Big Ten Tournament Chronicles: Ohio State, Illinois Survive and Advance

OMAHA, NE- As Ohio State and Michigan played in the sixth inning of their elimination game on Friday afternoon, momentum had shifted a little to the Wolverines dugout. They’d scratched across a run in the fifth on a Jonathan Engelmann sac fly to cut their deficit to 2-1, and they had a man on in scoring position in the sixth after a Blake Nelson double, even though he was later left on base.

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With reliever Jack Weisenburger having settled things down after coming on in relief of Ben Dragani, and the offense showing signs of life, there was an air of inevitability that Michigan was poised to make a run.

But things changed when OSU first baseman Bo Coolen deposited a ball into the outfield bleachers for a solo shot, his first of the season, extending his team’s lead to 3-1. The Buckeyes plated two more in that inning, pushing their lead to 5-1 and giving them a cushion that ended up being necessary in a 5-3 win.

Coolen, for his part, is just excited about the prospect of being in the lineup day in and day out, because not long ago, that wasn’t the case. After beginning the year in a platoon at first base with Noah McGowan, he didn’t get a ton of run during the middle portion of the season. He was inserted back into the lineup at first base a few weeks ago, in large part to help out an OSU infield defense that had cost the team some games, and he hasn’t looked back. In his postgame press conference, answering questions through a huge smile, it’s clear Coolen is having a ton of fun just getting his shot.

“I came into the dugout and I told my guys ‘I”m going to get us going right here, let’s get this started'” Coolen said. “Just having a little fun, just kind of relaxing, went up there looking for a pitch to drive, get something going to start our offense that inning, and luckily got a good piece, and it went out. Against Michigan, too, so that makes it a lot more fun.”

While the home run might have been a new experience for him this season, being a catalyst on offense isn’t, at least not lately. In the Buckeyes’ series against Purdue, he collected a hit in each of the first two games of the series, and then scored two runs in the finale. In the season-ending series against Michigan State, he went 5-for-13 with three doubles and three RBI. And in Ohio State’s 2-0 win over Iowa on Thursday, he went 2-for-4.

“I’m just really happy for Bo Coolen,” said Ohio State head coach Greg Beals. “He didn’t get regular playing time for a lot of the season, and we got to a point where we wanted to help shore up our defense, he’s a great defender. Bo is just taking every advantage of the opportunity. He’s the happiest player on the team right now because he’s getting his shots. He just said ‘I’m going to go out and have fun and rip off a good swing.’ Players are usually really good when they’re in that frame of mind.”

The game was finished by Seth Kinker, who collected four strikeouts of the five outs he recorded, which comes as no huge surprise. He did throw three innings in the elimination game against Iowa, but with the way Kinker is wired, he might have had to be physically restrained to be prevented from pitching in an elimination game against a rival like Michigan. His head coach said as much.

“Kinker might have opened the door in the bullpen and said I’m coming in,” Beals said. “A guys says he can go, your go-to guy in the bullpen…they go.”

Chances are the Buckeyes were in good shape from an at-large standpoint before winning Friday’s game, but they have to feel even better afterward. With the win, they’re up to 34 in the RPI with a 9-9 record against the RPI top 50, with more chances to come as long as they’re alive in the Big Ten tournament. That’s a postseason-quality resume.

Spillane Breaks Out, Illinois Walks Off with Win

Over the Illini’s first two games of the Big Ten tournament, slugger Bren Spillane struggled. He was 1-for-8, with the only hit a ground ball single through the right side in the first inning of the team’s loss to Minnesota.

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After that Minnesota game on Thursday, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb attributed that to Spillane being such a team guy that he was trying to do a little bit too much.

“I think the big thing with Bren, he cares so much about the team that right now I think he’s trying to do too much for the team,” Hartleb said at the time.

On Friday, in a 5-4 win over Indiana, Spillane did only have one hit, but that hit was a big one (both in terms of the moment and in distance), and it did plenty to help the team.

When he came up in the bottom of the fifth, Illinois trailed Indiana 3-1, but the Illini had Hoosiers starter Tim Herrin on the ropes. A bases-loaded, one-out rally in the bottom of the fourth fell flat when Grant Van Scoy grounded into a double play. So with Spillane at the dish, with Jack Yalowitz and Zac Taylor on base after walks, his team needed a big hit. It felt like a moment where Illinois had to cash in.

And cash in they did, as Spillane launched a three-run home run to left-center to put his team on top 4-3. For someone just looking to help his team, breaking out with a big hit like that had to be an emotional release.

“Early on, I had been struggling, I’ve been overswinging a lot,” Spillane said. “I’ve known the whole time it’s just a matter of going out and actually making the adjustment in-game rather than just in BP. I’m happy it happened at the right time.”

After Logan Kaletha tied the game at four runs apiece on a home run of his own in the top of the seventh, though, the Illini needed another big hit, and they got it from Ben Troike, who drove a line drive to center that tipped off the end of the glove of Logan Kaletha, who laid out to try to make the grab. Yalowitz, on base again, came home from second with the winning run.

The celebration afterward was wild, as you would expect with just about any walk-off win, but there seemed to be a little extra there with this celebration.

Perhaps it was the celebration of a team that can smell the postseason. The Illini came into the week firmly on the bubble. With a quick exit, they would be sweating out the selection show on Monday, but with a couple of wins, there would be a bit more confidence about their chances. Now, with a second win over Indiana this week, with a chance to pad their resume still in front of them, they’re in great shape. Their RPI is up to 46, and they boast a 6-7 record against the RPI top 50, both solid marks.

More likely, though, it was the celebration of a team that is relishing the opportunity to make their own name within the program. Hartleb has made no bones about the fact that he challenged this team to do so.

“I told these guys at the beginning of the year that I thought we had a very, very good national reputation from what we had done in the past, but there wasn’t one guy standing in the huddle that had ever done anything to give us that reputation,” Hartleb said. “And I told them point blank, it’s time that this group did something.”

Suffice it to say they’re doing their part.



About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.