Sunday, November 15, 2009 Sports: Ohio State has sights set on Omaha

By Kendall Rogers

The only number Ohio State players and coaches need to remember this spring is 42.

Yes, that was the number worn by Jackie Robinson. But it also represents what the 2010 Buckeyes have the ability to accomplish. OSU can end a 42-year drought by making it back to Omaha for the College World Series.

Ohio State was a perennial national power in the 1960s. In that decade, the Buckeyes made College World Series appearances in ’65, ’66 and ’67, and won the national title ’66.

The Buckeyes haven’t been back to Rosenblatt Stadium since the ’67 campaign, and the Big Ten hasn’t exactly produced many potential CWS participants in recent seasons. Michigan upset Vanderbilt in the ’07 Nashville Regional and was expected to take a huge step forward and possibly get to Omaha in ’08. But that year the Wolverines bowed out in the Ann Arbor Regional to Arizona.

That Michigan team was good. The ’10 Ohio State team will be better.

The Buckeyes entered last season with just three seniors and a plethora of young players. Some pundits picked them to finish third, fourth and even lower in the Big Ten. OSU surprised many by winning the regular season crown with an 18-6 record.

The Buckeyes reached the Tallahassee Regional final and ended the expected rebuilding campaign with an outstanding 42-19 record. They also eliminated Georgia from the postseason while in Tallahassee.

“I was very proud of the way the team competed last year until the last game. We were very young and probably exceed expectations in some eyes,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said. “I think if you win the league like we did and get to a regional final, it’s a big accomplishment.”

The addition of outfielder Michael Stephens to the lineup certainly was a huge boost last season. Catcher Dan Burkhart’s huge sophomore season at the plate - and behind it - also was a plus. But perhaps most encouraging was the campaign logged by sophomore right-handed pitcher Alex Wimmers.

Wimmers compiled a 4.50 ERA in 40 innings as a freshman two seasons ago. As a sophomore, he went 9-2 and had a 3.27 ERA in 104 2/3 innings. He also struck out 136 and walked 55 while limiting opponents to a .211 batting average.

Wimmers will be a preseason All-American in 2010 and gives the Buckeyes the dominant staff ace that most teams have in Omaha.

“It’s so important the first game of any series to have a dominant arm, because it’s important to get off on the right track. Alex provides that,” Todd said. “Anyone that goes to Omaha has that one stud pitcher, the guy the whole team plays confidently behind and when he’s on the mound they like their chances of winning. That’s Alex.”

The Buckeyes should like their chances on the weekend with Wimmers and fellow weekend starter Eric Best leading the way. But the bullpen is a cause for some concern.

“One of the big question marks is the loss of Jake Hale. That’s some huge shoes to fill considering how great he was the entire season,” Todd said.

Hale made 40 appearances and compiled a 1.31 ERA in 55 innings.

“We had hoped to get a good look at several guys in the fall, but injuries and other issues kept us from seeing a lot of arms,” Todd said. “It actually caused our fall workouts to be rocky at times.”

In the meantime, look for the Buckeyes to heavily lean on junior right-hander Drew Rucinski. Rucinski made 36 appearances last season and compiled a 5.54 ERA in 74 2/3 innings. Todd, though, has high hopes for the righty in the upcoming campaign.

“Rucinski was an unsung hero last season, and after this past summer he came back and the scouts really were raving about him,” Todd said. “He was great in a setup role last season and he’s still very valuable to this ballclub.”

While the bullpen certainly is a big concern with spring approaching, the Buckeyes know that getting to Omaha requires much more. They have a great offense and a one-two punch on the weekend that will be very difficult to beat. They also have the most important intangibles – a great attitude and swagger.

Now the Buckeyes just need a little good fortune.

“Every aspect of your team has to be clicking at the same time to get to Omaha, there’s no question about that,” Todd said. “But I’ll say this much, getting to Omaha requires a little bit of luck, too.”

After 42 years, the Buckeyes are due for some good karma.

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