Off The Bat: Ohio State Grinds Out Title, Southern Makes Big Strides
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
Ohio State Grinds Out Big Ten Tournament Championship
On a sun-splashed day in Omaha, more than 17,000 fans, mostly wearing Nebraska red, packed into TD Ameritrade Park for the Big Ten Tournament championship game. The Huskers were taking on a scrappy Ohio State team that had made an unexpected run in the tournament and was playing its second game of the day after dispatching Minnesota that morning.
The home state fans were hoping to see Nebraska win its first Big Ten Tournament title since joining the conference in 2012. But the Buckeyes had other ideas. Ohio State has gotten hot over the last few weeks and went into Sunday’s championship game having won 10 of its last 12 games.
The Buckeyes jumped out to a first inning lead on Brady Cherry’s RBI single, scoring Dominic Canzone, and they never looked back. They went on to defeat the Huskers, 3-1, to win the Big Ten Tournament and advance to regionals. It was Ohio State’s second Big Ten Tournament title in four years.
Nebraska (31-22) came into the day securely in the NCAA Tournament field. Ohio State (35-25), however, needed to win the conference’s automatic bid if it was going to make its second straight regionals appearance due to an RPI over 100.
“We’re playing really good baseball at this point and you had to,” Ohio State coach Greg Beals said. “This is a tough conference and a tough tournament. We beat a lot of good teams. I’m so proud of how our guys played, our coaching staff, our administration and Buckeye Nation here supporting us.”
The Big Ten Tournament was a grind for Ohio State, which was the No. 7 seed and became the highest-seeded team to win the event. It started the week with a pair of one-run victories against Michigan and Maryland to advance to the semifinals against Minnesota. The Gophers won Saturday to force a second semifinal game, which was delayed until Sunday morning due to bad weather. That created a long day at the ballpark on Sunday, but it was more than worth it for the Buckeyes.
The grind was nothing new for the Buckeyes, who have been playing with their backs to the wall for weeks. Ohio State lost a lot of pieces from its 2018 regional team, especially on the mound, where it had to replace 83 percent of its innings. As a result, it went through some growing pains that persisted into Big Ten play. The Buckeyes couldn’t find consistency, producing confounding stretches like the one in early April when they got swept at home by Northwestern only to bounce back and win a series against Michigan.
It wasn’t until May that Ohio State finally found itself. The Buckeyes traveled to Minnesota at the start of the month and got swept, losing 5-4 in 18 innings in the opener and losing another one-run game in the finale.
After that series, Beals sat down with his coaches and leadership group—the team captains and a few other older players—and hashed some things out.
“We talked about the believing factor and what we needed to do,” Beals said. “I felt like there was some lack of trust, lack of belief as opposed to competing. We had a team check and moved on from there.”
Since then, Ohio State is 11-2. It won back-to-back series against Penn State and at Purdue just to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament.
Beals said having to fight their way into the tournament prepared them for the do-or-die atmosphere the Buckeyes faced at TD Ameritrade Park.
“We’ve had to put our fists up the last two regular season weekends,” Beals said. “We had to put our fists up and fight our way back in and we did.”
It helps that Ohio State’s pitching has fallen into line. Beals said he never doubted that the Buckeyes were talented enough, and now they’re playing like they’re capable of. Redshirt freshman lefthander Seth Lonsway (8-4, 3.65, 122 SO, 88.2 IP) gives them a big arm in their rotation to go with steady freshman righthander Garrett Burhenn (6-3, 3.53) and sophomore lefthander Griffan Smith (6-4, 3.52).
The key to Ohio State’s staff during the Big Ten Tournament, however, was senior closer Andrew Magno. The lefthander saved all four of the Buckeyes’ wins and is now 4-3, 2.33 with 13 saves this season.
“To do as much as he did in this tournament is gutsy, there’s no other way to put it,” Beals said.
Offensively, Canzone (.351/.448/.628, 15 HR, 9 SB) and Cherry (.300/.374/.556, 15 HR) are the Buckeyes’ two clear standouts. Canzone is the team’s top prospect and figures to be picked early in the top 10 rounds next month.
But catcher Dillon Dingler is the heart of the team, Beals said. Just a sophomore, he was voted captain by his teammates and is hitting .295/.397/.430.
“If you put one person, here’s who we are, it’s Dingler,” Beals said. “He has some serious dude factor.”
Ohio State will now await its NCAA Tournament fate. A year ago, it was sent to the Greenville Regional, where it went two-and-out. The Buckeyes won’t get an easy draw and due to their RPI will be a No. 4 seed somewhere, possibly Louisville or Morgantown.
But no matter where the selection committee sends Ohio State, it will be ready. After battling through the last few weeks to get to the NCAA Tournament, the Buckeyes will have their fists up, ready to go in regionals.
