With a team that returns nearly every significant contributor from last season, Ohio State is positioned to make a run at a postseason berth for the first time since 2009. They’ll start the season tonight in Port Charlotte, Fla., taking on George Mason in the Snowbird Classic. That will be followed by games against Saint Louis and Pittsburgh.
The Buckeyes got a chance to check out Port Charlotte Feb. 6-8 thanks to a rule that allows teams to travel one weekend for warm-weather practices. For a team that has been practicing on the indoor football field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility, it was a welcome chance to get some experience on an actual baseball field.
“The past two months I’ve been throwing in little cages,” senior pitcher Ryan Riga said. “To be able to get out on a mound and see backstops, see everything and how wide open it is, it’s huge for us and for the hitters, too.”
Ohio State head coach Greg Beals, now in his fifth season at the helm, was pleased with what he saw during that trip.
“We had a great weekend of practice,” he said. “Two days with fabulous weather. We were able to get two nine-inning scrimmages in, so essentially we played four games with our own guys out on the field. When we came back and broke things down and watched some video and looked at the charts, our pitchers threw a bunch of strikes. Our hitters had really quality at-bats. We played a really clean game of baseball.”
From Youth To Veterans
Last year’s team that finished with a 30-28 record had just three seniors (although junior first baseman Josh Dezse left to pursue a professional career and freshman pitcher Zach Farmer is recovering from acute myeloid leukemia), leaving the core of last year’s team intact. That is especially true at the plate, where all 10 players expected to see the majority of the time at the eight field positions and DH started at least 25 games in 2014.
The Buckeyes hit .267 as a team last year, but Beals expects the offense to improve now that better players have cycled into the program and are continuing to gain experience. He pinned the offensive troubles of past years on the fact that he and his assistants focused on rebuilding the pitching staff when they first arrived in Columbus.
“We are going to be a much, much improved ball club offensively,” Beals said. “We’re going to hit for more power, we’re going to be able to steal more bases, we’re going to be a more dynamic offensive team. That’s the one thing that’s been missing as myself and my coaching staff have gotten entrenched here. We spent a lot of time recruiting pitching and taking care of the mound, getting ourselves established as the new coaching staff. You’re going to see the offense catch up to the pitching now, and I think that’s an evolution in the program.”
Any look into the offense should start with sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson, who led the Buckeyes in batting average (.337) and on-base percentage (.396) as a true freshman in 2014. He also showed some power with 10 doubles and four home runs.
The Grove City, Ohio, native was selected as a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American but wants to build on that performance in his second season.
“I had a good freshman season, but I don’t really look at that. I still want more,” Dawson said. “Everyone says, ‘Ronnie, you had such a good freshman season.’ But I forget about that. I want more. I want bigger and better things. It’s a good thing to have, but I keep working each and every day to improve.”
He’ll be joined in the outfield by sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery and senior right fielder Pat Porter to make up what should be one of the Big Ten’s best outfields. They’ll also have help from a pair of talented true freshmen, the speedy Tre’ Gantt and Mansfield (Ohio) Clearfork product Ridge Winand.
“Our outfield crew is very competitive,” Porter said. “(Gantt and Winand) can come in and play at any time. There’s a lot of speed in the outfield. If one of us go down, they’re ready to go back us up.”
Catching duties will be split between seniors Aaron Gretz and Connor Sabonosh, and Beals indicated that the one who won’t be catching on any given day would likely be filling the designated hitter spot of the lineup.
At first base, Ohio State will go with either junior Zach Ratcliff or junior Jacob Bosiokovic to replace Dezse. They’ll be joined in the infield by junior second baseman Nick Sergakis, junior shortstop Craig Nennig and junior third baseman Troy Kuhn.
Given how similar the lineup will look to last year’s, Beals is expecting to see a better team that won’t beat itself in little ways the way the 2014 squad was prone to do.
“We went through growing pains last year,” he said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity in different ways. We’ve definitely grown from that. We’ve grown from experiences on and off the field as a team, and this year’s team is going to reap the benefits of some of those growing pains last year.”
On The Mound
Ohio State’s starting rotation for weekend series has been set. Sophomore Tanner Tully, who joined Dawson as a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in 2014, will get the ball to start each series on Friday. He’ll be followed by sophomore Travis Lakins on Saturdays and Riga on Sundays.
Each pitcher will have a corresponding middle reliever ready to take the ball from them. The left-handed Tully will be followed by junior righty Jake Post, Lakins will be spelled by junior southpaw John Havird and the left-handed Riga will yield to redshirt freshman righty Adam Niemeyer.
Trace Dempsey will once again handle closing duties, and Beals expects a bounce-back year from the senior after an inconsistent performance in 2014 that may have been caused by expectations following a stellar sophomore campaign.
“He had a really good summer,” Beals said. “It’s all about Trace staying within himself. I think he got excited about his future after college last year and maybe tried to do a little too much. We’ve done a lot of work this year with everybody on the team on their identity. I think great competitors are very self-aware. So we’ve been working on that. I think that will help our guys stay within themselves and not try to do too much.”
New Year, New Ball
The Buckeyes will have to adjust to the new ball used by the NCAA, which is still made by Rawlings but has lower seams like the balls used in professional baseball. The move was made to combat the dreadful offensive numbers that have become commonplace since the institution of BBCOR bats.
“It’s going to play for the hitter, but it’s only going to play on the ball that’s hit well,” Beals said. “The new ball is designed to fly further. The harder you hit it, the further it’s going to fly. It’s supposed to fly at like a 10 percent clip further. That can really play out when you hit the ball well.
“Our pitchers have adapted really well to it. In theory you should have some concerns with the low seams being able to tighten up the spin on a breaking ball, but our guys haven’t had much concern with that. They’ve adapted well to it.”
In a bit of a departure from normal scheduling practices, the Snowbird Classic will be the only neutral-site tournament the Buckeyes play this season. Last year’s slate featured three such tournament, but OSU will follow its Port Charlotte appearance with three true road series – at Florida Atlantic, at UAB and at Western Kentucky.
Beals said playing more series gives players and coaches a chance to experience the format of conference play, adjusting to the same roster over three days instead of facing a new team each day. Additionally, true road games are more impactful in the Ratings Percentage Index, which is a critical component in the NCAA Tournament at-large selection decisions.
“We’re always looking for the right combination to tweak the RPI,” Beals said. “That’s the ever-critical computer-generated number that the NCAA uses for postseason play. When you play road games, you get 1.33 victories for a road win. So we feel like if we can go down and win a series on the road, it’s actually going to count for 2.66 wins while only winning two out of three. Road wins have great value to them, so we’re trying to tweak that RPI system a little bit.”
The Buckeyes will visit Big Ten newcomer Rutgers on March 27-29 to end an 11-game homestand that begins with the home opener March 10 vs. IPFW. The last two series of the year could help decide the conference. The Buckeyes face preseason favorite Maryland at home in the penultimate series before traveling to face two-time defending champion Indiana in Bloomington to close out the regular season.