The Buckeyes are savoring their NCAA regional bid without regard for who, where, or even when. All they wanted was a chance, and they got it…against the nation’s #2 overall seed, Vanderbilt.
By Mark Znidar
Columbus – One of the double doors to the Schumaker Complex opened and Ohio State baseball players began to clap and holler in unison, but it was not the announcement on ESPN about when and where they would play in the NCAA Tournament.
It was no false alarm, but the arrival of comfort food in the form of Tim Horton’s doughnuts. There was more excitement minutes later when a load of Chick-fil-A boxes were trucked into the lobby.
Luckily, the grub was gone by the time the Buckeyes found out that they were going to play Vanderbilt, the second overall seed in the 64-team tournament, as a No. 4 seed in Nashville in a first-round game at 7 p.m. Friday. Second-seeded Indiana State (41-16) and Missouri Valley Conference champion will play third-seeded McNeese (35-24) in the other first-round game.
It wouldn’t have been polite to let out primal screams with their mouths full.
The coaches and players knew they were at the mercy of the selection committee with regard to where they were sent and how they were seeded. They were off the first page in RPI and had precious few power victories.
But Ohio State (35-25) gladly would have hopped, skipped and jumped to Timbuktu if it had a regional. The players were still on a high despite having their charter jet from Omaha touch down after midnight at John Glenn International Airport.
The Buckeyes came from the seventh seed to win the Big Ten Tournament championship with a stirring 3-1 victory over Nebraska before 17,503 on Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park.
Vanderbilt (49-10) won the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships. It is hosting a regional for the seventh time, and will be heavy favorite to advance to the super regional the following week.
“We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game,’’ starting pitcher Seth Lonsway said. “You always hear about Vanderbilt and the prospects that come out of there, but it’s another game and another tough opponent. We’re getting the job done. We’re competing. We faced that adversity now and that helped us grow and mature.’’
Ohio State has won 10 of its last 12 games and is no longer the unpredictable win one, lose one outfit that was one large puzzle the first 45 or so games.
Ninth-year coach Greg Beals told the players to enjoy the Big Ten championship for another 12 hours, but that they would be back to work in the drive toward the team’s first super regional since 2003.
The players have an off day Monday, but it’s a good bet that many will do more than hit the weight room in training on their own.
Beals was in an all-business mode, saying the excitement over a conference championship was displayed on the field Sunday.
Vanderbilt surely will go over everything Ohio State has done since February, and it will discover that the team has grown like a hot house tomato infused with nitrogen.
What also can be seen on film is the team’s confidence.
“What has happened these last couple weeks has created some believing, and that’s the ultimate for anyone in competition that you have that belief,’’ Beals said. “It’s good when the plan comes together, that you can say something during the first meeting of the year and say something here in May, and it’s the same message. Let’s play in a super regional, a three-game series to see who goes to Omaha (for the College World Series). We’ve got to win a four-team tournament to get there, but we’re in position to do that.’’
Receiving the conference’s automatic qualifier was especially heart-warming for three seniors, left fielder Brady Cherry, center fielder Ridge Winand and reliever Thomas Waning.
Winand is one of the players you’ve never really heard about because stars Cherry and Dominic Canzone, starting pitchers Garrett Burhenn, Lonsway and Griffan Smith and closer Andrew Magno have been getting most of the media attention.
Assistant coach Matt Angle, though, said the Buckeyes wouldn’t be the team they are without players such as Winand, junior second baseman Matt Carpenter and freshman third baseman Nick Erwin.
“I think it’s a great draw,’’ Winand said. “Vanderbilt is a really good team and Nashville is decently close where we can get people there to support us. I love it. I’m excited. It’s going to be a battle. We’re a great team as well. It’s time to get to work. It’s that simple.’’
No senior who plays for Ohio State wants the season to end before June.
“This was it for me,’’ Winand said. “We knew going into championship Sunday that we had to take one from Minnesota. We had to play a doubleheader to win the championship, but we knew all those doubleheaders we played during the season prepared us for that. We were up for the task.’’
Carpenter, a junior, missed 13 games after the Rutgers series at the tail end of March because of a hamstring injury. He returned to help solidify the infield defense.
He’s a team man, and was proud to be wearing a Big Ten championship cap and tee-shirt.
“This means a lot to get to this point,’’ Carpenter said. “We won a Big Ten championship, but we know we’re not done yet. It is cool to see us stick together despite our struggles through the year. We just kept grinding and found ways to win. We found what kind of team we had at the end of the year.’’
Vanderbilt, he said, is just another challenge and not a fire-breathing dragon.
“I think we’re better for everything that has happened to us,’’ he said of the adversity. “Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. We have to go out there and execute and believe in ourselves.’’
Angle got excited talking about players Erwin, Carpenter and Winand.
“Nick struggled a little early with the bat during the first part of the tournament, but (in the championship game) he never wavered,’’ Angle said. “He made three or four game-changing plays that saved bases, saved outs and saved pitch counts. He made some plays that were just unbelievable and get lost in the box score.’’
Angle pointed out that Carpenter has worked hard to gain strength and stamina.
“Carp is the ultimate competitor,’’ he said. “He has worked his butt off. He has changed his body and has worked as hard as anybody in the weight room. He takes countless ground balls. He wants to win and he can be coached. He just straight competes.”
Fans see the trio on the field, but not in the weight room or in practice. The combined home runs and runs batted in of the trio don’t add up to what Cherry or Canzone have put up this season.
“They have worked so hard to get better offensively and defensively,’’ Angle said. “They have changed their bodies in the weight room. They compete. They are great teammates. I don’t have enough words about what they have meant to the team.’’