Friday, May 22, 2009 3:13 AM
By Mark Znidar
The Columbus Dispatch
Anyone needing more proof that Ohio State is a baseball team that refuses to lose received it last night in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.
Starter Alex Wimmers, the right-hander who was co-conference pitcher of the year, didn't come close to dominating hitters.
The Buckeyes also didn't hit the ball like the machine that tore up opposing pitching all season.
Yet facing a three-run deficit in the sixth inning, Ohio State pecked and poked at Illinois, and eventually came away with a 7-4 victory before what is believed to be a single-day Big Ten tournament record crowd of 4,575 in Huntington Park.
"The crowd was with us the entire game," reliever Jake Hale said. "When we tied the game (in the seventh inning), I just knew we were going to win it."
The Buckeyes (40-15) advance to the winner's bracket final against Indiana at approximately 7:05 tonight.
How opportunistic was Ohio State against Illinois?
It scored the tying and winning runs in the seventh inning -- an inning in which OSU had only one hit, a bunt by Cory Kovanda.
When the Buckeyes trailed 4-1, they scored two runs in the sixth on three singles -- two of which never left the infield.
Wimmers wasn't himself almost from the start, giving up a two-run homer to Aaron Johnson in the second inning.
"People who have watched Alex Wimmers all year could see he didn't have his best stuff," Buckeyes coach Bob Todd said. "He was really struggling with his off-speed pitches."
Wimmers gave up two more runs in the sixth on a double by Johnson and a single by Pete Cappetta.
That's when the Buckeyes began to dig in and show why they won the regular-season championship despite having only three seniors.
Michael Stephens, Dan Burkhart and Ryan Dew singled to load the bases in the sixth. Justin Miller drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, and Michael Arp brought in another with a groundout to make it 4-3.
Illinois threatened to break the game open in the seventh when Joe Bonadonna reached on an error and, one out later, Brandon Wickoff doubled to put runners on second and third.
Right-handed set-up man Drew Rucinski came on and retired Dominic Altobelli on a fly to right, then got Johnson on a hard liner to shortstop Tyler Engle.
"That's the kind of situation a reliever gets tossed into all the time," Rucinski said. "I threw all my pitches well. I tried to throw strikes."
Ohio State took advantage of a faltering Strack, who walked Matt Streng and Zach Hurley to start the seventh and gave up a perfect bunt down the third-base line by Kovanda to load the bases.
Two groundouts made it 5-4.
The Buckeyes scored twice in the eighth on a single by Streng and a triple by Hurley.
"I take our hat off to our hitters," Todd said. "We said, 'Settle down and have good at-bats that you're capable of.' We showed some patience."
Hale pitched the ninth to increase his Ohio State season saves record to 16.