Taking advantage of unseasonably warm temperatures, the Ohio State Buckeyes took to Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking live cuts, running the bases and squaring off in intrasquad scrimmages with only a little more than two weeks until Opening Day.
We were on hand for Tuesday's action, which saw the Buckeyes split into two groups rotating between fielding and hitting. Here's some impressions on where the Buckeyes stand going into 2013, a season in which head coach Greg Beals says his team already has very high expectations and are very aware of the process that is required to achieve their goals.
While the batters were not being tested as in a game situation, coaches Mike Stafford and Josh Newman did the honors of firing in pitches with slightly more heat than a batting practice offering. As Ohio State limped to an 11-13 Big Ten record last season, the Buckeyes shortcomings most prominently reared their ugly heads at the plate.
In conference games, Ohio State would finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten in slugging (9th), doubles (8th), home runs (t-7th), average (7th) and runs (7th). With three of the conference's top four team in slugging, Nebraska (.451), Indiana (.441) and Michigan State (.396), returning at least six positional starters, if the Buckeyes are going to catch the top of the Big Ten, they will need more potency at the plate than their .336 clip would otherwise indicate.
Fortunately, the Cornhuskers, Hoosiers and Spartans are not alone in returning a bevy of positional players. Ohio State only lost left fielder David Corna to graduation, none to the draft, where another year of strength and conditioning and at-bats can only go to serve eight returning starters well. That's saying nothing of a freshman class full of potential.
As Tuesday's action commenced, in the field was what appeared to be Ohio State's first unit. Going around the diamond, seniors Brad Hallberg, Ryan Cypret and Kirby Pellant manned first, second, and short. Cypret and Pellant manned those positions last year while Hallberg is moving across the diamond from the hot corner. At third base was freshman Craig Nennig, while the outfielder from left to right was composed of senior Joe Ciamacco, junior Tim Wetzel and sophomore Pat Porter with sophomore Aaron Gretz behind the plate.
Not participating due to injury was sophomore third baseman Ryan Leffel (wrist) and first baseman/designated hitter, junior Josh Dezse (back).
The alignment in the field didn't provide many surprises. Ciamacco saw time in left field last year, making 26 starts. Nenning consistently exhibited the defensive abilities that have been spoken of highly since his signing. Perhaps the biggest surprises of the practices came in the rotation at the plate, a group dominated by freshmen.
For those that have watched baseball inside of Bill Davis Stadium, for whatever reason, be it wind current, lack of pull-power right-handed bats, or something else altogether, balls simply do not carry to left field. Tuesday afternoon and early evening brought a noticeable breeze, but hardly anything that should dramatically impact ball path. Whether the wind was in play or not, freshman Zach Ratcliff turned on a ball that sailed over the left field fence.
Ratcliff and classmates Jacob Bosiokovic (3B/LF), Jacob Brobst (OF) and Troy Kuhn (INF) all had moments of sending the ball to the base of, off of or over the outfield wall. While the Buckeyes have yet to find a group of players within a single class that can anchor a lineup 3-6, the four freshmen represent a mix of speed, power, athleticism and talent that should have Buckeye baseball backers happy.
But the newcomers were not the lone players to showcase their abilities. The senior class isn't ready to take a back seat just yet, and showed what they were capable of.
Hallberg demonstrated why he was the team's leading hitter a year ago. With a bat that stays in the strike zone as long as any collegiate player in the country, Hallberg combines an even-keel personality with the level and consistent swing. Shortstop Kirby Pellant showed off the wheels that lead to him stealing a team high 31 bases, getting out of the box and running into extra bases on compact, line-drive swings. After suffering a high ankle sprain during fall practice, Pellant's most promising moment came during a slide into third base when he showed no ill-effects of the injury.
Two more standouts from the day's activities were a pair of players that seem primed for breakout seasons in Gretz and Porter. The classmates are similar; both are listed at 6-0, 205 lbs, and are left-handed hitters who use quick hands and strong wrists to make solid contract. Gretz and Porter respectively carried .253 and .266 averages during their collegiate debut, but the two bring a mature plate presence, get on base via walks and HBPs more times than they strike out, and should really help the run scoring efforts. Each had moments of driving the ball suggesting that the much needed increase in power could start with those two.
On a scheduled off day, the Buckeye pitchers did little more than long-toss, jog and track down foulballs. Wednesday would bring an intra-squad scrimmage where freshman Jacob Post and Joey Stoll both threw. So too did sophomore Trace Dempsey and senior Brian King.
While the Buckeyes are all but set in the field, what happens with the pitching may not be decided until the first weekend of the season is here. With a staff that is the deepest of the Beals era, there are limitless options at the third-year head coach's disposal. We'll explore more what Beals' best options are in the weeks to come here at Land-Grant Holy Land.