Fresh off their first Big Ten championship in a decade, Ohio State said goodbye to six major league draftees last spring…and say ‘hello’ to the new season and their would-be replacements.
Columbus – The only constant, they say about college baseball, is this. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s a game of attrition, through one means or another. Players either graduate, or if they’re lucky…they sign a professional contract. But whatever comes, you always move on to the next challenge.
You got that sense Saturday evening at the Ohio State’s annual “Meet The Team” banquet, sponsored by the Buckeye Diamond Club. Nearly 300 people turned out to hail the champions of last May who returned to be recognized – as well as meet their soon-to-be replacements for the upcoming season.
Gone are names like Ronnie Dawson (Houston Astros), Troy Montgomery (California Angels), Tanner Tully (Cleveland Indians), Jacob Bosiokovic (Colorado Rockies), Michael Horejsei (Chicago White Sox), and Nick Sergakis (New York Mets).
Others not drafted – Troy Kuhn, Craig Nennig, L Grant Davis, and John Havird, leave no less of a vacancy with an urgency to be filled.
So yes, that door closes as the proverbial door of opportunity opens for names like Zach Ratcliff (first base), Brady Cherry (third base), Tre’ Gantt (center field), Jacob Barnwell (catcher), Connor Curliss (starting pitcher), Adam Niemeyer (starting pitcher), Ryan Feltner (starting pitcher) and bullpen returners Kyle Michalik, Yianni Pavlopoulos, and Seth Kinker.
Throw an anticipated recruiting class in there, with good young arms, and a couple of heralded JC transfers from out of state, and coach Greg Beals is honest when he said in his assessment, “We’re talented, we’ve got to pitch, and we’ll depend on nine guys (not a couple) to score more runs than the other team.”
After winning their first Big Ten tournament title in a decade the Buckeyes did bid goodbye to one of its most impactful groups in years, a team that came together in such a timely fashion as to accomplish things that no one predicted prior to last season. Good, yes. But that good?
“That’s over now,” said Beals to the assembled group of former players, alumni, parents and program supporters. “This is another year, another group, and another challenge. “We’re excited about the talent we have on hand, we just have to see how it fits together.”
One thing’s certain, the door that closed last June took a lot of offensive firepower with it. Ronnie Dawson, who hit .500 in the Big Ten tournament, Bosiokovic, and Sergakis, combined to help the Buckeyes lead the conference in home runs. And Montgomery, Kuhn, and Craig Nennig did their part, respectively, to set the table. What new faces could possibly replace that kind of impact?
“I’m not sure we have a Ronnie Dawson on this team,” said Beals, starting his seventh season as coach. “But it is a very talented group, and it’s not as young a group as you might think. We went out and got some junior college players because we wanted a little more readiness to play at this level…and we wanted to have balance in our classes. If we had too many freshmen out there then we’d have a lopsided wheel rolling for the next four years.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about this year, but we’re unproven. We have to pitch, and I like our pitching. We’ve pitched the ball well inside, and the quality of our at bats against our pitching has been really good. We’ve got to shore up our infield defense because we lost our entire infield. So you assume nothing. We’re into program developing with a new talented group and it’s exciting to go out and learn to execute the way we did down the stretch last year.”
One name whispered about the room relative to potential offensive impact…is JC transfer Noah McGowan, from Houston, Texas, out of McLennan Community College. But others are expected to increase in production with expanded playing time, expanded role, and experience.
“Noah McGowan will play second base and he can really swing the bat,” says Beals. “But we’ve got other guys who are very capable.
“Brady Cherry is going to grow. Tre’ Gantt should make a significant move offensively, besides being solid in center field. I really think Jalen Washington’s numbers are going to change this year as we move him from behind the plate and put him at his natural shortstop position. That’s going to freshen up his legs, freshen up his mind, and help him become more offensive. We don’t plan on any one player replacing Ronnie Dawson’s numbers, we’ll depend on a group of nine to score more runs than the other team.”
Pitching, of course, is key, with starting positions being weighed at this point between sophomores Connor Curliss, Ryan Feltner, and redshirt junior Adam Niemeyer. Last year’s closer, Yianni Pavlopoulos, could figure into that picture, as well, and early outings in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina will at least determine some pecking order by the time the Big Ten Conference schedule opens in March.
Feltner made a splash as a freshman last year, got better over the summer, and is solid in his anticipated impact.
Niemeyer, who’s been brilliant at times, has been selected as a captain this year, knowing he must overcome issues with leg injuries (hamstring) to be a consistent contributor.
“The legs feel good,” he says. “I’ve been staying on top of that since last year. My number one goal this year is to stay healthy, and if I can do that everything else will fall into place. I’m really excited to get started, get to Florida have some warm weather, and just go out with some good starts and give us a chance to win games.”
The bullpen, so dominant and so important to last year’s success, will miss Horejsei, but is expected to be solid with the return of Pavlopolous, and fellow juniors Kyle Michalik and Seth Kinker, a pair of side-armers that gave hitters fits in last spring’s conference tournament.
“Those (tournament) innings meant a lot to me,” assures Michalik (from Brunswick, Ohio). “They were situations I’d never been thrown into before, but the coaching staff had prepared me and it was an incredible feeling to go and produce for my team. There was no time to think about being tired or scared. The only thing you can do is try to compete and play to the best of your ability. It was an incredible experience for me.”
Kinker, who features a heavy sinker, has the rare and innate ability to simply throw nasty strikes.
“Our bullpen has been unique. I think we bring a lot of life to the team, we have a lot of funny characters. But when it comes down to business we’re there to answer the bell. That’s what Coach asks us to do and that’s what (pitching coach) Mike Stafford prepares us to do. When our number is called our mindset is just to step up and do it. That’s what we’ve been taught and that’s what makes us successful.”
There are new names – McGowan, Dominic Canzone (OF), Bo Coolen (OF), Dustin Jordan (P), Reece Calvert (P), and Gavin Lyon (P). But a pair of familiar names will go a long way in determining the Buckeyes’ start, the fit of the pieces, and ultimately whether this 2017 team can come close to accomplishing what Dawson, Sergakis, Tully, and Montgomery did a year ago.
“It was nice to play with and learn from Ronnie and Troy Montgomery last year,” says Tre’ Gantt.
Gantt, a junior from Fisher, Indiana, will make the shift from right field to center and can go get the ball with the best of college outfielders. He made the outstanding play of the tournament against Michigan State during last spring’s Big Ten championship weekend (below).
“I played center my whole time in high school,” he adds. “It’s actually my natural position and I feel very comfortable to be back in center field.”
And finally, Co-Captain Jalen Washington, so much the inspirational leader last year with his willingness to give up his natural position and go behind home plate, gets to move out front this year and prove that last year’s success can be imitated, if not emulated. He’s excited to get started, and sees potential in the new faces playing in some very familiar positions.
“Offensively, Noah McGowan is a guy that can really swing the bat and hit the ball hard to all parts of the ballpark. He’s kind of like Ronnie in that way.”
And his move back to shortstop?
“It really feels good,” he smiles. “It’s taken a couple of weeks but I’m really starting to get my feet under me and I like to make the plays at short. I’ll miss catching, but they need me at a different position right now. I’m ready to excel at shortstop this year.”
They’ll begin with an outdoor weekend to acclimate in Florida next week, and then the new moves and new faces come together for real the following weekend, February 17-19, opening the season against Kansas State, Delaware, and Pittsburgh, in Osceola, Florida. Press Pros will be there to give, as they say, a full report.
One door has closed. Another is about to open.