There are three weekends left for the Ohio State Buckeyes to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, beginning with a tough on-the-road challenge with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Oxford, Ohio – Ohio State players hustled to their bus Wednesday afternoon after their game with Miami University was cancelled because of lightning and a couple of those Noah’s Arc type rainfalls.
A pessimist would have said it was a colossal waste of time to go from Point A to Point B and back again without a single pitch being thrown.
Brady Cherry, an outfielder, didn’t look at it that way. He’s even in a good place during a long bus ride or going through the inconvenience of flying on a commercial jet.
You see, Cherry is a senior and for him the sands in the hourglass might as well be tiny baseballs clicking off the time left in his college career.
“It’s always good to spend more time with one another,’’ he said. “Even when we’re confined in close spaces on a bus, we find things to stay entertained. It’s always fun. This is my last year of college ball, and I want to spend as much time as I can with teammates.’’
The Buckeyes (24-20, 7-8) have three regular season Big Ten series remaining, so the stakes will be high when they play Minnesota (18-22, 8-7) in the first of three games at 9 p.m. Friday at Siebert Field in Minneapolis.
The top six teams qualify for the conference tournament, and what is going on in the Big Ten can best be described as a cavalry charge with sabres having been drawn.
The upper echelon consists of Michigan (11-3), Indiana (11-4), Nebraska (12-6) and Iowa (11-7). Then come Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota at 8-7 and Ohio State and Rutgers at 7-8.
The Buckeyes, who have missed the conference tournament only in 1996, 2010 and 2017 since 1989, lost two of three games to Iowa last weekend.
Minnesota won the regular-season and tournament championships in 2018, but has lost its last three series to Michigan, Illinois and Indiana.
It doesn’t get much bigger than this unless it was the final weekend.
“I think the guys kind of like going on the road, especially with classes being out,’’ Ohio State coach Greg Beals said. “It will be a good time to get off campus with all the hoopla of graduation. I think the guys are glad to be done with classes and they can focus on baseball.’’
It used to be that Ohio State-Minnesota was the only baseball game of note in the Big Ten. From 1991 through 2009, the teams finished first and second 11 times. The Buckeyes won seven conference tournaments and Minnesota six.
A lot changed when other Big Ten schools saw what beautiful Bill Davis Stadium and a commitment to baseball brought the Buckeyes and refurbished their stadiums or built new ones. What followed was a lot of parity and the sport taking a step up on the national level.
Ohio State-Minnesota is a series that still demands attention. Friday’s game will be broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1.
The Buckeyes won two of three games against the Gophers in 2015 and 2016, were swept in 2017 and lost two of three last year.
How ready are the players?
All one has to do is count the number of times senior outfielder Dominic Canzone used the word “ready’’ in the following quote: “The last two years I’ve been here there have been some dogfights with them, so we’re ready for a real dogfight,’’ he said. “We’re ready for a huge weekend for the Big Ten tournament coming up. This is huge for us. We’re ready.’’
What got Ohio State in a scramble mode with regard to getting into the Big Ten tournament was being swept by Northwestern the second weekend. Other than that, the Buckeyes have had a handle on things. They won series against Rutgers, Michigan and Maryland and could have done the same against Iowa had there not been one bad inning in the first game.
“We’re heading in the right direction,’’ Canzone said. “I really like where the guys are at. We’re trying to stay loose and not trying to think too much. It’s one game at a time. We’re enjoying the ride.’’
This isn’t nearly the same Minnesota team that went 18-4 in winning the conference last season. It ranks seventh in batting (.262), eighth in pitching (4.49) and 10th in fielding (.965). But few Big Ten teams play such a grinding non-conference schedule. It started 2-11 losing to the likes of North Carolina State, Dallas Baptist, Oregon State and Washington.
“I’ve played against them multiple times and they always put up a good fight,’’ Cherry said. “In the past, they have had a good mix or hitting and pitching. I know they lost some good players in the draft last year, but they are usually real good.
“We know we need to play well these next three weeks. We’re playing close games. We’ve been competing. We won’t put too much pressure on ourselves, but we know we have to come out and play well.’’
Ohio State might have the best one-two batting punch in the Big Ten with Canzone and Cherry. Canzone leads the conference with 66 hits and Cherry is second with 56. Canzone is second in batting at .367.
Beals was hired before the 2011 season, or about the time the Big Ten began to become much more diverse. Michigan would regain its feet after nearly getting the death penalty from the NCAA for violations in the 1980s, lightweights Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue developed a lot of muscle, Nebraska and Maryland entered the conference and Indiana even went to the College World Series.
For predecessor Bob Todd, Minnesota always was the main competition because the Big Ten was never more than three-deep.
“Michigan is always our No. 1 rival, but there is a significant baseball rivalry with Minnesota because of the success both programs have had,’’ Beals said. “It’s real. There is something to it. I think on paper that (this season) it’s a good match-up. I think it’s going to be a typical game where the team that plays best will win.’’
Minnesota will start Max Meyer (4-3, 2.00) in the first game. He leads the conference in low earned run average and has struck out 73 and given up 49 hits in 63 innings.
“I’m digging into the scouting report right now, and they are very, very different than last year’s team,’’ Beals said of the Gophers. “They lost a lot of their offensive identity from last year. But Max Meyer is going to be their Friday guy, and he has a great arm. His fastball goes up to 97 miles per hour. We’re going to be challenged in that regard. If we throw strikes and play good defense I think we’ll be able to hold them down on the offensive side, knock on wood.’’
As he got ready to board the bus back to campus from Miami, Beals said the plan was elementary.
“We’re going to get on an airplane and attack another Big Ten series,’’ he said.