Given the talent of some of the veteran players and the production of the newcomers, it's entirely conceivable that the Ohio State baseball team could have played into June this season.
Instead, the Buckeyes missed out on the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive season after finishing 30-28 overall and 10-14 in Big Ten play. It is the longest NCAA Tournament drought for the program since OSU failed to make the postseason in the eight seasons spanning 1983-90.
With that being said, it's hard to imagine a worse run of luck for a program that entered Big Ten play with a legitimate shot at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The pitching staff struggled with injuries, as no starter reached 100 innings (compared to two last year). Ohio State also finished with a 9-15 record in games decided by two runs or less, including four one-run losses to a Nebraska team that went on to make the NCAA Tournament. Those issues paled in comparison, though, to the blow delivered when starting pitcher Zach Farmer was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in April.
The team responded to Farmer's illness in impressive fashion, with the whole team signing up to be potential bone marrow donors and pushing for others to do so as well. The adversity on the field proved more difficult to overcome.
"We didn't play with a whole lot of luck this year," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals told BSB. "Traditionally, I would say that you make your own luck, though, and as players you've got to fight through that. But we went from injury to injury to injury, and I think that really kept us from getting back into a flow like we had at the beginning of the year."
After going two-and-out in the Big Ten Tournament, Beals told his team how proud he was of the way they responded to Farmer's illness and fought through their struggles in conference play. After being swept at home by Indiana and at Nebraska, the Buckeyes responded by winning four consecutive series.
Still, the end of the season left plenty to be desired and it didn't take long for Beals to start planning for next season, the final year left on his current contract.
"It takes about a half-hour to shift gears," Beals said. "That's just the competitor in me. My job is to take care of this baseball program. You shift gears fast. You take care of your seniors and the guys that are leaving and that takes a little time, but my brain starts shifting gears pretty quickly."
The Buckeyes will only lose three seniors from this team – starting pitcher Greg Greve, relief pitcher Tyler Giannonatti and outfielder Tim Wetzel – but Beals speculated that draft-eligible junior first baseman Josh Dezse could also bolt if an MLB team selects him high enough in the MLB Draft. Farmer will also not play next season, although Beals hopes to have him back later in his career after he makes a full recovery.
With such a young team, it should come as no surprise that true freshmen found consistent playing time. How they fared, though, exceeded expectations. Outfielder Ronnie Dawson led the team in hitting, while starting pitcher Tanner Tully developed into the top starter in the rotation. Relief pitcher Travis Lakins occupied the setup role and ultimately outperformed closer Trace Dempsey.
"I knew Tanner was going to be a good player. Did I know he was going to pitch on Friday night and be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year? No, you can't predict that," Beals said. "So we're obviously very pleased with what Tanner did. I'm very pleased with Ronnie Dawson pretty much playing every day and hitting over .340. He was a very, very productive offensive player and competitive guy.
"Travis Lakins pitched out of our bullpen this year but pitched in big-time games. Whenever we had a chance to win, Travis was getting in the game. I see Travis moving possibly to the rotation next year. I think there's a really good chance he pitches in the rotation next year, and I see him having a great year for us."
Although the team never developed a consistent batting order (something Beals lamented and wants to fix immediately), the midseason absence of sophomore shortstop Craig Nennig combined with some non-conference game experimentation helped OSU find the right combination in the field.
Sophomore Jacob Bosiokovic moved from third base to the outfield, which allowed sophomore second baseman Troy Kuhn to move over to third. That move forced sophomore shortstop Nick Sergakis to slide over to second and Nennig to reclaim his spot at shortstop.
"We figured those things out," Beals said. "Unfortunately it took some losses, but we figured that out. We've got Bosiokovic in a better spot and Kuhn in his natural position. By doing that, it's found an ability to get Sergakis in the lineup, and he's a guy who's played very well for us."
With perhaps only four or five players from this year's squad departing and the field lineup worked out for now, Ohio State is once again poised for a run at the elusive NCAA Tournament spot. The ability of the Buckeyes to make their own luck – or at least keep the disasters to a minimum – will likely help determine if they'll fulfill their postseason potential.
As a true freshman, Dawson proved to be the team's top offensive threat with a team-best .337 batting average and .396 on-base percentage. He also tallied four home runs, a number that would have been one higher had he not passed a teammate on the base path after putting a ball over the left-field fence.
Kuhn led the team with six home runs, 40 runs scored and 35 RBI. He was also hit by more pitches (11) than any other Buckeye.
