Comeback Kid DeLucia Leads Buckeye Baseball

As Ohio gets whacked by yet another winter storm, the Buckeye baseball team is in a sunnier state. Ohio State's 125th season of baseball begins today, and the Buckeyes expect one of their leaders, Dan DeLucia, to be on the mound. The Columbus native has rushed back from Tommy John surgery for his senior year, and his teammates have certainly noticed the time he's put in.

It's been a long road back, but for one member of the Ohio State baseball team, the start of the season makes it all worth it.

We speak, of course, of head coach Bob Todd, who had both knees replaced after fall practice. Though he still feels pain, Todd will be ready when OSU opens play today at 2 p.m. in the Service Academies Classic in Millington, Tenn., against Arkansas State.

Oh, and then there's Dan DeLucia, the first-team All-Big Ten selection whose furious comeback from Tommy John surgery will see him get the ball as a starting pitcher today against ASU just 10 months after he went under the knife.

Yes, it's a year of comebacks for the Buckeye nine, who also hope to better a pedestrian 15-15 Big Ten campaign to be contenders for their first regular-season title since 2001. Even though Ohio State turned it around to win the postseason tournament championship last year and appear in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in seven years, there aren't a whole lot of great, lingering memories from the campaign.

"I'm not going to put names out there, but a lot of people had things that they were ready to move on with, whether it be grad school, law school, jobs that they already had," DeLucia said. "Guys didn't have a feeling either way whether the season was over or not."

If anyone wants to feel that way again this year, they should be able to take just one look at DeLucia and push those feelings aside. The 6-4, 220-pound lefthander from Columbus Bishop Watterson figured he'd be in professional baseball right now like last year's teammates Matt Angle, Cory Luebke and Eric Fryer.

Instead, fate was the one throwing the senior a curveball last season. After just 17.0 innings – during which he had a 3.18 ERA and went 2-0 – he was shut down because of elbow problems. Finally, he visited renowned surgeon and arm specialist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., and Andrews gave him two choices: continue pitching with a troubled arm or go under the knife for Tommy John surgery, which replaces the ulnar collateral ligament in the arm.

DeLucia took the latter option, having the surgery in early April. He spent the rest of the campaign working essentially as a coach, throwing batting practice with his right arm and discussing the finer points of the game with Luebke on the top step of the dugout, as a broadcaster on WOSU-AM, and rehabbing, starting with Therabands and leg exercises and working his way back into pitching.

"I guess I did the rehab five times a week instead of three," he said. "I just did everything I could pretty much to get back to this point because having the surgery in April and knowing it's a 10 to 12 month surgery, it's going to be tough to come back and be ready for the season."

DeLucia worked so quickly, in fact, that Andrews made him repeat some steps in the rehab program. Nonetheless, he started facing live hitters when OSU opened practice and will be ready to start on Opening Day for the second year in a row, though he will be on a 65-pitch count.

"He comes to practice every day ready to give you 100 percent," Todd said. "We never have to chide him or talk to him about, ‘Did he get his running in? Did he lift his weights?' He's the one leading everybody else. He's truly a leader by example."

The work ethic displayed by DeLucia has gone a long way toward setting the tone for the team.

"I'm one of those guys that looks up to him," fellow captain Justin "Gus" Miller said. "What he did, that's phenomenal. A lot of guys don't even come back from that surgery, but he's coming back way ahead of schedule."

So far, everyone asked has said the team hasn't had the same problems that dogged it by the end of the .500 regular season slate last year.

"I see a lot better attitude this year," pitcher Jake Hale said. "We have a lot of team camaraderie – guys joking, having a good time all the time, messing around. You can see that guys are getting better everyday, working hard in the weight room.

"I don't think we could ask for a better team this year. We're going to open some eyes."

The best way to open some eyes would be a more consistent Big Ten campaign. Last year, Ohio State finished sixth, but the Buckeyes are forecasted to finish second in the conference. Targeted for first place? Last year's Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan, which is ranked eighth in the nation by Baseball America. The teams play May 2-4 in Ann Arbor.

The following is a position by position preview of OSU as it prepares to start the season.

Catcher: Ohio State will look some combination of Miller and freshman Dan Burkhart from Cincinnati Moeller to replace Fryer, a 10th-round pick of Milwaukee after he hit .322 with three homers and 50 RBI in 2007.

"That position is wide open," Todd said. "Those two are battling out to see who's going to win that position. All I can say is between what we've seen offensively, both of those guys are going to be in our lineup somehow."

