Ohio State baseball enters Big Ten Tournament focused with uncertainty abound

Target Field, site of the 2013 Big Ten baseball tournament. - USA TODAY Sports

Ending the season on a 2-7 skid, Ohio State enters the double-elimination Big Ten Tournament looking to solidify its shot at a berth in the NCAA Tournament. A Tournament title would eliminate any anxiety.

There are two ways the weekend can end for Ohio State: with a Big Ten Tournament title or without.

There are two ways next week can begin for Ohio State: relaxing, only waiting to see which regional they are traveling to, or sitting on pins and needles with tension high to see if the club is just selected to participate in the 64-team tournament.

It's been more than a decade since the Bucks were last in this position, opening the Big Ten Tournament as an NCAA Tournament bubble team.

When the Buckeyes won the 2009 Big Ten championship, they were a lock to be in a regional. The only question was whether their season merited hosting a regional. Before the Buckeyes' last prior NCAA Tournament appearance, 2007, Ohio State finished sixth in the Big Ten; that club knew it's only way to the NCAA Tournament was by way of the Big Ten Tournament's automatic bid to its victor. The 2005 Big Ten Tournament winning club would have safely been in the field. The 2003 outfit was likely the last to question whether they would have been in the NCAA's tournament without success in the conference tournament.

Only fifth-year seniors Joe Ciamacco, Ryan Cypret, David Fathalikhani and Brad Hallberg can be linked to the 2009 team. Hallberg, the lone player to see playing time during the championship-winning season, appeared in four games before elbow surgery forced a redshirt upon him. There's no NCAA Tournament experience on the roster and the program is in unfamiliar territory; this could be worrisome to a coach.

But make no mistake about it, Ohio State is seeking to leave no doubt, to capitalize on he opportunity of controlling their own postseason destiny, a week after twice falling short while controlling their own destiny in claiming a Big Ten championship.

"We don't need an at-large bid if we win the tournament," catcher Greg Solomon said to Mark Znidar of the Columbus Dispatch. "The great thing is we don't have to rely on other teams. We just have to play the way we know how to play."

The Buckeyes do not need to rely on other teams if they win their next three games in Minneapolis. But starting with this afternoon's contest against 26-28 Nebraska, RPI 43, the Buckeyes face the possibility of facing at least two RPI top-50 clubs back-to-back, if not back-to-back-to-back, teams of caliber the Buckeyes struggled with to end the season.

After an 11-2 win over Michigan, No. 3 seed Nebraska will be Ohio State's opponent for their scheduled 4:35 p.m. ET opening game of the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes took two-of-three from the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, April 12-14, their two wins, part of a Big Ten-best 10 over RPI top-50 clubs, in a conference-high 25 games against the formula's top 50 teams.

While the volume of games played against top competition is unrivaled in the Big Ten (and to be applauded as Ohio State sits with a strength of schedule of 80), the season-ending gauntlet Ohio State endured is why they find themselves on the bubble.

Following Ohio State's weekend victory in Nebraska, the Buckeyes captured a home series against Illinois, RPI 34. Though Ohio State took two games in a single weekend from the Cornhuskers and Illini, when the Buckeyes ended the season against Georgia Tech, Oregon, Louisville and Indiana, respectively holding RPIs of 22, 8, 16 and 14, that nine-game stretch produced only two wins.

In an attempt to aid northern programs that must travel for the first half-dozen weeks of the season, to dodge unplayable weather conditions, a new RPI formula was unveiled this year. Instead of one's traditional win-loss record going into the formula, an adjusted win-loss record is now used. A road win is worth 1.3 wins, where a road loss is worth only .7 of a loss. Conversely a home win is worth only .7 of a win, but a home lose is worth 1.3 losses.

Going 2-7 over the grueling stretch, Ohio State's adjusted win-loss over that span is 1.4-9.1. In all, Ohio State's 34-21 season looks like a 32.2-22.2 campaign as they sit 60th in the RPI. Compare that to Illinois, who is 33-17 on the year, but a more favorable 33-15.2 in the eyes of the RPI as they sit 26 spots in front of the Buckeyes – although they have a SOS that is 31 spots worse.

National pundits are cranking out NCAA Tournament projections near daily as college baseball's Selection Monday sits four days away. Scanning the landscape, the Buckeyes are a 50/50 club to make the field in the eyes of writers. Where Baseball America, ESPN and Perfect Game have them in, College Baseball Insider and Southeast Baseball have them on the outside looking in.

It's a guessing game on whether the Buckeyes are currently in or not, if the program will break its longest NCAA Tournament drought since 1982-91 or come up just short. But with the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes have the opportunity to make Saturday or Sunday's headlines 'NCAA Tournament bound!' in lieu of 'NCAA Tournament bound?' ones.

Previewing Nebraska

The Buckeyes and Cornhuskers are meeting for the fourth time this season, the eighth time in the last two seasons. Ohio State enjoys the Big Ten Tournament's No. 2 seed and the first-round by thanks to winning two of three games in Lincoln, earning the tiebreaker as the two clubs ended the Big Ten season with identical 15-9 records.

Ohio State fell in the series opener 11-2 before collecting a 6-5 10-inning game two victory, closing the series with a 7-4 win. The Scarlet and Gray ended the 2012 season of Darin Erstad's club with a 6-2 win in game six of the 2012 Big Ten Tournament at Huntington Park in Columbus. Earlier in the season, Nebraska took two-of-three from the Buckeyes, sweeping a Saturday doubleheader in Bill Davis Stadium.

Taking the mound for Nebraska will be sophomore left-handed pitcher Aaron Bummer. Appearing in 15 games with seven starts, Bummer has a 2.49 ERA over 43.1 innings, collecting 27 strikeouts against 19 walks, holding the opposition to a .237 average.

Nebraska produced six All-Big Ten performers, led by first-team selections Pat Kelly and Chad Christensen. Christensen, a senior outfielder, led Nebraska with a .364 average, collecting seven doubles, three triples and a pair of home runs. Kelly, a sophomore second baseman, batted .328 with 10 doubles, committing only eight errors in 308 chances. Senior outfielder Michael Pritchard, .343, 10 doubles, was the Big Ten's second-team DH. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Josh Roeder has emerged as the top Husker reliever. With a 1.67 ERA over 27 innings, Roeder has five saves and 27 strikeouts.

Greg Beals will send out senior right-handed pitcher Brad Goldberg to open Ohio State's tournament run. Goldberg collected third-team all-conference honors after going 6-1 with a 3.13 ERA, racking up 62 strikeouts in 74.2 innings, holding opponents to a .240 average.

Senior shortstop Kirby Pellant leads the Buckeyes into the postseason with a .314 average. Using five doubles, three triples, two home runs and a .990 fielding percentage, Pellant was an All-Big Ten first-team selection. Also receiving top billing was sophomore closer Trace Dempsey. Leading the Big Ten with 17 saves, one off the school and Big Ten-record set in 2009 by Jake Hale, Dempsey .81 ERA over 33.1 innings.

The contest between the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers will be aired live on BTN following a 1:05 PM start between Illinois and Michigan in the tournament's first elimination game. The winner of the Nebraska-Ohio State showdown will take on the winner of the day's final contest, Indiana-Minnesota, at 8:05 PM ET on Friday, also live on the Big Ten Network.

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