Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites and outdoor publications, and for the past ten years has served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Widely knowledgeable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the Midwest. He and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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The Ohio State freshman lefthander struggled through the second half of the Big Ten season, and now works in the Prospect League to prove to the Buckeyes that he’ll be part of the 2019 picture…if not the weekend rotation.

Chillicothe – It started out well enough, like a dream come true, in fact.

Freshman lefthander Griffan Smith rose from preferred walk-on status in fall baseball last October to prove he could throw strikes, get outs when called upon, and be reliable.  And indeed…he made the Ohio State Buckeyes’ traveling roster come mid-February.

It got better.

For the first month of the their ‘southern’ season he pitched effectively, got come critical bullpen outs against Canisius, Southern Mississippi, UNC-Wilmington, and against Nebraska in the Big Ten’s opening weekend.

But as a pitching pattern emerged come April and May, Smith sometimes failed to emerge with it.  The load fell more reliably on Kyle Michalik, Austin Woodby, and of course…Seth Kinker.  Those three combined for 144 innings, a 3.60 ERA, and 120 strikeouts, limiting opposing hitters to a .298 batting average.  After throwing 22 innings in the first two months of the season, he logged just 10 over the final four weeks…his highlight outing during that span a three-inning scoreless appearance against Purdue on May 12th.

Inconsistency became his own maddening pattern, something he had not previously experienced, and something he would later admit…that the harder he tried to do more and better, the worse it seemed to get.

But baseball, like life itself, is about rejuvenation, and the periodic reintroduction to one’s destiny and self esteem.  He finished his first season of Division I baseball having pitched 32 innings and amassing a 2-2 record, yes.  But still, Griffan Smith wanted to prove that he was better than his 5.34 earned run average and opposing hitters batting .308 against him.

“It was a challenge coming in,”  he said this week prior to a Chillicothe Paints’ summer Prospect League game against West Virginia.  “To rise from the bottom and prove to the coaches that I could pitch, I was satisfied with the opportunities they gave me and my proving myself against a talented group of upper-classman, especially as a walk-on.  I didn’t even know if I’d make the spring roster.

“Obviously they used me a lot as a situational pitcher, and I trusted the role they put me in.  I just tried to go in there and do what I did back in the fall (fall baseball).  Coach (Greg Beals) talks all the time about not trying to do too much…just stay within yourself and be the kind of pitcher you are.  I’m not really nasty out there.  I don’t throw super hard.  I just try to fill up the zone and let the defense make plays behind me.  And toward the end of the season that became a struggle for me.  I think I lost some confidence in myself and tried to do too much – more than I could – and obviously people saw how that worked out.”

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Now, as to the rejuvenation part, and the reintroduction of Griffan Smith, from Loveland, Ohio (Cincinnati Hill Christian Academy)…….

He’s pitching in Chillicothe this summer, as a starter, learning to again trust in not trying to do too much, filling the zone with strikes, and letting the defense make plays behind him.  Ohio State has featured guys just like him in recent years – John Havird, Tanner Tully, and Ryan Riga – all lefthanders who became dependable in their role.  Smith would like to become the next.

“I found out this year that I could compete with any pitcher out there, even those who are more talented than me.”

The early returns from Ross County (Chillicothe is the county seat) are encouraging.  In his first three starts he’s pitched 16.2 innings, compiled a 1-0 record, struck out 19 an walked 7, an issue for the Cincinnati native during his freshman campaign in Columbus – too many free bases.  His earned run average during those three starts is 1.08, and opposing teams on base percentage is less than .250.  All good!

The motivating factor driving him is pride…and, the knowledge that all three weekend starters from 2018 are gone. Conner Curlis and Ryan Feltner were drafted, and senior captain Adam Niemeyer graduated.  Those three positions will be available come fall baseball, and Smith would like to lay claim to one.

“I’m definitely excited for next year,”  he says.  “I’ve been a starter my entire life, so I’m excited for the opportunity to try to earn a starting position next year.  I learned last year that executing a pitch at this level is just as effective, it’s just a matter of trust and having the confidence in yourself.  They know I’m going to compete, it’s just a matter of throwing strikes.  That’s all you can do, compete and throw strikes.

“I found out this year that I can compete with any pitcher out there, even those who are more talented than me.  And that’s why I’m here this summer.  I need more repetitions, more innings – experience. Looking to next year, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to prove that I can be a starting pitcher, but I’m just excited to get back in the fall with the rest of the guys and build back the brotherhood we had last year.”

And while he works, he watches…fellow pitchers and teammates Seth Lonsway (now in Springfield, Oh), and Jake Vance (pitching the Cal Ripken League in Maryland), all candidates for those starting positions.  The idea being…nothing is given, and nothing comes easy.  You earn that brotherhood.

Griffan Smith would like to surprise the brothers, and the coaches – a ‘reintroduction, if you will – come fall.

Smith works this summer on making the move from the bullpen (background) to a Buckeyes’ starting position next year.

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