With two teams eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament and two more set to go home after action on Friday, day three of action from TD Ameritrade Park was full of intense, breath-taking, post-season defining moments.
When the final outs where recorded, after Ohio State and Michigan resumed their rivalry, the Buckeyes turned back the Wolverines, 5-3, to stay alive, before Illinois knocked off Indiana for the second time in three days, winning 5-4.
Here’s a round up of the 10 leading storylines from action on Friday.
Big wins for Bucks and Illini
Although NCAA Tournament projections to begin the week had them in a regional, wins on Friday will mean Illinois and Ohio State leave Omaha with at worst 2-2 records. And with the .500 week, both teams have all but locked up an opportunity to continue their season next weekend. Ohio State’s 5-3 victory over Michigan was their 14th win over an RPI top 100 team, with Indiana’s 5-4 walk-off win against Indiana giving the Illini the season series in five games against the Hoosiers and evening their record to 7-7 against RPI top 50 teams. Ohio State’s 1-3 finish to the season, and dropping their first tournament game to Purdue caused slight concern, as well as a marquee series victory for Illinois. Both potential resume red flags have been alleviated as spots in the field of 64 have been secured.
It’s hot in Omaha
The first-pitch temperature for Michigan and Ohio State at 3:14 was 95 degrees. It was hot. It has been hot. It will continue to be extremely hot in Omaha. There’s nothing else to really add to that, it’s been blistering.
Call on Kinker
Ohio State head coach Greg Beals viewed a win over Michigan as being so vital to his team’s NCAA Tournament aspirations that after a three-inning, 50-pitch save on Thursday, Buckeye closer Seth Kinker was called on to get the final five outs on Friday. As he has done time and time again, showing why he has the unbridled trust from Beals, Kinker struck out four batters in 1.2 innings of scoreless work to record his 15th save of the year. The allowing just two hits over 4.2 innings, with seven punchouts, Kinker lowered his Big Ten-leading ERA to 1.49.
Coolen continues late-season flourish
A day after going 2-4 in OSU’s elimination game against Iowa, Coolen collected his first home run of the season, a solo blast in the sixth inning, to continue to pay dividends as a late-season lineup fixture for Beals. Highlighted by College Baseball Central’s Joe Healy, changes to find a fix to Ohio State’s underwhelming infield defense created an opportunity for Coolen to take over at first. And now, as the Bucks close in on a second regional in three years, Coolen’s bat has helped add depth to an already impressive offensive attack.
Michigan’s tough ends promises for bright future
In his postgame press conference, Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said he wasn’t going to try to make a case for the Wolverines to be in next week’s NCAA Tournament, that his team didn’t finish strong enough to warrant a spot nor grabbed enough marquee wins. But Bakich said his team will watch Monday’s announcement of the tournament field, with the thought in mind this will be the last time Michigan’s name is not announced on Memorial Day, as a team ticketed for a regional.
There is good reason for Bakich to be optimistic about the future.
Outside of senior first baseman Brock Keener, and center fielder Jonathan Engelmann, a likely high-round draft pick, Michigan’s starting lineup should return intact next year, as well as the Wolverine weekend rotation of Tommy Henry, Ben Dragani, and Karl Kaufmann, a sophomore-freshman-sophomore trio. A team that entered the final five games of the regular season atop the Big Ten standings, and were in contention for a regional berth a year after losing 11 players to the draft and five seniors to graduation, what would have been a major rebuilding year for many programs, wasn’t for Michigan.
“We put ourselves in a position, and as a coach you hope that all those pieces coming back next year will see, and remember that feeling of what it was like to be in first place and understand that championships and Michigan are synonymous — they go hand in hand. That’s the goal here is to win the Big Ten first before we start talking about things on a national scale. But the future is gonna be very bright because of the foundational year that we had, the toughness that went along with it.” -Erik Bakich
Indiana plays “soft”
Indiana held a 2-1 lead after two innings, then saw the score sit 3-1 in their favor through the first four innings. But even with a bullpen that is the perceived strength of the club, Indiana couldn’t hold on and fell to Illinois for the second time in Omaha to bow out of the tournament. It was a defeat that didn’t sit well with head coach Chris Lemonis nor senior outfielder Logan Sowers.
