EAST LANSING, Mich. – Okay, so we aren’t even halfway through the Big Ten Conference regular season – the teams are precisely one-third of the way through – and already one thing is becoming clear: Ohio State, the defending Big Ten champion and the team with the target symbol on its back entering the season, is indeed confirming it is the team to beat this year.
Saturday on a windy, 40-something-degree-February-like-day at McLean Stadium and Kobs Field, Ohio State came from behind and scored four late runs to defeat the Spartans, 4-3, and improve to a league-best 6-2 in the Big Ten and 21-9 overall. Michigan State drops to 4-4 in the Big Ten and 22-9 overall with Game 3 set for Sunday at 1 p.m.
“We like wearing the target,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said way back in October when discussing the difference between being the defending Big Ten champion and striving to win a title. “We recruit players who want to be the team to beat.”
Right now, the Buckeyes have a bunch of guys who are relishing their roles and doing whatever it takes to win games. And once again, there were numerous Buckeye stars on a day when the stat sheets weren’t particularly impressive from an offensive standpoint. Zach Hurley led the way with three hits, including a critical home run to tie the game in the seventh inning. Dan Burkhart and Ryan Dew also had RBI hits on a day when RBI hits were few and far between. Cory Kovanda scored twice, with both of his runs breaking tie scores.
The pitching staffs from both teams were solid with the Ohio State pitching numbers most impressive as three pitchers – starter Drew Rucinski and relievers Theron Minium and Eric Best – combined to scatter 10 hits, give up just three earned runs, walk only three and record five big strikeouts.
Michigan State scored a run in the second inning to go up 1-0. Freshman Torsten Boss, the Michigan high school football player of the year as a senior last year, walked, went to third on a single by Chris Roberts and scored on John Martinez’s infield single. Martinez slid into first base similar to what Tyler Engle did Friday and ended up injuring his right arm or shoulder on the play. He left the game.
Ohio State had runners on base in five of the first six innings, but the Buckeye bats weren’t responding to the challenge: the team was just 1-for-9 with runners on and 0-for-6 in RBI opportunities. After Hurley singled off the first pitch of the game to extend his hitting streak to seven games, Ohio State didn’t collect another hit until Hurley’s two-out single to left in the fifth.
Michigan State threatened to add to its 1-0 lead in the fourth inning, with the first two batters drawing walks off Rucinski. The Ohio State junior got out of the inning with two strikeouts on either side of a fly ball to right that Brian DeLucia played perfectly – positioning himself and using body language that suggested “make my day” – to keep the Spartan runner on third from even thinking about tagging up.
Hurley, who is 16-for-34 (.470) in his last seven games, finally put Ohio State on the scoreboard with a two-out home run to left field in the seventh to tie the score at 1-all. The ball was crushed, landing in the Red Cedar River that runs just beyond right field.
“I think it was the boost that we needed to get the offense going,” Hurley said of his fifth home run of the season. “I think we were getting a little frustrated by getting guys on base but not being able to drive any of them home. From that point everyone felt a sense of relief and it just opened the game up for us.”
After that hit, Kovanda reached on an error at third and that play seemed to take the steam out of MSU starter Kurt Wunderlich, who had pitched a solid game up to that point. After a wild pitch moved Kovanda to second, Burkhart stroked an RBI double to left center that scored Kovanda to give the Buckeyes a 2-1 lead. Wunderlich was replaced after his next pitch – a ball to Michael Stephens – and he hit the dugout having pitched 6.2 innings of six-hit ball with just one earned run allowed.
MSU came right back in its half of the seventh with a leadoff double and infield singles to load the bases. After Brandon Eckerle stroked a single just past Kovanda at second, one run scored and OSU starter Drew Rucinski’s nice 6.0-inning effort on a cold day was over. He was replaced by the junior Minium, who came into the game in the tightest of tense situations: the bases were loaded with nobody out.
And goodness gracious did Minium ever perform well. The left-hander struck out Ryan Jones looking. He got Jeff Holm to line out – fortunately – to a perfectly positioned DeLucia in right. He closed the inning – and its oddly sweet line of one run off four hits with no errors and three runners left – and preserved the tie by getting a soft pop-out to Kovanda.
The Buckeyes tacked on two more runs – the winning runs – in the ninth. Kovanda had a one-out single and stole second. With two outs, Michael Stephens was intentionally walked so the left-hander Trey Popp could face lefty-hitting Ryan Dew. All that move did – albeit the right baseball move…on paper – was annoy the personable Dew, who smashed a single to left center to score Kovanda with Stephens taking third. Stephens then scored on a wild pitch for a 4-2 lead.
Minium didn’t let a leadoff home run by Eli Boike in the ninth bother him. He promptly got the next two batters out before Best came in to record the final out of the game. Minium picked up the win with 2.2 innings of work and improves to 2-0. Best notched his first save of the year and 10th of his career to move into a tie for eighth-place on Ohio State’s career saves charts.
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