottom of the seventh they did, Porter skied a two-out opposite-field triple off the left-field wall, driving in senior first baseman Brad Hallberg who singled an at-bat prior.
In the game against Louisville, Beals moved Hallberg into the three-hole after a length run as the team's ninth batter. Entering game the with a .240 average, Hallberg backed the faith his coach put in him with a 2-for-3 night, scoring the game-winning run.
"The reason Brad Hallberg moved up in the lineup, Brad Hallberg is never a nine-hole hitter, Beals said. "But it was for match-ups at the bottom of the order. With (Ryan) Cypret out, (Kirby) Pellant is batting second and Hallberg can protect his speed with Porter on the back-side, it's a great spot for him in this stretch run."
The Hallberg-Porter pairing came into player earlier in the game. With two outs and first base occupied, Indiana intentionally walked Hallberg to get to Porter. It would set-up a left-on-left situation as Indiana ace Joey DeNato is a left-handed pitcher, but Porter entered the game batting .293 with a team-high 20 extra-base hits. The move proved wise on IU's part, but Porter took notice.
"In that case it was like 'all right, they're kind of showing me up', Porter, finishing 2-for-4 with a run and RBI, said of Indiana wanting to face him. "I didn't get the job done, but it was all right. Came back, forgot about, it short memory and got the job done later in the game."
Ohio State's parade of top-notch relief continued into the ninth with Trace Dempsey. Though Indiana would record a two-out single and a stolen base to have the game-tying run in scoring position, Dempsey recorded his 17th save, one shy of the school and Big Ten-record set by Jake Hale in 2009, to close out the game.
The Buckeye victory moved them into a tie for first with Indiana. With losses from Minnesota and Nebraska, the winner of Friday's Indiana-Ohio State contest will grab a share of the Big Ten championship.
"It's unbelievable," Ratcliff said. "To be able get out there with a shot to win the Big Ten title the last weekend of the year with tons of fans, it's a pretty cool opportunity."