They had it won, gave it back, and won it again…in a capsule, victory never tasted so sweet as the manner in which the Ohio State Buckeyes won the 2016 Big Ten Conference tourney crown.
Omaha – Lou Holtz is famous for saying that titles don’t come easy. And he should know. Holtz toiled for years in college football before finally winning a national title at Notre Dame.
And on Sunday afternoon, in Omaha, Ohio State baseball coach Greg Beals was reminded of the fact of which Holtz spoke as the Buckeyes beat Iowa, 8-7, to win the 2016 Big Ten Conference baseball tourney.
To win a title your character and perseverance is put to the test, and in the span of four days the Ohio State Buckeyes had to win five baseball games to capture the Big Ten Tourney title. In the span of 30 hours , between 2 pm Saturday and 4 pm Sunday, they actually had to win four games to get it done. And they did it!
After beating Michigan State Saturday night in the first of two semi-final games, OSU came right back on Sunday morning needing to beat the Spartans for a second time to advance to the tourney final with Iowa on Sunday afternoon. Even that came hard!
OSU quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead, only to see Michigan State come back to tie and take the game into the late innings. Ohio State came on to eventually win, 7-3, behind a remarkable relief effort from Kyle Michalik and Seth Kinker.
Three games won in the span of 24 hours impressed Michigan State coach, Jake Boss.
“Hats off to them,” he said of Ohio State’s seemingly fateful mission. “They played well. They put pressure on you offensively, and they’re well coached in all phases of the game. It’s really tough to win three games in 24 hours and it says something about their character. They’re playing like a team on a mission.”
It set up a rematch of Ohio State and Iowa, the only game in six this weekend that Ohio State lost, and a thriller before 10,530 mostly Iowa fans that saw the Buckeyes fall behind, catch up, take the lead, lose the lead, and then win it in the top of the ninth when Troy Kuhn drove in Ronnie Dawson with an RBI double for the winning score.
Minster native Adam Niemeyer took the mound first for OSU, coming back from his two innings in Friday night’s suspended game against Michigan. But on this day he could not locate in the strike zone. Iowa scored one in the first and three in the third when they tattooed Niemeyer for three runs on four hits, and his day was done.
Ohio State immediately came back with five runs on seven hits of their own in the top of the fourth, forcing Iowa out of its planned pitching rotation, forcing the Hawkeyes’ Ryan Erickson from the game. Everybody hit…Nick Sergakis, Craig Nennig, Ronnie Dawson, Troy Montgomery, Jacob Bosiokovic, Jalen Washington, and Tre’ Gantt.
More, they added to their 5-3 lead in the top of the seventh when Gantt singled, Dawson doubled to center, and Troy Kuhn singled to drive them both in for a 7-3 lead.
They were juiced in the Ohio State dugout, and the maybe one hundred scarlet and gray partisans sprinkled among the 10,000 Iowa fans. Could it possibly be? A Big Ten title in baseball?
Starter turned reliever Tanner Tully replaced Niemeyer in the fourth and carried the lead through the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings.
Seth Kinker, who had helped squander the lead to Iowa in the Friday loss, came on to pitch an efficient seventh, giving up only a single to center fielder Joel Booker before harmlessly retiring the side.
In the eighth Beals turned to his usual closing combination of Michael Horejsei first, to be followed by Yianni Pavlopoulos to finish in the ninth.
Except…after recording the first out of the inning Horejsei lost control of the strike zone. With one out he walked successive hitters and gave up a single to pinch hitter Devin Pickett to load the bases. After striking out the #9 hitter, Zach Daniels, Beals replaced him with righthander Pavlopoulos to retire righthanded – hitting Tyler Peyton, who had tormented Ohio State pitching for the past three seasons.
Peyton did it again. He laced a double to left center scoring two to cut the lead to 7-6. Pavlopoulos then hit the ensuing batter, Nick Roscetti. Joel Booker singled to center to drive in the tying run at 7-7 and the lead and good feeling, for the moment, was gone.
If fate means anything, it rested in the pocket of Buckeyes’ left fielder Ronnie Dawson. Visibly upset over losing the lead, Dawson came to bat in the top of the ninth with two out, having thus far 14 hits in 22 at bats for the tournament. He picked on a 2-2 pitch and singled to center. Troy Kuhn, who followed, likewise took a 2-2 pitch from reliever Josh Martsching and lined it down the left field line for a double.
Dawson ran like a runaway locomotive, scoring from first with the go-ahead run. He stormed into the dugout, challenging teammates to make this lead…LAST!
