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 dual arts degrees from Ohio State University.

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If you want my capsule on the Buckeyes’ year, it comes down to the oldest cliche in the baseball book. Good pitching beats good hitting every time. And another…it’s hard to beat rats with mice.

(Ed. Note:  In a three-part recap on Ohio State baseball in 2019, our three Buckeye writers break down how far they came, and what lies ahead as they prepare for 2020.  Press Pros publisher Sonny Fulks wraps up the series in today’s post.)

Like with Greg Hoard and Mark Znidar, the 2019 baseball season has come pouring around me in the three weeks since their elimination loss in the NCAA tournament. Perspective now looms as big as the dream I occasionally still have of playing for Marty Karow, even now, after 45 years.

If you read me you know. I’m not shy about voicing an opinion, and I’ve got a bat rack full of them following the team’s 36-27 record, Big Ten Tourney win, and that hard-fought 13-inning win over McNeese State, their only win in the Vanderbilt regional.

So big picture first. There’s three things that ultimately ties one hand behind the Buckeyes’ back as they compete for titles and national respect on a given year. And in truth, the same three things that stand between every Big Ten team and those eight teams competing this week in the College World Series.

One, the spring baseball weather in Ohio sucks. And yes, you can say that it sucks for everyone – that it’s no excuse. But it’s not an excuse. It’s fact. It’s damned hard to play baseball, let alone winning baseball, when it’s 34 degrees and raining sideways.

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Two, it seems odd to me that Division I football gets 85 scholarships, basketball gets 13…and baseball gets a paltry 11.7. Even hockey and lacrosse get more. Now everyone in the NCAA plays by the same rules, but a limit of 11.7 scholarships goes a long way in helping blue-chip recruits choose the MLB draft over college baseball. And wouldn’t you like to see the room full of people who came up with it…that 11.7 was just the right number?

Third, because of two, it’s hard to play championship baseball when your best players continue to sign pro contracts after their junior season. Because think of the impact Travis Lakins, Ronnie Dawson, and Ryan Feltner (to name three) would have had on the Buckeyes’ fortunes had they stayed around to play the full four years – Dom Canzone, for that matter. CSW? I don’t know, but a far better chance.

The young pitching has to improve in 2020. Freshman Will Pfennig pitched 58 innings in 24 appearances with a 4.78 ERA.

So, those three things said, it’s remarkable what they accomplished in 2019, given 15 freshmen and sophomores on their 35-man roster – nearly half. I think back to a quote from Casey Stengel, in 1962, the New York Mets’ inaugural season, when someone asked Casey what he thought of his expansion roster’s chances to compete.

“Well,” said Casey, with typical Stengel bluster. “It’s hard to beat rats with mice, that’s what I think.” And that quote really applies to what the Buckeyes did in 2019. Their starting pitching comprised of two freshmen (Burhenn and Lonsway) and one sophomore (Griffan Smith), and three-quarters of their bullpen were freshmen – Pfennig, Root, Brock, and Milheim.

Add a freshman third baseman (Nick Erwin), a freshman shortstop (Zach Dezenzo) and that’s eight significant contributors, all freshmen, on a 36-27 NCAA team; and they did it with sucky weather, 11.7 scholarships, and Lakins, Dawson, and Feltner playing professionally.

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I wrote sometime ago that in my opinion this was Greg Beals’ best coaching job in his nine years; because he obviously recruited well, but more, he had so many of those first-year players in a competitive mode to play and win in their first sixty games of college baseball. For his efforts he received a deserved three-year extension of his contract.

And more, his patience with a player like Brady Cherry, who finally broke through in his final season to hit .314, 16 homers, and drive in 52 runs shows that Beals knew something all along.

“Brady simply became the player we thought we were getting when we recruited him from Pendleton, Indiana,” says Beals. “He matured emotionally and learned how to overcome the adversities he faced in his first three years.”

Third baseman Nick Erwin came on to play excellent third base, but will look to make more hard contact at the plate.

But now Cherry is gone, along with Dominic Canzone (.350, and 15 home runs), and junior reliever Andrew Magno, the Big Ten Tourney’s MVP. Magno, more than another other Buckeye, stands out as that one player who tipped the balance in so many of those 37 games. Because, subtract his 5 wins and 14 saves and there would have been no Big Ten Tourney title or NCAA.