Southern Ready For Regionals After Making Big Strides
The biggest turnaround in the country this year is at Southern, where the Jaguars went from a nine-win team a year ago to this year winning 32 games and the Southwest Athletic Conference Tournament to return to regionals for the first time since 2009.
The Jaguars a week ago routed Alabama State, 15-0, to win the SWAC Tournament title and on Monday will learn where they will head for the NCAA Tournament. To be in this situation is a testament both to the Jaguars and to second-year coach Kerrick Jackson, who inherited the most storied HBCU program, but also one that had fallen into disrepair in recent years as it dealt with academic issues.
“We have a spirited group,” Jackson said. “We’ve battled through some different things. We’ve commended them for what they’ve done. Now, hopefully we can go out and make some more noise.”
Southern started the year by sweeping through the Andre Dawson Classic in New Orleans, including an Opening Day win against Florida A&M, which would go on to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament. A month into the season it had already matched last year’s win total.
The Jaguars’ season highlight came April 9 against Louisiana State, when Southern beat their crosstown rival, 7-2, at Lee-Hines Field. That upset should resonate during practice this week with whatever regional host draws the Jaguars.
As well as this season has gone for Southern, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Jackson said the Jaguars are starting to figure more things out on the diamond, but still have a ways to go.
“I’ve told them all year we’re athletes playing baseball,” he said. “We haven’t yet graduated to baseball players, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Senior center fielder Javeyan Williams is one of the standouts, especially defensively, as he can cover plenty of ground in the outfield. Junior righthander Eli Finney is one of the keys to Southern’s revamped pitching staff and was instrumental in its upset of LSU.
Competiting in a regional is an important step in the redevelopment of the Southern program, which has produced the likes of Rickie Weeks and won 14 SWAC titles under former coach Roger Cador.
Having made such a big step in year two, Jackson can now afford to think even bigger for year three, though he knows the next round of gains won’t be as easy to achieve.
“Coming into the year, the goal was to be competitive and win more games than last year, grow and build and see what happens in the SWAC Tournament,” Jackson said. “Recruits now are seeing they are capable, and hopefully that helps get better players and the rest of the dominoes potentially start to fall.”
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Eight for Omaha
Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt
Admittedly, it may be difficult for this eight to actually work when the NCAA releases its bracket. Stanford is unlikely to be a top-eight overall seed, and Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are right on the bubble for those top-eight seed. But I’ll persist anyway. I think these are the eight most complete teams playing the best going into the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma State replaces Louisville after another excellent weekend and winning the Big 12 Tournament, while Louisville hasn’t exactly sprinted through the finish line.
Nine players or programs who put together big weekends
Cincinnati: The Bearcats swept through the American Athletic Conference Tournament, finishing the week in Clearwater, Fla., with a 22-5 victory against Connecticut in the championship game. Cincinnati, under the direction of second-year head coach Scott Googins, now advances to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1974.
John Doxakis and Chris Weber, LHP, Texas A&M: In back-to-back games at the SEC Tournament, Weber and Doxakis combined to throw 15.1 hitless innings. Weber, a freshman, took a no-hitter into the eighth inning Wednesday against Georgia and Doxakis, a junior, threw eight hitless innings Thursday against Mississippi before turning the ball over to the bullpen. Doxakis and Weber now hold the two longest hitless outings in SEC Tournament history.
Christian Koss, SS, UC Irvine: On the final day of the regular season, Koss went 6-for-6 and scored six runs to lead the Anteaters to a 22-7 victory at UC Riverside. In addition to his six hits, which matched the program record, the junior also walked, joining Keston Hiura as the only players in program history to reach base seven times in one game. Koss is now hitting .307/.397/.490 with five home runs and 11 stolen bases.
Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks toppled Summit League powerhouse Oral Roberts, which had won the last 19 Summit League Tournaments it appeared in. Omaha won the Summit League Tournament for the first time in program history, beating Oral Roberts in the championship game. The Mavericks will now make their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament having won both the Summit League’s regular season and tournament titles.
Gabe Shepherd, Cody Carroll and Hunter Stanley, RHP, Southern Mississippi: The trio combined to throw a no-hitter Saturday in a 6-0 victory against Rice in the Conference USA Tournament semifinals. Shepherd, a freshman, started and threw 7.1 innings, while striking out a career-high 12 batters. Carroll needed just four pitches to finish the eighth inning, and Stanley threw a perfect ninth inning. The no-hitter was the first in C-USA Tournament history and Southern Miss’ first since Cliff Russum threw one against Eastern Illinois in 2004.
Sacramento State: After losing the first game of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament, Sacramento State ran off six straight wins to come out of the losers’ bracket and win the title. The Hornets became the first team in WAC Tournament history to lose in the first round and come back to win the tournament and the first team to eliminate all five other teams in the field. Sacramento State has now won the WAC Tournament three times in six years.