Big Ten baseball: A look back at the conference tournament

Nebraska’s Mojo Hagge rounds seconds as Iowa’s Tanner Wetrich unsuccessfully pursues a bloop single into shallow center field.

The bats have been put away for some teams while others prepare to play on in the NCAA baseball tournament. But, nearly 48,000 fans saw 15 good games during the Big Ten conference tournament at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park. The opportunity to cover the event as part of the league’s media pool proved to be an interesting one.

While Ohio State’s pitching controlled Nebraska’s potent hitting attack in Sunday’s championship game, the teams still combined to provide the 17,503 fans – mostly clad in Nebraska red – an exciting game to watch. The Buckeyes, with an RPI of 136 entering the contest, needed the win to clinch a spot in the national tournament. The Huskers, with a top 30 rating, were practically guaranteed a spot among the 64 teams. The crowd was the largest for a tournament championship this year and the second largest in college baseball this season.

Griffan Smith goes into his stretch as he pitches for Ohio State
Ohio State’s Griffan Smith dominated on the mound in the championship game, giving up two hits and allowing four walks while allowing one run in 5 2/3 innings to earn the win.

Joining Ohio State and Nebraska in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament are Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Michigan, which entered the Big Ten tournament as the second seed, was actually on the bubble for a tournament invitation. The Wolverines, who lost their opening game to Ohio State, needed to get a couple of wins to secure a spot. They finished 3-2 in the Big Ten tourney.

First baseman touches the base before the runner as Michigan gets the out over Ohio State
He’s out! Michigan’s first baseman tags the base just beating out an Ohio State player in their opening round game.

Lower seeds win

The tournament started on a crazy note with the four lower seeds winning their opening games. That put the top four teams in elimination games the second day, thus ensuring that two of them would go home with 0-2 records. Michigan survived with a 5-4 walk-off double to end Illinois’ run. The third-seeded Illini went 0-2.

Minnesota, the fourth-seed, rebounded from an 8-2 opening loss against the Huskers to upend top-seeded Indiana 9-4 to end the Hoosiers trip to Omaha. Indiana had played Iowa in the best game of Day One, though the Hoosiers came up short 4-2. The Hawkeyes and Hoosiers had a pitchers’ duel going into the seventh inning.

Iowa's Cole McDonald turned in one of the best performances on opening day of the Big Ten baseball tournament.
Iowa’s Cole McDonald turned in one of the best performances on the opening day of the Big Ten baseball tournament.

While the Huskers scored 8, 11, 8 and 7 runs in four of their five games, for the most part, each game was fairly competitive. Seven of the 15 games were decided by three or fewer runs.

Gee-whiz observations

Participating in my first major sporting event as a writer/blogger was truly an eye-opening experience. I learned a few things that may seem more gee-whiz to some while others may be just as wide-eyed like me.

A few observations:

  • The press box is mostly empty during games. Conference and athletic department staff tended to outnumber sportswriters and bloggers during most games, except the championship.
  • I need to bring my small laptop in the future. I missed out on a lot of prep and photo uploads. I enjoyed watching sportswriters from around the league like Columbus, Ohio, and Minneapolis hammer away as they prepared their stories for immediate release.
  • Press box food is OK. It’s nothing fancy. Though, breakfast rivaled a lot of hotels with a small buffet.
  • If you’re a hotel in Omaha and have anyone from the Big Ten – fans, teams, staff, etc. – staying with you, ensure you have the Big Ten Network. You don’t want to have to order it after the fact.

While attendance varied, with morning games attracting only a few hundred people, Omaha and some teams’ fans showed up when it counted. I noticed a steady increase throughout each day. Of course, the Nebraska games tended to draw more than the others, though a couple of their games didn’t have the attendance I thought they would.

In the end, Ohio State became the lowest seed to win the league title and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Buckeye fans held their own in cheering while surrounded by Husker fans. The tournament attracted 47,790 fans. That topped last season’s 12,404 attendance.

Ohio State celebrates the championship with the traditional dog pile near the pitchers mound.
Ohio State celebrates the championship with the traditional dog pile near the pitcher’s mound.