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When Greg Beals first met with his team following winter break, he looked around the clubhouse and felt a different vibe from a year ago. One filled with optimism and maturity. Beals, who is set to begin his eighth season as the head coach of the Ohio State baseball team, said few words to the boys on last season. The collective focus underneath the stands at Bill Davis Stadium was simple; getting the program back in contention for a Big Ten championship and a NCAA Regional bid in 2018.
"As always we are excited to get started," Beals said. "After the holiday break and New Year, it's baseball season for us in college baseball. I'm really excited about this team and where we are in our process."
The 2017 season was a tough one for the Scarlet and Gray. The team finished with a 22-34 overall record. Now, Beals and his veteran staff welcome back 22 letterwinners along with 10 newcomers for the 2018 season. With Opening Day just 13 days out, there are still questions to be answered, but Coach Beals has an optimistic outlook for the 2018 campaign.
"I see a great deal of maturity and growth in our entire ball club. I talked about last year one time and that was it. I think there's a sense of urgency. They know that we need to do better as a program. There's a significant difference in the drive this ball club has."
The team will be led by an experienced pitching staff, especially in the bullpen. Beals is confident his pitchers will play a key leadership role for the Buckeyes in 2018.
"When I think about the leadership of this ball club, I think about the pitching staff and the guys in the bullpen a lot," Beals said. "Guys like Niemeyer, Pavlopoulos, Kinker, Michalik, Woodby; all seniors now who pitched significant innings in our championship run from a couple years ago. They've seen both sides. They've seen a championship and they've seen a battle, which has greatly prepared them for their role as leaders and has them primed to help drive this team and this program to a successful season."
In all, six pitchers on the 2018 roster threw significant innings during the team's Big Ten tournament title run in 2016. Relative to leadership, the team will look for guidance from fifth-year senior captains Adam Niemeyer and Kyle Michalik. Niemeyer, from Minster, Ohio, has a 3.85 career ERA in 39 appearances and 23 starts. Michalik, from Brunswick, Ohio, has made 61 career appearances out of the bullpen with a 2.70 ERA.
The 2018 Schedule
Beals has put together a schedule that will allow the team to compete for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State begins the season Feb. 16-18 at the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla.
"We have several regional teams from last year, some national caliber teams this year," Beals said. "We have two games with Oregon State and Utah. We have two games with Coastal Carolina. We have a game with Southern Miss, who was a regional team last year. We also have a two-game series at UNC-Wilmington, another regional team."
The Buckeyes open the 22nd season at Bill Davis Stadium March 16, hosting two non-conference series before beginning Big Ten play against Nebraska March 30-April 1 in Columbus.
"I expect the Big Ten to be as usual a `black and blue' conference," said Beals. "Teams all have the ability to win baseball games. We have the knack to beat each other up a bit so it's really hard for us to predict what our conference is going to look like. Every weekend is a battle in itself. That's how we go about approaching our conference. We'll get through April and see where we are in May and position ourselves accordingly."
The Buckeyes will be returning the majority of their position players from a year ago. The infield brings back a combined 208 starts from the 2017 season.
Although the team loses captain Jalen Washington at the shortstop position, Beals has brought in junior Kobie Foppe, a junior college shortstop from South Mountain CC in Arizona.
"Foppe is a slick defender who is going to be steady up the middle for us and is a leading candidate at shortstop," Beals said.
Sophomore Conner Pohl is set to start at third base. Pohl hit .325 in 31 games and made seven starts at the hot corner. Junior Brady Cherry has made the transition defensively and will be the starting second basemen. Cherry hit .260 with 14 doubles, four home runs and 26 RBI last season.
"Conner has grown up a lot," Beals said. "He got some really good experience as a freshman. He put on 20 pounds of muscle and I am excited to see Conner move forward with his development in his career. As for Cherry, I believe this move puts him in a position to utilize his athleticism. He can show off his range and use his arm strength. He had a very good fall offensively as well and I'm excited about the season he is going to have."
"Coolen is a smooth defender and a left-handed bat in the lineup," said Beals. "McGowan is a right handed bat and versatile, utility-type player."
"Carp [Carpenter] has been around the block with this program and is a hard-nosed competitor. Noah took off the fall as he had a knee surgery. He is still getting back in shape, but we are certainly hopeful he will get back into playing-shape soon."
Junior Jacob Barnwell will start behind the dish after making 51 starts as a sophomore. Beals said he is excited about the depth and quality his team will have from behind the plate.
