If you’re wondering about baseball like the rest of Buckeye Nation wonders about football…you’re probably wondering how they might get off to a winning start against the toughest non-conference schedule in program history. Here’s some suggestions.
Eighty-four-year-old Don Motz writes twice a week, I think, because he’s that eager for February 16th to get here. He’s that interested in Ohio State baseball.
“I wish the games out West were on radio. Is there any chance of hearing the games?”
Answer: Only if you have really good ears.
But no…the good news, Don, is that the opening three games are scheduled to be broadcast by MLB network. Hopefully, that works for you.
More realistically, he adds:
“You writers are all alike. You blow a lot of smoke. How about writing about the three players who are the most important to having a good start?”
Answer: Now you’ve asked something that’s worthy of a Sunday column – something better than eight hours of Super Bowl ‘BS’. And you’re right. We do blow a lot of smoke. So, here’s my answer, and hopefully it doesn’t set off the alarm in your living room!
Henry Kaczmar…You could make the case for a number of reasons, but the best reason of all is to build confidence, team-wide, that Kaczmar’s success, and leadership, in 2023 was no fluke – that there’ll be no such thing as a sophomore jinx.
There’s no question in my mind that the Henry Kaczmar we saw in 2023 is the real deal…that he’ll come out this week and play with the same mindset that he did on opening night last year against UConn. That should be: If the ball is hit to me I’m going to catch it and throw it. If the ball is pitched to me I’m going to rely on my training and put a good swing on it.
The beauty of what we do as writers is the fact that no two people would necessarily give you the same answer. I’m sure Bill Mosiello would say: “Henry Kaczmar is a known quantity. We need another, different Henry Kaczmar to emerge in 2024.”
And that’s true. But not at the expense of Kaczmar not being the Kaczmar of 2023 – the leadership, the confidence, the enthusiasm to project himself into the game’s critical turns every day. And that won’t happen.
There’s also a reality about writing things that put undue pressure on an athlete, but this isn’t high school. This is college baseball at its highest level where players know the stakes, and Henry Kaczmar will accept the challenge. Confidence begats confidence, and I predict that as Henry goes in 2024 much of the rest of the team will follow, confidently!
Mitchell Okuley…Every program in the Big Ten needs a Mitchell Okuley, a player that the coach claims works harder than anyone else, is trustworthy beyond worry at night, and whose competitive character is so strong you can taste it when he walks by.
Needless to say, I’ve always been an Okuley fan because of the way he just goes about his work, during good times, and especially, the bad.
And his bad times have tended to come early in the year. Mitch Okuley, historically, is a slow starter at the plate, and this, of all years, would be a good time to flip that script.
I’ve called him a ‘tax day’ hitter before, because it seems that he gets really hot every year on, or about, April 15th. And for that last month of the Big Ten season no one can get him out.
Two years ago, while struggling around the .240 mark for the first month and a half, he caught fire around April 15, hit .375 through the end of the season, and raised his average to .287, with 8 home runs and 35 RBIs.
The Buckeyes are going to need offense out of key positions in the batting order, given the quality of arms they’ll hit against out West, and and a fast start by Okuley would be important.
Remember, every hitting coach I’ve ever known claims that hitting is contagious – a matter of confidence conveyed. And who better to convey that confidence earlier than April 15 than the ‘tax man’, Mitchell Okuley.
Gavin Bruni…In his draft eligible year, no one has to ask Gavin Bruni about how important it is to pitch well early and sustain that kind of dependability throughout the year.
And he’s well aware of his achilles issues from the past, that is, the three ‘Cs’ – control, command, and consistency.
“I worked on it during the fall,” he said recently. “I need to be more efficient, and I need to be more of a pitcher, not just a thrower.”
One key for the big lefthander from Alliance would be to get to the fifth inning on 60 pitches, or less. That would allow him to pitch deeper into games and get to the seventh inning on 90 pitches or less. That takes stress off him, and it takes stress off the bullpen. Too many times in 2023 we saw just the opposite…of pitch counts in the 70s by the time he got to the fifth inning, and of course the issues with the bullpen.
It’s important that he be a leader on this 2024 team, he wants to be that leader, and here’s how he does it. Get deeper into games than you’ve done in the past and see what it a difference it makes with every facet of the team. Like hitting, pitching is contagious, too.
Proof that everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time….?
It would be easy to become star-struck with the competition during the first ten days of Buckeyes baseball.
For instance, they meet USC on Sunday of the opening weekend at Scottsdale, and there’s no more storied program in the NCAA baseball history than the Trojans.
In a 50-year span between 1948 and 1998, they’ve won twelve national titles…and produced iconic names like Tom Seaver, Dave Kingman, and Fred Lynn, along with a hundred more that are more, or less, just like them.
But the Trojans haven’t won any titles recently, and in fact the 2023 USC Trojans had many of the same issues that teams in the Big Ten had.
The Trojans were 26-6 at home, but just 7-15 on the road and 1-2 at neutral sites. Conversely, the Buckeyes were 19-7 at home, 7-14 on the road, and 5-4 at neutral sites. USC finished fourth in the PAC 12 standings with a record of 17-13, a remarkable turnaround from the previous year when they finished last! The Buckeyes finished 11th in the Big Ten with a mark of 9-15. As a team USC hit .285 in 2023, while Ohio State hit .271. USC pitched to a 4.39 ERA, while the Buckeyes finished at 5.63.
Moving on to Arizona State, in Phoenix, February 22 thru the 25th, Arizona State has won five NCAA titles, the latest back in 1981, 43 years ago. Once feared as the school that produced Barry Bonds, Sal Bando, and Reggie Jackson, the Sun Devils have fallen on more modest times, of late.
They finished fifth in the PAC 12 standings in 2023, with a record of 32-23, hitting .295 as a team while pitching to a 5.95 earned run average.
Neither USC or Arizona State are ranked among the nation’s Top 25 in pre-season rankings, but no one should take that for granted, either!