Rarely in our years of covering Big Ten and Ohio State baseball have I seen more enthusiasm…based on pure talent. But the reality of 2019 boils down to one irrefutable fact. How long will it take their young pitching to grow to the task?
At last weekend’s yearly ‘Meet The Team’ banquet someone asked. “Will you be writing a prediction column for the 2019 season? I’d like to see it.”
And he mentioned a page published last year prior to their Port Charlotte opening weekend against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Canisus, in which Greg Hoard and I surmised that the Buckeyes’ season hinged upon them getting off to a fast start. And if you go back through the archives to read we deduced that through the first four travel weekends to Florida and Arizona…the Buckeyes needed to win 12 of their first 17 games against the likes of beatable opponents from the cold, like Milwaukee and Canisius – and then Nicholls State, High Point, and UNC-Wilmington – to get off to a confident start.
We were close. They went 11-6.
That start was like a shot of ‘believe in yourself’, particularly at the plate where the Buckeyes balanced their pitching inconsistencies with a .310 team batting average over the first twenty games. They outscored people, averaging better than 8.5 runs per game while the pitching and a suspect defense tried to catch up. They eventually did reach a happy medium, amassing a 36-24 record, a Big Ten Tourney berth, and a regional appearance in the NCAA tournament.
That was then, and this is now.
Then, Tyler Cowles hit .322 with 49 RBIs, and Noah McGowan hit .351 with 9 home runs and 55 RBIs. They’re both gone, graduated.
The pitching then was planned around three veteran starters, Ryan Feltner (5-5, 4.52 ERA), Connor Curlis (7-4, 3.55 ERA), and Adam Niemeyer (4-3, 6.24 ERA). And the bullpen was anchored by the remarkable presence of All-American Seth Kinker, who led the staff in wins with a 7-2 mark over 63.1 innings (2.27 ERA). Not the 1971 Orioles that had four twenty-game winners, but still, a known quantity. But…they’re gone now, too.
So, as the Buckeyes wrapped up three days of Florida workouts late Sunday afternoon we’re willing to say this about the youthful reality of the 2019 edition.
They’re still going to hit in 2019. YOU KNOW they’re going to hit – a lineup anchored by junior first baseman Conner Pohl (.279 and 49 RBIs), junior right fielder Dom Canzone (.333, 35 RBIs), senior second baseman Kobie Foppe (.335, 29 RBIs) and a healthy sophomore Dillon Dingler behind the plate, who hit .244 with four home runs last year…but portends much more offensive production with a year’s experience. He’s one of the Big Ten’s best athletes at any position.
But how will they pitch? The projected weekend starters (at least one version) consists of sophomore Seth Lonsway, who’s yet to throw a varsity pitch, freshman Garrett Burhenn, who’s yet to throw a varsity pitch, and sophomore Griffan Smith, who did pitch in 2018 (2-2, 5.34 ERA), but felt his way through his 32 innings as a combined starter/reliever.
Behind those three…another talented junior arm in Jake Vance (3-2, 4.25 ERA in 35 innings), and more talented freshman arms (TJ Brock, Will Pfennig, Bayden Root, Mitch Milheim, Cole Niekamp, et. al.) and some hoped-for ascension from returners like Andrew Magno, Jonathan Jahn, and Thomas Waning. Another junior transfer, Joe Gahm, looms as a swing candidate, able to start or relieve. And senior Brady Cherry, with one of the best arms now in the outfield, was a fall project to come in to the mound and throw rockets as a reliever. That seemed to work and looms as another option.
“There’s no question…our season hinges on our ability to pitch,” Greg Beals told me in December. “And I really liked what I saw from some talented arms in fall baseball – arms that we brought in because we believed they could help us soon. They have to throw strikes and we expect them to compete. That’s why they’re here.”
It can happen, and like the old Ray Miland baseball movie, It Happens Every Spring, it DOES happen for someone every spring. Last year it was Minnesota, whose talented freshman class pitched them all the way to a Big Ten regular season and post-season tournament title, and an impressive showing in the NCAA west regional tournament.
“You’d like to have more experience (on the mound),” added Beals in December. “They have to throw strikes, throw good strikes, and pitch aggressively. They have to execute.”
And that’s what they saw from Lonsway, Burhenn, Griffan Smith, and some other candidates since the end of October.
“Griffan Smith and Baydon Root have had very good off-seasons,” said Beals recently. “And overall, we’re excited to get started because of the talent I see. This may be the best talent we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
I agree, including other freshmen like Zach Dezenzo (third base), Nolan Clegg (outfielder), Alec Taylor (outfielder) and Marcus Ernst (infielder). But they haven’t played, and there is that moment of recognition that comes with Division I baseball where you realize that everyone on the opposing team is at least as good as you, and maybe better. So, they’ll have to execute – they’ll have to compete – if they want to win.
But IT IS ABOUT PITCHING…because they’ll score enough runs, and there’s no way they finish last in Big Ten fielding, again.
Lonsway was a 19th round major league choice in the 2017 draft, so talent is not a question with him.
Smith has edged his velocity up near 90, while his breaking pitch and overall command were one of the talking points of fall ball. Some good early outings, and confidence, will do wonders.
Burhenn showed velocity, command, and emotional maturity in fall baseball that pushed him to the head of the incoming pitching class. Now, he has to do it against Seton Hall next week, a respected Big East team that hit .275 last year and pounded out 136 extra base hits in just 51 games, while walking 218 times. How well Burhenn handles early adversity will be key, because there’ll be some.
To that eventuality, everyone would like to see Jake Vance combine his personality with consistent mound ‘mojo’, because he’s strong on the former – as they wait for the latter.
“It’s time,” says Beals. “Jake has matured and he knows how to get guys out. And he’ll be a starter in each of the first four weekends when we play that extra fourth game.”
D1 baseball has picked the Buckeyes to finish as high as fourth in the Big Ten. That’s plausible, because they’re hedging on the offense – Pohl, Foppe, Canzone, and Dingler to win at least ten games on sheer run production.
And, the truth is that much of the Big Ten (outside of presumptive favorites Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan) will be feeling their way through the first 30 games because of their own issues with youth and inexperience.
But here’s four facts from the pages of Press Pros: 1) Noah West will give them stability at short, and you can’t win at this level if you’re not good at that position. 2) Malik Jones has to anchor center field defensively, and at least contribute offensively by getting on base. Beals calls his potential “pesky”. 3) Lonsway has to prove that he’s a dependable Friday starter, a foundation to build upon. And 4) Dillon Dingler will probably hit 40 points higher, provide power, and emerge as one of the league’s premier talents. He’s that good – one of the best catch-and-throw men as a sophomore in the Big Ten.
Beyond opening weekends – more travel dates in the sun against the likes of BYU, Texas A&M (Corpus Christi), Bethune Cookman, Furman, Western Carolina, and Wofford. Can they go 11-6? The cumulative record of their first 17 opponents (in 2018) was about fifteen games over .500, and talent, plus confidence, can render some wonderful early results against people who want to do to you what you want to do to them.
So yeah, I can see them winning 9 of their first 16; and I can see them learning, and learning fast…because they are talented. By season’s end I can see them winning 30. But they gotta’ pitch, and an improved defense has to support those young pitchers. Beyond that they have to stay healthy for the next forty games, like everyone else.
“And,” Beals adds, “I know there was some bad taste in our mouths after losing in the regional last year. We felt we could have gone farther.” So they do have something to prove.
Want something more concrete? Read again next year, when there’s something more concrete to write.
Like Ray Miland, it (baseball) happens ever spring.