Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has a music degree from Ohio State University.

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Retooled in the shadow of last year’s disappointing finish, the baseball Buckeyes definitely pass the early eye test in “quizes” against non-conference opponents.  But the heavy lifting begins this weekend.

Columbus – At 12-6-1 (they were forced to end one game due to time constraints), Greg Beals’ Buckeyes finished their pre-Big Ten schedule with a win Tuesday afternoon over Xavier University at Bill Davis Stadium.  And based on what I observed this past weekend, they’re worth every bit of Beals’ (and his staff’s) pre-season anticipation for the 2016 campaign.

If you’ll remember, this was a team from a year ago that looked for all the world through its first 30 games like it was ready to compete not only for a Big Ten title, but regional NCAA recognition, as well.  Only, it  it fell face forward in the fatal last three weeks of the season…to Maryland, Illinois, and Indiana.  And to add insult to injury, there were insulting losses in the double-elimination Big Ten tournament, to Iowa, and Indiana again.

They came home for the summer and the off-season with questions, confusion, and a sense of where do we go from here.  But the problem is with baseball, it’s not that hard to figure out.  You pitch, you hit, and you play defense.  Do those three things well enough…and you win.

Without a doubt Beals had the talent, talent enough to pitch, hit and play defense.  Their issue was doing it at the right time, and in the presence of competition accustomed playing for high stakes.  The Buckeyes spent their down time scratching their heads…and under the surface.

“We weren’t playing bad baseball,”  said Beals in his post-season commentary.  “We just weren’t playing good enough…a base hit here, a play there.  We were close too many times.”

True.  They were close a lot of times, but couldn’t get a base hit with runners in scoring position.

They couldn’t get a final out to secure a tournament win in the ninth inning.

When it happens often enough, it becomes a mental matter…over a physical matter.

Beals went outside for help.  He brought in a Navy seal during the fall to address his team on matters of how how to see opportunity in the face of desperation – the glass half full, instead of half empty.  And I love matters of the brain when it comes to baseball.  What was Yogi (Berra) used to say?  90% of this game is half mental?  And…if you think too much you just get a headache!

Captain Nick Sergakis has hit and plays enviable defense wherever asked.

Captain Nick Sergakis has hit .410 and plays enviable defense wherever he’s asked.

“He (the Navy seal) talked about how to identify that which you can’t control, and how to deal with it,”  said Beals last week, following a 2-1 late-inning win over Hofstra University.  More importantly, that Navy guy talked about how to move on…to make the most of opportunity at hand, while it IS at hand.  It may already be paying dividends.

In each of the last two games against Hofstra, the Buckeyes came from late-inning deficits to score knockouts, scoring in the seventh and eighth innings to secure a series sweep.  No, Hofstra is not  to be confused with the Houston Astros.  But on a cold, frigid day with nothing better to play for than pride and a display of mental toughness…that’s exactly what Ohio State did.  They found a way to win.

They’ve recruited well now for most of Beals’ six seasons as coach, and that’s a good because in each of the last two seasons the Buckeyes have lost talent to graduation and the major league draft.  Hard-throwing sophomore Travis Lakins went to Boston last year in the fourth round.  Hard-throwing freshman Ryan Feltner came aboard this spring to replace that arm.  And this past off-season Beals secured commitments from his best class yet, particularly pitching talent, that will show up on campus for fall practice this coming September.

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But in the meantime, prospects grace the field in left (Ronnie Dawson), center (Troy Montgomery), freshman Brady Cherry, and a solid senior infield of Craig Nennig, Nick Sergakis, L Grant Davis, and Troy Kuhn provide an enviable overtone of confidence and experience.  The pitching has been better than expected through the first 18 games, and the bullpen has been unhitable in most of its first 30 innings.  Of the three principle relievers, Yianni Pavlopoulos, Michael Horejsei, and Seth Kinker, none have ERAs in excess of 3.00.

By all accounts, through 18 games, the Navy seal bit has worked.

“It (last year) is definitely something that was on our minds going into fall,”  said Montgomery, a pre-season All-American candidate.  “It was a motivation because none of us liked how we finished last year.  Now it’s a matter of mental toughness, and preparation, and I’m looking forward to those series coming up with Illinois and Maryland, because we had last season in our hands and they took it away from us.”

Fair enough, and that starts on Friday when Northwestern comes to town to kick off the Big Ten portion of their schedule.

The early returns on Greg Beals'

The early returns on mental toughness training has paid dividends for Beals and the Buckeyes.

As a first trimester grade, I’d give this team a B+ (and I grade tough).  The starting pitching is still to prove itself as consistent week-after-week performers against the likes of what’s coming.

The offense is clipping along at a .262 team batting average (the opposition is hitting .263) and has yet to confirm that one thumper to be feared, although junior Jacob Bosiokovic has five early home runs, batting .325 with 13 rbis, but has missed most of the past three weeks with a severely pulled hamstring.  But he has all the power you want, and his numbers thus far bode as a good omen.  And, as a team, the Buckeyes actually lead the Big Ten through 18 games in home runs…with 21!

The defense, away from the artificial surface of Bill Davis Stadium, has had some questionable moments.  They have 33 errors in 18 games, a .955 fielding percentage as compared to slightly higher by the opposition.  But it’s EARLY, and as I like to say…there’s a reason why the Reds and Indians play 35 pre-season games.  And there’s no reason to believe that they’ll continue to commit three errors a game over the course of the next 36 games.

As for those series against Illinois and Maryland, I’m anxious to see for myself.  I’ll make the trip in two weeks to College Park to watch how they fair against a Terrapin lineup that wore out the outfield walls of Bill Davis Stadium in last year’s series.

“No big deal,” said Maryland third baseman Jose Cuas afterwards.  “We’re accustomed to playing the ACC against tough teams every week.  We’re used to it.”

And so we’ll see;  Greg Beals will see, what Navy seal training affects most…muscle memory, or mental memory.

Or happily, both!

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