An 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament capped an adversity-filled season for Ohio State. Be it tough luck, a plague of injuries or personal tragedy, missing the NCAA Tournament for a fifth consecutive season, Ohio State's 30-28 showing in 2014 brought upon more questions and concern than hope and optimism for the future.
After coming within one inning from claiming a piece of the 2013 Big Ten Championship, how could Ohio State finish 10-14 in conference action, the team's worst Big Ten showing since 1987?
How and why has Indiana surged to the top of the conference? Does Ohio State have the ability to catch up?
If the outside noise has caused Ohio State coach Greg Beals to lose any sleep, he certainly hasn't shown any signs of it. Two days before Ohio State is set to begin team practice in preparation for the 2015 season, Beals is as comfortable and loose as ever, going to work in his office overlooking the third base line of Bill Davis Stadium with the same enthusiasm in the leading the Buckeyes he showed on June 17, 2010 when he was name the 11th head coach in Ohio State history. Gloom and misery would be as misplaced in meetings between Buckeye players and coaches as a ballerina standing in the batter's box.
With a look at what Ohio State returns to the diamond, one can find reason as to why the outside noise, the latest in the form of Collegiate Baseball predicting the Buckeyes to finish 10th in the conference, doesn't resonate nor bother anyone at Bill Davis Stadium.
A team which has professional scouts raving on the individual talent Ohio State possesses, the Buckeyes are set to begin practice on with the first team of exclusively Beals-recruited players. Inheriting a team which finished below .500 for the first time in 24 years at 26-27, while right-handed pitcher and first baseman Josh Dezse was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Ohio State did not have a first-team All-Big Ten performer in 2011, nor was a Buckeye selected in the 50-round Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Four years later the cupboards are replenished.
With one of the Big Ten's best 1-2 combos, sophomores Travis Lakins and Tanner Tully are set to anchor the rotation, lead a pitching staff with a half-dozen viable starting options. With a fastball up to 96 miles-per-hour and tantalizing off-speed pitches, after striking out 55 batters in 55 innings primarily as Ohio State's high-leverage reliever, Lakins moves into the rotation as a draft-eligible sophomore expected by some scouts to be drafted within the first three rounds. With pinpoint command, Tully was named the Big Ten's top freshman a year ago, going 6-3 with a 2.22 ERA, striking out 53 batters against a mind-bobbling seven walks in 93.1 innings. Senior left-handed pitcher Ryan Riga returns after battling through injuries last year, presenting Ohio State with a No. 3 option that has the ability to shutout a ranked opponent with 10 strikeouts and 1 walk as he did against Oregon last March.
Junior right-hander Jacob Post was a draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school and has showed flashes of promise in his first two seasons in Columbus. John Havird is a transfer with two years of eligibility, from Mesa Community College where he was an All-Region selection on a national championship club. Freshman right-handed Jacob Niggemeyer is a local product from Olentangy, Ohio, turning down a professional opportunity with the Chicago Cubs to attend and play for a program he committed to as a sophomore.
Where those six pitchers can carry Ohio State through midweek contests and weekend series, ideally a conference tournament and regional as well, a bevy of bullpen arms headlined by 2013 All-American closer Trace Dempsey, his 26 career saves three shy of the school's all-time saves record, is at Beals' disposal.
Deep on the mound, Ohio State is set to be equally versatile and capable in the field.
Ohio State's two captains are senior catchers Aaron Gretz and Connor Sabanosh. The two respectively carried .748 and .727 on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentages, combining to commit only five errors behind the plate in 426 chances. At the hot corner, junior third baseman Troy Kuhn is tied for the lead among returning Big Ten players with six home runs a year ago, as he batted .290 with a team-leading 14 doubles. The Buckeyes can rotate juniors Craig Nennig (.338 OBP) Nick Sergakis (.318 average) and Orange Coast College sophomore transfer L Grant Davis between second base and shortstop.
While the prior units have shown the ability to be depended on and produce, Ohio State's most potent group is in the outfield.
Sophomore Ronnie Dawson emerged as a star in his debut season, a player who's tools and professional potential might be greater than any Big Ten player. Dawson's .335 batting average is the highest among returning Big Ten players, paired with his team-leading .454 slugging percentage and .396 on-base percentage. Possessing an incredible blend of raw power and speed, Dawson's four home runs and 10 stolen bases are numbers likely to be the lowest totals in his Buckeye career.
Statistics produced in 2014 also figure to be the lowest put up by the time Pat Porter no longer dons an Ohio State uniform. After a breakout sophomore season, batting .296 with 13 doubles, five triples and four home runs in 2013, Porter batted only.229 with 10 doubles and one home run a year ago. Coaches and scouts believe Porter is capable of more, and a full season removed from a broken hamate in his left wrist, an injury which can zap professional hitters of power for upwards of 18 months, Porter may be back on track.
Ohio State's stable of fleet-footed left-handed hitting outfielders continues with sophomore Troy Montgomery and freshman Tre' Gantt, two natives of Indiana, like Kuhn, Post and Tully, which Beals continues to turn to for impact players.
Three juniors will help fill out Beals lineup card between first base and designated hitter in Jacob Bosiokovic, Ryan Leffel and Zach Ratcliff. Bosiokovic ended the 2014 season on a tear, going 10-for-17 with five doubles, but a tear in his elbow forced Tommy John surgery in July. Limited in the field, Bosiokovic is expected to be healthy in time to assist the Buckeyes at the plate. Leffel emerged as a reliable right-handed bat, carrying a .303 average in his first season seeing significant time. And if one wants to discuss potential, Ratcliff's raw power is as grand as any in the conference, a big bat pair with an expected livelier baseball where the Columbus native could provide long-missing thunder in the heart of the Ohio State order.
Ohio State's staff believes its 2015 outfit is their most complete club. When the team splits into two for intra-squad scrimmages, the competition truly reflects what can be seen in the spring on both sides of the ball.
With Maryland and Rutgers entering the Big Ten, the conference now has 13 baseball programs and a changing national perception. After Indiana's 2013 College World Series appearance and national seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Maryland enters the season ranked No. 14 by D1Baseball.com with Nebraska checking in at No. 23. The Big Ten of 2015 isn't the one of 2005 where Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota routinely beat teams by showing up. The conference is better, deeper and many expect upwards of four, five and even six teams to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But Ohio State should have the ability to beat any team they face this season, having the talented expected of its name.
If that happens, the outside conversation will surely change. But for the time that suits Beals and his Buckeyes just fine, they believe they're more than capable to contend for a conference championship.