Miller, a candidate for the Brooks Wallace Award as the nation's top player, started all 62 games last year and finished the year with a .346 average that jumped up to .417 in Big Ten play, a lone home run, 51 RBI and just 15 strikeouts. He can play catcher, first base and third base depending on how Todd wants to fill out the lineup card.

Burkhart had just one hit in 14 at bats during the fall Scarlet and Gray World Series, but the Queen City native hit .415 his senior year for Moeller.

First Base: Miller compiled his excellent stats last year when he was OSU's regular first baseman, though he and Fryer would switch spots when Fryer needed a day to rest the legs. This year, Miller said he is OK with whichever spot the coaches place him in the lineup each day.

"It's fine with me," the native of Dayton, Va., said. "It's tough but I just prepare myself to go out and play the game, so it's really not going to be that big of an issue."

Another name with a hat in the ring at first base is Ryan Meade. The Lewis Center, Ohio, native was a two-time first-team All-Ohio selection who hit .537 and had eight homers last year as a senior at Powell Olentangy.

Second Base: A year after hitting .289 with a .375 on-base percentage as a freshman, Cory Kovanda of Columbus will man the keystone for a second year in a row.

"He is just a steady, steady ballplayer," Todd said. "He's a good athlete, good hands. I'll tell you what, by the end of last year as a freshman, he was still one of those guys that with the winning run in scoring position, you want him in the batter's box."

The Worthington Kilbourne product hit .330 in Big Ten play and finished the season with 17 RBI.

Third Base: The heir apparent at third base is Brian DeLucia, the brother of standout pitcher Dan. Brian was a freshman last year who played in 17 games, starting nine, and finished with a .302 average and four RBI in 43 at bats.

"He's gotten a lot bigger, a lot stronger," Dan said. "He's matured a lot since last year, mentally and physically. This year he knows it's his position to lose and he knows the mental part as well as the physical part over at third base this year. We're looking for big things out of him."

Though he's played just first base and catcher at OSU, Miller took ground balls at third this fall and is comfortable enough to play in the position should he be needed.

Shortstop: Sophomore Cory Rupert had the shortstop job out of the gates last year but struggled mightily at the start before regaining the job by season's end. He started half of the team's 62 games and finished with a .257 average while making 12 errors in the field. But during the postseason, Rupert turned it on, hitting .417 in the NCAA tournament with his first career home run.

On his heels is Tyler Engle, a true freshman who hit .515 as a senior at Beverly (Ohio) Fort Frye.

"There's a real battle going on right now," Todd said. "Cory Rupert has shown more maturity. He's shown much more knowledge of how to play the game and he's starting to feel comfortable being put in a take-charge position. But Tyler Engle is a very talented baseball player. I'd hate to make any predictions but I do believe Tyler Engle is going to get some playing time this year also."

Outfield: Splitting the center field duties should be senior Tony Kennedy and junior J.B. Shuck. The latter choice can expect to be OSU's starter, except for when he finds himself on the mound as one of Ohio State's top three starting pitchers.

Shuck should get the call in the center of the park to replace Angle because of his speed and experience in the outfield. Last year, Shuck hit .342 with a home run, 37 RBI and just six strikeouts as Ohio State's starting left fielder.

That spot this year will belong to Kennedy, who came to Ohio State as a shortstop, moved to second base and then started last year at third base. He boasts plenty of speed – he's OSU's leading returning base-stealer with 15 swipes – and will move over to center when Shuck is on the hill.

Kennedy said he was approached about the move as soon as last season ended and, with some help from Angle and others, has become comfortable playing in the outfield.

"I don't have much experience in the outfield, but we need somebody out there obviously with Matt getting drafted last year," Kennedy said. "We need to fill some holes so we might as well use my speed out there."

Kennedy hit .322 last season with a homer and 30 RBI.

The right field spot belongs to Ryan Dew. He made 37 starts during his freshman campaign last season, hitting .269 with one homer and 18 RBI, and the Buckeyes hope his power numbers and consistency will increase after a year in the program.

Other players with experience include junior Michael Arp, who hit .233 with nine RBI in 2007, sophomore Zach Hurley, who batted .188 last year in 22 games, and senior Chris Macke, a converted infielder who has hit .338 in his career.

Starting Pitching: The Buckeyes are happy to have Dan DeLucia back, but no one knows just how the senior will pitch while coming back from his surgery. DeLucia had a 2.92 ERA in 2005 and a 3.25 mark in '06, but it often takes pitchers months to fully master their command after Tommy John surgery.

