With a 4-1 lead heading into the ninth, the No. 4 Ohio State baseball team looked poised to take down No. 1-seeded Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, but a four-run outburst by the Fighting Illini ended that possibility Thursday night.
“That’s by far the toughest loss that we’ve had all season,” senior outfielder Brian DeLucia said. “I don’t know if it’s going to hit quickly or if we are going to feel it tomorrow.”
OSU (26-26, 13-11 Big Ten) had freshman pitcher and first baseman Josh Dezse try to close out the ninth against Illinois (26-25, 15-9 Big Ten). Dezse came into the game with six saves, but played a different role than usual, pitching the eighth and ninth innings. He pitched a scoreless eighth, but walked two and had runners in scoring position at one point.
Coach Greg Beals kept him in for the ninth, and Dezse gave up a leadoff double and two RBI singles. He was taken out after giving up a walk with a pitch count of 55, well above a closer’s average.
Junior reliever Andrew Armstrong came in with two outs to finish the game, but gave up the walk-off RBI single on his very first pitch.
Beals said he asked a lot out of Dezse in the game but that, win or lose, he likes to have Dezse on the mound.
“Obviously, in retrospect, when you look back, we asked him to do something he hasn’t done yet this year,” Beals said. “As a coach, as a competitor, you want to put your players in the best opportunity possible, and we thought we were. As you look back at it, maybe we should have gone with the bullpen like we’ve done all year long in that eighth inning.”
After Illinois scored its only run off starter Brett McKinney in the bottom of the third, it was DeLucia who responded with a leadoff home run in the fourth to tie the game, 1-1.
Both starters went deep into the game. McKinney pitched six innings and gave up one run, while Illinois starter Kevin Johnson went eight and gave up four.
Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said McKinney pitched well and that OSU threw some pitches that made his hitters look bad.
“Ohio State’s a very good team,” Hartleb said. “We’re very fortunate getting down like that, to come back and beat a good team.”
Johnson’s last three runs came in the eighth when the Buckeyes made their push. On Wednesday, OSU scored five runs in the eighth to beat Minnesota, fueled by a leadoff bunt single by sophomore catcher Greg Solomon.
Same inning, different game and with a man on second, Solomon lined a ball to center that the Illinois outfield missed, allowing him to complete a two-run inside-the-park home run. Tim Wetzel later provided a two-out RBI single to increase the lead to 4-1 before Illinois made its comeback.
“You never think you’ve got the game secure, but I certainly liked where we were at, at that time,” Beals said. “Our guys kept grinding to get us that fourth run, and, as you see, every run’s very valuable.”
With the loss to Illinois, the Buckeyes move to the losers’ bracket, in which they will play Minnesota again in an elimination game at 12:05 p.m.
This will be the fifth time in less than 10 days that OSU and Minnesota will meet. The Buckeyes won three of the first four. Both have a loss already, so the loser of the game will go home, while the winner will turn around and play Purdue. Freshman Greg Greve is the expected starter for the Buckeyes.
“The first challenge is put this game behind and get ready for Minnesota,” Beals said. “Minnesota, you can bet, is going to be ready for us. We’ve been playing with them, and we’ve got them three of the four games we’ve played, so they’re going to be hungry for us.”
Making the rounds
DeLucia and Solomon had home runs in the game, marking the second time this season against Illinois that the Buckeyes have hit multiple home runs. OSU has hit just 19 home runs this year. Thursday’s home runs were DeLucia’s first and just Solomon’s second of the year.
Cat scratch fever
Assistant coach Mike Stafford visited the mound in the third to talk to McKinney after he gave up his only run of the day and hit an Illinois batter. Play was delayed more when a cat somehow found its way onto the field, making an appearance on the bullpen near the OSU dugout. Junior reliever Paul Geuy was able to chase the cat under the tarp and out of play. The extra break seemed to help relax McKinney, as he allowed just three more hits through his last three innings.