Ohio State entered the final weekend of the regular season controlling their own destiny. Holding tie-breakers over Michigan State and Iowa, the Buckeyes simply had to handle business at home against Northwestern to secure the sixth seed in the Big Ten tournament, and with a little help could have jumped into fifth.
The Wildcats thwarted those plans, though, handing Ohio State its second consecutive series loss to end the regular season, taking two of three in Columbus. The Buckeyes, who finished the regular season with a 30-26 overall record, enter their 27th Big Ten tournament as the 7th seed, and will now face Nebraska in the first round in Omaha. The team comes into postseason play struggling a bit, having won just three of their past eight games, and posted a 10-14 mark that is its worst in Big Ten play since 1987.
"Hopefully they see it as a clean slate," Head Coach Greg Beals said of the Buckeyes' tournament position after Saturday's Senior Day victory. "This is their chance to do what they've wanted all along."
Ohio State will be on the field at TD Ameritrade Park against the Huskers on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
Nebraska finished the season 18-6 in Big Ten games, claiming the second seed with a victory in the final game of the season against Illinois in Lincoln on Saturday. The Huskers have been solid all year both at the plate and on the mound, placing among the conference's best in several statistical categories in both facets of the game.
In their last trip to Nebraska, Ohio State suffered a gut-punching sweep at the hands of Nebraska. The Huskers rallied to win the series opener, 3-2, in their final at-bat, before winning the last two games in walk-off fashion, 4-3 and 2-1. The closeness of the contests weren't lost on Beals when speaking on a potential matchup with the Huskers.
"I imagine Nebraska doesn't want to face us," the fourth-year coach said. "They won three last-at-bat games against us, in baseball the odds are going to eventually fall your way."
The close games in Lincoln only helped to further develop an intense rivalry between Ohio State and Nebraska in their third season as conference mates. The Buckeyes ended the Huskers' season in 2012 with a 6-2 win in the Big Ten tournament and began last year's conference tourney with a 3-2 win against the boys from Lincoln before Nebraska returned the favor, knocking out Ohio State with a 5-0 win.
This is the first season of the Big Ten tournament's expanded eight-team field. Ohio State has a .576 winning percentage (53-39) and eight titles in the tournament's 33-year history, second-best to Minnesota's nine championships and .613 winning clip.
The Buckeyes are seeking the the Big Ten's automatic NCAA tournament bid, which is awarded to the tournament champion, for the first time since 2007, when the tournament was held by conference champion Michigan. The 2007 title was the program's fourth in sixth seasons, and marked the first time a sixth seed was able to run the table in tournament history. Since that improbable run in Ann Arbor, though, Ohio State has only notched more than one tournament win once, putting together a 2-2 showing in 2012 when Columbus' Huntington Park played host to the Big Ten's postseason.
Ohio State and Nebraska are joined by Illinois and Michigan State on one side of the double-elimination tournament bracket. The winners of the first round games will square off on Thursday at 6 p.m., while the losers will lock up at 10 a.m. On the other side of the bracket, Indiana takes on Iowa and Minnesota and Michigan match up.
In a season that has seen its share of gut punches both on the field and off, Ohio State has still accomplished its first goal of earning a trip to the conference tournament. The odds of earning an NCAA tournament berth are against the Buckeyes, but if the team can recall some of its 2007 magic in Omaha, a ninth Big Ten tournament championship will be won and a bigger goal will be reached.
"We started our season with the goal of representing The Ohio State University in the NCAA Tournament," Beals said. "The tournament acts as your chance, another opportunity for us, and it's a new season."