Friday, March 27, 2009 2:53 AM
By Mark Znidar
The Columbus Dispatch
Thousands of Ohio State students spread out across the country and around the globe last week for the much-anticipated downtime that is spring break.
Although the Buckeyes baseball team didn't hit the beaches or nightclubs and spent four days in sleepy Winter Haven, Fla., it would put its trip up against the likes of Cancun, Daytona Beach, South Padre Island and Key West any time.
Five victories in six games, including a stunning 7-1 upset of second-ranked University of Miami in Coral Gables, let Big Tens teams know Ohio State might not be the pushover it was in 2008 when conference play begins today.
"I figure the team is rolling the way we're hitting, fielding and pitching and we have a chance," pitcher Alex Wimmers said. "We could win every series and be Big Ten champs. We've played really good teams. Now, we have a target on our back."
The 16th-ranked Buckeyes (18-3) play Penn State (13-8) in the opener of a three-game series at 6:30 tonight at Lubron Park in State College, Pa.
This is the second-best start in team history after the 1991 team that was 19-2 in nonconference play on its way to a team record 52 wins.
Last year, Ohio State finished fifth in conference in the regular season with a 15-15 record and lost two games in the double-elimination Big Ten tournament.
The difference has been a lineup that is batting .350 with a .550 slugging percentage. Outfielders Zach Hurley and Michael Arp of Reynoldsburg are batting .389 and .388, respectively, and catcher Dan Burkhart .378. The team has 34 more extra-base hits than last season at this time.
The schedule has been difficult. There have been victories over four Big East teams: Notre Dame, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
"I think you've also got to understand that we still think we're pretty young," coach Bob Todd said. "We went through some growing pains last year with as many as seven freshmen in the lineup. These freshmen have matured a little bit and have a summer league season under their belts. They are playing with a little confidence."
The Big Ten race will be far different than in the past with three nine-inning games instead of four-game series with nine-inning games on Friday and Sunday and two seven-inning games on Saturday. There will be 24 conference games instead of 32.
Todd said the premium will be on starting pitching. Wimmers (5-0) will assume his role as ace next week after one-hitting Miami over five innings on Tuesday. Jake Hale will be the closer.
Burkhart said the Buckeyes will have to get into a Big Ten mind-set, and that means dealing with the fickle weather and opponents that know your personnel better than anyone.
"Every Big Ten game is like a championship game," he said. "(The new format) will be a little different. I think we're ready for it. I do think we have a different mentality. We're a little more fired up."