Ohio State, Michigan State Claim Big Wins On Unique Big Ten Opening Day

Image credit: Ohio State catcher Brent Todys (Photo courtesy of Ohio State)

GREENVILLE, S.C. — After nearly a full year away from the field, the Big Ten began play Friday, and in the opening game of the pod in Greenville, S.C., Ohio State and Illinois went a little long to make up for lost time. 

After playing to a draw for 12 innings, Ohio State jumped ahead and won it, 6-3, in 13 innings. 

As eager as all of the returning players were to get back on the field after the extended layoff, it was a true freshman in Ohio State outfielder Kade Kern who served as the Buckeyes’ primary catalyst Friday. 

Out of the eighth spot in the lineup, the Archibald, Ohio, native hit the ball hard all afternoon and went 5-for-6 in his collegiate debut. He singled in the fourth, eighth and 12th innings. He tripled and scored the third OSU run in the seventh and then doubled home the team’s sixth and final run in the 13th. 

Noting the unpredictable nature of the game, it was a day at the plate beyond what he had imagined. 

“No, not in a million years,” Kern said. “You can’t control some things in baseball. You can bring your best out there but some things like that usually don’t happen and sometimes everything falls in your hands and goes right for you.”

No one had as good a day as Kern, but it truly was a total team effort offensively for the Buckeyes. Eight different players had at least one hit, and one of those who didn’t, third baseman Nick Erwin, took the only two walks issued by Illinois pitchers. 

For a lineup that hit just .242 last season and is clearly looking for impact bats after the departure of catcher Dillon Dingler, getting contributions up and down the lineup in a lot of different ways was encouraging. 

“We got some two-out hits early in the ballgame to get some run production,” Ohio State coach Greg Beals said. “When we had to use some (situational hitting) and get some bunts down, we got them down. So the execution level was very good for us.”

Especially given the context of the long layoff and a disjointed runup to the start of the season, the pitching staffs on both sides, except when Illinois was pitching to Kern, looked to be in midseason form, and that began with the starting pitchers. 

For Illinois, righthander Andrew Hoffmann, a junior college transfer, threw six innings, giving up four hits and no walks with eight strikeouts. The Illini also got good work out of righthander Ryan Kutt, who threw three shutout innings and lefthander Nathan Lavender, who put up two scoreless frames.

The Ohio State staff was even better on the whole. Righthander Garrett Burhenn had good stuff from the start, working with a fastball up to 95 mph and a mid-80s slider. He threw six innings, giving up four hits and two runs with three walks and three strikeouts. 

“Our conference keeps getting better and better and better, and Illinois is a good ballclub,” Beals said. “Those two starting pitchers were in a heavyweight fight for six innings. I thought their guy did a good job, Garrett did a great job for us.”

Burhenn was followed by lefthander Patrick Murphy and righthanders T.J. Bruce and Bayden Root, who combined to throw seven innings, giving up five hits and one unearned run with three walks and nine strikeouts. 

And those weren’t easy innings, either. After the Illini tied things up with a run in the bottom of the eighth, Ohio State pitchers stranded the winning run on base in the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th innings. 

“What I’m most proud of is how we stayed in the moment in those situations,” Beals said. “We stayed calm and we executed. This team is very talented, and we’ve been pressing on execution and (staying) in the moment and execute what you know you’re capable of doing. And our guys did a fabulous job, that’s what I’m most proud of. Some tough situations, and we made some very tough pitches in big spots.”

The Illinois bullpen was doing a similarly good job holding down the OSU lineup late in the game, but the dam finally broke in the 13th. Catcher Brent Todys doubled home a run to push Ohio State ahead 4-3. Two batters later, Nolan Clegg singled home another to make it 5-3 and then the Kern double made it 6-3. 

It’s been about a year since Ohio State put a game in the win column, and it took a little longer than anticipated to do so with this game, but for the Buckeyes and Kern, it was worth the wait. 

Michigan State’s Benschoter Outduels Maryland’s Burke

Going into this season, there was a lot of anticipation about seeing what Michigan State righthander Mason Erla could do for an encore performance after he dominated in the abbreviated 2020 season. The thought was that his presence would give the Spartans an ace just as good as any in the Big Ten and a workhorse to lead the rotation. 

