Posted: 4:01 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014
By Andrew Lind
An in-depth look at the Ohio State baseball team's toughest games and tournament chances.
In the race for the Big Ten Championship until the final weekend of the 2013 season, the Ohio State baseball team hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament in skipper Greg Beals' 4th season at the helm. Last season, the Buckeyes fell just short of a Big Ten Championship, as well as a subsequent trip to the NCAA Tournament. While Ohio State finished 35-23, the lack of a marquee win on the schedule left the Buckeyes on the outside looking in.
The team had its share of chances, with a home series against nationally-ranked Oregon and a winner-take-all series with Indiana to wrap up the season, but the Buckeyes could not seize the moment. This season, Ohio State will have plenty of opportunities for a signature win, as they play six NCAA Tournament teams from last season, including road games at Louisville, Oregon, and Oregon State, as well as an early season matchup with defending conference champion Indiana.
The Buckeyes open the 2014 campaign in Port Charlotte, Florida, as participants in the Snowbird Classic. Last season, Ohio State won all four games of this tournament by an average score of 10-2. Matchups with Auburn, led by first-year head coach Sunny Galloway, and Indiana State will likely lead to similar results, but a date with reigning-Big East Champion UConn to open the season is no easy task. The weekend features quite the spectrum of teams, as the Huskies are among the favorites in The American and the Tigers are in transition with a former-national champion at the helm, while the Sycamores are a middle-of-the-pack Missouri Valley squad.
One week later, Ohio State returns to Florida for a round-robin tournament with host Central Florida, Oklahoma, and The Citadel. Last season, the Knights slumped below .500 after earning three-consecutive NCAA Tournament bids, while the Bulldogs fell just short of a SoCon Championship, and the Sooners won the Big XII Championship. Unlike previous non-conference schedules, the Buckeyes will be tested by quality teams early and often.
After a week of classes, the Buckeyes will travel south of the Mason-Dixon Line for the third weekend in a row. The Keith LeClair Classic, another round-robin tournament, will pit Ohio State against host East Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Western Kentucky. The Pirates and Hilltoppers were roughly .500 teams one season ago, but the Panthers posted a 42-17 record before losing to UConn in the Big East Championship Game.
While most students travel south for spring break, the Buckeyes' baseball team will be flying to the Pacific Northwest for the toughest four-game stretch of the season. To conclude their 14-game road stretch to open the season, Ohio State will take on national title contenders Oregon and Oregon State. Both the Ducks, ranked 11th by Baseball America, and the 2nd-ranked Beavers earned bids to the NCAA Tournament, with the latter picking up a pair of wins in the College World Series.
After a month on the road, the Buckeyes return to Columbus for the 18th season of baseball at Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium. Ohio State opens it's home slate with a three-game set against Siena, which came within a walk-off home run of a MAAC Championship despite finishing below .500 on the season. Midweek games against MAC cellar-dweller Akron and Big East hopeful Xavier wrap up the homestand.
The Big Ten Conference slate opens with a familiar foe, Michigan State. While the rivalry isn't as heated as football or basketball, the Buckeyes will look to avenge last year's series loss to the Spartans in Columbus, one in which the home team let two games slip away in the late innings. A matchup with Marshall, which fell to Ohio State, 5-0, last season, continues the midweek, non-conference portion of the schedule.
The Buckeyes will hope to make quick work of the Thundering Herd, as Indiana returns to Columbus for the first time since stealing a conference championship from right under Ohio State's nose. The third-ranked Hoosiers look to return to the College World Series for the second-consecutive year, although they became the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 1984 to advance that far in the tournament. Last season, Ohio State only managed to score a total of four runs in the series with Indiana and, unfortunately, the Hoosiers return all three starting pitchers the Buckeyes faced. A pair of non-conference games with Ohio and Toledo, of the Mid-American Conference, wrap up the six-game homestand.
The Buckeyes will then hit the road once again, traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the second-consecutive season. Ohio State won the season series with Nebraska, but came up short when it mattered most. The Cornhuskers defeated the Buckeyes in the third round of the Big Ten Tournament, essentially eliminating any chance for an at-large NCAA bid. Like the previous weekend, the Cornhuskers will send a trifecta of familiar faces to the mound for the three game set.
When the Buckeyes return to Columbus, they'll face their fifth in-state foe of the season, Dayton. The Flyers, far removed from their 2012 conference championship, were picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10 Conference this season. A few days later, former-Wright State head coach Rob Cooper and Penn State will scamper into Columbus. Although they finished well below .500 last season, the Nittany Lions gave the a Buckeyes all they could handle before dropping all three games. If a conference title is the goal, sweeping this weekend series will be crucial for the Buckeyes to keep pace in the standings.
The Buckeyes then travel outside of the conference slate for a matchup with West Virginia. In their first season in the Big XII, the Mountaineers fell just short of a conference championship game appearance. The following night, the Buckeyes host Mid-American Conference runner-up, Ball State.
In 2013, Ohio State let their chance at an at-large tournament bid slip with a terrible record in non-conference games down the stretch. This year, however, a three-game set with Murray State shouldn't provide a tough task, as the Racers played substandard ball a year ago.
A three-game series at Purdue will mark the second-consecutive year that Ohio State will travel to West Lafayette, Indiana. Last season, the Buckeyes helped christen brand new Alexander Field with a sweep of the Boilermakers. Surely, however, the matchup with 20th-ranked Louisville only days later will be on the minds of the Scarlet and Gray, as the Buckeyes suffered a home defeat to the Cardinals last May. They'll look to avenge that loss on the road against last year's College World Series participants.
As the season reaches it's final month, the Buckeyes will seemingly have their toughest games behind them. A three-game matchup with Iowa, in coach Rick Heller's first season, should provide a boost in the conference standings, and another pair of games against subpar in-state competition, Miami (OH) and Cincinnati, should allow the Buckeyes to focus their efforts on conference play.
Before Ohio State takes on Cincinnati, however, the must travel to Ann Arbor to take on that team up north. The three-game set with their rivals will mark the first matchup between Ohio State and Michigan since 2012. One year ago, the Wolverines finished 29-27, and were the first team knocked out of the conference tournament.
To wrap up the regular season, Ohio State will host Northwestern. While the Wildcats failed to make the conference tournament last season, the Buckeyes were only able to take two of three in Evanston. A sweep of the Wildcats should give the team confidence as it heads into the conference tournament.
If the Buckeyes finish among the top eight in the conference standings, they'll qualify for the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, site of the College World Series. The winner of the double-elimination tournament will receive the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. With a tough non-conference slate, it's likely the Buckeyes will need to win the conference tournament in order to avoid a fifth-consecutive season without a NCAA bid.