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Longtime friends look to lead hometown Ohio State baseball back to glory

Columbus natives Zach Ratcliff and Nick Sergakis fuel each other in an effort to lead the Buckeyes back to past promise.

A Columbus native, Ratcliff signing his National Letter of Intent while attending Columbus Academy
A Columbus native, Ratcliff signing his National Letter of Intent while attending Columbus Academy
Chris Webb

One can't blame Kelly Ratcliff if, while watching Ohio State, a nervous panic sets in.

No, Ratcliff isn't a part of the Ohio State coaching staff, he doesn't have any game duties.

But for more than a decade he has closely watched the two players on the right side of Ohio State's infield. Ratcliff is the father of Zach Ratcliff, Ohio State's junior first baseman, and was the high school and longtime travel coach to the player to his son's right, junior second baseman Nick Sergakis. Watching the Buckeyes take on George Mason, Florida Atlantic or Saint Louis, could evoke memories of coaching Columbus Academy High School against Granville, Heath or Whitehall high schools, or bring to mind travel tournaments in Cleveland, Nashville and Marietta, Georgia for Ohio Elite Baseball.

For Ohio State, off to a 4-2 start, the longtime friends have been at the forefront of the Buckeye offense, driving forces in a quest to get their hometown program back to past glory.

"I remember growing up as a kid, when you heard Ohio State baseball they were winning the Big Ten every year, in a regional every year, even hosted a super regional," the younger Ratcliff said.

"To get back to the glory days is huge as a Central Ohio native."

So far this year Ratcliff has done his part to help the Buckeyes reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, the same year of their most recent conference championship. After six games in his first season as Ohio State's everyday first baseman, Ratcliff is batting .278 with a pair of doubles, second on the team with a .409 on-base percentage and four runs scored. A year ago Ratcliff carried a .232 average over 99 at-bats, picking up two doubles over the season's entirety next to a pair of home runs.

"He made a couple adjustments this offseason with his setup and approach that I think's going to help him see the ball better and rip off more consistent swings," head coach Greg Beals said.

As Ratcliff's three walks are one off his sophomore season total, he's in better control at the plate.

"The other part is, he just been around the block a few times, he has a bit of maturity and that's serving him well right now, the quality of his at-bats are pretty strong,"  Beals said.

Ratcliff attests to his experience playing a hand in his strong start, acknowledging his first two years offered a lot to learn. He goes to the plate now with a patiently aggressive approach, laying off offspeed offerings, knowing the difference between a pitch he can do damage with and one to chalk up as a good pitch from the pitcher. But for the 6'5 first baseman, in addition to changes in the mechanics of his swing, greater knowledge of the game, there's something extra that can aid him and it measures 5'8: Nick Sergakis.

Sergakis graduated from Columbus Academy in 2011, one year ahead of Ratcliff. Receiving an opportunity to play collegiate baseball at Coastal Carolina, Sergakis left his native Columbus for Conway, S.C.,  and baseball in the Big South conference. Sergakis did not see the field in 2012 and in 2013 found himself playing for junior college South Carolina-Lancaster. While Ratcliff showed well in his freshman season in 2013, batting .323 over 31 at-bats for the hometown Buckeyes, Sergakis played games in obscurity, a member on the USCL Lancers as they competed in Region X of the National Junior College Athletic Association.

In a way it was almost fitting.

Seemingly every noteworthy pairing represents opposites. Black and white, lightning and thunder, salt and pepper, ying and yang, zig and zag. Where there is the physically imposing Ratcliff, here's the undersized Sergakis.

Though they were experiencing opposite sides of college baseball, it would be only a matter of time before they were reunited.

"We knew Nick out of high school, he got the southern opportunity and took it," