Fresh off seeing the goods for the first time, some thoughts about a weekend with the baseball Buckeyes in the desert, “seeing a very big elephant”, and how they fared.
I had barely picked up my bags at the Dayton airport Sunday when I got the news on my phone that the baseball Buckeyes had, indeed, dropped the final game in their weekend four-game series with Utah and Oregon State. I was in the air while the game was being played, and it came as no surprise.
The Buckeyes were in Arizona to play in the mini-tournament hosted by Oregon State, called the PAC 12-Big Ten Challenge, and there were no more accurate words to describe it than that. It WAS a challenge. The old military veterans of the Civil War, and World War I, famously called being shot at for the first time, “seeing the elephant”.
Despite having a weekend before under their belts in Florida, my impression first-hand was that both Utah and Oregon were several weeks ahead of OSU, because baseball is a game that has to assimilate on all points before you really compete. Utah, by the way, won the PAC 12 tournament last spring; and Oregon State came in this weekend rated #5 in the country. The Buckeyes were trying to plug in for a dozen seniors and six players lost to the MLB draft from last year: and except for three days in Florida a week ago, came in from the inside confines of the hitting and pitching cages of Bill Davis Stadium.
But my impressions (and that’s all they are) are this, having watched them play for 27 innings against VERY GOOD competition:
1) They’re going to be fine, very competitive, if they stay healthy, and on track. I’m talking about with the eight position players now, because pitching is always the unknown, relative to health and experience.
The outfield of Tyler Cowles, Tre Gantt and Shea Murray made plays. Gantt made some “spectacular” plays. And Murray, a converted pitcher, simply needs time for the position to become accommodating to his lack of outfield experience.
The infield of Bo Coolen (first base), Noah McGowan (second), Jalen Washington (shortstop), and Brady Cherry (third) will be a work in progress for another month. Collectively, they made some errors playing on a natural surface, hard and fast, but the worst (in my view) were of the throwing variety. That will come. Overall range may be an issue, but even that is made better by experience and knowledge of pitchers, pitch selection, and positioning.
Catching looks good with Jacob Barnwell behind the plate. I’ve always liked the way he receives the ball, his arm is an upgrade, and at the plate he hit two of the hardest-hit balls of the weekend.
2) Offensively, Greg Beals shared three weeks ago that the goal is to score runs through the collective contribution of all nine guys in the lineup – and I believe that. I also actually believe that despite the absence of a home run threat like Ronnie Dawson (#2 round draft by the Houston Astros), this team has more potential per at bat than last year.
Jalen Washington looks refreshed at the plate, and made good contact throughout the weekend. Hitting is what was expected of JC transfer McGowan. Brady Cherry continues to be a work in progress, but lashed a game-breaking homer in Saturday’s lone win for the weekend over Oregon State. Bo Coolen has a very patterned left-hand swing…and DH Zach Ratcliff absolutely looks rejuvenated from what he showed as a sophomore and junior, and missing time with injury. Ratcliff had good at bats and made hard contact.
Among the outfielders Tre Gantt sparkled with his impact as a leadoff hitter. He hit the ball hard, he worked counts, and he sprayed the ball. He saw 90-plus fastballs from the Utah and Oregon pitchers, and he put those fastballs in play. Likewise, Murray, whose swing looks more necessitative than natural, found the baseball often enough to show that as he makes more contact it’s going to be impressive. Cowles and Barnwell, as we mentioned, were fine, owing only to the fact that baseball impressions should not be made (good or bad) in short sample sizes. Give it time.
3) Defensively, there were points of concern. If your pitching is struggling to find its groove, the last thing you need behind it is errors that make that groove deeper. And in both losses to Utah that I observed early errors made the job tougher for starters Adam Niemeyer and Ryan Feltner. But that was also an early concern a year ago, and by the start of the Big Ten schedule and the certainty of playing on a consistent field turf surface at Bill Davis, the problem suddenly went away. It’s important to note that this is not EA Sports baseball. Time and repetition is priceless to the process.
4) They’re going to have to have consistent starting pitching. But no one needs to hear that from a writer – Greg Beals and Mike Stafford already know that the season hinges upon the abilities of Adam Niemeyer, Ryan Feltner, Yianni Pavlopoulus, and/or Jake Post to show the consistency of a Tanner Tully and John Havird (from 2016). All four have the requisite pitches, but I’m not sure a couple of starts is enough for confidence and consistency in execution of those pitches to become manifest.
The bullpen (I was convinced before the trip) is going to be fine. Kinker and Michalik are just tough to get good swings at, and the young arms that pitched in between showed a lot of competitive promise.
But the college season is only 50 games long. You don’t have the number of games like the major leagues do to let starting pitching issues take care of themselves. Someone is going to have to emerge, and emerge quickly to set things in order. Otherwise, the bullpen is going to be arm-weary by tax day, in April.
What I saw over the weekend was not walks, but too many mistakes made in the strike zone. 90 miles per hour is not intimidating anymore. It’s “hitting speed” in modern baseball. So you CANNOT get ahead two strikes and pour one right down the middle and expect hitters to swing and miss. Now…they swing and drive that “mistake” pitch 400 feet. You have to throw the breaking pitch with more confidence, and early in the count. Hitters don’t want to swing at that, and if you can get ahead with the breaking ball, you can get them out by expanding the strike zone. YOU DON’T HAVE TO THROW A STRIKE! Baseball has been that way for a hundred years!
In conclusion, a 3-5 start won’t get you noticed, but there’s no reason to wring your hands, either. They got shut down in Sunday’s finale, 5-1, by a very good Oregon State team with very good pitching. The Buckeyes only had two hits. Their only run came in the eighth inning on the first career home run by no other than…Tre’ Gantt. That fact didn’t surprise me at all.
And they’re back at it this weekend against another good program, this time a good mid-major group from Campbell University on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. With two weeks under their belts, I would expect better results, individually and collectively. And the following week they’ll be back in Florida to play Florida Gulf Coast, and a couple of Ivy League schools, Lehigh and Bucknell. That’s all that will stand between them and the home opener on March 17, with Xavier. The Big Ten schedule starts the following week, at Bill Davis, with Minnesota.
So yes, the clock’s ticking, but it’s ticking on everyone. That same Minnesota team won three straight over the weekend against Seattle (University, not the Mariners). Not exactly Utah, or Oregon State. All things are relative with baseball.