A year ago their 96 errors led the Big Ten. This year a 30% improvement in defense has given opponents fewer opportunities to score and the Buckeyes their second straight NCAA tourney appearance.
Columbus – The play by Ohio State left fielder Brady Cherry can’t be found anywhere in the box score, it didn’t bring spectators to their feet and it received only scant comment on the Big Ten Network’s broadcast.
With two out in the top of the third inning in the conference tournament championship game, Nebraska’s Mojo Hagge smacked a line drive down the left field line and was smelling double out of the batter’s box.
As Hagge hit the first base bag in a full sprint, he stopped approximately 10 feet beyond the bag as if entering a school zone after dismissal and settled for a single.
That’s because Cherry gloved the ball after running full-bore, crowed-hopped and threw a one-hop dart to second baseman Matt Carpenter.
Pitcher Griffan Smith proceeded to get the third out on a fly ball.
“It helps that Cherry has an absolute cannon out there,’’ right fielder Dominic Canzone said.
Coach Greg Beals appreciated the play.
“In that championship game, 90 feet was a really big deal,’’ he said.
Ohio State (35-25) has reached the NCAA Tournament a third time in four seasons, and starters Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway and Griffan Smith and closer Andrew Magno should receive a lot of kind words from ESPN2 broadcasters during a first-round game against Vanderbilt (49-10) at 7 p.m. Friday in Nashville.
Second-seeded Indiana State (41-16) plays third-seeded McNeese (35-24) in the other first round game.
Canzone and Cherry also will earn high praise for being voted to the all-conference first and second teams, respectively, for their booming bats.
But the Buckeyes might not have even made it to the Big Ten Tournament, where they won the championship as a seventh seed, without making play after play on defense.
Remember the 2017 season when they had 94 errors and four players were charged with 11 or more?
This season, Ohio State ranked fourth defensively in the Big Ten with a .972 percentage. It has made 62 errors. Illinois (36), Northwestern (50) and Michigan (57) made fewer, but also played fewer games.
The gloves and mitts have gotten better as the games have meant more. Since the final game of the Iowa series on April 28, the defense has not made more than one error in a game and has had five games with zero errors.
The words “clean baseball’’ have been hitting their eardrums so long that’s it’s a lot like their mothers telling them to pick up their rooms.
“What it means to an overall team is incredible because errors are deflating,’’ Beals said. “Unearned runs are deflating to the belief feeling. The things that we have going now, your defense is so critical at that. Your defense can puncture the air right out of you.’’
The coaching staff keeps a tally on what it calls “free bases’’ such as passed balls, wild pitches, walks, not hitting the cutoff man, throwing to the wrong base and errors.
The free bases have been disappearing since the pitchers began throwing strikes and the fielders making plays.
“We keep free base stats per game, so you keep showing it to them,’’ Beals said. “You say, ‘Oh, there’s 12, we lose. There’s six, we win. Oh, there’s 11 we lose and there’s eight, we win.’ You reduce those and you give yourself a chance to win.’’
Catcher Dillon Dingler has thrown out almost 25 percent of base runners trying to steal (10 of 41). Canzone has six outfield assists, Cherry four and center fielder Ridge Winand two.
“We have a really nice defensive lineup out there,’’ Canzone said. “We’ve just got a lot of good defensive players.’’
There could have been chaos after shortstop Noah West was lost for the season after 19 games to a torn knee ligament.
On March 21 against Hawaii, Beals moved true freshman Zach Dezenzo from third base to shortstop and made another true freshman, Nick Erwin, the everyday third baseman off the bench.
Dezenzo has 13 errors playing all but one game and Erwin four playing in 39.
“We had a lot of young guys who just got battled tested, but I can’t talk enough about the young guys like how Nick Erwin played at third base making plays on defense and Zach Dezenzo just grinding day in and day out,’’ Canzone said. “He’s playing tremendous shortstop for us.’’
Kobie Foppe was the starting second baseman, but got into a deep hole at the plate and never came out of it. He is batting .153 after hitting .335 last season.
Junior Matt Carpenter became the everyday second baseman the first week of March in a four-game series against Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has helped the team turn most of its 40 double plays and has but six errors.
Then there’s 6-foot-5 junior first baseman Conner Pohl lowering his error total from 18 last season to six. It’s more than fewer errors in that he has been something of a backstop in catching high and low throws to save others from getting errors.
“We had three errors in the (Big Ten) tournament,’’ Beals said. “Dezenzo had two on backhands, and I’m not sure one of them was an error because I don’t know if he could have finished (Rob) Mezzenga (of Minnesota at first). I thought Nick Erwin was nails at third base. He made some really good plays. He made all the plays. I thought Conner Pohl made some critical plays.’’
Burhenn is a freshman, Lonsway a redshirt freshman and Smith a sophomore, and Beals said dependable defense has taken a lot of stress off them knowing they can pitch to contact.
“They know they don’t have to do it all by themselves. They don’t have to strike everyone out,’’ he said. “We want them to pitch to contact for strike one, which means it might get hit. You’ve got to throw strike two, which means it might get hit. You can’t strike a guy out until you get two strikes on him, so you have to risk contact. For guys to be willing to risk contact they have to know that there are outs that are going to be made out there. Our defense has shown a young pitching staff that they can trust them.’’
Cherry has come into his own after being a must-have prospect out of Pendleton, Indiana. His athletic play in the field has been a big part of the equation.
Beals pointed to a catch he made against Minnesota that other outfielders would have let drop.
“That’s a great example of where the team is at,’’ Beals said. “That’s a play to win play as opposed to, ‘I’m just going to play my position and keep the ball in front of me.’ It’s real easy to pull up on that ball and say, ‘I didn’t think I could catch it and I’m just going to give up the single.’ It takes (guts) to go get that ball.’’
Beals said he doesn’t know whether Ohio State would have been capable of getting out of some of the jams it faced in the Big Ten Tournament in mid-March. He said much of the team’s rise has to do with players not worrying about themselves and playing for their teammates.
“It’s like you unhitch the wagon off your back,’’ he said. “You just go out and be a Buckeye.’’
Canzone said the groundwork for this particular team began to be laid when he was a freshman in 2017. That team finished 22-34.
“We went through some serious growing pains, and to be where we are is just a dream come true,’’ he said. “You come to Ohio State wanting to play for a championship – it’s the ultimate goal when you come here – and this is what I dreamed about since I was a kid was just dog piling at the end in Omaha. Yes, that dream came true and all (winning the Big Ten Tournament), but we have a lot more work to do. We’re trying to get back there (to Omaha).’’