OMAHA, NE- In his postgame press conference Wednesday afternoon, Ohio State coach Greg Beals expressed confidence in his team’s ability to fight back from an 8-2 loss to Purdue in their opening game of the Big Ten tournament.
After all, his is a team filled with players who were part of a 2017 team that was disappointed to not even qualify for the event.
“That’s part of who this team has been,” Beals said. “We struggled last year, didn’t make the conference tournament, less than a .500 season. A lot of these guys were part of that, and they worked their tails off to get our ball club in position to be in the tournament, to be 34-21 and win a significant amount of games more than last year, and really put ourselves in position to be talked about in the NCAA tournament race…I’m excited and looking forward, not to be in the loser’s bracket, but to see what these guys bring to the ballpark tomorrow.”
What Ryan Feltner, in particular, brought to the ballpark was a shutdown start that propelled his team to a 2-0 win over Iowa Thursday morning, keeping OSU’s hopes for a tournament title alive and enhancing the chances they hear their name called on Monday for an at-large bid, should they fall short of winning automatic entry.
The righty with high-octane stuff threw six shutout innings, giving up three hits and three walks with six strikeouts. He was also fairly efficient in addition to being incredibly effective, as he threw just 89 pitches. Had Ohio State been a little more taxed in the bullpen and didn’t have dynamic stopper Seth Kinker ready to go, they probably could have pushed him a bit more, because he wasn’t really stressed very much.
“When Kinker went into the game, it was more of I thought it was ‘Kinker time’ than I felt like Feltner was done,” Beals said. “Feltner was still pitching the ball pretty well, but with the walk and the error (in the seventh), there was momentum there that I didn’t want to let keep going.”
Kinker certainly didn’t let Iowa’s momentum carry on.
He came on and struck out pinch hitter Trenton Wallace after a long at-bat, and then induced a double-play off the bat of Mitchell Boe to end the threat. He followed that with scoreless eighth and ninth innings, including a lightning-fast 1-2-3 ninth that quickly squashed any hope Iowa had for a comeback.
The save is Kinker’s 14th of the season and the three scoreless innings lowered his ERA to a microscopic 1.53. Perhaps what stands out most about him, though, is his demeanor. Saying that someone has a “closer’s mentality” has become something of a cliche in baseball, but you can see why it applies to someone like Kinker. He’s brimming with confidence about his ability to do his job, and his laser-focus doesn’t seem to waver, even in postgame press conferences, which he attacks with the same intensity as he does an opposing lineup.
“I was there to do one job and one job only, to get Feltner out of the inning,” Kinker said of his entrance into the game. “That’s been my mindset whenever I come into the middle of innings…it was my time to do the job to get Feltner (out of the jam). He worked his tail off today for six innings, he had a tough walk there to start the last one, so I came in and told the guys that we’re going to get out of it, and then we’re going to go hit, just like I always do when I come in. It’s one of those things where I have one thing in mind, and that was it. Shut the door and move on to the eighth.”
The Buckeyes still have a ton of work to do to get all the way back to a championship game here in Omaha, but thanks to Feltner and Kinker, they’re set up nicely moving forward with some momentum on their side and a bullpen, probably sans Kinker for Friday, that is largely rested and ready to go.
Meanwhile, with the loss, Iowa’s season is over. They’ll go into Selection Monday with some nice line items on their resume, but with an RPI up above 70, they’re simply not going to get in.
In his postgame press conference, Rick Heller, after expressing optimism after the loss on Wednesday that his team could still find their way into the field of 64 with a couple of wins this week, was honest in his assessment of his team’s chances.
“Well, I mean, probably not,” Heller said when asked if there was a case to be made for his team getting into the postseason. “I think all of us realize that we needed to win a couple of games with where the RPI sits. I thought, up to that point, we really had done a lot…You don’t get any points for close losses or playing well and losing, and unfortunately, that’s kind of what we did.”
Sometimes, a team can be postseason-quality without having a postseason-quality resume. Last year, Minnesota was that team within the Big Ten. They had the look of a postseason team and had the pieces to make a run, but their RPI held them back from being able to do so. This year, Iowa fits the bill. They’ve got the high-end talent to compete in a regional setting, and they’ve probably done enough this season to have earned a bid if their RPI was in range of an at-large bid.
Instead, they’re heading home after a couple of frustrating offensive performances here in Omaha, while OSU moves one step closer to playing baseball for at least another week.