COLUMBUS, Ohio - The transition to a new year brings new opportunity. At the end of the 2016 season, a championship trophy was raised, names were called on Draft Day, diplomas were handed out at graduation and a coaching staff began preparation to reload. Things have changed significantly inside the clubhouse at Bill Davis Stadium with the loss of 13 members from that Big Ten title team. But seventh-year head coach Greg Beals is confident the culture and expectation has already been in motion for the 2017 Buckeyes.
“We had a great year last season, but a new year brings a new hunt,” Beals said. “The one thing that has carried over is the culture. The things that are very important to us is elite preparation, a ‘this pitch mentality’ and brotherhood. Those are the core values we have in the program and those standards are a constant.”
Beals and his veteran staff welcomed 17 newcomers during fall semester, joining 17 letterwinners who returned from the squad that won 44 games and advanced to a NCAA Regional. With opening day just nine days out, there are still questions to be answered, but Coach Beals has an optimistic outlook for the 2017 campaign.
“I’m always optimistic,” Beals said. “There’s a lot to like about this ball club. There is some caution in the optimism with the lack of experience, but these guys are talented. They are quickly going to get that experience. The talent level is there and I feel really good about it and we are very excited to get 2017 underway.”
The team will be led by a five-member senior class, which includes four fifth-year seniors: Shea Murray, Jake Post, Zach Ratcliff and Joe Stoll. Senior infielder Jalen Washington and redshirt junior pitcher Adam Niemeyer were voted by their teammates as captains last fall and the skipper has high praise for both.
“They are just incredibly strong human beings in general,” Beals said. “They are not just baseball players. They didn’t come to Ohio State as superstars and they didn’t arrive on campus as everyday players. They worked themselves into being championship caliber baseball players at this level. I think the coaching staff and their peers have seen that and they’ve absolutely earned the respect of their teammates.”
The strength of the ball club? The pitching staff. Championship teams can pitch the baseball and of the nucleus of the returning players, the majority is the Buckeye hurlers. Last season, the Buckeye pitching staff led the Big Ten in conference games with a 2.63 ERA. The staff broke the school record for strikeouts in a season too with an impressive 495 punch outs. In all, the Scarlet and Gray return two starting pitchers and five key relievers out of the bullpen.
“Guys like Seth Kinker, Yianni Pavlopoulos and Kyle Michalik are all back,” Beals said. “Those guys pitched a lot during the championship run. But we have some quality starters returning too. Adam Niemeyer saw quality time for us last year. Ryan Feltner showed promise in his freshman year. We got Jake Post coming back from his Tommy John surgery and he’s healthy. I think the strength of the ball club is going to be on the mound and it needs to be.”
Like any ball club, the Buckeyes will need to be strong up the middle to win games. Washington, who was the team’s starting catcher last year, is moving out to shortstop. In addition, junior Tre’ Gantt, who has seen a lot of playing time, moves over to center field. Behind the plate, sophomore Jacob Barnwell is the leading candidate.
“I feel really confident with our defense up the middle,” Beals said. “I know exactly what I’m going to get from Jalen from a competitive standpoint and he will be locked in to play baseball on a daily basis. Tre’ can absolutely play defense, so we need him to be strong and solidify our outfield. He will be our lead-off guy and spark-plug in our lineup. When talking about up the middle, the catcher position is there as well. Jacob Barnwell is our No. 1 guy from behind the plate and he is a plus-defender with his ability to really catch and throw.”
The 2017 Buckeyes will undoubtedly use the championship blueprint learned from last season. Beals believes this team has all the strengths and tools they need to defend their Big Ten championship and make another run at a Regional berth.
One of the biggest challenges this offseason is replacing an entire infield core. The team lost a combined 657 career starts from a 2016 veteran group of infielders, but Beals said there is a wealth of talent on the rise.
“We do have to replace the whole starting infield, but we have a host of characters who are ready and are able to do that,” Beals said. “We have some depth and we have some guys that are unproven though. The key for me is that we play good infield defense.”
Defensively at first base, Bo Coolen has emerged as the leading candidate. A junior transfer from Cypress College, Coolen is a great defender and a 5-6-7-hole type left-handed hitter. Coolen batted .343 for the Chargers last season. Also at first base is Zach Ratcliff, who returns after receiving a medical redshirt last year. Ratcliff has played in 88 career games with 58 career starts, collecting a .264 average with 14 doubles and five home runs.
“I see Zach as our top guy for our designated hitter and will be in the lineup as we get started for the season,” Beals said. “We need his experience and his power in the lineup. I think the combination of Bo defensively and Ratty [Ratcliff] DH-ing gives us the best of our both worlds there.”
Junior college transfer Noah McGowan is set to start at second base. One of three transfers from McLennan Community College on the roster, McGowan batted .393 with 43 runs scored, seven home runs and 38 RBI in 2016.
