Ohio State is the No. 4 seed in its NCAA baseball regional. Vanderbilt is the top seed and No. 2 overall in the tournament.
The Buckeyes needed a hot streak just to reach the Big Ten tournament and stunned almost everyone by winning it as the No. 7 seed. The Commodores lead the nation in wins (49) and have few weaknesses.
Yet there’s an air of confidence about Ohio State as it opens the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in the Nashville Regional.
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“I don’t think we really care who we play,” junior right fielder Dominic Canzone said. “If we play our style of baseball, pitch well and play really good defense and get our timely hits, we can compete with anybody in the country. We’re ready.”
The double-elimination regional also includes No. 2 seed Indiana State and No. 3 McNeese State. The survivor will advance to the Super Regional.
Ohio State coach Greg Beals said freshman Garrett Burhenn will be the starting pitcher against Vanderbilt. Burhenn, who has a team-best 3.53 ERA, did not pitch in the Big Ten tournament. He was hit in the head by a foul ball while in the dugout during the regular-season finale at Purdue and had been in concussion protocol.
“I’m excited for him to pitch Friday night,” Beals said. “He was a caged lion this past week, sitting and watching his guys.
“He could have felt sorry for himself, but he was a great teammate. He was in the first wave to the (celebratory) pile on Sunday.”
A coach might be reluctant to send a freshman to the mound for an NCAA Tournament game, but Beals has been relying on freshmen all year. The inevitable growing pains of first-year pitchers such as Burhenn, Seth Lonsway, Will Pfennig and Bayden Root have resulted in late-season success.
“Those guys are unbelievable,” junior closer Andrew Magno said of the freshmen.
Burhenn will face a powerful Vanderbilt lineup led by outfielder JJ Bleday, a likely early first-round pick in next week’s Major League Baseball draft. Vanderbilt is hitting .337 in its past 23 games, 22 of which were victories.
But the Buckeyes have some punch, too. Canzone is hitting .350 with 15 home runs. Senior Brady Cherry also has 15 homers.
Last week in the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes clicked in all phases.
“We have to continue to play clean baseball,” Beals said. “We have to throw strikes. We have to get the outs we’re supposed to get on defense, and we’re going to need key hits. We’re going to need hits at the right time and string a couple together. It’s a simple answer, (and) easier said than done.
“Vanderbilt is really good. They’re a complete baseball team. They hit, they pitch, they play defense. On paper, they’re really, really good. On Friday night, we’re going to find out how good they are when we go man to man" against them.
Ohio State is in the tournament for the third time in four years, but the Buckeyes haven’t been able to reach a Super Regional in that span. The Buckeyes were eliminated by UNC-Wilmington last year in Greenville, North Carolina.
“We have guys who’ve been there and still have a sour test in our mouth,” Canzone said. “We know what it takes to make a Super. We’ll be ready.”