He makes no bones about it…he’d rather pitch than talk. But when Ohio State lefthander Tanner Tully does talk about his career and remarkable performance Friday over Michigan…it amounts to words worth reading.
Columbus – Press Pros columnist Greg Hoard refers to him as “stoic” for his quiet, business-like demeanor.
Others hint that he may be more “stone-faced” than stoic, a prototype someday for baseball’s version of Mount Rushmore, should there ever be one. Junior lefthander Tanner Tully is that kind of quiet… staring straight forward as he talks, focusing carefully as he picks his words. And rare words they are!
He makes no excuses for it – Tanner Tully would rather pitch than talk. And Friday night he pitched the Ohio State Buckeyes to one of their more memorable wins in the six-year tenure of head coach Greg Beals, a dramatic 3-2 win over the Michigan Wolverines in the opening game of this weekend’s three game series with the 19th-rated “team from up north”.
“It’s not something I like to do,” says Tully, from Elkhart, Indiana, in reference to his disdain for interviews and personal attention. “I’ve always been kinda’ quiet and I just don’t have that much to say. It’s better when I know someone and get more comfortable.”
Yet, in the clubhouse there’s another Tully, according to teammates like centerfielder Troy Montgomery and third baseman Nick Sergakis.
“Oh yeah, he’s kind of a cutup and a personality in there,” said Montgomery recently. “It’s a different Tanner Tully than the one you see on the mound.”
Which is fine with the Buckeyes’ ace. What’s done in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse, one of baseball’s oldest traditions. And if you want to know any more about him you can train your eyes, and questions, to that which pertains to his paramount priorities…throwing strikes, competing when it’s his turn to pitch on Fridays, and WINNING!
And so we did that, as Tully graciously agreed after Friday night’s win to meet privately the following morning for 15 minutes of insight…from no better vantage point than the Buckeyes’ dugout.
What had Friday been like for him? Out of school now for summer, how had he spent his time leading up to his scheduled start against Michigan with the fortunes of his season and his team’s push for the post-season tournament weighing so heavily on his shoulders?
“I just got up about 9 am and had a bowl of cereal,” he deadpanned, staring out into the morning drizzle and the leaden-gray skies of Columbus. “I watched TV for a couple of hours because there’s nothing else to do. Then I came over to the ballpark and had a pre-game meal and watched more TV. About 3:45 I went out for batting practice and started moving around, shagging some fly balls, just starting to get prepared.”
Every pitcher has his own unique way of getting revved, emotionally and physically. With Tully, it’s not hard to imagine that his is a pretty down-low process.
“I try to keep my mind off things so I don’t waste energy,” he shares. “I do things that help me relax and keep my mind off of the game until I get to the ballpark. Obviously, yesterday was a big game, it was Michigan, and they’re a great hitting ballclub. But I tried to keep my mind off that. The reality is they have to figure me out, what I’m throwing, and I’m going to know my pitches better than they’re going to be able to hit.”
He admits to playing the game with perspective of being a kid – a kid, a term he uses often…”just having fun out there, playing a kid’s game.” Tanner Tully has pitched, and won, some big games in this two-plus years with the Buckeyes. Not known for a power fastball, he relies on guile, precision, and the execution of his game plan for a particular opponent. He gave up just one run on five hits over his eight innings of work on Friday, frustrating a powerful Michigan lineup, and from one point past surrendering that lone run in the third inning, he retired 16 Wolverine hitters in a row.
Yet, he smiles that “having fun” smile when asked to compare it with some of his other best performances of the past. In particular, to the game he pitched against the same Michigan team two years ago as a freshman!
“That was a complete game win up there,” he says, remembering with a sheepish grin. “But last night was a big game for us. I would have liked the opportunity to go out in the ninth and close it out, but we have other guys here who can come in and shut ‘em down.”
And does the Michigan rivalry thing matter in a sport that, compared to football, toils in virtual anonymity in central Ohio and across “Buckeye Nation”?
“Yeah, it’s probably one of the biggest weekends of the year for us,” Tully admits. “It’s a lot of fun. It brought a lot of people out to the ballpark last night. It’s really not an emotional thing. It’s kind of business as usual for us because we follow the game plan and just try to do what we do best. We just want to go out and put up zeros and score some runs.”
Every pitcher has his fears, his routines. More than one admits to spending his day prior to taking the mound…wondering. Will my curveball break?
Will my fastball be good?
Will I command the strike zone? Tully, a trusted master now after two years of controlling his emotions as well as his pitching repertoire once the game begins, is no different.
“All the time,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to go there and improvise. You always hope you have your fastball because that’s pretty much what you need to be successful…work in and out and the offs-peed stuff will hopefully come throughout the game.”
Does he have a preparatory routine of his own, or one that he’s learned from pitching coach Mike Stafford?
“Pretty much my own,” he claims. “I start about 35 minutes before first pitch, doing some stretches and take my time in getting ready. Moving from the bullpen mound to the game mound can be different, but being at home makes it easier. I’ve pitched here so many times now I know both. Sometimes you go out there and discover that the pitch you were throwing well in the bullpen isn’t there when you get in the game. That didn’t happen for me last night, but when it does you just have to work it and hope it comes back. It’s hard to explain. It’s something as a pitcher you have to deal with and try to throw through it. Last night was good because I was able to come out and set up hitters with my off-speed stuff and then attack them with the fastball.”
He doesn’t say much about it, of course, but Tanner Tully’s junior season means that he’ll be eligible come June for the major league draft. His 7-3 record and 2.26 earned run average is impressive, as is this number. Opposing hitters are hitting just .227 against him.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he says. “If I’m here I plan on taking six hours this summer towards my degree. If that happens (and he doesn’t sign a professional contract) I’ll get ready to come back in the fall and be a Buckeye. If I come back next year for another year that’s fine, it’ll be fun.”
For being a kid having fun playing a kid’s game he’ll share that one of his best experiences of being a Buckeye is the fact of relationships he’s forged with teammates, on and off the field. Talk of those friendships and his demeanor changes. Ask him about the breakout play of Nick Sergakis and Ronnie Dawson this season and his respect for their accomplishment is unmistakable, a matter of personal pride.
When asked after Friday’s game about the sliding catch that centerfielder Troy Montgomery made to preserve his 3-2 victory, he was professional in asserting the company line: “I knew that if it would stay up lone enough Troy would get there and make the catch.”
But the morning after the night before he was asked again, in pure human terms…what were you thinking when the ball came screaming off the bat of Michigan designated hitter Dominic Jamett? Did he have an “oh no” moment, disregarding Montgomery’s propensity for making the big catch at the game’s biggest moment? Was it a moment of personal anguish and, “what if”?
Smiling, he dropped his head and quietly said, “My heart sank for a moment, but that’s all.”
Which sets up the finish of getting to know more about a guy who’s destined to have a future in baseball, yet abhors talking about it. He’d rather talk about what’s thus far been a turnaround season for his team and his teammates.
“I think we’ve grown from where we were last year,” he says. “We’re more mature and we handle things better. This is a great bunch of guys, a great bunch of teammates who will do anything for you on and off the field. To have the opportunity to play at this level…not everyone gets that. I know we’re making memories here, things that will last a lifetime, things we’ll be talking about with each other years from now, at weddings and who knows what.”
When I turned the recorder off, he seemed to relax. Tanner Tully’s 15 minutes of interview stress was over, far longer and probably worse than the 2:31 minutes it took the night before to beat Michigan.
“You really don’t like this, do you,” I asked, as he got up to leave.
“No, not much,” he answered honestly, but with a tell-tale grin.