On Saturday afternoon, the No. 4 Ohio State softball team continued adding accomplishments to the program’s best season in recent memory, as they knocked off the No. 7 Michigan State Spartans 4-3 in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Having comeback victories against Indiana and Michigan already in the tournament, Michigan State made things exciting down the stretch, despite the Buckeyes opening an early lead and extending late in the game.
The Buckeyes, who eliminated No. 6 Wisconsin on Friday, are currently receiving votes in the national poll, and, having earned a spot in the tournament finale tonight against No. 1 Minnesota, have upped their standing for tomorrow’s Selection Sunday. The championship game will begin at approximately 7:10 tonight on the Big Ten Network.
Ohio State got the scoring started in the top of the first, as shortstop Lilli Piper hit a two-run home run to left-centerfield, plating lead-off batter Anna Kirk, who had been hit by a pitch. Piper ranked third in the conference in home runs during the regular season with 16. Piper ended the game going 3-4 with two RBI and two runs scored.
After Michigan State upset the tournament host, No. 2 Michigan, yesterday, the Spartans made things difficult on the Buckeyes early. While MSU didn’t get on the board in the first, a 14-pitch at-bat for lead-off batter Lea Foerster forced Buckeye pitcher Shelby Hursh to throw 31 pitches in the frame.
This would be a reoccurring theme throughout the game, as the Spartans had numerous chances to score, but the OSU pitching and defense always seemed to step up when it was most needed. In the game, MSU stranded 14 batters to Ohio State’s five.
In the bottom of the second, Big Ten all-defensive team third baseman Kirk snagged a a hot shot from MSU’s Lexi White. Even though the Spartans got two more baserunners in the inning, the Buckeyes held onto their 2-0 lead through two.
In the top of the third, Ohio State right fielder Alex Bayne hit a high fly to right. MSU’s White lost the ball in the sun, and it fell in for a hit. As the ball rolled into the right field corner, Bayne circled the bases, running through a stop sign from head coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly at third.
The relay came in and Michigan State’s catcher Lindsey Besson got the tag down before Bayne reached the back corner of the plate to keep the score at 2-0. Piper drove a base hit into right-center in the next at-bat, but was stranded to end the threat.
The bottom of the third saw MSU’s first two batters reach base (McKenzie Long walked, Kaitlyn Eveland singled on a bloop down the left field line), which prompted Kovach Schoenly to make a change in the circle, bringing in Morgan Ray.
While the traditional softball philosophy has been to ride the arm of one dominant pitcher as long as possible, the Buckeyes have used their entire stable of hurlers all season, so the early change was very much in keeping with the team’s philosophy.
After three infield ground balls, including two great plays by second baseman Emily Clark, Ray ended the threat.
Ray struck out Ebonee Echols to open the home half of the fourth, but on a Baltimore chop from Besson, the throw from the OSU pitcher went wide, deflecting off Goodwin’s glove and careening into the dugout. With a pinch-runner now on second, Clark stops a groundball up the middle before planting and throwing to first to record the second out of the inning. After Foerster was hit by a pitch, Clark fielded a Long chopper to end the inning.
After a 1-2-3 top half of the fifth for the Buckeyes, Eveland was walked to reach base for the third time in the game, and advanced to second on a wild pitch. The next batter, first baseman Sarah Gutknecht singled to left field to put runners on the corners for the Spartans. Gutknecht advanced on a passed ball, before a walk to White loaded the bases with one out. However, two ground balls later, Ohio State had ended the inning.
In the top of the sixth, Piper lined a rope to center field to record her third hit of the game, and on a 3-1 pitch to the next batter, Clark, who was the defensive star of the game, smashed a two-run home run to left field to increase the Buckeye lead to 4-0.
MSU’s lead-off batter in the bottom of the sixth, second baseman Melanie Baccay, reached on an error by Piper, and advanced to second as the ball ricocheted off the SS’s leg. Up next, Foerster drove a ball deep into left for a double, plating Baccay.
After Long earned a walk, Kovach Schoenly again went to her bullpen, this time calling upon Shelby McCombs. The first batter she faced, Eveland, drove a ball up the middle that scored Foerster; moving the score to 4-2 in favor of the Buckeyes with runners on first and second with no outs.
After Ohio State generated a flyout and groundout, Echols earned her first hit of the tournament to score Long and move the score to 4-3, where it would stay heading into the seventh.
The Buckeyes failed to score in the final inning, and McCombs shut down the Spartans in order to earn the save. Ray was credited with the win, her sixth of the year.
In this evening’s championship game, Ohio State will face the tournament’s top seed, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers overcame an early 2-0 deficit to defeat No. 4 Illinois, 6-5 in the day’s first semifinal.
Minnesota’s Sydney Dwyer led off the bottom of the seventh inning with her second solo home run of the game to cap the comeback. The final game of the tournament will take place thirty minutes after the conclusion of the OSU-MSU semifinal, and will air on the Big Ten Network.