Reliever Seth Kinker has told Ohio State teammates that, if played properly, the Big Ten baseball tournament should be about being selfish, pranking people in the dugout and clubhouse, and generally acting like kids at a birthday party.
That was the formula the Buckeyes used in storming from the losers bracket to win the 2016 championship and reach their first NCAA Tournament in eight seasons.
Seventh-seeded Ohio State (34-20, 14-10) begins the conference tournament with a first-round game against second-seeded Purdue (34-18, 17-6) at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Third-seeded Michigan (32-19, 15-8) plays sixth-seeded Iowa (33-18, 13-9) at 10 a.m. in the other half of the bracket.
>>Video: Ohio State Baseball Coach Greg Beals
“We’ve had a lot of fun in Omaha — we have some good memories there,” Kinker said. “Our focus is on that first game. You win that game and it takes a lot of pressure off the squad. Purdue is going to have a handful with us. You look deeper into the season and you see that we’re a grinding team.”
But squirt guns and a battle axe in the dugout?
“There are 13, 14 guys on this team that were there and the coaching staff. We had an axe that we (held up) every single time we won a game. The dugout was always happy. We had people getting sprayed with squirt guns when coaches were being interviewed during the game. We were playing for ourselves. It’s fun playing on that field — it’s a blast.”
The good news for the Buckeyes is that their RPI ranking is a healthy No. 41 and that they have series victories over Purdue, Indiana and Illinois. The not-so-good news is they lost series to regular-season champion Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa, and are ranked lower in RPI than Minnesota (No. 16) and Indiana (No. 23).
But even if the Buckeyes don't win the conference tournament a strong showing might get them into the NCAA Tournament. Four teams from the conference made it to the NCAAs last season, five in 2015 and three in ’14 and ’16.
“This is a tough conference, and you can just see it in the national rankings and RPI rankings where we all sit,” coach Greg Beals said. “It’s just quality teams taking care of business on the field.”
It’s generally agreed that Minnesota is the only team all but guaranteed of a bid to the NCAA Tournament and that Indiana has just a little bit more work to do in the conference tournament to make it.
A quick exit from the conference tournament would not bode well for Ohio State considering it has split its past 10 games, and that includes midweek losses to Campbell and Cincinnati. Two victories this week probably would catch the NCAA committee’s attention.
“There is still proving to do,” Beals said. “This team is not the same team as 2016. We have the same jerseys with the same name on the front, but it’s not the same group. This group needs to go to Omaha and prove that it’s a championship-caliber ball club.”
Utility man Noah McGowan said the Buckeyes can’t think about winning a set number of games.
“We need to play loose — be relaxed and not try to do too much,” he said. “When we play loose, we play our best. We’re not thinking about the national tournament, but winning the Big Ten tournament.”