"Barnie [Barnwell] caught a lot of baseball last year and is a high level defender. He can really catch and throw and handles our pitching staff very well. I'm also excited about the rookie Dillon Dingler. He is a very talented young man and will definitely get some playing time behind the plate. We also have Andrew Fishel and Scottie Seymour to round out the catching core. You could see Fishel getting some time in the DH spot as well."
Beals likes his outfield. Two years ago the Buckeyes had one of the top outfields in the Big Ten, and although the talent level might not be the same in 2018, he said he is pleased with the group's ability to defend and throw the baseball.
Sophomore Dominic Canzone, a third team All-Big Ten selection, will anchor the squad in right field. Canzone hit .343 with four doubles, three triples, three home runs and 36 RBI as a true freshman. He also had a team-high seven assists and did not make an error in 39 starts.
"We had a really good fall defensively," Beals said. "Dom [Canzone] had a tremendous freshman year and we are looking forward to him continuing that trend. Dom is going to be anywhere from the one to three spot in our lineup and is going to be a key part of our offensive and defensive success."
Junior transfer Malik Jones is winning the centerfield job. Jones was an all-conference honoree for Weatherford CC and hit .352 with 22 stolen bases in 2017. Supporting Jones will be freshman Jake Ruby.
"Malik can defend and is a real spark-plug who can run and throw the baseball," Beals said. "We are excited about having Malik out there. Ruby is a very talented young man who is going to have a bright future as a Buckeye."
In left field, senior Tyler Cowles returns after making 24 starts as a transfer for the Buckeyes in 2017. Also competing for playing time in the outfield are redshirt juniors Nate Romans and Ridge Winand as well as McGowan.
"Cowles is the leading candidate for the job in left field," said Beals. "I could see McGowan getting some time out in left as well, along with Romans, who also has the possibility of getting some DH time. Ridge is a utility outfielder and can play all three spots. He is in his fourth year with the program and is another guy I trust in the situations I am going to put him in.
On The Mound
The strength of this team is the pitching staff and the experience it returns, especially in big games. he biggest question heading into the conference schedule will be the starting rotation with five guys battling for a spot during the preseason.
"I'm looking at senior right-handers Adam Niemeyer and Yianni Pavlopoulos, junior left-hander Connor Curlis, junior right-hander Ryan Feltner and sophomore right-hander Jake Vance to earn a rotation spot," said Beals. "Those are the guys we feel have the ability to start. We are going to go out and have the opportunity in the early weeks to play four games in a weekend, so we are going to have four starters to go out on those weekends. This will give us an opportunity to take a look at a couple things and see who is going to win those spots and be our guys when conference time comes."
Niemeyer has done it before. He made 14 starts in 2016 and struck out 70 batters to just 12 walks. Pavlopoulos has done it as well. Last year, he tossed six scoreless innings in a big upset win over No. 5 Oregon State in Surprise, Ariz. Both dealt with injuries midway through 2017 and both are back healthy. Curlis had a strong year as a sophomore, going 5-3 with a 4.02 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 62.2 innings of work. Then there's Feltner, who had a great summer in the Cape Cod league being named Relief Pitcher of the Year. In 14 games, he did not allow an earned run with 16 strikeouts. Looking at the staff overall, Beals will have seven pitchers with starting experience on the mound.
"A big problem for our pitching staff last year was our health," Beals said. "We were unable to run out the same three guys in rotation on consecutive weekends almost all year. We had very few opportunities to have consistency in our pitching rotation. That effects the entire pitching staff. So having some depth in the rotation and having some guys we feel like can do that is going to allow the bullpen to stay intact and allow the pitching staff to really grow some roots and have a foundation."
Beals really likes his bullpen. The key guy is senior right-hander Seth Kinker, who has put up great numbers his entire collegiate career. In 79 career appearances, Kinker has notched a 2.40 ERA with 118 strikeouts in 135.0 innings of work.
"Seth Kinker is our go-to-guy in the bullpen," said Beals. "Whether it is as a closer, or in shut-down situations, Seth has proven us that he is our go-to reliever. You can certainly expect him to be getting the ball in critical situations."
Fifth year senior right-handers Kyle Michalik, Curtiss Irving and Austin Woodby as well as junior right-hander Thomas Waning will also have key roles out of the bullpen. Redshirt Junior right-hander Dustin Jourdan also figures to contribute once he returns from injury.
"Those guys have a lot of experience and I have a lot of trust in all of them," Beals said. "They are going to continue to get these opportunities this year. Waning is very talented and we are very excited that he is healthy."
"Andrew finished his second fall ball and is having a great winter," said Beals. "His fastball and breaking ball are high-quality pitches. We are also excited about Duermit, Smith, and Theis coming into our program. They are all capable of complementing our bullpen as well."