Buckeye Nine Ready For Opening Day

Greg Beals' first season in charge of the Ohio State baseball program a year ago was up and down, with a young Buckeye team making the Big Ten tournament but falling shy of a winning record. Now, in year two of the Beals era, the Buckeyes think they're a better team with Opening Day set for Friday morning against USF.

With Ohio State set to begin the 2012 baseball season today, there's a lot of questions around the Buckeyes.

Captain Ryan Cypret thinks the Buckeyes have some answers, though.

"We're confident in who we are," the second baseman said. "I think we're going to have a very competitive team. I think our bullpen and our starters are going to be lining up against the best of them, and I think we're going to hit the ball better. I really believe almost every aspect of our team is better this year."

Last year, Ohio State finished fourth in the Big Ten but still posted its first losing season since 1987 at 26-27 in head coach Greg Beals' first season. However, OSU was one out away from reaching the Big Ten semifinals and showed it could beat or hang with the best teams in the nation despite a young, inexperienced cast of characters. Though the Buckeyes didn't have much experience or power in the lineup, they scrapped and fought for everything they got.

This year, more starters are in their second year, while a number of transfers are expected to play key roles and add depth to a team picked to finish fifth in the league.

"The preseason rankings came out and they weren't so hot for us, but really, we're not worried about what people think," said preseason All-American Josh Dezse. "We lost a couple of key guys last year but we also gained a couple of key guys. I think our lineup is just unreal this year, our bullpen, our starting pitchers are great.

"Obviously it's everyone's goal to make it to the national tournament and then make it to Omaha. To do that we need to win the Big Ten and we have to make it through the Big Ten tournament. We're starting our goals a little low to achieve those and I know that our ultimate goal is to make it to Omaha."

In year two, Beals sees progress.

"We're getting closer," he said. "This has been a fun group to coach. The guys all have a better understanding of what coaches are looking for, how we're going to play baseball, a better understanding of the expectations of the program. They have really taken to that."

What follows are capsules of each position with players listed expected to make an impact.

Ohio State is set here thanks to returning starter Greg Solomon and true freshman Aaron Gretz.

16 Greg Solomon: The junior got off to a hot start last year but settled down by the end, whiffing 42 times against just four walks. Still, he led the Buckeyes with 20 extra-base hits while hitting .273/.298/.430. An excellent athlete, Solomon will also see time at third base.

25 Aaron Gretz: A true freshman from Apple Valley, Minn., Gretz has been lauded by Beals for his handling of the pitching staff so far and figures to see plenty of playing time. Gretz was a two-time honorable mention all-state honoree in high school, where he hit .322 as a senior.

Ohio State returns Cypret at second base and Dezse at first, while exciting prospect Kirby Pellant takes over at shortstop.

33 Josh Dezse: A potential power bat. Even while adjusting to the college game a season ago, he led the Buckeyes in all the triple crown categories with a .332 average, four homers and 42 RBI. His also led the team in on-base percentage (.427) and slugging percentage (.472), though he'll need to cut down on a team-best 47 strikeouts.

2 Ryan Cypret: Ohio State's No. 3 hitter last year, Cypret was probably the team's most consistent batter. He hit .323 as a sophomore in 2011 and added three homers and 35 RBI. His on-base percentage was a solid .400 thanks to 21 walks and he struck out just 25 times while stealing five bases.

8 Kirby Pellant: A potential breakout player from Chandler-Gilbert CC in Arizona, Pellant has been raved about by his fellow infielders and figures to be the leadoff hitter. A junior in eligibility, Pellant hit .293 as a freshman at Marshall then batted .317 at Chandler-Gilbert last year. He also brings speed to the base paths and is touted as a solid defender.

21 Brad Hallberg: Hallberg started 42 games – 21 at first base and 21 at DH – and showed great plate discipline but little power last year. He walked a team-high 28 times but hit only .254 with four extra-base hits for a .296 slugging percentage. He'll see time at the corner spots and at DH as a junior.

26 Brad Hutton: One of the team's few seniors, Hutton got sporadic playing time last year as a JUCO transfer. He hit .205 in 39 at bats last season but hit two homers and was hit by eight pitches. He can also play catcher.

12 Ryan Leffel: A true freshman from nearby Dublin Coffman, Leffel could be in the third base mix as well and figures to be the utility infielder. He batted .373 with a .510 on-base percentage and .693 slugging percentage as a senior with the Shamrocks.

Ohio State is solid in the outfielder. Tim Wetzel will man center field after a decent freshman campaign, David Corna slides to right field from left and transfer Mike Carroll is expected to be a thumper in left.

