With a veteran team, Ohio State's diamond dwellers seek a return to the top of the Big Ten.
Abbott and Costello we are not.
But in discussing the 2013 outfit of the Ohio State baseball program, who's on first, better yet, who isn't on first is quite the storyline.
This past Monday, the beginning of the season's first week, Ohio State announced two-way standout Josh Dezse will be out at least the first two months of the season, needing rest from all baseball activities to nurse a back injury. While the Buckeyes have been selected to finish as high as second in the Big Ten, the coaches predicted a fourth-place finish, the Dezse news casts a shadow over the start of Ohio State's season, a year that has long been circled by Buckeye backers as the year Ohio State returns to its proper place in the Big Ten in their eyes, at its top.
Before hitting on the latest Buckeye nine, let's put in perspective Ohio State's pursuit of their conference championship.
Beginning with the freshmen class of 1987, no Ohio State baseball player that has stayed with the program for four seasons has left Columbus without appearing in an NCAA Regional. If the Buckeyes do not find a spot in the field of 64, that streak is over. The Buckeyes are three years removed from finishing as the Tallahassee Regional runners-up, since 1991 Ohio State has appeared in the NCAA Tournament at least once every two seasons.
The 2012 Big Ten champion, Purdue, ended a 103-year title drought with their 18-6 Big Ten season. The coaches favorite to win the 2013 championship, Indiana, has not won the conference since 1949. Ohio State has won seven conference crowns since the oldest Buckeye has been alive, the eight-year, 2001-to-2009 drought felt like forever to Buckeye fans.
So what does that all mean? There is an expectation of excellence in Columbus. The Buckeye baseball program does not endure generational title droughts, they do not view a trip to a regional as a dream season, they do not hand out rings just for getting hot for four days in May and winning the conference tournament, all of the above is expected.
Which is why this is an important year.
Ask a scout, rival coach, booster or scribe that follows the program, upon his retirement, Bob Todd left the cupboard bare. Over the last two seasons, Ohio State has had one player drafted, right-handed pitcher John Kuchno, selected in the 17th round of last June's draft by the Pirates. While Dezse was the 2011 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, an All-Big Ten second-team performer that season, in Beals' first two seasons, Ohio State has only had three all-conference performers, a number matched by first-team only selections for Nebraska in its one Big Ten season.
While a new coach may quickly turn around a basketball program, there is not a quick fix in baseball. With two recruiting classes under his belt, and a inherited class that included two of Ohio's top f 2012 prospects in junior right-handed pitcher Greg Greve along with Dezse, this is the year everyone has banked on for the corner to turn.
A look around the diamond shows a lot of experience, the Bucks can have up to six four or five-year players in the lineup, while obvious strengths and weaknesses.
Expected starters with 2012 AVG/OBP/SLG/other
C- So. Aaron Gretz (.253/.384/.286)/r-Sr. Greg Solomon (.252/.295/.396)
1B- r-Sr. Brad Hallberg (.311/.414/.431)
2B- r-Sr. Ryan Cypret (.236/.350/.304)
SS- Sr. Kirby Pellant (.274/.375/.340/31-38 SB/SBA)
3B- Fr. Craig Nennig (N/A)
LF- r-Sr. Joe Ciamacco (.291/.351/.330/14-14 SB/SBA)
CR- Jr. Tim Wetzel (.280/.411/.336)
RF- So. Pat Porter (.266/.370/.322/ 8 OF assists)
DH- r-Jr. Mike Carroll (.279/.368/.333) /Fr. Jacob Bosiokovic (N/A)
Pitchers with 2012 IP, ERA, SO
No. 1 - Jr. RHP Jaron Long (101.1, 266, 63)
No. 2 - Sr. LHP Brian King (83.0, 4.45, 48)
No. 3 - r-Sr. Brad Goldberg (N/A)
Top relievers: So. RHP Trace Dempsey (32.0, 5.06, 22), r-Sr. RHP David Fathalikhani (29.0, 3.10, 12), Sr. RHP Brett McKinney (71.0, 4.18, 48), Fr. RHP Jacob Post (N/A), So. LHP Ryan Riga (Transfer).
Closer: Jr. RHP Greg Greve (50.2, 5.15, 34)
Breaking down the Bucks
Without Dezse, Hallberg is the lone Buckeye to slug at least .400 in 2012. Power was an issue for Ohio State last season, as the Buckeyes finished eighth in the Big Ten in team slugging (.355), seventh in home runs (21) and extra-base hits (118). But the Buckeyes were able to score the fourth-most runs, 331, despite finishing in the middle of the pack in team average, .269, thanks to the fourth-best on-base percentage, .371, and leading the Big Ten with 86 stolen bases.
