To say the Ohio State baseball team had an up-and-down 2017 season might be too generous. It limped to a 22-34 overall finish, including an 8-16 conference record, and did not qualify for the Big Ten tournament.
In particular, the pitching staff performed uncharacteristically poor, with an ERA climbing above the 5.00 mark for the first time since head coach Greg Beals took over in 2011.
“We know it’s not acceptable to have the record we did last year here at Ohio State,” redshirt senior pitcher Adam Niemeyer said.
Despite last season’s struggles, sophomore outfielder Dominic Canzone and senior pitcher Seth Kinker both said this team expects to compete for and win a Big Ten title.
Being fresh off an 11th-place Big Ten finish does not provide much reason to believe that goal is attainable. But the return of several starters and a renewed chemistry provides hope for the Buckeyes.
Niemeyer said a main issue with last year’s team was the growing pains involved in having “17 or 18 new players in key roles.” This year’s team will not have that problem. Beals used the word “feeling” to describe the attitude last season’s group had as opposed to “attacking” like he expects this squad to do.
“I see a lot better baserunning, being able to go first to third, being able to score from first base,” Beals said. “Dirt-ball reads, having some action in counts where in a 3-1, 3-2 count where we think there’s gonna be action with the bat we’ll get runners started. Just little things like that.”
The Buckeyes will return all of their starting pitchers from a season ago except Jake Post. Junior Ryan Feltner, who was recently listed as the top-ranked Big Ten prospect by both D1Baseball.com and Perfect Game scouting services, has struggled in the past, but could prove to be the ace of the staff. He already has been named as the regular-season Friday night starter.
To fill out the starting rotation, Beals also will look to Niemeyer and fellow redshirt senior Yianni Pavlopoulos, along with junior Connor Curlis and sophomore Jake Vance. All five of those players have started at least five games for Ohio State, and only Vance has fewer than 24 game appearances.
Curlis will take the mound first for the Buckeyes this weekend during the Snowbird Classic, Beals said.
“[Curlis] is working very hard,” Kinker said. “He works with Feltner who, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work as hard as Feltner.”
Kinker, who had 54 strikeouts and a 2.95 ERA last season, headlines a bullpen that features four additional seniors.
Experience won’t necessarily translate to performance on the mound though, especially on the back of a poor performance from the pitching staff last year. Niemeyer expects his fellow hurlers to improve their control.
“[We want to] fill up the zone early in counts, ‘cause that gives us an advantage,” Niemeyer said. “You just have to have the mindset if someone hits a first-pitch ground or fly ball that’s a good thing. You don’t have to try to strike everyone out.”
The Buckeyes maintained all but two starters from last season’s starting lineup. Among the returnees is sophomore Conner Pohl at third base, who was second on the team with a .325 batting average last season. Last year’s primary third baseman Brady Cherry is back playing second base. Canzone will be in right field once again; he led the team with a .346 batting average and was second with 36 RBI. He also stole 13 bases.
“I’m very confident with the guys that we’re gonna put on the field this year,” Canzone said. “All around it’s just a lot of great chemistry across the board, this team. I’m just excited and it’s the most fun I’ve had, honestly, in a preseason.”
Junior catcher Jacob Barnwell is back behind the plate after 51 starts last season, and junior college transfer Kobie Foppe rounds out the infield at shortstop with a defensive style Beals called “smooth.” Malik Jones, another junior college transfer, will be in center field.
An intriguing development within the batting order is the group of athletes vying for playing time at first base, left field and designated hitter.
“We’ve got several capable bodies. Bo Coolen and Noah McGowan are both gonna get playing time at first base, McGowan can play some left field and DH, Nate Romans can DH, [Tyler] Cowles can play left field and DH,” Beals said. “We’re gonna be able to wiggle and play some guys that are hot.”
Ohio State opens its season Friday against UW-Milwaukee as part of the Snowbird Classic.