As the Big Ten tournament gets underway at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha on Wednesday, the number three looms large over Ohio State's matchup with Nebraska.
Three, as in this is the third straight year the teams will meet in the conference postseason. The Buckeyes ended the Huskers tournament in 2012 with a 6-2 victory at Huntington Park in Columbus. The favor was returned last year at Target Field, where Nebraska bounced Ohio State 5-0.
Three, as in a three-game sweep the Buckeyes suffered the first weekend in April in Lincoln. The Huskers sent the team to its second consecutive winless weekend, and dropped Ohio State's conference record to 2-7, destroying its hope of contending for a Big Ten regular season crown.
Three, as in the number of runs Nebraska won that series by, and the number of late-inning rallies it used to do so. The Buckeyes yielded three eighth inning runs in game one of the series, losing 3-2, three in the ninth of game two to fall short 4-3, and one in the ninth of the final game to complete the sweep 2-1.
Three, as in the number of wins a team will need to reach the tournament finals. Ohio State's only chance at an NCAA tournament berth is to win the Big Ten tourney. Nebraska is likely to receive an at-large bid, but would greatly bolster its resume with a deep run.
Months of hard work by players and coaches in both dugouts comes down to these five days in Omaha. It is fitting that the Buckeyes and Huskers are matching up, as it will serve to further intensify the growing rivalry between the two schools. The postseason is here. It's time to play ball.
Here's a look at Wednesday's matchup.
Wednesday, May 21st 2 p.m.
Nebraska (2) vs. Ohio State (7)
Nebraska enters the tournament as the second seed after taking two of three games from Illinois in the final regular season weekend. The Huskers won the final game in extra innings in walk-off fashion, 7-4, courtesy of a three-run homer by junior Pat Kelly. At 18-6 in the Big Ten (37-18 overall), Darin Erstad's squad finished the season on a tear, winning nine of the last ten to finish three games behind Indiana in the standings.
Ohio State had to scratch and claw to revive its season after April's sweep in Lincoln. The Buckeyes went 8-7 down the stretch in the conference schedule, but dropped two of three in the final two weekend series against Michigan and Northwestern, securing the seventh seed. Fourth-year head coach Greg Beals, who brings his club to Omaha 10-14 in the Big Ten (30-26 overall), knows that the tournament gives Ohio State new life.
"The tournament acts as a second chance, another opportunity for us," Beals said. "Basically, it's a new season."
The Buckeyes will need their bats to come alive and for the pitching staff to remain steady if they are to make any noise this week. The team will have its work cut out for it, as the Huskers wield a potent lineup and will be handing the ball to their ace on Wednesday.
Nebraska's Chance Sinclair, a junior college transfer in his first season with the Huskers, has taken the conference by storm this year, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. The 6'4" righty is 9-1 in fourteen starts, with a 1.88 ERA that ranks second in the conference. In 91 innings of work, Sinclair has limited the opposition to a .237 batting average and just nine extra-base hits, sporting a WHIP of 1.14. Twelve of his fourteen starts have resulted in outings of at least six innings, including a complete game against the Buckeyes on April 5th in which he scattered seven hits and allowed three unearned runs, striking out four in picking up the win.
Sinclair's opponent that day in April was Tanner Tully, who took a no-decision after giving up a run on three hits in 7.1 innings of work, striking out six and walking one. Tully, who will take the ball against the Huskers on Wednesday, has been stellar in his first collegiate season, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and being named second-team All-Conference. The southpaw from Indiana is 6-3 in fifteen appearances, ten of them starts, with a 2.08 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP in 86.1 innings of work. The stat that really jumps off the page for Tully, though, is just six walks issued all season, or 0.67 walks per nine innings, which is second nationally.
Both the Huskers and the Buckeyes will have to work to put runners on base and manufacture runs with two of the top arms in the Big Ten on the mound. If the game is close late, it could all come down to the bullpens, where both teams feature top-flight closers. Josh Roeder has saved 12 games for Nebraska, tied for tops in the Big Ten, while Ohio State's Trace Dempsey bounced back from early season struggles to close out eight.
Nebraska can flat-out hit. The team finished the regular season at or near the top of the the Big Ten in just about every offensive category. The Huskers banged out a conference-best 558 hits, and rank second in batting average (.296), on-base percentage (.367), and runs scored (331). Averaging more than six runs per game, Nebraska has a lineup that looks like a pitcher's nightmare, with six regulars hitting .298 or better.
Kelly is the cleanup hitter and heart and soul of the lineup. A first-team All-Big Ten performer the past two seasons and a former Freshman All-American, the Huskers' second baseman is hitting .319, with a team-leading 68 hits, four home runs, and 51 RBIs. Kelly is hitting .429 (15-for-35) with three doubles, two home runs and 15 driven in.
Joining Kelly in providing punch to Erstad's order is fellow junior Blake Headley, a second-team All-Big Ten performer who leads the regulars with a .331 average and also comes in red-hot, batting .371 (13-for-35) with two doubles and two homers in his last ten contests. Senior Michael Pritchard, another first-team All-Big Ten selection, and his team-leading 19 doubles, to go along with a .318 average and 42 driven in, and Freshman All-Conference leadoff man Ryan Boldt, who is hitting .298 and has scored a team-high 62 runs, also help the Huskers to pummel opposing pitching.
Ohio State enters the tournament seventh in the Big Ten in hitting at .269, but second at hitting the long ball with 23 as a team. The Buckeyes also lead the conference in strikeouts, though, fanning an average of six times per contest, and have proven to be extremely streaky at the plate all season long.
A pair of newcomers have given the Buckeyes solid production. Freshman Ronnie Dawson finished the regular season fourth in the conference with a .342 batting average, adding 10 doubles, four home runs, 25 RBIs, 28 runs scored, and a team-leading nine stolen bases. A unanimous Freshman All-Big Ten selection and second-team All-Conference, Dawson provided some fireworks in Ohio State's final home game against Northwestern, racing around the bases on a gapper to right-center for an inside-the-park home run.
Sophomore Nick Sergakis gave Ohio State a spark at the top of the order when an injury to Craig Nennig gave the Coastal Carolina transfer an opportunity to play every day. The Columbus native is hitting .319, scoring 27 runs, notching eight extra-base hits, and driving in 11.
The Buckeyes get their power, in large part, from two standouts in the middle of the order who just received All-Conference recognition. Sophomore Troy Kuhn, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, leads the team and is in the top ten in the conference with 14 doubles, six home runs, 34 RBIs, and 39 runs scored. Another third-team All-Conference performer, junior Josh Dezse, who struggled mightily at the beginning of the season after a medical redshirt a year ago, came on in a big way down the stretch. Dezse hit .308 in Big Ten play, and enters the tournament with five homers and 26 driven in.
All or Nothing
The season has largely not gone the way Ohio State expected. Inconsistency at the plate and a few gut-punching losses have made for disappointment and the team's worst conference record since 1987. But the Big Ten tournament is a second chance. The Buckeyes have a shot at redeeming themselves and extending their season, but standing in the way is a Nebraska team that has taken four in a row from them, and ended their run last year. After being swept in Lincoln early in the season, Ohio State would love nothing more than to extract a little revenge on the Huskers and prove that it is better than its record would suggest.