Buckeyes took 2 of 3 games from Wolverines in Columbus in April. The rivalry continues Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament.
Omaha, Nebraska – Questions about the last time Michigan played baseball against Ohio State probably felt like getting the business end of a bat jabbed into the small of his back, but Wolverines coach Erik Bakich had no difficulty dredging the awful details from his memory banks.
It was the third weekend of April and the win one, lose one Buckeyes were up and down and all around while the Wolverines were spanking everyone in the Big Ten in sight and had the gaudy statistics to prove it.
But a not-to-funny thing occurred, with Ohio State winning the first two games 10-5 and 10-4 in front of large, raucous crowds at Bill Davis Stadium.
Michigan saved itself from disaster by taking an emotionally spent Ohio State 6-2 in the second game of a doubleheader.
“It was heated and competitive, but I don’t think we played our best baseball the first two games,’’ Bakich said. “We didn’t pitch our best and didn’t have a whole lot going on offensively those first two games. We had a lot of strikeouts that second game against (Seth) Lonsway, especially backward (called) strikeouts. I thought our guys responded to that in Game 3 and ignited a little spark and rally the next few weeks.’’
Bakich took a breath and finished his thoughts.
“That was an opportunity missed,’’ he said. “That was a very disappointing weekend. I remember that.’’
After eight rugged weeks of conference play in mostly crappy weather – it was the year of the doubleheader because of rain or the constant threat of it – guess who the second-seeded Wolverines are paired against in the first round of the Big Ten tournament?
Seventh-seeded Ohio State (31-24, 12-12) takes on Michigan (38-16, 16-7) at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the conference tournament at major league-like TD Ameritrade Park. All games can be seen on the Big Ten Network.
The last thing either team wants is to be sent to the losers’ bracket right away in an eight-team tournament, especially these teams.
The Buckeyes must certainly win the championship to get into a second straight NCAA tournament and third in four seasons.
Bracket experts believe the Wolverines have fallen in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee in dropping their last two series to champion Indiana and Nebraska and must win a couple games to get in.
Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska are considered to be the Big Ten’s best bets to get in as at-large teams if they don’t get the automatic qualifier.
Keep in mind that 40 victories are no longer a magic number to get in.
There will be one glaring difference for Ohio State, and that is redshirt freshman left-hander Seth Lonsway (7-4, 3.91) will start on four days’ rest with ace Garrett Burhenn being listed as day to day while in concussion protocol.
Burhenn was struck on the left side of the head by a foul ball in the third game against Purdue last Saturday. He remained in the dugout and didn’t need medical attention, but was in a lot of discomfort with the ball hitting part of an ear.
The injury can’t be that bad if doctors allowed him to make the charter flight here.
“Garrett is day to day and going through concussion protocol, and I don’t have any more information other than that,’’ coach Greg Beals said. “He has to clear concussion protocol. He’s feeling better, but there are steps. Absolutely, it is out of my hands. I don’t have the authority to use Garrett Burhenn yet.’’
That won’t bring any joy to Bakich.
Lonsway also was pretty good against the Wolverines this season in giving up five hits, three runs and three walks and striking out four in 5 2/3 innings. Burhenn gave up six hits, three runs and two walks and struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings in Game 1.
If Burhenn isn’t cleared by Game 2, Griffan Smith would be the ball.
“And that’s where we’re at,’’ Beals said. “I can’t go beyond that.’’
The Buckeyes have had Michigan’s number. Beals is 14-5 in his nine seasons against the Wolverines.
In 2018, Ohio State eliminated Michigan in the second round, 5-3.
What do older players and coaches tell younger players about how they won the 2016 conference tournament coming out of the losers’ bracket?
“What are the older guys going to be telling them? I don’t know,’’ Beals said. “What we’re going to be telling the guys is prepare yourself like you always do, play the game like you always do. It’s a great environment. It’s championship baseball in Omaha in TD Ameritrade, the Mecca of college baseball. It’s an exciting time, and I hope our guys just answer the bell and play their tails off. I’m sure they will.’’
This team, he said, can’t be viewed as young anymore after 55 college games and so many road trips. They have traveled to Florida twice, Texas and South Carolina for non-conference series and Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota and Purdue in conference.
“We’re going to tell our guys, first of all, that youth of our ballclub is no longer a story in my opinion,’’ Beals said. “Those guys have played the whole year. They have experience. They have had to play in tough situations. They are ready to go. This is a new animal.’’
The kids have been all right in being front and center with series wins the previous two weeks.
“It has been fun simply watching them compete,’’ Beals said. “We’re in that mode where we were kind of backed up against the wall and were in some must-win situation. We’ve played through those (situations). That’s what we’re going to get in this week. It’s must-win. It’s do or die. Our conference is tough. To echo what (Nebraska coach) Darin (Erstad) said you’ve got to make plays at critical times and you’ve got to get hits at critical times. It’s going to be fun to see who steps up and gets it done.’’
Bakich is at the other end of the spectrum with 14 upperclassmen. No team on Michigan’s campus, men’s or women’s, has that much experience.
The team is loaded with hitting, beginning with Big Ten batting leader right fielder Jordan Brewer (.358), designated hitter Jordan Nwogu (.348), third baseman Blake Nelson (.315) and shortstop Jack Blomgren (.314).
The Wolverines lead the conference in batting (.285), walks drawn (265), doubles (117) and stolen bases (80).
The team also has been resilient. When it left Columbus, it won 12 straight games.
Still, the season will be termed a failure if Michigan doesn’t get into the NCAA tournament.
“We’re obviously disappointed to lose the championship by a half a game, but we had it in our control,’’ Bakich said. We controlled our own destiny. We had to win a series in the final two weekends and we lost both series, so now that’s over with. You can’t change the past. Our mindset has shifted. We’ve got to move on and start playing good baseball here.’’
This will not be your average Big Ten tournament game simply because it’s Scarlet vs. Blue.
In this season’s series, Beals trucked in a handful of former players to fire up the current players and inform them that losing against Michigan is like wearing a golden sombrero for three days.
“It’s The Rivalry,’’ Beals said. “We’ve answered the bell in this rivalry and I’m looking forward to seeing how we go about it again tomorrow. They are a good ballclub, but we’re playing well and looking forward to continuing to do so. We’ve got some key pieces. Seth Lonsway was really good his last time out and Dominic Canzone can impact the game at any moment.’’