COLUMBUS, Ohio Two weeks after Ohio State and Illinois played a thrilling game in front of more than 5,000 fans at Illinois Field, the two teams hooked up for another tense and terrific ball game at the Big Ten tournament at Huntington Park. This time, Ohio State pulled out the win, 7-4, to remain in the winner’s bracket of the tournament and face Indiana Friday night at 7:05 p.m.
Unlike two weeks ago, when Ohio State lost its only game of the season when leading after the seventh inning, the Buckeyes came from behind with two runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, respectively, to come back from a 4-1 Illinois lead and improve to 40-15 on the season.
“I thought our hitters did a good job battling back,” Ohio State head coach Bob Todd said. “This was a good team effort, though, with good pitches when we had to have them and a good job by our hitters.”
Three consecutive singles to open the Ohio State half of the sixth led to two Buckeye runs and a tightening of the score, to 4-3. Michael Stephens, Dan Burkhart and Ryan Dew singled to load the bases. Stephens scored on Justin Miller’s sacrifice fly and Burkhart scored on Michael Arp’s fielder’s choice.
An Ohio State error put the leadoff Illini on board in the seventh. After an infield pop-out, Brandon Wikoff doubled to right to put men on second and third. Ohio State starter Alex Wimmers was replaced at that point by Drew Rucincki, who perhaps saved the game by getting the final two outs of the inning on a fly to right – followed by a strong throw home by Arp to keep the runner from advancing – and a lineout to short.
Rucinski’s effort in the seventh gave the Buckeyes and their partisan crowd a lift and the team capitalized on it. Matt Streng and Zach Hurley drew walks to open the inning and Cory Kovanda laid down a perfect bunt single to load the bases. A couple RBI ground outs – by Stephens and Dew – would be the extent of the Buckeyes’ scoring, but the two runs gave the Scarlet and Gray its first lead of the game at 5-4 and, more importantly, the lead after the seventh inning and in those situations, Ohio State is 33-1 this season. Make that 34-1.
After a perfect, 1-2-3 inning by Rucinski in the eighth inning, the Buckeyes added two insurance runs in the eighth. Matt Streng singled home Arp, who took a fast ball in the back and then stole second to get into scoring position. Zach Hurley tripled to deep center field to score Streng. Hurley attempted an inside the park home run as he was waved home by third base coach Pete Jenkins, but two perfect strikes from center to second and then home got Hurley, who admitted afterward that he “ran into some quicksand rounding third.”
Ruckinski’s performance, which earned him his 10th win of the season in relief against two defeats, and a 7-4 lead set the stage for the ninth inning and the introduction of the best closer in the nation, according to Ohio State coach Bob Todd: Jake Hale. The big man from Albany, Ohio, didn’t disappoint. After giving up a leadoff single, he sent the next three batters down in order strikeout, groundout and strikeout to extend his school record saves total this season to 16.
“The bullpen rose to the occasion,” Todd said. “Illinois is an outstanding hitting ball club.”
Wimmers went 6.1 innings, scattered six hits, gave up three earned runs, walked four and struck out nine. Illinois starter Will Strack suffered his first loss of the season (6-1) with 6.0 innings of work. He allowed 10 hits and five earned runs.
Illinois jumped on top in the top of the second, Aaron Johnson hitting his 10th home run of the year with a man on for a 2-0 Illinois lead.
Figures that Miller, who hit .680 the last two weeks of the season, would be in the middle of an Ohio State run in the second to cut the lead to 2-1. He walked, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on Arp’s double to right center.
Ohio State had runners on in the next three innings, including two in the fourth, but could not tie the score. Illlinois right fielder Pete Cappetta threw out a Buckeye going to third with one out in that inning to help calm a minor uprising by Ohio State in the fourth.
Illinois added to its lead in the sixth. Brandon Wikoff walked to lead off the inning and scored on another Johnson hit, this one a double laced into left center field. Two batters later and with men on first and second, Cappetta singled to right center to drive in Johnson and give the Illini a 4-1 lead.
This Ohio State team has been through a ton the past two weeks peaks and valleys and emotions and quiet contemplation and waiting and wins (four consecutive now and six in its last seven games) that something like a 4-1 deficit wasn’t going to stop this team. And it didn’t.
Game Notes and Random Thoughts from the Press Box: