If Ohio State never sees Nebraska on a baseball diamond again, it will be too soon. After the Huskers beat the Buckeyes in thrilling fashion for the fourth time this season, coming back from a three-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth for a 7-6 victory, Ohio State is down to its last chance in the Big Ten tournament. Another loss will end the team's season.
The Buckeyes will square off with Illinois in a win-or-go-home game at 10 a.m. today at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha after the Illini were bested by Michigan State 2-1 in the tournament's opening game yesterday. The two teams did not meet in the regular season, but Ohio State head coach Greg Beals knows what to expect from Dan Hartleb's squad.
"They're a good ball club," Beals said. "They're a regional-caliber team, and they're on that bubble, so they're probably looking at it as they need to win the tournament to ensure themselves as in [the NCAA tournament]."
Ohio State must have a short memory if it wants to continue its season, focusing on what went right against Nebraska, and limiting mistakes against the Illini. If they fail to do so, the offseason will be starting early in Columbus.
Let's take a look at the matchup with Illinois.
Thursday, May 22nd 10:00 a.m.
Illinois (3) vs Ohio State (7)
Illinois understands a little bit of what Ohio State is feeling after the first game of the tournament. Not only did the Illini drop their first game in Omaha, they also fell to Nebraska in walk-off fashion last Saturday. Playing to determine the runner up in the Big Ten to Indiana, Illinois watched the Huskers celebrate an extra inning, come-from-behind victory in Lincoln, and were relegated to the third seed after finishing up 17-7 in conference play (31-19 overall).
Illinois has hung its hat on pitching this season, ranking near the top of the Big Ten in a variety of statistical categories. The staff has a 3.22 ERA, fourth in the conference, hold opponents to a .258 average, and boasts a collective WHIP of 1.24. The only real question Hartleb had for Thursday's elimination game was who to hand the ball to between an All-Big Ten junior and last year's conference Freshman of the Year.
The Illini skipper decided to give the ball to Kevin Duchene, a Freshman All-American a season ago, who is regaining his form as ace of the staff after missing seven weeks of the season with a flexor tendon injury in his throwing arm. Duchene is 3-1 with a 1.84 ERA, and will be making just his fourth start since returning to the rotation. The lefty has gone only 12 innings in those starts, giving up four runs (three earned) and 11 hits, while striking out six and walking two. His last outing was a 5-1 victory over Nebraska last Friday in which he gave up a run on four hits, striking out three in six innings of work that looked as though he was rounding back into shape. For the season, opponents are hitting a paltry .213 against Duchene, and he has a WHIP of 0.94.
Similarly, Beals had a choice to make and will be going with either his senior co-captain and third-team All-Big Ten selection Greg Greve or junior Ryan Riga, who three times throughout the season took home conference Pitcher of the Week honors. As of late last night, a decision had still not been made of who to hand the ball to.
Following the debacle in the ninth inning for the Buckeyes against the Huskers, the bullpen is a bit shaky. Freshman Travis Lakins, who has been the most consistent hurler in relief for Ohio State this season, threw a scoreless inning, but closer Trace Dempsey failed to shut the door, allowing four runs and walking three while recording just one out.
Illinois comes in with much more confidence in its pen. The Illini utilize two of the best in the conference, routinely shutting opponents down in the late innings. Leading the way is sophomore closer and second-team All-Big Ten performer Tyler Jay. The southpaw is 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA, saving nine games while limiting the opposition to a .200 batting average and barely over one walk and hit per inning. Setting up Jay is senior righty Ronnie Muck, who sports a 2.27 ERA and holds opponents to a .160 average. Muck has stellar WHIP of 0.93.
The Illini are hitting .272 coming into Thursday morning, featuring four All-Big Ten selections in the everyday lineup, and average a shade under five runs per ballgame. This is a young team, with no seniors among its regulars.
Illinois is led by center fielder Will Krug, a second-team All-Conference performer. The junior leadoff man is hitting .309, leads the team with 67 hits, 38 runs, and 20 stolen bases, and shares the lead with 10 doubles and three triples.
Joining Krug in pacing the Illini attack are fellow second-team All-Big Ten players Jason Goldstein and Adam Walton. Goldstein, the catcher and cleanup man, is hitting .315, with 10 doubles, four home runs, and 26 RBIs in his second season in Champaign. The shortstop Walton, who was also named to the Freshman All-Big Ten team, leads the team in hitting at .324, adding five doubles, three triples, a home run, and 19 driven in.
A trio of juniors provide the pop in the middle of the lineup for Illinois. Right fielder Casey Fletcher, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, sports an average of .304, with a team-leading six home runs, and 27 RBIs. David Kerian, the first baseman and three-hole hitter, has a .281 average, leads the team with 12 doubles, and shares the lead with 32 runs batted in. Kerian shares the RBI lead with second baseman Reid Roper, who despite hitting just .245, has mashed five homers and been a run producer.
For the Buckeyes, there are some positives to take from the first round loss, particularly the six-run fourth inning in which they hung five runs on first-team All-Big Ten Husker Chance Sinclair and sent him to the showers. The top of the order, consisting of Nick Sergakis, Ronnie Dawson, and Troy Kuhn continued to produce for Beals, combining to go 5-15 at the plate, scoring two runs, and driving in two. In fact every starter but two, Pat Porter and Tim Wetzel, had at least one hit in the game. For a team that has been streaky at the plate all season, that top-to-bottom production is encouraging.
Of course, save for the big inning, Ohio State was shutout. Nebraska's bullpen kept the Buckeyes in check, allowing just one hit and two walks over the final five innings. Porter's 0-4 day, including two strikeouts, was particularly costly, as he left three runners on base in a game where baserunners became a premium.
Win or go home
So the scenario is simple for the Buckeyes and Illini: win or go home. One team's season will end today in Omaha, while the other will live to fight for at least one more day. How the players react to having their backs against the wall will go a long way to determining who stays and who goes. It may just be the team that can stay loose and play like they have nothing to lose. Because, really, they don't.