More than any team in Omaha, there wasn’t as much on the line for the Hoosiers. Their spot in a regional was safely set, a near-miracle was needed for them to be in a position to host. While other teams entered the week on the bubble, needed the auto-bid to continue their season, and Minnesota looks to secure their spot as being regional host, Lemonis thought he team could be relaxed, have fun, and just play, as their pursued the tournament title.
That didn’t happen, instead, Lemonis thought he team played soft. Both he and Sowers spoke to IU being better than they showed, with Sowers insisting there will be words shared in the locker room to get the team in gear, while Lemonis alluded to sharing a few words in their postgame huddle. After entering the week on the heels of a six-game winning streak, a 1-2 showing isn’t going to sit well with Indiana on their return to Bloomington, but it may be the shock to the system the team needs to turn the intensity up a notch to return to Omaha in two weeks.
Kaletha leaves Omaha with
A catalyst atop Indiana’s lineup for much of the season, junior center field Logan Kaletha saw his production tail off during May. Kaletha did draw three walks against Michigan State, but went six at-bats without recording a hit over the first two games, to drop his average to .271, down from .331 when Indiana was 28-6 prior to their series against Ohio State. A 2-for-5 effort against the Illini, including a game-tying solo home run to right field in the seventh, his eighth of the year, allows Kaletha to head into a regional with a little momentum, where he can be the ultimate table-setter in front of Matt Gorski, Sowers, and Luke Miller, creating a dynamic lineup capable of running through a regional, and beyond.
Spillane’s big blast
Following strikeouts in his first two at-bats, one wouldn’t have been wrong to wonder if it just wasn’t Bren Spillane’s week. At some point, even the best of the best have a slump. But then Spillane stepped to the plate with two on in the fifth and made all forget about his prior whiffs. In a 10-pitch at-bat, Spillane show a Tim Herrin fastball left-center, clearing the 375-foot mark, for his 23rd home run of the season, tying the contest. Now just three home runs shy of Illinois’ single-season mark, with his team’s back against the wall, Spillane showed why he was the Big Ten Player of the Year, potentially giving Illinois the hit they needed to not only play on Saturday, but next Saturday as well.
A total team effort the Illini
Where Spillane has been the linchpin to Illinois’ offense, and had the big blast the team needed to get back into the ball game, the winning run was a total team effort; from a team Dan Hartleb praised for their togetherness and desire to play for each other.
The bottom of the ninth started with a Jack Yalowitz single, a sacrifice bunt from Zac Taylor, before the game-winning double to deep center from Ben Troike. Where Yalowitz and Taylor entered the season as Illini’s top two draft prospects, not Spillane, the outfielders are respectively batting .221 and .228. While it isn’t atypical for the draft to be heavy on the minds of juniors and a lull in production occur, Hartleb stated any pressure the two placed upon themselves was due to wanting to be there and produce for the whole of the team. In a game which may have solidified their case as an NCAA Tournament, manufacturing the winning run, and doing whatever the team needed, was accomplished.
Optimism for different reason
Postseason press conferences can be tough when they follow an elimination game, but each coach who spoke on Friday expressed optimism for different reasons.
Even though their season has wrapped up for all intents and purposes, it was clear Bakich saw an incredibly bright future for the Wolverines, running off the players returning and the positions which will have the depth necessary to see Michigan return to the top of the conference table.
For Beals, the win over Michigan was an exclamation point on a resume which has the totality of showing a strong team from the start of the season to the end. Where prior years have seen the Buckeyes fall short of an at-large bid, there was confidence Ohio State has earned their spot, explicitly expressed when Beals said their usage of Kinker will be dialed back, in preparation of next week.
Similar to Beals, Dan Hartleb believed his club’s Friday win earned them the right to play another weekend. A spot in the NCAA Tournament is necessary for a return trip to Omaha in late June, but Hartleb’s joy in coaching this specific club, and that they will likely have another week together shone through.
And for Lemonis, there was disappointment in his team’s performance, but he knows the quality of his team and there was a hint of wanting to get back on the horse as soon as possible. Indiana didn’t play their best baseball, but with no concern of not making the NCAA Tournament the resiliency they have the opportunity show is something the fourth-year coach is looking forward to.
It wasn’t too long ago when the end of run at the Big Ten Tournament meant the end of a team’s season. But as this year’s affair is down to the final four teams, that’s not the case, which means very good teams are playing against each other, making for very good games.