Ohio State infielder Conner Pohl and outfielder Dominic Canzone began last season as little more than benchwarmers.
But both caught fire during the middle of the campaign and established themselves as key contributors on the team.
Now, in Ohio State’s resurgent season that has the Buckeyes as a contender in the Big Ten, Canzone and Pohl find themselves in the thick of everything that has gone right for their team.
Going from unproductive benchwarmer to middle-of-the-order run producers took time for both players, but both made the transition through a similar process.
Pohl and Canzone, now sophomores, both view their increased confidence as the fundamental difference between the two seasons.
“At the beginning of freshman year, I wasn’t sure of my abilities,” Canzone said. “I wasn’t producing and constantly felt like I was letting my brothers down. I think that the key part of my turnaround was being more confident and understanding that the guys behind me will pick me up if I don’t succeed.”
Canzone began his freshman year just 3-for-29 over his first 11 games, but slashed .394/.435/.533 with three home runs and 12 stolen bases the remainder of the season. Now he is one of the team leaders with a .358/.426/.514 slash line with four home runs and a team-leading nine stolen bases.
Pohl got off to a similarly slow start, but it was about it more than just not hitting. It also came more from lacking a clear defensive position and not receiving enough playing time. Now splitting time at first and third base, Pohl has played enough to put his bat to good use, slashing .333/.419/.459 with five home runs.
“I’ve seen a great deal of growth and maturity within them, relating to how they go about competing and their comfort and confidence within the game,” head coach Greg Beals said.
Although Canzone did not know any of his teammates prior to joining the team just one year ago, his reference to them as his “brothers” captures how quickly these strangers became paramount in his life. He said the constant bonding the teammates do off the field directly translates to how they interact on the field and how well they perform.
Pohl emphasized the importance of everyone’s role on the team — not just the starters. As a new starter, Pohl’s role has changed since he was a freshman trying to find his place on the team.
Beals said the challenges of a young player trying to carve out a role on the team was made all the more challenging during the worst season in program history in 2017.
“Learning how to play at a Division I level for the first time is a challenge for any player,” said Beals. “It was a challenging year for us as a program [last year] and probably for them too. But they’re sophomores now. They’ve been around the block a full time and got a ton of experience.”
That experience gives Beals confidence both his two young players can become leaders for the next core group of players to come through the program.
“They both bring a lot to our team offensively and have the potential to be leadership-type guys,” Beals said. “Canzone really shows that already. Pohl is a little more quiet but they both have leadership characteristics that I’m excited about.”
Canzone also understands the responsibility that comes with being a starter and batting leadoff.
“It’s a big role — leading off the game and trying to get it started on the right note,” Canzone said. “The biggest thing in baseball is being calm and not tense, relaxing, and focusing on the next play. I finally started to do this when I became comfortable in knowing that whoever’s hitting behind me is going to have my back.”
Canzone saw the biggest improvements in his game when he kept himself taller in his stance and started sticking to a specific routine.
Pohl’s game changed most when he started focusing on overall performance rather than on hits.
“I wasn’t trying to do a whole lot outside of trying to get base hits,” Pohl said. “I was swinging at pitches that I shouldn’t have and trying to do too much with the ball, rather than focusing on the bigger picture.”
These two starters will be looking at that bigger picture while they continue their baseball careers this season. Both have gone from benchwarmers to being ranked as top Big Ten prospects in the 2019 draft class.
The trajectory for the pair only seems to be aiming upward.