BY GREG AUMAN
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.–You could call it a heated rivalry.
Of all the 16 northern teams gathered to open their 2011 baseball seasons at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge, Cincinnati and Ohio State are a unique pair, two in-state rivals who, for the last three seasons, have only met a thousand miles from their comparably chilly campuses.
The two programs met for the 68th time in their rivalry Friday, having split two meetings in the Challenge the past two years. And with temperatures in the mid-70s at Al Lang Stadium, the Bearcats rallied back from an early 5-0 deficit for an 11-5 win.
After allowing 11 hits in the first three innings, Cincinnati’s pitchers took control, with starter Dan Jensen retiring the final eight Buckeyes he faced, then reliever Cory Hough holding Ohio State to two hits in four scoreless innings for the win.
The Bearcats’ rally started in the fourth, when freshman Matt Williams reached on a two-out, bases-loaded throwing error by Tyler Engle that allowed two runs to score.
“Now we’ve got some life. We’re back in the game,” Cincinnati coach Brian Cleary said. “I think the guys relaxed a little bit. We looked more comfortable in the batter’s box.”
By the sixth, Cincinnati had a 6-5 lead, then broke the game open with five runs in the eighth. Freshman outfielder Justin Glass had four of Cincinnati’s 18 hits, with three teammates–sophomore outfielder Jake Proctor, senior shortstop Chris Peters and junior catcher Jake Savior–adding three hits each.
Just as Cincinnati hopes to improve on last year’s 29-29 mark, Ohio State has a new optimism behind first-year coach Greg Beals, who took over when Bob Todd retired after 23 seasons as head coach and more than 1,000 career wins. Beals has a young team, but one he’s hoping to bring back to the top of the Big Ten.
“The game started just like we are as a program–there’s a lot of energy,” Beals said. “I told the guys after three innings there was a lot of baseball still to play. We need to find a way to keep going and keep adding on and not be satisfied at 5-0. We left a couple of opportunities out there in those first three innings.”
The tournament has 24 games in three days at five former and current spring training venues, and for northern teams unable to practice as much due to cold weather, it’s a chance to thaw out bats and arms against other teams facing the same challenging climate back home.
“You’re teeing it up with other teams who are also coming out of the weather, as opposed to somebody who’s been outside for a month,” Cleary said. “That’s one of the appeals. It gets a little better every year, and it’s a great early-season event that really shines a light on our league and the Big Ten.”
Engle likes what he’s seen from his new coach–he was part of the search committee that chose him after a successful run at Ball State–and is excited about being a leader on a young team.
“The results were far from what we expected as a team, but I think we saw some great things today,” he said. “(Beals) brings energy, and he’s a positive person. That’s what I love about him. He’s upbeat all the time and he’s here for us.”
As for the Buckeyes and Bearcats, they’re taking the rivalry back home. Cleary said Beals has been more open to playing on campus, and the two teams will play a single midweek game in each of the next two seasons.
"It has a chance to be a really good rivalry, something the people back home can get a kick out of. We should have that rivalry going, as two of the schools in the state everybody is focused on."
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