Sunday, May 17, 2009

The O-Zone: Buckeyes Claim Conference Championship on Last Day of Season

By John Porentas

Photo courtesy

Ohio State (39-15, 18-6 Big Ten) claimed the Big Ten regular-season baseball championship, their first since the 2001 season, on the last day of the season by virtue of their 8-6 win over Iowa (16-35, 4-19 Big Ten) and Penn State's 10-8 win over Minnesota later in the day.

The day began with the Buckeyes trailing the Gophers by a half game and needing help from the Nittany Lions to capture the regular-season pennant. They also had to take care of their own business at home. For a while, it looked like neither of those things would happen.

Iowa jumped out to a 4-0 lead over OSU with a single run in the second, two more in the fourth and one more in the sixth off OSU starter Eric Best. OSU's hitters were held scoreless by Hawkeye starter Jarred Hippen for five full innings, and OSU's slim championship hopes looked like they were evaporating. Through five innings they had managed just two hits off Hippen and had hit into two double plays to kill the start of anything that resembled a scoring rally. In the sixth however, things changed.

First baseman Matt Streng broke out of a personal mini-slump with his first hit in the three-game series leading off the sixth and in the process broke the Buckeyes out of their six-inning snooze on offense. The Buckeyes plated five runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 5-4 lead. The big blow of the inning was a two-out, two-run homerun by senior third baseman Justin Miller. Miller fell behind 0-2 in the count before working Hippen all the way back to a 3-2 count. On 3-2 he stroked a high fly ball to right-center field that got up into a stiff wind blowing out that carried it over the fence to put OSU up for the first time in the game. The two-time captain has hit safely in 17 of his last 25 at bats (.680) over the last six games. Over that time he has scored nine runs and registered 11 RBI. Miller pumped his fist in excitement as he rounded the bases after his game-changing at bat. His emotion in the moment was contagious for the entire OSU squad.

"That was the most emotion I've ever shown on a homerun," said Miller.

"I just got it up in the wind and got it out of here.

"It was just unbelievable. It was senior day and to hit a homerun like that to get us the lead is just amazing."

"As I glanced down our bench I saw people jumping up in the air," said OSU Head Coach Bob Todd. "I saw energy. I saw enthusiasm, which is good."

Best had held his team in the game long enough for OSU's bats to finally wake up.

"Eric Best is slowly making progress," said OSU Head Coach Bob Todd.

"We've talked about somebody needing to be that third pitcher and maybe it's a good time for him to peak."

Best was relieved by Drew Rucinski to start the seventh inning. The Hawkeyes greeted him with a single, a walk and a sacrifice to put runners at second and third with just one down. A sacrifice fly brought in the tying run, but Rucinski was able to get out of the inning without further damage.

The Buckeyes finally chased Hippen in the seventh when a walk and a single put the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at first with one out. Iowa reliever Patrick Shatz then came on to frustrate the Buckeyes and get the Hawkeyes out of the inning when OSU center fielder Mike Stevens grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded.

The Hawkeyes took the lead with one swing of the bat in the eighth inning. Iowa first baseman Sean Flanagan led off the inning with a solo homerun. It was beginning to look like OSU title hopes would be dashed because the Hawkeyes just would not go away. Neither, it turned out, would the Buckeyes.

In the eighth inning OSU loaded the bases with a one-out single by designated hitter Ryan Dew, and walk to Miller and a single by right fielder Michael Arp. That left up to shortstop Tyler Engle who delivered a ground ball double down the left field line that stayed just inside the bag as it went past third base. The hit scored both Dew and Miller to put OSU back on top 9-8. A popup and a walk loaded the bases with two outs. OSU was then the beneficiary of an error by Iowa shortstop Chett Zeise that allowed the insurance run to come in.

OSU had a two run lead and needed three outs. They called on reliever Jake Hale who made short work of the three hitters he faced to record his 15th save of the season, a new record for Ohio State pitchers. In the process he completed yet another OSU comeback victory and kept his team's faint title hopes alive.

"We competed," said Todd. "That's exactly what it is in a nutshell.

"We didn't do much offensively the first five innings but you could sense there was a lot of determination on that bench. We competed."

Todd said that OSU's early-game offensive malaise may have been the result of some tightness on the part of his hitters in the face of the big game environment.

"I felt like our team was playing a little tentative. I was almost like when they came to the plate it was more like 'Don't make an out' rather than 'Lets be aggressive,' and that's not our style. When we finally relaxed and started swinging the bats we did a much better job," Todd said.

"It was a big game and some of the guys were a little tight," agreed Miller. "It was a pretty big game, we needed to win it and I think some of the guys came out a little tight and it showed the first couple of innings."

With the win in the books the Buckeyes' hope for a title rested on the outcome of the Penn State vs. Minnesota game. The start of that game had been delayed an hour by rain and was a see-saw affair. Penn State took a 3-0 lead in the first, but the Gophers came back to tie the game at three. Penn State then moved out to 5-3 lead as the OSU game ended, but the Gophers came back to take a 6-5 lead about the time the Buckeyes were leaving the clubhouse to head home after their win.

Minnesota grabbed an 8-5 lead but a second rain delay interrupted the game before the teams had completed enough innings to make the game official. After a long delay play was resumed. The Lions came back to regain the lead and send Minnesota to a loss that cost them a Big Ten championship and gave it to the Buckeyes.

Game Notes:

* OSU's team left the clubhouse long before the Minnesota vs.Penn State was decided. That game was televised live on the Big Ten Network, and though the OSU Coaching staff watched that game intently, many players said they just couldn't watch.

"If you were to go into the coaches locker room right now that game is on TV," said Todd at the post-game press conference.

"I'll probably just get update," said third baseman Justin Miller. "I don't want to watch it. I'll drive myself crazy. I'll get an update here and there, but I'm not going to watch it."

* OSU closer Jake Hale put his name in the OSU record book with his 15th save of the season. Hale was humbled by his accomplishment.

"This record was huge," said Hale. "It was one of my main goals apart from us getting a Big Ten championship."

"That's a big record. Only so-many guys have been able to come close to it, and to be able to break it is a big deal to me."

After working as a starter as a freshman Hale was tried as a closer in his sophomore season but never got comfortable with the role that year. He returned to the starting rotation as a junior before reassuming the closers role as a senior. He said this time around he was more successful because of a better outlook on the job and how to approach it.

"I've started all my life. I've turned myself into a completely different person (this year)," said Hale.

"I can joke around until the last second, hop that wall and I turn it on. That was the biggest thing, to change that mentality going out there.

"As soon as I hop that fence it's almost like I blackout. It's total focus, total concentration, it's just me and the catcher out there, nobody else."

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