Rare is it that three words can rally and stir such a wide spectrum of emotions that engulf one when speaking of “The Rivalry”.
Regardless of sport, whenever the Buckeyes and Wolverines tangle, emotions are high and atmosphere unrivaled.
As the focus of the rivalry turns to the diamond the stakes are even high.
The winners of the last four Big Ten championships will do battle in Ann Arbor tonight at Ray Fisher Stadium, with the season in the balance.
Michigan whose mid-2000s dynasty included three consecutive conference championships from 2006-2008, look to solidify their return to the conference’s elite using the weekend as a springboard to claiming another crown.
Ohio State, who ended Michigan’s reign, has the conference championship to defend and look to turn away another competitor in defense of the title.
While we speak of past glories, the 2010 season has been anything but for these two Big Ten standard-bearers as both enter the weekend coming off of a weekend series loss last time out, a far cry from the dominance shown over the last half-decade.
At home Ohio State was handed two lopsided losses by last-place Penn State after winning game one 4-1. Michigan fell victim to Iowa, dropping both games of a Friday doubleheader before salvaging the series with a win on Saturday. At 7-5 in conference play, the two are tied with Michigan State and Northwestern atop the Big Ten standing, just one game from falling all the way to ninth.
It goes without saying this is a big weekend. Bragging rights aside, what makes the rivalry special is that year in and year out these programs are elite. The programs will boast the most on-field talent, their off field facilities and program support are unmatched, when adding Minnesota, these are the programs that stand out nationally.
But for now the two must settle for trying to stand out in a cluttered pack of Big Ten teams.
Ohio State enters the weekend at 23-12 overall while Michigan sits at 25-14 with respective RPI of 79 and 64. While it appears a berth to a NCAA Regional will need to be acquired by way of the automatic win by the conference’s tournament champion, a weekend series victory by either will lend more credence to a solid season, furthering they shot at an at-large bid that isn’t entirely yet lost.
Leading the way for the Buckeyes is All-American ace Alex Wimmers. Recording a victory in every start, at 9-0, Wimmers leads the country in victories while sporting a 1.61 ERA as he looks to capture his second consecutive Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honor.
The Big Ten’s reigning Player of the Year in Ohio State’s Dan Burkhart, will actually be overshadowed in the weekend set. Michigan’s Chris Berset is making a strong push to have his name thrown in the Johnny Bench Award discussion, an honor that goes to college baseball’s top backstop.
Berset leads the Maize & Blue with a .405 average while driving in 36 runs. Equally impressive behind the plate is Berset in throwing of 20 of 43 would-be base-stealers.
Setting the table for Berset is true freshman Patrick Biondi who is neck-and-neck tied with the Bucks’ Zach Hurley as unofficially the conference’s best leadoff hitter. However, the two go about their trade in vastly different ways.
More of your prototypical leadoff hitter, the slight of frame Biondi is 5-8, 160, and literally plays the little-man’s game. His .359 average is matched with 24 base on balls, and 7 HBP for a robust .465 on-base percentage. Once on base Biondi has no trouble moving over and getting in. With the aid of 24 steals in 29 attempts, Biondi has scored 52 runs for Michigan, 17 more than any other Wolverine.
Opposed to Biondi, Hurley is a player you would expect to see in the three-hole or as a team’s clean-up hitting. Trumping Biondi in size at 6’1, 210, Hurley exhibits the power you might expect from a player his size.
While almost as efficient as Biondi in getting on base, a .454 on-base percentage for the senior. Rarely does Hurley go base-to-base. In fact it isn’t out of question to see Hurley leadoff a game touching four bases. Two of Hurley’s six home runs are of leadoff variety. If not sending balls out of the park, Hurley finds himself in scoring position without the aid of stolen bases as his 17 doubles and three triples lead Ohio State hitters. Like Biondi, Hurley’s 39 runs score is a team best, which ultimately is the purpose of a leadoff hitter.
It would be unwise to not mention that the game will feature outstanding talent in the outfield, outside of Biondi and Hurley. Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre and Ohio State’s Michael Stephens were tabbed as two of the Big Ten’s best outfielders on a near-consensus basis in the offseason.
While LaMarre missed games 3-21 with a broken thumb, since returning the junior has been a catalyst to the Wolverines offense, which prior to the Iowa series was leading the way as Michigan won 18 of 21 games. In 18 games, LaMarre is batting .500 showing no lingering effects from the injury.
An All-Big Ten selection a year ago, Stephens is having another fine year as the Bucks centerfield. With a .376 average, Stephens leads outside with eight home runs while driving in 33 runs. The Buckeyes right-fielder Brian DeLucia is the team’s leading run producer, knocking in 38 runs while collecting six home runs, and a .361 average.
Outside of individual talent, Michigan and Ohio State aren’t too far off of each other within the numbers. The Buckeyes bat at a .335 clip while Michigan sits at .321. Both teams have 28 home runs on the year with Ohio State falling behind Michigan in doubles 65 to 89, and triples 11 to 17.
In two areas is Ohio State and Michigan miles apart. By far, stolen bases is the biggest discrepancy of the two as Ohio State has only attempted 39 steals, swiping 22, While Michigan is 61-for-81 on the basepaths. Second is the plate discipline each team possess. While Ohio State is nearly 1:1 in walks and strikeouts, 157 and 164, Michigan has received their 158 base on balls, but against 274 strikeouts.
On the mound Michigan’s 4.93 team ERA clips Ohio State’s 5.12. Michigan has 290 strikeouts against 151 base on balls while Ohio State counters with 259 and 115. Opponents hit Wolverine pitching at .294 rate, while Buckeye pitchers see the opposition bat against them with a .310 mark.
With the likeness of talent, a desire to return to dominant form, a continued battle at the top of the Big Ten, and oh yeah a hatred for each other, few weekend series around the country will have what is at-stake in their games, as what will be for Ohio State and Michigan. Furthering the Rivalry as something that truly is in a class of its own