The lack of power isn't expected to dramatically change, especially without Dezse, who slugged .426 thanks to nine doubles and five home runs as a sophomore. Outside of sophomores Aaron Gretz and Pat Porter, two big league-build left-handed hitters who project to generate power in the coming years, the Buckeyes will field a team of smaller, but quick athletes, an overall unit that remains above-average team in terms of athleticism relative to the Big Ten and figures to best use strong discipline with a prowess on the basepaths to generate runs.
If the power remains relatively low, Ohio State can build upon its "small-ball" brand by improving defensively. Ohio State's 78 errors were the third-most among the 11 Big Ten teams in 2012, producing a sixth-rated fielding percentage of .967. Giving the opposition extra outs and free bases, Ohio State allowed 12 passed balls and only threw out 31% on would-be base stealers, placed stress upon an offensive unit that needed to move station-to-station in order to eek out a run.
The Buckeyes figure to see better defense at third base, freshman Craig Nennig is a shortstop by trade but conceded the position to senior Kirby Pellant, one of the Big Ten's top six-hole filliers, and man the hot corner as Hallberg flips to first to fill in for Dezse. Nennig will get to more balls than Hallberg did and give the Buckeyes a better presence down the left-field line. Using Porter in the outfielder during the entire season will provide improvement too, as he Joe Ciamacco and Tim Wetzel represent one of the Big Ten's fastest outfields.
If the Buckeyes defense improves, so will the numbers put up by the pitchers.
Though the team was led by All-Big Ten First-team Jaron Long, the only returning first-team pitcher in the Big Ten, Ohio State was an average team on the mound with a collective 4.25 ERA stood fifth in the Big Ten. With 353 strikeouts, six Big Ten teams rung up the opposition more times than Ohio State. Their middle-of-the-pack abilities continued in issuing walks, at 3.33 walks-per-nine-innings, Ohio State's 197 walks placed them sixth in the conference. Buckeye pitchers relied on their teammates turning outs behind them, and as mentioned, there is room for improvement there.
The Buckeyes figure to give Long and senior southpaw Brian King their 2012 roles, the 1-2 atop the Ohio State rotation. The two figure to not deviate from the 2012 campaigns. Long is one of the Big Ten's top command pitchers with enough velocity to keep hitters honest, while King relies on location and working around the plate to entice soft contact. What is unknown is how Ohio State's No. 3, Brad Goldberg performs. Goldberg has not pitched in a college game in almost three years, transferring in from Coastal Carolina after the 2010 season, sitting out the 2011 due to the transfer and missing the 2012 season, ineligible due to credit hour shortage. Goldberg has shown stuff that would have him the No. 1 on several Big Ten teams, working in the upper 80s/low 90s, with an above-average curve. If Goldberg has a solid season, the Bucks figure to have a strong rotation.
Even without Dezse, Ohio State is deep in the bullpen. Senior right-handed pitchers David Fathalikhani and Brett McKinney are proven vets, capable of getting tough outs. Freshman righty Jacob Post is an extremely talented pitcher. As the conference season nears, McKinney and Post figure to start midweek games. JUCO transfer Ryan Riga provides Ohio State with a lefty and Trace Dempsey is a side-armer that makes the opposition uncomfortable. Taking over as the Buckeye closer figures to be Greg Greve. Greve, like Dezse, is a broad-shoulder right-hander who can sit in the low-to-mid-90s, providing a power arm in the late innings.
While the overall talent isn't there to emphatically make the claim Ohio State is a title contender, the Buckeyes are in a better position now than when Beals inherited the program. Ohio State has a freshman class that could provide a bit of pop off the bench behind experienced starters, a deep bullpen and one, possibly two, of the Big Ten's top starting pitchers.
Taking the direction of their fiery skipper, Beals, Ohio State will be a team that concedes no at-bat, both at the plate and on the mound, a team that needs to do the little things right. That may not be a tough task for a team full of seniors.
The season ends with Ohio State hosting the preseason-favorite Hoosiers. With a few fortunate bounces Ohio State could claim another title. None expected the 2009 team to win the championship after a fifth-place finish, but they did. And at Ohio State, four years is too long between titles.