“Noah is not your prototype second baseman,” Beals said. “He is a bigger and physical player and offensive guy. We are very confident in his ability to handle the defense at second base and be a big part of our offense.”
At shortstop will be Jalen Washington. The two-time captain was named to the Big Ten All-Tournament Team and has appeared in 85 career games, scoring 33 runs with 11 doubles and three home runs, while driving in 44 runs. At third base, Brady Cherry has some experience as he heads into his sophomore campaign. He made 35 starts as a true freshman and showed some real power at the plate, driving in 23 runs with five home runs.
“Brady is a prototype third baseman who has plenty of arm strength from that side of the field and has really improved himself defensively.”
“Those three guys are competing on a daily basis to see who emerges as ‘the next man up’ so to say,” Beals said. “They all are solid defenders and young with the bat, and developing offensively. The key for me is that they continue to develop defensively. We were really good in the infield during our championship run. We need to play solid defense behind our pitching staff if we want to be back in contention for another championship.”
Also in the infield is freshman Conner Pohl, a third baseman who is a long and lean left-handed hitter.
“He has a very high ceiling,” Beals said. “He has actually grown faster over the course of fall ball and winter than we even anticipated so his development is moving at a very high pace. We are excited about his future and also his readiness to compete right away here as a freshman.”
Starting in center, junior Tre’ Gantt will look to have a big season. He’s appeared in 84 career games and has batted .275 with 34 runs scored and 12 stolen bases over the course of two seasons. Gantt has learned from talented former Buckeye outfielders: MLB Draft picks Pat Porter, Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery. Along with his experience last season in right field, Beals thinks it has taken his game to the next level.
“Tre’ has great ability to track down balls,” Beals said. “He’s learned from the good ones. It showed him how to play on a daily basis and how to shape his game and play within his strengths. Moving back to his natural position in center, I’m excited for what he’s going to bring each day.”
In left field, junior transfer Tyler Cowles is the leading candidate. Cowles powered 34 doubles and 19 home runs in two years at Sinclair Community College.
“Tyler is an offensive guy who put up good numbers at the junior college level,” Beals said. “He’s had a really good offseason and Tyler is winning the race in left field.”
In right field is freshman Dominic Canzone and fifth-year senior Shea Murray, who has made the transition from the mound to the outfield. Redshirt sophomore Nate Romans will also provide depth in the outfield as well as the infield.
“Dom [Canzone] has a real knack for hitting,” Beals said. “He’s got really good hands and consistently hits pitches hard and was really impressive in fall ball. Shea is an elite athlete and has the ability to run and throw. He can play all three positions in the outfield and I see Shea absolutely competing for playing time on this ball club.”
ON THE MOUND
The strength of this team is its pitching and the experience is there with this staff, especially in big games. Right-hander Adam Niemeyer and sophomore right-hander Ryan Feltner have solidified spots in the rotation. Niemeyer totaled 71.0 innings across 14 starts in his first season in the rotation last spring. He finished the year with a 4.31 ERA, 70 strikeouts and only walked 12 batters. Feltner made 11 starts as a true freshman and posted a 4.06 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 68.2 innings pitched. Right-hander Jake Post and redshirt junior right-hander Yianni Pavlopoulos will both be prime candidates to fill the rotation. Pavlopoulos, the Buckeyes’ closer a year ago, racked up 14 saves with a 3.03 ERA, while Post registered a 2.12 ERA in 29.2 innings back in 2015 out of the bullpen.
“Jake Post is going to be a prime candidate and certainly going to pitch quality innings in whatever role he is in,” Beals said. “Yianni is also a leading candidate to move into the rotation. He’s proven he can handle tough situations in big games. We will see how his pitch count goes and how he handles pitching deeper into games, but his game continues to improve on the mound.”
“Connor is left-hander who saw limited time last year and is a candidate to be a midweek starter or spot starter along with Reece,” Beals said. “Reece is more of a power pitcher and had really good numbers at McLennan.”
Beals likes his bullpen. The key guy is junior right-hander Seth Kinker, who put up great numbers a season ago in critical situations. He finished the year with a 1.65 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 54.2 innings pitched.
“Kinker will continue to be our go-to guy out of the bullpen,” Beals said. “He has that competitive toughness and took on a very big role for us last year.”
“Kyle is a submarine-type pitcher who has proven he can handle situations,” Beals said. “Joe Stoll is a left-hander who hasn’t seen a lot of time, but has really persevered and had a really good fall. One newcomer I like out in that bullpen is Thomas Waning. From Lincoln Trail, he is another side-armer with a power sinker.”
Ohio State also welcomed a freshman class that features five pitchers that are learning and waiting for their opportunity to compete: Gavin Lyon, Jake Vance, Collin Lollar, Michael McDonough and Andrew Magno.
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