On Friday in MSU’s season-opening 6-0 win over Maryland, fifth-year senior Sam Benschoter made a compelling argument that the Spartans will have a pair of workhorses on their hands this season. By the time he came off the mound after eight innings, he’d allowed no runs on five hits and four walks with 10 strikeouts, working with a fastball that touched as high as 96 mph and settled into the low 90s after that. 

“That was definitely the best I’ve felt in my time here,” Benschoter said. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs since I was a freshman to now, and it was good to see it all build up.”

Building is a good word to use to describe Benschoter’s journey to get to this point. Michigan State coach Jake Boss describes him as a tireless worker who has put in the time to add the velocity that he’s added and to turn his body into one that can go out there on Opening Day and not only throw eight innings, but hold his stuff into the eighth. 

“He just continues to work on the arm strength, and he’s gained a bunch of velocity over the last three or four years, and has really kind of transformed his body,” Boss said. “He was a tall, skinny kid when we got him, and to his credit, he’s put on a bunch of weight and is a big, physical strong guy now who throws eight innings for us and 120 pitches on day one and his body was able to handle it. His stuff was as good in the eighth as it was in the first. 

It was clear from the start that he was ready to go, because the righthander came out firing against the Terrapins, striking out Matthew Shaw and Randy Bednar in the first inning, all while giving off the type of energy that made you wonder if he’d be tapped out both physically and emotionally by the middle innings. 

Spoiler alert: he wasn’t tapped out in the middle innings. In fact, he really ran through the finish line, as his final two innings might have been his most impressive. He struck out the side in the seventh, the only time he did that all game. And in the eighth, with two men on and one out, he got Maryland’s top hitter, Maxwell Costes, to ground into a double play to end the inning. 

It says something about what the MIchigan State coaching staff thinks of Benschoter that they stuck with him in that spot against Costes. Here was a pitcher with just six career starts and 54.1 innings under his belt with over 100 pitches thrown on Opening Day and it was him they wanted to have go after one of the best bats in the Big Ten. 

“It was great,” Benschoter said. “They trusted me, and when I came off in the seventh, (pitching coach Mark Van Ameyde) asked me how my arm was, so I said I was feeling great and he trusted me to go out there and keep it going.”

As it turned out, every bit of Benschoter’s performance was needed on Friday, as his counterpart, Sean Burke, was dealing as well. 

Michigan State was able to put two runs on him in the first inning thanks to two walks, a single, a wild pitch and a sac fly, but after that, he settled in and went into cruise control. 

He struck out nine of the next 10 batters he faced, and after allowing one more Spartans run in the sixth, he ended his day having thrown six innings, giving up two hits and three runs with two walks and 13 strikeouts. 

In large part thanks to Burke’s outing, it wasn’t necessarily a standout day for Michigan State at the plate, and all told, they struck out 17 times, but along the way, they managed to score runs in a way that they often do, by putting guys on base and letting speed do the work. 

That included a run in the first when leadoff hitter Mitch Jebb reached on a walk and eventually scampered home on a wild pitch. Later in that same frame, speedster Bryce Kelley scored on a Zaid Walker sac fly. In the sixth, the Jebb-Kelley duo teamed up again, with Jebb legging out a triple and then scoring on a Kelley sac fly. It was the same story but different verse in the eighth when Jebb walked, stole second and then came home when Maryland made an error on a Bryce Kelley bunt. 

“It’s what we’ve always tried to do,” Boss said of that offensive style. “Those two guys really kind of made it go for us tonight. It’s a weird box score, four hits and what did we strike out? Seventeen times? But scored six runs, so fairly efficient when we did get them on.”

It’s hard to look at this as anything but a blueprint win for Michigan State. It knows what it has in Erla as a true ace, and on Friday, Benschoter showed that he has the potential to be that type of pitcher, too. 

And in the lineup, guys like Jebb and Kelley are going to apply pressure at every turn, determined to take advantage of every little window of opportunity the opposition provides. It was a winning blueprint on this night, and one that the Spartans will look to use for many more victories as the season rolls on. 

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