The at-large view is that they’ll finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. But what you can’t know about Ohio State, or any college baseball team, is how someone responds when the opportunity is at hand…like last year.
COLUMBUS — The memories are vivid. For those who played a part—any part—in Ohio State’s 2016 Big Ten Tournament title, they are cherished moments that will last a lifetime, so powerful they are hard to put into words.
“We had given up some runs in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game and the momentum was kinda’ slipping away,” OSU coach Greg Beals said.
“Then Ronnie (Dawson) gets that base hit up the middle,” says Nick Sergakis, now in the Mets organization.
“A simple base hit. Doesn’t try to do too much,” Beals says. “Then Kuhnie (Troy Kuhn) gets a hanging breaking ball and hooks it down the first base line.”
“We’re holding our breath, going crazy at the same time,” Sergakis says.
“Ronnie, his talent and speed, he scores all the way from first base. Gets us the lead back. That rejuvenates our dugout,” Beals says.
“The last out? Oh, yeah. I remember it. You don’t forget something like that. Ground ball to (Craig) Nennig,” Sergakis says. “I’m watching Craig and right then, it all starts to come home – what we’ve accomplished.”
“Nennig gets a nice hop. Throws a strike to first and it’s on, the dog pile begins,” Beals says. “I tell my coaches, ‘Wait. Watch ’em, boys.’ It was just such a moment to see the guys celebrate the battle they had just won, and it was a battle.”
OSU was the sleeper who survived a gauntlet. They came out of the losers’ bracket. Because of weather they were forced to play four games in a matter of 30 hours. Sleep was a rarity. Rest came at a premium.
“It seemed surreal then. It seems surreal now,” Sergakis says. “Definitely, it’s something I will never forget. It’s like it happened yesterday and here we are talking about 2017.”
“I wish I could coach that team every day the rest of my life,” Beals said. “But, you move on…That’s the bitter sweet of coaching college baseball…But I’m excited about the team we will put on the field this year. I really am. It’s a talented group. They just haven’t done it every day at this level.”
“When I walked into the locker room the first time in the fall, I felt like the stranger,” said Zach Ratcliff, penciled in as this year’s starting designated hitter. “It was like, ‘What’s up? Who are these guys? Where is everybody?’
Jalen Washington, who moves from catching last year to shortstop, his natural position, felt much the same.
“I’m like, “Who’s that? Who’s this?’ It was kinda strange. We got something like 17, 18 new guys,” Washington said. “That’s a big change, but I think we are going to be alright.”
When the Buckeyes open play Friday at noon against Kansas State in the in the Sunshine State Classic at Osceola County Stadium, they will do so with newcomers at six positions.
“That’s some turnover,” Ratcliff said, “but from what I’ve seen, these guys can play.”
While Washington sheds the tools and responsibilities of catching and moves to short, sophomore Jacob Barnwell steps in behind the plate, giving the Bucks added defense behind the plate.
Washington, who was named to last years Big Ten Tournament Team, gave the Buckeyes solid leadership, but Beals says Barnwell has “next level catch and throw ability behind the plate.”
Tre’ Gantt moves from right field to center, where he’s most comfortable, and provides solid defense as well as good lead-off abilities.
Beals believes that both Washington and Gantt will benefit offensively with another year of experience and the change in defensive assignments. Washington hit .249 last year. He had three homers and 38 RBI. Gantt hit .255 in 47 games and drove in 13 runs.
Sophomore Brady Cherry, who came to Ohio State with grand expectations, gets the nod at third. Beals praises Cherry’s work on his defensive game, but he has to improve at the plate. Cherry hit .218 last season in 35 starts. He has power and plenty of it (five homers and 23 RBI last years) but has to be more consistent and more decisive at the plate.
Beyond those three, OSU fields JC transfers and one true freshman: Bo Coolen starts at first; Noah McGowan at second; Tyler Cowles in left and Dominic Canzone, a true freshman in right. Shea Murray, a redshirt senior and former pitcher, also figures in the outfield picture.
At 6-6, 220, Beals says Murray is “one of the best athletes on the team” and, quite possibly, the best among his outfield candidates when it comes to running and throwing the ball.
“But,” he adds, “Shea hasn’t hit in five years. He’s got a lot of work to do.”
Offensively, the Bucks are a wait-and-see program, but Beals remains confident.
“We don’t have a Ronnie Dawson or a Troy Montgomery; a Nick Sergakis or Jacob Bosiokovic. That’s true,” Beals said. “This is a different group. We’re gonna be different in our game and in name, but I like our talent…I’m cautiously optimistic, cautiously because this group has not done it yet in an Ohio State uniform and at this level…
“We’re gonna have our ups and downs. We will have growing pains. But we’ll learn and we’ll learn how to win ballgames.”
Beals’ ace in the hole is his pitching staff, a solid group that, as he says, “have a lot of experience and success in championship situations.”
Junior Adam Niemeyer and sophomore Ryan Feltner lead the starting corps with junior Yianni Pavlopoulos, last year’s closer, making a move for the three spot. Seth Kinker and Kyle Michaelik, both juniors, both battle-tested, anchor a bullpen that promises strength and dependability.
So, while observers wonder about the Buckeyes ability to score runs and if Beals can corral so many newcomers into a cohesive unit, he has a different concern.
“My biggest concern is that we can play the defense that is necessary to win at this level and to support this pitching staff,” Beals said. “I think we have the ability to do it, but Cherry has never played third every day and Jalen hasn’t played shortstop every day, and then there are the new guys Last year, we had a bunch of tough son-of-guns in that infield: Nennig, Kuhn, Sergakis, those guys made every play down the stretch.”
It’s a tough act to follow. That’s what it all comes down to. Every move this team makes—whether fair or not—will be compared to what took place last year and the losses incurred.
The at-large view: OSU will be a middle of the pack team in the Big Ten. DI Baseball.Com, the leading source on collegiate baseball, picks the Buckeyes seventh in the league behind…Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan State and Minnesota.
At this point, it’s a fair assessment. But Beals has proven he can work his own kind of magic. When no one is looking, he does his best work.
“No one was looking at us last year either,” Sergakis said. “You got to remember that. You just got to wait and see.”
The wait ends Friday. The proof begins.