Once again destiny seemed to distance itself from the Ohio State Buckeyes as they dropped the finale of their weekend series with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Champaign – This one stung. It hurt.
And it cast aspersions on outfielder Troy Montgomery’s prediction of a week ago…that all the Buckeyes had to do to ensure their post-season hopes was to win their final five series…against Illinois, Purdue. Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota.
But the reality of that happening became more distant Sunday as the Buckeyes dropped a disappointing 5-3 decision to suddenly-surging Illinois. Coming off Saturday’s 9-1 win, and with what one would expect to be all the momentum in the world, they came back Sunday to be bottled up and suffocated for most of the nine innings by Illinois starter Cole Bellair
Disappointing? Yes, and with a familiar subplot: For want of a timely hit!
“Obviously I’m not happy about losing the series,” said Buckeyes skipper Greg Beals. “We played so well yesterday with our bats and we come back today with a matchup we thought we could take advantage of…and we lost that matchup to their starting pitcher.
“He beat our bats and was getting us to swing at his off-speed pitch, and that was the difference. We need to do a better job offensively of staying with the pitch we want to hit early in the count.”
What Illini starter Cole Bellair did was magnify the on-again, off-again nature of an offense that seems to operate on the theory of security in numbers …like piling on in a fight. When the hitting’s good they hit. When the hitting’s not so good, well……..
And it appeared to be good against Bellair, who never broke 88 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun, but had the Ohio State bats continually popping up to all points of the infield for the first seven innings.
It also nullified a magnificent six-inning effort by starting pitcher Adam Niemeyer (3-2) who gave up a pair of runs in the first on a double and triple to Jack Yalowitz and Doran Turchin before settling into a monotonous pattern of efficiency over the next five innings.
But while Niemeyer was throwing up nothings, Bellair was throwing up even sweeter nothings…until the sixth.
The one Ohio State hitter who seemed to carry over Saturday’s aggressiveness at the plate was left fielder Ronnie Dawson. With one out in the top of the sixth he picked on a Bellair fastball and shot it out of the wrong barrel to left field, over the fence for his eighth homer of the year and his second of the series.
“He’s such a good athlete,” said Illinois coach Dan Hartleb later. “The home run he hit yesterday off our young lefthander was pretty impressive, and he’s just as good an outfielder as he is hitter. He can do it all and you don’t want to see him up there when the game is on the line.”
More about that in a minute.
Dawson’s home run cut the margin to 2-1 and seemed to put some spark back in the Buckeyes’ first base dugout, especially with Niemeyer in seeming cruise control on the mound.
But a different Adam Niemeyer went back out for the seventh. His velocity was down a couple of mph, and his command was gone. After a leadoff single he walked the number 8 and 9 hitters in the order and had to face leadoff hitter Yalowitz, who had done squat for the series outside his first inning double.
With the bullpen working Beals took his chances on the matchup.
“We liked the matchup because of Adam’s changeup,” said Beals. “He just got one up and the hitter took advantage of it.”
Yalowitz ripped a double to the alley in right center to clear the bases.
“The big hit,” added Beals. “It was the difference in the ballgame. They got it and we didn’t. But walking the eighth and ninth place hitter certainly helped fuel the inning and the outcome.”
Still, OSU added a run to cut the deficit to 5-2 in the eighth. And shortstop Craig Nennig led off the top of the ninth with a towering shot to left for his fourth home run of the season. With one out Jacob Bosiokovic dump his only hit of the series into right field and catcher Jalen Washington (5 for 14 for the series) followed with a double to the gap to put runners at second and third with one out.
But Troy Montgomery, who really struggled in the three games, saw his struggles continue, popping out to short right field; and designated hitter Ryan Leffel came to the plate with two out…and with Ronnie Dawson standing in the on deck circle.
Leffel worked the count to 2-2 against closer Nick Blackburn before grounding out harmlessly to second base to end the game and leave the potential tying runs at third and second…and much to Dan Hartleb’s relief, with Dawson still standing in the on deck circle.
In a final line for two teams seeming headed in opposite directions…Illinois won it with 5 runs, 7 hits, and played error-free baseball. Ohio State had 3 runs on 9 hits and likewise played clean baseball defensively.
Heads dropped as the finality of the outcome settled in. Beals spoke of missed opportunity and of the offense starting too late as if it was a current phenomenon. But in reality it resonates with overtones from games, series, and seasons passed.
“Yeah, today was not good,” he admitted. “You go on the road and you play two tough games. We won the easy game in the middle. We lost a tough game on Friday when we couldn’t get the big hit when we needed it…and then again today it was the same situation.”
So now the season comes down to four series and the window of opportunity tightens on Troy Montgomery’s statement of possibility. Sweeping last place Purdue on the road next week is doable, but winning successively against Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota will take a something different than that exhibited in the past month against Northwestern, Maryland, Rutgers, and now Illinois.
Austin Powers called it “mojo”, manliness…whatever that means in baseball terms.
Greg Beals would just settle for two-out hits in games where they matter.