The Buckeyes weekend in Minnesota may have come down to pure human, and psychological limitations. Too many had never been there before (in a series of that magnitude), and the other side had.
In the wake of losing three straight games to the Minnesota Gophers last weekend, I thought long and hard about some of Greg Beals’ post-game comments on the plane ride home.
If you aren’t aware, the Buckeyes lost a gut-wrenching series in ‘sweep’ fashion, needing at least one game (maybe two) to keep pace for the final spot in the Big Ten tourney sweepstakes. But even Minnesota’s winning run in game three turned out to be the condensed version of the series – just pure bad luck!
First and probably foremost, Beals’ words on the issue of having to come back just twelve hours after Saturday’s devastating 18-inning loss on Saturday night. And, not to just play one game, but to play another double-header, their fourth in the last five weeks!
And issue two, because of one, the heart shown by sophomore pitcher Griffan Smith to deliver the Buckeyes to the threshold of winning the series finale game on Sunday, pitching a complete-game 5-hitter before losing in dramatic fashion, 3-2, in the bottom of the eighth.
To anyone who witnessed it, there was this strong sense of home cooking, given the way the three games were rescheduled after a Friday rainout. I hate to bring it up, but baseball comes across as too much of a secondary sport when you pile up 36 innings over 24 hours just to get the games in and get to the airport on time. The Big Ten, one would think, could do better (travel be damned)…and should do better! And I know they would if it were football.
But from Beals: ” It’s to the point where close just isn’t good enough anymore. We need to find a way to make a difference, make the plays, because at the end of things we’re one big hit or big out from taking two out of three. We’re responsible for that and we need to find a way to make things happen.”
I have no argument with what he said. In capsule form he’s 100% right. Winning in any sport comes down to execution, making things happen, and putting pressure on the opponent.
But then this, on the possibility of mental fatigue coming back from the Saturday night 18-inning loss to play a doubleheader the following day: “I’m not buying that,” he said. “That just can’t be the case, because if that’s the excuse we’re mentally weak and that’s not a place we can be.”
In theory, I believe him. You’d like to believe that you’re tough enough, and mentally prepared after 47 games of Division I baseball experience to put 18 innings and 5 hours and 45 minutes of disappointment behind you and play as if yesterday never happened. But it did happen, and these are people, and what they were asked to do would be tough even at the major league level. Whether he admits it or not (and I think he knows), the Buckeyes had horrible luck over the weekend with how the schedule was managed, and to believe otherwise is simply whistling past the graveyard.
But there’s also a strong dose of reality in weekends like what just happened, and while I don’t get paid to coach, I do get paid to observe; and my observations are complemented by experience. I’ve walked in the shoes of Seth Lonsway, Dillon Dingler, Nick Erwin, and T.J. Brock. We’ve all been ‘YOUNG’ at one time in our lives.
This is not an excuse. It’s fact. The biggest difference in the series with Minnesota wasn’t big at all. It was simply a narrow difference in experience. The Gophers pitched well, as Beals mentioned in his post-game comments, but those pitchers – Pat Fredrickson (soph.), Max Meyer (soph.), Brett Schulze (junior), Ryan Duffy (soph.) and Joshua Culliver (soph.) – were simply more seasoned.
And still, freshman pitcher Garrett Burhenn, and freshman pitcher T.J. Brock, and freshman pitcher Will Pfennig, and freshman pitcher Bayden Root, and sophomore pitcher Griffan Smith all gave a good account of themselves in the series. Only freshman Seth Lonsway struggled to show command of the moment (8 walks in three innings on Sunday). So it wasn’t a difference in talent, but simply that the Minnesota pitchers had at least some advantage of having pitched in last year’s NCAA regional. Their beard was thicker, an old-time baseball man once said.
To his point about making things happen offensively – and the Buckeyes didn’t hit much during the season – Beals conceded that Minnesota had pitched well, and had made it tough on Buckeye hitters. And that’s true. But it’s been true for a hundred and fifty years. Good pitching nearly always beats good hitting. And for 26 of the 36 innings played last weekend, Buckeye pitchers did their part in return, especially Burhenn, Andrew Magno, and Smith.
But it did come down to too many free passes (walks), a point that’s frustrated Beals and the coaching staff all year. Leadoff walks at the end of the game (Saturday and Sunday), that set the table for disaster. It doesn’t take much to imagine loss of focus, perhaps from loss of sleep. More fact from Baseball 101: it’s hard to be mentally tough if you’re not physically rested. Ask someone who’s spent time in a foxhole.
And you have to be lucky in sports, of course, and Minnesota’s hit in the bottom of the eighth in Sunday’s second game was little more than a good pitch cued off the end of the bat and down the right field line out of reach. It didn’t go 150 feet.
My point in all this is…if in two weeks they don’t make the Big Ten Tournament you might well look back at Minnesota as the proverbial black cat that ran in front of the dugout – a harbinger of bad luck. But a year from now you could be talking an entirely different scenario because every one of the principals named in this column will be a year older, wiser, and mindful of what they endured during that weekend in Minneapolis.
And yes, it’s true that after 47 games you’re not young anymore. But that’s hopeful thinking, realistically. That first year comes at you hard and fast. Some of it you process immediately, while some of it takes some time…after reflection and a chance to reset and make the necessary adjustments.
No excuses made here, you understand. I buy every word that Beals said, largely because that’s how we’re all conditioned. But it’s not a perfect science. The good thing is…you don’t have long to wait. Their season is at stake in a matter of days and hours when Penn State comes to Bill Davis this weekend. And then Purdue.
You just hope it’s enough baseball, and enough time. And that you get a little help from others in the same boat as you. It’s ALL baseball. It happens to EVERYONE. Reality trumps theory all the time.
The problem is, it’s just really hard…to trump luck!