Pitching Crew Has Made Up For Loss Of Wimmers

Losing All-American and No. 1 starter Alex Wimmers should have spelled doom for the Ohio State baseball pitching staff, but the Buckeye hurlers have stepped up since the ace's hamstring injury. Six pitchers have combined to keep opposing teams at bay, helping the Buckeyes actually lower the team ERA since Wimmers went down.

A funny thing has happened since Ohio State ace pitcher and probable first-round MLB draft pick Alex Wimmers injured his hamstring two weeks ago.

Going into a three-game series this weekend at Iowa, the Buckeyes' team ERA has actually gone down since Wimmers got hurt.

As hard as it is to believe – especially given OSU's record of 3-6 since the injury – the Buckeyes have become a better pitching team in the absence of the All-American, a nod to the gutty performances turned in by a corps of six pitchers who have thrown 76.2 of the 80 innings in the nine games since Wimmers hit the college version of the disabled list.

"Part of what's happened is they got to pitch sparingly early in the season and now when Wimmers went down … we just made the comment somebody was going to step up, and we did," head coach Bob Todd said.

Drew Rucinski has led the way, taking Wimmers spot as the top starter in Big Ten series and turning in two workmanlike performances. The trio of Theron Minium, Brett McKinney and Dean Wolosiansky has worked starting and relief roles both midweek and on weekends, while relievers Jared Strayer and Eric Best have been absolutely lights out.

That sextet has been stressed to the max but delivered when asked. While the Buckeyes' pitchers other than Wimmers posted a combined ERA of 6.05 before the ace righthander went down, the team mark is a solid 4.39 in his absence, a performance good enough to win had the team's offense not gone through a prolific slump at the same time.

"Those guys have been battling through, trying to pick up the slack the last couple of weeks with Alex out," pitching coach Eric Parker said. "They're just taking the ball and trying to help this team win."

All but Rucinski – who is battling a blister on his pitching hand – have been tasked with throwing at least twice a week, sometimes more as needed.

That's a phenomenon the Buckeyes haven't had to face much before last year. In many years past, even with four-game weekend series on the docket, the team would keep most of its weekend, Big Ten starters from throwing during the week, preferring to give the ball during those nonconference games to younger pitchers who need work while trying to prove themselves against lesser foes.

Given the team's thin pitching roster, that hasn't been true the past two years, especially this year after Wimmers' injury cropped up. However, that development is OK with Todd.

"They would probably be getting bullpens anyway," he said. "Personally, I like for pitchers to pitch competitively. I think it makes them better than to throw a bullpen. As long as their arm can handle it, I can see no reason not to."

That's fine for a pitcher like Strayer, who has adapted a new sidearm delivery this season.

"Believe it or not, I feel like it's easier (to come back) when you throw from the side," he said after getting the win Wednesday night against Ball State. "I feel like your arm bounces back quicker – at least that's how mine responds. I'll probably be ready to throw tomorrow even though we don't have a game."

That's fine for Ohio State, as the junior righthander has been one of the best and most dependable pitchers on the team since the Wimmers injury, going five standout innings in each of his last two appearances. His total mark in the timeframe is 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings over five appearances.

"When I get the ball, I just have to be ready to go," he said. "If I can go out there and throw five innings or three innings, whatever it takes to help everybody out on the pitching staff, that's what I'm trying to do."

The other Buckeye to pitch exclusively in a relief role, senior southpaw Eric Best, has been just as good, earning three saves over six games while going 9.1 scoreless innings.

The part-time starters/relievers have fared slightly worse but have had their bright spots. Now two years removed from arm surgery, Minium has regained his form from the port side, posting a 5.35 ERA over five appearances and earning the win Sunday as the Buckeyes snapped a five-game losing streak against Illinois.

Freshman Brett McKinney has struggled, earning a 9.89 ERA in four games, but he did keep No. 10 Louisville to one run over three innings May 5 as the Buckeyes tried to rally from an early deficit. The first-year player has also admitted that reverting between starting and relieving has been tough.

"Starting, in the first couple of innings, you can get into a rhythm and as the game goes on you can start figuring out how hitters are," he said. "But relieving, you're usually in the second or third time through the lineup so they're set on hitting, they're more focused in, so you have to come out with your best stuff early. It's different. It's kind of mentally straining but it's nothing I haven't done before."

Wolosiansky and Rucinski have been the only pitchers to throw exclusively in starting roles, but Wolosiansky did make a midweek start vs. the Cardinals. Still, the two have been solid, with Wolosiansky – who also pitched midweek last year – posting a 4.80 ERA over three starts and Rucinski at 4.21 in 17.2 innings in two appearances.

"Drew throughout his career has always been, ‘I'll do what you need me to do,'" Parker said of the converted reliever. "He's always been willing for the team. Every week he's just going out there and battling."

The key, Parker said, for those asked to move into different, more taxing roles is to know whether they can do physically handle it.

"It's about communication, knowing, ‘All right, how do you feel today?'" he said. "That's an adjustment a lot of young guys have, is realizing when you're just a little tired and sore or, ‘Hey, I'm done.' A lot of the older guys have built on those experiences and really understand their arms and their bodies and have been handling that very well, and that also carries over with the younger guys and letting them know the different ways of how to maintain themselves throughout the year."

While the staff tries to keep an eye on how much work the pitchers are getting in, the hurlers are doing their part as well. Despite the delicate nature of pitchers' arms, they always want the ball no matter the situation and have the confidence to get out of jams.

"If they ask me how I'm feeling, I'm not going to say I can't throw," McKinney said. "I'm going to tell them I want to throw. That's just how we are."

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