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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The senior from Cincinnati throws as hard as any major league closer and hopes to make his final season as a Buckeye reliever convincing – irresistible – and contending for a Big Ten title.

No one from his freshman class of 2019 has created more talk about potential, than Buckeye senior and bullpen closer, TJ Brock.

A product of IMG Academy (Florida) and Cincinnati Country Day High School, he arrived back then with the rest of a promising class of freshmen pitchers, skinny as a rail, but with a sturdy fastball and a fearless personality to compete.

What he didn’t arrive with was dependable control. Used in limited situations in 2019, he had 23 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched, but walked 20 hitters. Still, when he was around the strike zone he was noticeably tough for opposing hitters to hit.

In the Covid-shortened 2020 season, he made just five appearances in 14 games, with an 0-1 record in 8.1 innings. There were again 11 strikeouts, but more impressively…opponents managed to hit just .194 against him.

Last year, his junior season, he made a team-high 19 appearances, pitched 21.2 innings, and led the team in ERA with a 2.08 mark. He had 33 strikeouts in those 21 innings, but again, half that many walks (16). Still, hitters found it hard to square it up, batting just .197.

He’s back in 2022 to present his case and capitalize on what one major league scout called “a lot of potential”. He’s not thin as a rail anymore (6’1″, 200 lbs), and that sturdy freshman fastball now clocks out with the hardest throwers in the Big Ten and college baseball.

It gets there in a hurry. He was clocked at 101 mph in last summer’s Cape Cod League.

“Wait ’til you see TJ throw,” coaches said with a smile during fall practice. “He’s hitting 99 on the radar gun.”

I did see him in fall practice. He was throwing it harder than anyone, starter or reliever, but more importantly…he was throwing strikes.

“The fastball has real life,” said that scout during a 2020 appearance against Lipscomb University. “He just needs to throw it over the plate.”

Brock knows it, Buckeye coaches know it, and above all…Big Ten hitters know it. Combined with a devastating slider that explodes on opposing hitters, TJ Brock might have the best stuff of any pitcher (all of them) in the conference.

Greg Beals recently talked about one of baseball great quandaries. How do you harness that stuff and make it a dependable commodity?

“First of all, I wasn’t sure we’d get him back – thought he might go in the draft last summer,” says Beals. “His stuff is that good. But now he’s taken this as a challenge and an opportunity to get better;  and he was REALLY good in the fall. I liked where he was at. He gives us a tremendous asset for getting those last three outs in a tight ballgame, and I don’t have to tell you those are the three toughest to get. That’s not cliche’, that’s a fact.”

But it’s also a fact that Brock’s inconsistency also poses a concern.

“Again, you have to consider the amount of lost developmental time the last two years, and having to divvy up limited innings between guys who needed to pitch,” adds Beals.

TJ Brock was one of those guys.

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When Earl Weaver managed in Baltimore he called reliever Don Stanhouse ‘Full Pack’, explaining that it took a full pack of cigarettes to calm his nerves when Stanhouse was trying to get those final three outs.

When the Dodgers’ Eric Gagne (pronounced ‘Gahn-yay’) was putting up those incredible numbers back in 2003 (55 saves,1.20 ERA) team broadcaster Vin Scully once called him ‘Alka-Seltzer’. “Oh what a relief it is to have Eric Gagne,” Scully crooned.

Greg Beals doesn’t make comparisons, just this observation.

“What I can tell you about closing,” he says, “…is that some days it’s easier than others.”

“The fastball has real life.  He just needs to throw it over the plate.”

It’s a fact of pitching about which Brock readily agrees., and he doesn’t pretend that his past inconsistencies haven’t haunted him.

“It’s what I worked on the most last summer pitching in the Cape Cod League,” he said this week. “I’m not gonna’ lie to you…there were times last year when I knew people were saying that I walked too many and didn’t throw enough strikes. So over the summer what I tried to do was strikes, strikes, strikes, and focus on consistency.

As to what Beals says, he agrees. Some days are easier than others.

“I made some changes in my delivery. I pitch from the stretch exclusively now, and I don’t use the windup. Too many moving parts and that hurts my consistency. And I’m more confident now. When I came back in the fall I didn’t even think about control as an issue. I’ve worked on my strength, my conditioning, and my endurance.  Now I expect to throw strikes.”

If you’re into the nitty-gritty of velocity and where he actually does stand among the Big Ten’s hardest throwers, just ask, then deduce for yourself.

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“I hit 101 last summer in the Cape Cold League,” he says. “My best has been 102.4 at my training facility.”

But after you ask he immediately shifts gears to talk about how things have to fit together in order to be successful this year.

“My mindset is I’m ready to win. We’re ready to go…really, really, ready to go. I’m not going to talk about the last two years because it’s out of my control. But in my four years here this team is as good as I’ve been on, character-wise. And character is everything. It’s your culture, and the guys we have on this team want to win, and want to win, bad!

He doesn’t talk about the past, only the present. He doesn’t bring up the prospects of his future beyond contending for this year’s Big Ten title. But given the gift of health, he will have a professional future.

“We’ve got guys here who are leaders,”  he says, unable to hide the excitement in his voice.  “And we’re all so mentally prepared to go out and play Marshall (the season opener, Feb. 18).”

He was barely born when Eric Gagne pitched, so it stands to reason he’s probably never heard of Alka-Seltzer, either…plop-plop, fizz-fizz.

But Greg Beals has, and people who know say Alka-Seltzer always works.

He’s counting on the same from TJ Brock.

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