5 David Corna: In his first year as a starter last year, Corna turned in a solid campaign. Though he hit only .264, he showed some decent pop and the ability to find the gaps, hitting a team-best 16 doubles along with two homers and 24 RBI. He'll need to cut down on strikeouts as he had 41. He moves to right field because he boasts the strongest arm of the outfielders.

31 Tim Wetzel: Wetzel brings talent to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. As a true freshman last year, he hit .278 but boasted an on-base percentage of .373. He has speed, plays with passion and could be in for a breakout season now that he has a year of seasoning under his belt.

15 Mike Carroll: Carroll is expected to bring a big impact to the team as the No. 5 hitter. A combination of speed and power, Carroll started 27 games at Duke in 2010, hitting .258, and reportedly bashed OSU pitching during his year off for a transfer. He has sophomore eligibility.

Ohio State loses ace Drew Rucinski but the Buckeyes think they have a chance to boast a deep rotation, with competition expected throughout the season.

28 Brett McKinney: A former Division III Player of the Year in Ohio, McKinney is a bulldog on the mound and expected to be the team's Opening Day starter. He was at his best near the end of last year, allowing only two earned runs in his last two starts. Overall, the righthander finished 3-3 with a 4.48 ERA as the team's No. 2 starter.

43 Brian King: Another JUCO transfer from Arizona, the southpaw is set to be OSU's No. 2 starter. He threw a perfect game in 2010 and was 8-3 with a 3.63 ERA last year at Paradise Valley CC. King boasts a solid repertoire of offspeed pitches, per his JUCO coach. He boasts junior eligibility.

32 Greg Greve: Greve was like McKinney last year in that he saved his best for last, as the righthander concluded his freshman season with some solid outings. His best was when he threw eight shutout innings at Minnesota the last weekend of the season as OSU punched its ticket to the Big Ten tournament. A 45th-round draft pick in 2010, Greve finished 2011 with a 3-3 record and 5.00 ERA.

45 John Kuchno: Kuchno was OSU's fourth starter much of last year, going 1-4 with a 6.68 ERA in 31 innings. His best outing came during OSU's upset of a ranked Oklahoma State team, as he gave up only one run in five innings. Kuchno, a sophomore, can get his fastball into the mid 90s and is still maturing as a pitcher.

37 Jaron Long: Another Chandler-Gilbert prospect, Long has sophomore eligibility. He appeared in nine games last year, going 3-2 with a 1.62 ERA. His father, Kevin, is hitting coach for the New York Yankees. Long figures to work in long relief and as a spot starter to begin the season.

30 Brad Goldberg: Goldberg is ineligible for the start of the season and may miss the whole year because of an academic situation involving credit hours, not any struggles with GPA. Ohio State is appealing to the NCAA to try to get Goldberg eligible and hopes to know by spring break. If Goldberg can come back, Beals said his impact would be "immediate." A Coastal Carolina transfer, the righty had a 2.45 ERA in 14.2 innings for a Chanticleers team that made the NCAA tourney in 2009.

Beals worked magic with his bullpen last year, turning some unheralded prospects into stars thanks to a consistent approach with defined roles. It also helped to have the mega-talented Dezse at the back end, and not much is expected to change in 2012.

11 David Fathalikhani: A converted catcher, Fathalikhani burst onto the scene last year as a sidearming righthander who excelled in a setup role. Now a team co-captain, the junior finished last season 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA in 26 appearances. Opposing teams hit just .235 off of him, showing how hard it is for opponents to pick up the ball out of his hand.

19 Andrew Armstrong: The senior had a bounce-back year in 2011, returning from a year off because of arm surgery to show the stuff that once made him a 45th-round draft pick in 2007. His once-promising career is back on track now, though, after he was 2-1 with a 3.68 ERA in 33 appearances last year, striking out 39 in 29.1 innings. Armstrong will be Ohio State's top situational lefthander.

50 Trace Dempsey: Last year, right-handed sidewinder Jared Strayer wore No. 50 and was a key piece of the Buckeye bullpen as a senior. Now that Strayer is graduated, Dempsey is going to be counted on to do the same as a freshman, all the way down to his sidearm motion. Dempsey was 7-1 with a 1.02 ERA as a senior last year in Huntington, W.Va.

Dezse: There's little doubting Dezse's talent, as he hit 100 mph on the radar gun while closing out the May win vs. No. 19 Oklahoma State. However, battles with inconsistency last year – including a few big innings – made him finish at 4-2 with six saves and a 5.53 ERA in 26 appearances. Dezse is still maturing as a pitcher and says he's added a changeup to his fastball-breaking ball combination.

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