All good baseball teams are built up the middle. At any level, the teams who succeed have a strong core built around their catcher, middle infielders — shortstop and second baseman — and center fielder. Managers and coaches openly admit having good defensive players at those key positions is crucial to a team’s success. But these defensive stars are rare commodities.
Look at the world champion New York Yankees. Their ability to win five World Series titles since 1996 is no secret. The core of all those Yankees teams was up the middle. Jorge Posada behind the plate, perennial all-star Derek Jeter at short and Bernie Williams patrolling center field, for all but the last of the Yankees championships.
The Philadelphia Phillies, who have been to the past two World Series, are built the same way. Shane Victorino in center, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins up the middle and Carlos Ruiz catching. Those four anchor the team and are in large part responsible for the Phillies’ dominance in the National League.
Finding players at those positions as good with the bat as they are with the glove is even more rare. That’s why players like Jeter, Rollins and Utley are regarded as some of the best in the game.
Having strength up the middle translates to success in the college game as well.
“If you’re strong up the middle, I think it makes your team as a whole more solid,” Michael Stephens said. Stephens is Ohio State’s everyday centerfielder. “Every team in the nation that does really well has strong up the middle chemistry,” Stephens explained.
So for the Ohio State baseball team to be able to boast outstanding players at each of the four positions is an incredible feat. The Buckeyes are both strong and experienced up the middle, the perfect storm for a team looking to claim a second consecutive Big Ten title.
Stephens patrols center field for the Buckeyes, Tyler Engle and Cory Kovanda make up the middle infield and Dan Burkhart takes on the catching duties.
Coach Bob Todd understands the importance of keeping that foursome in the line up. “We need all those guys to stay healthy. They give us quality play out there,” Todd said.
The Junior College transfer
Stephens is in his second year in the Ohio State program, but his final year of eligibility.
The California native spent his first two seasons at Fullerton College — a junior college close to his hometown of Victorville, Calif. Stephens says there were many factors that influenced his decision to come to Ohio State, but one that stands out above the rest.
“We travel and we get to play everywhere,” Stephens said. “Going down to Florida in the spring is a huge benefit.”
Stephens elected to come to OSU due, in large part, to the amount the Buckeyes travel.
He explained if he would have gone to a school like Cal State Fullerton, he would have played a majority of his games in Southern California against the same competition.
His decision to come to OSU was to the delight of his teammates.
“Stephens is great,” Engle said. “He plays a good center field and he’s clutch at the plate too.”
Stephens immediately fit into the Buckeyes lineup and has earned his spot in a talented outfield. Last season he started all 61 games for the Buckeyes and is a key contributor in this his senior campaign.
The dynamic duo
When it comes to middle infielders, experience is the key. And that is exactly what Engle and Kovanda, a junior and a senior respectively, possess. This is the third year the tandem has played side-by-side for the Buckeyes, and their chemistry is evident.
“Kovanda and Engle have done a great job defensively for us,” Todd said of the duo.
Engle and Kovanda’s connection extends beyond the baseball field.
“We’re great friends. We get along great,” Engle said. “With our busy schedules in the spring it’s tough, but we make it a point to hang out.” Their time spent together on and off the field is evident in their play as they combine to be the best double-play combo in the Big Ten.
“We’re kind of in each other’s minds,” Engle said. “We both have a lot of confidence turning double plays, even the tough ones.”
When talking OSU baseball, the conversation begins and ends with catcher Dan Burkhart.
He has become a mainstay behind the plate for the Buckeyes. In his first year with the program Burkhart became the first freshman to start at catcher in nearly two decades. Now, as a junior, he’s collecting accolades on a seemingly weekly basis.
Burkhart is the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and was second-team preseason All-American. As Todd simply stated, “He’s the backbone of this team. There’s no doubt about it.”
Burkhart demonstrates why he’s earned that title every game he suits up for the Buckeyes.
The catcher handles the pitching staff beautifully, especially ace Alex Wimmers, who was his high school teammate. And Burkhart does it all defensively by blocking balls and throwing out base runners.
“He’s a stud. You couldn’t ask for anything else behind the plate,” Engle said of Burkhart. “I wouldn’t have anybody else in the country.”
At the plate
What might be most impressive about the foursome isn’t what they do defensively, but rather on offense. Kovanda, Stephens and Burkhart make up the heart of the Buckeyes order, hitting second, third and fourth.
Kovanda is near the top of the team leaders with a .379 batting average and Stephens’ eight home runs are top among the Buckeyes. And although Engle usually fills in the ninth spot in the line up, he’s a consistent contributor and serves as a second lead-off hitter.
The foursome’s contributions on both sides of the ball clearly demonstrate that their play will dictate how far the Buckeyes are able to go this season.