First things first, Ohio State is 6-9 in the Big Ten, good for eighth in the standings.
Is that acceptable? No. Greg Beals and his three assistants, and each member of Ohio State's 35-man roster, would speak to the standards being higher in Columbus; such performance in the Big Ten is not acceptable. With an overall record of 25-19 and an RPI of 82, if Ohio State is to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, it'll come via the Big Ten's automatic bid and winning the conference's postseason tournament. While there is still an opportunity to end the five-year NCAA Tournament drought, and while mathematically they are not out of it yet, it will be at least five years since Ohio State followed its 2009 Big Ten championship; the Buckeyes find themselves seven games behind conference leader Indiana with only nine games remaining.
These are facts not loss upon Beals. Whether he uses his iPhone or computer to check the extended forecast, respond to an e-mail from a recruit or glance at stats from an opponent, Beals has the technology, and is smart enough to operate it; to see the black and white facts of where his team currently is. The superficial facts, figures and numbers paint a bleak picture, one that shows Ohio State is under performing. There is nothing one can do to suggest they are not, if one is openly receptive to discoursed based on wins and losses, conference standings.
But it's time to change the conversation.
Entering the final three weeks of the season, Ohio State welcomes seventh-place Iowa, travels to Michigan for the first time since 2011, having won the last four contest between the two, and hosts last-place Northwestern. Victors of three of their five Big Ten series, Ohio State faces a season-ending stretch against three clubs that have combined for four Big Ten Tournament appearances since 2009; in 2011 and 2012 the trio composed the bottom three spots in the final Big Ten standings.
Iowa does head into the weekend's series in Columbus one game better than the Buckeyes, enjoying a strong season under first-year head coach Rick Heller. Michigan, currently 9-9, will have the series at home. Northwestern did take two at Nebraska two weekends back. But this is a run of three series where Ohio State has the edge in talent, two of three are at home, and little needs said when facing Michigan.
To finish with a 6-3 run, going 2-1 in each series, Ohio State would finish 12-12 in the Big Ten, likely somewhere around fifth in the conference. A 7-2 run, not unlikely, puts the team at 13-11, and maybe into fourth.
Again that is not good enough. The standards at Ohio State are to compete for a Big Ten championship. If you're going to come up short, it better be in the form of last year where Ohio State was one inning for claiming a share of the Big Ten title.
But let's take a step back from where Ohio State should be and adjust the scope on the season.
Picked to finish third in the Big Ten by the coaches in the preseason, Ohio State was greeted with a conference schedule that saw the remaining top-four their first three opponents. There wasn't an opportunity to take a few lumps from Indiana, rebound with a lesser Penn State before facing the Spartans. Ohio State was asked to grind out a series against Michigan State, turnaround and welcome Indiana, then travel across the conference to face Nebraska.
Ohio State captured the hard-fought series against Michigan State. The Buckeyes fell in all three to Indiana, but IU has also swept Iowa and Michigan State. Looking to return to the win column, Ohio State was unable to do so in all three games in Lincoln, but the final two were walk-off losses. The series opener a game where Ohio State's bullpen depth, to be discussed later, was exposed. A freshman in a hostile environment; unable to finish a contest against an even-matched club that will likely finish second.
After a the 2-7 start, the back-to-back gut-punching sweeps, albeit it in opposite fashion, doesn't it speak to a coach to have his team finish on a 10-5 or 11-4 run? Isn't it common in sports to praise the team and its leader for finding that moment with their back against the wall to find a way to get it done; their resiliency? If one doesn't want to place that on the coach, then it must be the resolve of the players to step up, operate in an environment where they get the job done, opt to not give up and have the season fall apart?
And in the time Ohio State was in the midst of losing the weekend to Indiana, all the way until gutting out a series win at Purdue, the Buckeyes were without the pitcher they went into the season penciled in as the rotation's No. 2. After losing all three weekend starters, two key relievers to graduation, to lose the lone upperclassmen left-hander in the rotation in Ryan Riga, how does one not expect a club to take a few lumps? Not only did Ohio State need to find an entire new weekend 1-2-3, they needed to find a 1-2-3-4 with two freshmen being counted on heavily in left-handers Zach Farmer and Tanner Tully, a third thrown into the closer's role in Travis Lakins.
In a nutshell, here's Ohio State's season. Take your roster of 21 first of second year players and start them with three the best Big Ten clubs over the last two years. You can have the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year back, but all you'll have are memories of his once 100 MPH fastball; he won't be able to take the mound. As the youth you have steps into new roles, depended upon in critical situations, amplify their outings as you run through a rash or injured pitchers, you pitching corp depleted and bats needing to do more. Your starting shortstop will go down for 20 games and the lone senior in the lineup will miss a pair of weekends.
Just go out there handle all of that and return with a top-three finish.
Yet Ohio State ends the season with a chance to finish in the top four.
In being a Buckeye, you expect greatness. Tradition; honor; excellence. We get it. Ohio State has the facilities, financial resources and recruiting footprint to have a program year in and year out knocking on the door to host, not just get in an NCAA regional. But it takes time.
Speaking to coaches around the conference, in today's college baseball world, you need five years to be judged on wins and losses; championships and trophies. With recruiting now accelerated to the point of sophomores committing, Beals' first true recruiting class is Ohio State's sophomores. Ohio State was able to piece together a second-place finish a year ago on the strength of transfers, Brad Goldberg, Brian King, Jaron Long, Kirby Pellant, Greg Solomon. They contributed mightily to Ohio State's success but transfers are bandages, they are not the foundation of a program.
If Ohio State finishes a place off their expect third-place finish, goes 13-11 with a team heavily dependent on freshmen and sophomores, just three seniors, is that truly a bad season?
There certainly has been disappointing moments. Ohio State lost three of the seven games against teams with an RPI greater than 200 at one point. But that's only a small part of this season as a whole. Ohio State has shown an ability to beat a top 25 team (see: Central Florida and Oregon). Show they're right there with other teams inline for an NCAA Tournament (see: Auburn, East Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon State, the Huskers).
With what has been thrown their way, the chance to yet still finish in the top-third, it's time to appreciate what the club has been through to be where they are. Beals always speaks to competitive toughness and for temporarily being in the Big Ten baseball to brighter days, they have shown that. And because of being forced to throw players into the fire, Ohio State may be a dangerous club in the Big Ten Tournament, capable of rolling out five starters with an offense slowly finding itself.
Don't like what you're hearing, change the conversation. Don't like what you're seeing, change the focus. Ohio State has provided opportunities to do both and make for a feel-good final month.