Sunday, May 17, 2009 3:41 AM
By Bob Hunter
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Win and wait. Sounds easy, doesn't it?
Win and wait. Not so easy. Yesterday was one of the longest, strangest and most rewarding days in Ohio State baseball history.
For most of the afternoon, the Buckeyes might have been matched up with the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies instead of ninth-place Iowa. This was one tough slog.
Ohio State was trailing 4-0 in the sixth inning, scored five runs in the bottom half to take the lead, then fell behind again when Hawkeyes first baseman Sean Flanagan hit a home run to lead off the eighth.
The plan was to win and wait, remember?
The Buckeyes' three-run eighth and closer Jake Hale's 1-2-3 ninth took care of that problem, but first-place Minnesota's game at Penn State created another. A Gophers loss and the Buckeyes would be Big Ten champions. A win, and Ohio State would finish second.
With the Gophers ahead 8-5 in the fourth, the game in State College, Pa., went into a rain delay. This is part two of win and wait.
"I don't know if I can watch it or not," shortstop Tyler Engle said. "I'll probably just go home and try to take a nap and hope I get a call that says we won and come back to the field."
Strange as it seems, some of Engle's teammates were of like mind; within the context of the day, maybe it wasn't that strange. It's no fun waiting all afternoon on a result that figures to the wrong one. Penn State was just ahead of Iowa in the Big Ten standings, and in an odd way the Buckeyes had gotten what they had to out of the season's final day.
Their 8-6 win over the Hawkeyes was huge. It gave an Ohio State team short on pitching at least a second-place finish and a first-round bye in next week's Big Ten tournament in Huntington Park. It also gave it 39 wins, one away from a number that seems to be magic with the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
If the Buckeyes had lost and dropped back into the first round of the conference tournament, there was a sense of foreboding that they might not be able to stick around long enough to make the NCAA field. If that happened, it would be a cruel finish to what has been a remarkable year.
All of which explains why the wait was so worthwhile. Penn State rallied to beat Minnesota 10-8. An Ohio State team that spent part of the day flirting with postseason disaster, a team that few considered a league favorite coming into the season, ended up winning the school's seventh regular-season title under coach Bob Todd and the first since 2001.
Hard as it is to believe, this is essentially the same team that went 15-15 in the conference and 30-26 overall last season, the Buckeyes' worst overall record since 1990.
"Was it a surprise?" said Todd, in his 22nd season. "After fall practices and as we did some things in the wintertime, we said if this would fall into place for us we could be here. Normally it doesn't, but it just seemed like all the pieces of the puzzle fit."
How did it happen? For one thing, this team is a team. Todd said that the previous two teams had some "negative tension in the locker room and dugout" created when freshmen beat older players out of their jobs.
But camaraderie alone doesn't win titles; that takes talent and, well, something else. This team had to win its last five Big Ten games to win the championship, and some of those seemed just as tough as yesterday's did. There is something special about this group, something that only members of the team's inner circle saw before the season.
"Coming off last year, it looked a little rough," third baseman Justin Miller said. "But all those (freshmen) got experience, and that's what has helped us this year. We all see it when we go out there. That's what happened today. We get behind, we get behind late in the game and we just come back and get it done."
Win and wait. No problem at all.