Baseball Buckeyes Ready For Breakout

The 131st season of Ohio State baseball kicks off today, and to hear the Buckeyes tell it, they expect big things in head coach Greg Beals' fourth season. Despite a young team, OSU has been picked to finish third in the Big Ten and expects to return to NCAA tournament play.

Trace Dempsey took the ball with Ohio State holding a two-run lead last May 17, a chance to make history in his hand.

The Buckeyes led Indiana by a 2-0 score in Bill Davis Stadium and were three outs away from clinching a share of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 2009 and the initial time under head coach Greg Beals. The postseason All-American hadn't allowed a run in three months, it looked like Ohio State was on its way to cementing itself yet again as a Northern baseball power and national contender.

At that moment, so much seemed possible for the Buckeye baseball team, which made what happened over the next few innings, weeks and months so hard to swallow. Dempsey gave up a single, RBI double and sacrifice fly to allow the Hoosiers to tie the score, and Indiana used a grand slam in the 10th to break the logjam at the top of the Big Ten standings.

A day later, the Hoosiers finished off the series with an 8-1 win to earn the Big Ten championship. A week later, OSU had an unceremonious performance at the league tournament, its season over after three games in Minneapolis. Indiana went on to reach the College World Series, becoming the first Big Ten team to do so since 1984.

To say the least, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but the situation also left Ohio State well aware that it's not far from what it wants to be – a nationally relevant program under an aggressive coaching staff led by Beals.

"Last year left a bad taste in my mouth more than anybody else because I was the guy on the mound and I had a chance to end it," Dempsey said. "This team is ready. I've been here three years under Coach Beals and we trust in his system. We trust what he puts in front of us. We're going to follow that.

"If we stick to our roles, it's going to take a little bit of time for some of our young guys to get into their roles, but once they get into them, we're going to steamroll. This team is very talented."

The Buckeyes begin the season today with a game in the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla., vs. 2013 Big East champion UConn. The rest of the weekend includes a single game tomorrow vs. SEC foe Auburn and two games against Indiana State.

Getting off to a good start will be critical for a team that expects nothing less than a breakout campaign. Though the Buckeyes have been picked to finish third in the Big Ten, they believe that Beals' fourth season will be his best, not to mention the campaign that will return the program to the top of the league and into the NCAA tournament – and perhaps even more.

"With last year, as close as we were, one win here or there and we're in the national tournament and we're probably winning the Big Ten," junior Josh Dezse said. "For us, we're right at that peak, and just that little shove is going to push us right over. I think the emotions we felt last year is something that's going to drive us this year over the peak."

With that in mind, we take a look at some key storylines for the Buckeyes – who were 35-23 a season ago – as they get ready to go.

Youth Will Be Served
There's no doubt about it, the Buckeyes will have a young team in 2014. Six seniors who were key contributors to last year's lineup are gone, as are all three members of last year's starting rotation and two key members of the bullpen.

This year's squad will include just three seniors plus a fourth-year junior in Dezse, while on the other hand, at least four freshman pitchers and first-year center fielder Troy Montgomery will be key parts of the Buckeye arsenal.

That could be daunting to someone like Beals, but the head coach has a simple philosophy – if you recruit them, you expect them to play when they get on campus.

"With a young team, you have some concerns, but it's also exciting because we know the caliber, we know the talent level," Beals said.

When it comes to the pitching staff, highly touted lefty Zach Farmer is expected to start the first game vs. Indiana State, while righthander Travis Lakins could start on Sunday vs. the Sycamores. Lakins could also be a key part of a bullpen that includes true freshmen Tanner Tully and Adam Niemeyer.

Then there's Montgomery, who might have been the talk of camp. Senior left fielder Tim Wetzel calls the 5-9 center fielder from Fortville, Ind., "exciting" after he showed extra-base abilities and blinding speed in fall camp. Montgomery stole a combined 47 bases his last two seasons in high school and can motor down the line from the left-handed batters box.

"Troy is ready," Beals said. "There may be some growing pains for him offensively, but he can really run and defend in center field. For a freshman, he had a really good fall. So yeah, he's ready to go play. He's a leadoff type guy. I'm not sure we're going to lead him off right away – let him sit in the back end of the lineup a little bit and get comfortable and see his at bats develop through the early part of the season.

Captains such as Wetzel, Dezse and senior starter Greg Greve will attempt to make those youngsters more ready to go. When it comes to the pitching staff, someone like Dempsey, a third-year bullpen guy who saw key work as a freshman, has taken his newest teammates under his wing to help ease the transition into the pressure chamber of college baseball.

"We know what it was like. We know how nerve-wracking it can be," Dempsey said. "We've got to be that bridge for them and try to talk to them about it because they're going to deal with adversity. Some things like pitching to your strengths, especially in late-inning guys, believing in yourself, not doubting anything. I try to teach them routines and how to get ready so they'll be ready at all times.

"We've just tried to help speed up the learning process for them so they can understand things now instead of two months from now they run into it and don't know what to do. They'll be able to expect it when it's coming and move on from it."