Going forward, Zach Dezenzo should rise quickly in 2020 to build upon his 10 home runs, .250 average, and 37 RBIs. For those efforts he garnered freshman All-American honors.

Nick Erwin will take the next step at third base (probably), because he was the one player defensively that Vanderbilt coaches mentioned during the NCAA regional. “That guy can play some serious third base,” said Commodores first base coach Dave Macias.

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Matt Carpenter stepped in at second base and provided .260 worth of hitting, some stability, but more…a personality of “can do”. A switch-hitter, he stated his case for more responsibility in 2020.

I’m convinced that Dillon Dingler was never fully healthy after breaking a bone in his hand in the first game of the season, and at times caught like he had a sore hand. But he also demonstrated that he’s by far the best throwing catcher in the Big Ten, in concert with his .291 batting average and leadership on the field.

“It’s really hard to jump on Dillon for anything because he does so much,” says Beals. “He’s very large with the ‘dude’ factor.” Dingler will most certainly get pre-season All-American mention before next season.

No one benefited more from a defensive move than Conner Pohl, who cut his errors from 19 to 6 and played a sound first base.

No one benefited more from a position change than Conner Pohl, who went from committing 19 errors at third and second base in 2018…to just 6 in 2019 as the Buckeyes’ first baseman. And, after an early-season hitting swoon, he rebounded in the last month to hit .264 with 7 homers and 45 RBIs. He’ll return as a senior in 2020.

There will be competition for all three outfield spots in 2020, as Cherry, Ridge Winand and Canzone will all be gone. That leaves sophomore Nolan Clegg and a pair of players to be named later to step in (including freshmen and JUCOs)…and another sophomore, Marcus Ernst may earn a look in one of the outfield corners himself. A middle infielder by trade, he made hard contact at the plate with limited chance (.257, 18 hits) and sprayed the ball to all fields.

And then Brent Todys, who spent the first third of the season catching, then turned DH and accounted for innumerable big hits (at Maryland) and RBIs with his .256 average, 9 homers and 41 RBIs. He looms as a very large ‘X’ factor for 2020.

But with all that returning…it boils down to the cliches’ associated with pitching. Garrett Burhenn, Seth Lonsway (another freshman All-American, and led Big Ten in strikeouts) and Griffin Smith all return as the weekend starters, which is a GOOD thing.  Collectively they went 21-14 and struck out 291 batters.  Then, things have to sort out between the four freshmen-turned-sophomores.

Root, Brock and Pfennig pitched 94 innings between them with a combined record of 4 and 8 – acceptable. What’s not acceptable is their strikeout to walk ratio. Between them they struck 122…but walked 87! And typically, as with all young pitchers what they need is time.

All eyes now on Dom Canzone, with best wishes, whom BTN baseball analyst Mike Huff called the sleeper of the recent MLB draft.

“Talented, but they all have to get better,” says Beals, in the collective sense. “TJ Brock has shown he can throw 93 miles per hour and has a breaking ball with good tilt. But he has to become a better pitcher.”

Frankly, I think they will – all of them – because they’re talented and I think it means that much to ‘em. But that strikeouts-to-walks ratio that I spoke of is key. In total, the Buckeyes struck out a record 508 hitters in 2019; but in turn, they walked more than half that many (265).

“Too many free bases,” said Beals throughout the year, in conjunction with his obsession with ‘clean’ baseball.

But the tincture of time is the great healer (another cliche’). And they won’t be mice next spring. And if good pitching really does beat good hitting, they should be armed and ready for something better – better than 36-27.

And finally, here’s the great irony of the 2019 season. Michigan has done them a huge favor by giving them a vision for the future, even while the Bucks beat ’em three out of four games. You see, mice CAN win. It’s just that a talented, and more experienced TUN found a way to get to the College World Series…with solid, ‘experienced’ pitching!

So…can the Buckeyes be that far away?  I’ll bust out the crystal ball come February.

Pitching rich? Junior-to-be Griffan Smith logged a 7-5 record with team-high 96 innings. “We recruited Griffan because we believed he was a tough competitor. He proved that.” – Greg Beals

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