Dawson proved to be the most fleet-footed member of a lead-footed squad with 10 steals in 15 attempts. OSU's total of 69 attempted steals was actually lower than the number of successful steals (78) in 2013.
Greve earned the most wins on the staff with seven, but Tully (2.22) outshined Greve (3.36) by more than a full run in the ERA department while also pitching more innings.
Tully walked just seven batters in 93 1/3 innings, a walk rate of 0.68 per game. That number ranked second nationally heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Kuhn was the only player to start in all 58 games, playing the first 41 at second base and the final 17 at third base.
No Buckeyes cracked first-team All-Big Ten, but both Tully and Dawson were on the second team. Both were named to the All-Big Ten freshman team and Tully was chosen as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Big Ten Showing Progress
The Big Ten managed to place just two teams in the NCAA Tournament, and neither team lived up to its seeding. Indiana, which advanced to the College World Series in 2013, received the No. 4 national seed and the right to host a regional but was ousted by Stanford on a walk-off home run in the region final. Nebraska earned a No. 2 seed in the Stillwater Region hosted by Oklahoma State but failed to advance to the region final.
Still, the conference has by and large produced a better product in recent years. Illinois narrowly missed out on an NCAA bid and several young squads – Ohio State included – should be better next season. The conference will also get better with the addition of Maryland, which won the Columbia Region hosted by South Carolina to advance to a Super Regional.
"It's exciting that as a whole our conference is getting good – not just better, but good," Beals said. "There's a real good chance that there's four Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament next year. We had two in the top 25 this year. That's exciting that our conference is getting that good. What it means is that it's going to be tougher to win a Big Ten Championship, but the strength of our conference is going to put a lot more of us in a position to play in the national tournament. There's give and take. The championship is going to be tougher, which means it's going to have even that much more value. The opportunity to play in the postseason we believe will be greater because of the strength of our conference."
Another sign of conference strength is the talent that it eventually exports to MLB. On Thursday, Indiana catch Kyle Schwarber (taken No. 4 overall by the Chicago Cubs) was the first collegiate bat selected in the 2014 MLB Draft and the highest Big Ten selection since Michigan State pitcher Mark Mulder was taken second overall in 1998. The only other Big Ten player chosen in the first two rounds was also a Hoosier, as first baseman Sam Travis was taken by the Boston Red Sox with the No. 67 overall pick.
Dempsey Looking To Regain Form
After a sophomore season in which he amassed a 1.03 ERA in 31 appearances over the course of the 2013 campaign, closer Trace Dempsey looked to be headed for the professional ranks once he became draft-eligible as a junior.
Instead, all signs point to him using his full eligibility in Columbus after a rocky junior year. In 26 games, Dempsey put together a 5.94 ERA and struggled on a handful of occasions, most notably when he blew a 6-3 lead to Nebraska in the ninth inning of the Big Ten Tournament first round by walking three batters and hitting another.
"I have to look at the fact that it was his draft year, and I feel like he was just trying to do too much," Beals said. "He didn't stay within himself. He's a sidearm sinkerball and slider pitcher and I think he was trying to throw too hard. His command wasn't good. He hit more guys and walked more guys than he had in his previous two seasons combined. That's telling me he's trying to do too much. He's throwing too hard. Trace is a very, very good athlete. If he just trusts his hands and his fine skills as an athlete, he'll be very successful again next year."
As a guy who relies more on deception than speed, Dempsey will have the summer to regain his confidence while playing for the Chillicothe Paints of the Prospect League.
"I think it's going to be very important for him to have a good summer and find himself a little bit," Beals said. "He needs to come back in the fall and prove to his teammates that he's that guy again."
Summer League Spots
Alexandria Blue Anchors
C Aaron Gretz
SS Craig Nennig
Battle Creek Bombers
UTIL Jacob Bosiokovic
LHP Tanner Tully
Eau Claire Express
LHP Matt Panek
OF Troy Montgomery
RHP Jake Post
OF Pat Porter
1B Zach Ratcliff
INF Troy Kuhn
OF Ronnie Dawson
RHP Trace Dempsey
RHP Travis Lakins
RHP Shea Murray
Lorain County Ironmen
LHP Joe Stoll
INF/RHP Kyle Mihalik
1B/RHP Curtiss Irving
INF Ryan Leffel
RHP Yianni Pavlopoulos
INF Nick Sergakis
Arizona Collegiate Wood Bat League
OF Jake Brobst
OF Alex Corna
INF JP Sorma
California Collegiate League
Santa Paula Halos
C Connor Sabanosh
Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League
UTIL Jalen Washington