However, he has said his velocity, which used to top out around 88 miles per hour, is back up to 86 or 87 mph. In addition, he has improved his slider and changed the grip on his curveball, which he expects to include more in the repertoire as the arm strengthens.

It is all expected to start when he gets the ball this afternoon.

"It'll be interesting," he said. "I've talked with the coaches about it several times. The one thing that's going to be different is just seeing batters from another team for the first time in 10 months. I've only been throwing to batters live for like three weeks now. This should be an interesting test."

Returning to the rotation this year is Jake Hale, a junior righthander who spent his first year in the rotation before a move to the bullpen last season. The 20th-round draft pick of Toronto opted to return to school, where he finished 2007 with a 4-3 record, 4.25 ERA, 10 saves and 48 strikeouts in 65? innings. In addition, Hale started four times near the end of the season, allowing just nine earned runs in 29? innings, and OSU hopes to see him build on those numbers.

"If that's where they need me, then that's where I'll be," said Hale, who added that he prefers a starting role.

Shuck, a lefthander, is back for his third year as a starter after going 4-4 with a 4.88 ERA in 14 appearances in '07 to follow up on a freshman season in which he was 8-5 with a 2.51 ERA. However, his peripheral numbers each year were similar; he walked 33 batters each year, and his strikeout numbers – 57 in 2006, 59 last year – are close. The big difference? Ninety-two hits allowed last year as compared to 75 in 2006.

"I've been working really hard at building that stamina back up and hopefully I can get back to the control I had freshman year and make outs instead of those two-out hits that really hurt me last year," Shuck said.

Returning lefthanders Josh Barrera, Eric Best, Josh Edgin and Theron Minium, as well as righthander Rory Meister, all started games in 2008. One of those players – most likely Best or Edgin – will have to step up into the fourth starting spot, although another name in the running will be redshirt freshman Dean Wolosiansky, a 6-5 righthander from Uniontown, Ohio.

OSU also boasts three talented freshmen in Alex Wimmers of Cincinnati Moeller, Drew Rucinski of Tulsa, Okla., and Virginia native Andrew Armstrong, a 45th-round draft pick by Atlanta.

Relief Pitching: Meister figures to return to the closer spot he held in 2006, a year in which he was 0-1 with a 3.82 ERA and six saves after bursting onto the scene with a 8-2 record and 2.11 ERA in '05. However, last year he struggled to a 4-7 record and 5.00 ERA without a defined role.

"I think Rory is ready to do it again," Hale said of his presumed heir at closer. "I think he's ready to get back into the closer role, and I think his mentality is there to do it."

Whichever already mentioned arms don't make it as starters will figure to fall into place in the OSU bullpen. Of the returning players, Best had the best numbers of the group, finishing with a 3-1 record, 4.06 ERA, 33 strikeouts and no home runs allowed in 37? innings. Barrera, who had arm troubles, pitched in just eight games and had a 4-1 record with a 4.41 ERA.

Edgin, who tossed the most innings of the group at 43?, ended the campaign at 2-2 with a 6.18 ERA, while Minium was 1-2 with a 6.68 ERA.

Schedule Changes: For the first year in NCAA baseball, every team will start on the same date thanks to a recently implemented national starting date.

For years, OSU watched teams in the south and west start their seasons two to three weeks before the Buckeyes. All Ohio State could do was watch highly ranked teams pile up wins before the Buckeyes traveled to their homes to play them.

"I think when you take a look at the national polls, it's going to have an effect," Todd said. "I think there were times when what I would consider maybe mediocre teams that were from the warm weather climates that had a winning record starting getting votes to be in the top 20, and once you get in the rankings it's tough to knock them out."

In addition, southern and western schools were able to spread out their calendars, playing just three games per week once conference season began. Now, all teams will have to fit in midweek games to make up for the lost time, something OSU and other Big Ten schools have done for years.

"I've gotten a lot of phone calls from everybody around the country kind of asking how we play our schedule," Todd said. "You starting talking about how you have to develop more pitching and that your No. 4 and No. 5 starter is going to have to start and give you some quality innings, and they go, ‘We don't like that. We don't want to develop that fourth pitcher. We don't have the ability. We're going to lose some games because of that.'

"The teams that are 38 and 40-16, all of a sudden you're going to start seeing them being 34-24, and those records are going to be reflected in the RPI nationally."

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