Can They Hit?
A year ago, Ohio State simply struggled to score runs. The Buckeyes hit just .258 as a team and averaged 4.6 runs per game, and the numbers were even worse at times. In the last 10 games of the year – key contests vs. major nonconference foes Oregon and Louisville, a three-game series vs. Indiana and three games in the Big Ten tournament – the Buckeyes totaled just 15 runs.

But Beals sees progress in his team, both in its approach and what it brings from a physical standpoint. On the former, the head coach raves about the way the Buckeyes are attacking at bats in the preseason.

"We've developed a pretty solid at bat philosophy," he said. "I really like where we're at offensively. Obviously there's still development as we go live and get into game situations as far as our live at bats, but vs. our own pitchers and what we're doing in the preseason, I feel really good with where we are offensively."

Much of the reason for that can be traced to what Beals feels will be a solid middle of the order. The return of Dezse, who missed all of last season with a back injury, could return some much-needed pop, and he'll slot into the cleanup spot behind right fielder Pat Porter, who hit .296 last year and tied for team highs with four homers and 33 RBI.

Then there's a rebuilt infield that should start four sophomores. At third base, Jacob Bosiokovic hit .273 with four homers and 33 RBI last year, and the imposing 6-6 slugger added 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason. Beals also expects big things out of second baseman Troy Kuhn (.272 last year) and first baseman Zach Ratcliff (.323 in limited action), while catcher Aaron Gretz batted just .253 but has shown flashes of ability at the plate.

"We're better balanced in our setup and we're seeing pitches better because of that," Beals said. "We're taking pitches better and ripping off a little higher quality swings at the pitches that we need to be hitting. We are advanced this year compared to where we've been at this time of year in our previous seasons."

Added Dempsey: "Man, pitching to them now in the cages, it's crazy. They're really backspinning balls."

On The Bump
The Buckeyes have excelled on the mound under Beals – who has enlisted the help of former OSU pitchers Mike Stafford (full-time pitching coach), Josh Newman and new staff member Dan DeLucia (volunteer assistants) in his tenure – and last year Ohio State posted a team ERA of 3.24 that was the program's best since a mark of 2.57 in 1970.

Of course, replacing five key contributors from a season ago, including all three weekend starters, is no easy task, but Beals thinks the team is on the right track in that regard.

"The biggest concern is pitching," the head coach admits. "We lost all the guys from the rotation last year, so we obviously have some concerns there, but we're very capable. I know the guys that we have that are going to pitch are very capable. It's just a matter of them getting out there and doing what they're capable of doing."

Greve – perhaps better known to this point in his OSU tenure as one of Aaron Craft's roommates – will get the opening day nod after spending last season in the bullpen, where he went 4-1 with a 3.65 ERA. Opponents hit just .176 off of him, numbers he hopes to stretch out as he enters the rotation yet again.

"A lot of the difference is mentality," Greve said. "Pitching is pitching when you get out there on the mound. The difference in mentality between being a starter and a reliever is big."

He'll be backed up by lefthander Ryan Riga, who was also in the pen a season ago. Riga made just one start last year – it was a doozy, a seven-inning gem in a win vs. Georgia Tech – in 29 appearances but finished 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA and just nine walks in 46.1 innings.

Farmer could be a stud – or "something special," as Greve said – after 6-2 native of Piketon, Ohio, went 10-1 with a 0.52 ERA a season ago in high school. Farmer can get into the low 90s and is an excellent athlete who will be counted on from the very beginning.

Lakins brings a diversified repertoire into things, while Jake Post will also be in the running for a starting spot. A highly regarded freshman a season ago, Post had an up-and-down initial campaign but showed flashes of brilliance before finishing 2-1 with a 4.99 ERA in eight appearances (seven starts).

The bullpen will be anchored by Dempsey, who was a third-team All-American last year while going 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA and 17 saves as a first-year closer. Riga and Greve are gone from the pen – as are graduated righthanders David Fathalikhani and Brett McKinney – but freshmen like Lakins, Tully and Niemeyer have been getting big praise already. Beals has added he figures he'll stretch out his arms early in the season out of the pen this season after having rigidly defined roles in past campaigns.

Schedule Matters
As usual under Beals, the Buckeyes will attack a difficult schedule. UConn and Auburn are receiving poll votes nationally, while next week, OSU takes on a UCF team receiving votes and an Oklahoma team that is ranked just outside the top 25 by many.

In early March, things get really tough, as the Buckeyes head to the Emerald State for three games at Oregon and one at Oregon State, both of which are preseason top-10 programs.

A ranked Louisville squad will host OSU in April, while the Big Ten slate begins with the top two preseason teams in the league – Indiana and Nebraska – visiting Bill Davis Stadium.

"We don't want to be the first seed because the first two teams have targets on their backs," Dempsey said. "They have to play us the first two weekends here. It's exciting. We can come from behind. We love being the underdog. We were the underdog last year and we were three outs away from winning the Big Ten championship. We thrive in those situations and we enjoy that."

The league slate also includes a trip to Michigan from May 9-11 that will serve as OSU's first such series since a sweep of the Wolverines in Columbus in April 2011.

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