It fell upon Pavlopoulos to atone for the eighth when he came out for the ninth inning…and he did. After retiring the first two hitters harmlessly, he induced catcher Daniel Moriel to ground out to shortstop Craig Nennig for the final out…and the title clincher.
It set off a wild celebration between the mound and the first baseline, the obligatory “dog pile” that comes with any kind of baseball title…hugging, back slapping, and Dawson jumping up and down like he’d just won the lottery.
Iowa players were dazed, and in the post-game interviews centerfielder Joel Booker admitted shock over the outcome, the fact of coming so close to winning – to actually tying the score – and not finishing the deal.
“I’m shocked,” he said. “We really wanted this, coming in as the eighth seed. But I guess they wanted it more.”
Iowa coach Rick Heller was complimentary for the fact of the Buckeyes fighting back from the loser’s bracket.
“We felt like we could come back, that we were never out of the game,” he added. “We really had the game play out the way we wanted, but we just didn’t pitch well enough. We were aware that we might see Tanner Tully today in relief and that turned out to be a turning point in the game. He’s had our number over the past three years and he pitched well against us again today. Give credit to Ohio State. They came back from a lot of adversity (winning four games in two days) and found a way to win.”
Greg Beals admitted to be physically drained…worn out from the stress and physical demand of winning the tournament.
“Iowa played hard and played well,” he said in the post-game interview room. “They’re the eighth seed in the tournament and that says a lot about the conference, if they’re the eighth seed. You think about the top seeds being knocked out and the bottom seeds in the winner’s bracket, Michigan State and Iowa still playing on the last day.
“This is a black and blue baseball conference, and today really showed that. Our guys are physically worn out. Mentally they’re fine, but physically, we were running out of gas. Our pitching staff was really stressed, but every one of them came to me today and said they could pitch if they were needed. And there’s not a player on this team that’s in this for themselves. They were in it for each other. They didn’t care who got the hits, or who did this or that, all they wanted was to win the title for each other.
“I was tentative about using Tully today, because of preparation for the NCAA tournament. But even Ryan Feltner, who threw 120 pitches yesterday, and John Havird, who pitched the day before, came and said they could pitch. They wanted to win THIS tournament. Jalen Washington caught 36 innings in 30 hours, but there was no way I was going to ask him if he wanted to be in the lineup today.”
But in a mood of such good feeling, it begged the $64,000 question…that given that the back end of his bullpen had given up comfortable leads twice in three days, does that become the elephant in the room going forward, as the Buckeyes prepare for another week and a berth in the NCAA regional tournament?
“From a game management standpoint you’re certainly aware of it,” Beals conceded. “But 60 games into the season we can’t change the formula now. We need some days off. Horejsei needs to get sharp again, because he’s a power pitcher and we’ve gone to the well a lot with him. He needs some rest. Kinker is a sinker pitcher and the more work he gets the more his pitches sink.
“Pavlopoulos got hurt today with the fastball that he threw thigh high. He has to locate better. His two-seam fastball has to be in the bottom of the zone. His breaking ball is his bread and butter but he has to throw the other pitch effectively to keep hitters honest.”
Fatigue was an issue, obviously. Playing six games in five days – four in two days – is a hard grind. But titles don’t come easily, and the effect of winning this one, the first Big Ten Tournament title in several years, obviously had a stimulating effect on the players.
“I’m physically beat,” said Ronnie Dawson. “When I scored the last time I was cramping up when I touched home plate. But I wasn’t coming out of the game. If I had to go back out there and play I was going to go. All the preparation in the off-season, and all the talk about playing on this day for the Big Ten tournament, it was all worth it.”
And the irony of Troy Kuhn, who’s struggled at times for playing time, a defined position, and status on the roster…of being the one to drive in Dawson with the winning hit. Nick Sergakis, owing to Beals words about unselfishness, couldn’t have been happier.
“All these guys are my guys,” said Sergakis. “But Troy’s my roommate and I know the last two years have been tough because he has the highest expectations for himself. But he’s always ready, anywhere you ask him to play or anywhere you ask him to hit in the batting order. I’m really happy for him.”
They come home awaiting Monday’s announcement as to who’s next, and where. There’s a party scheduled for 11:45 am to get the news. A team that’s now won 42 games will play in the NCAA tournament next week, seeking to extend the magic of the last month…seeking to pursue that which doesn’t come without adversity and sacrifice.
Titles, however they come, whatever way they come, don’t come easy.
With one in hand, they go forward, playing for each other…and whatever comes next!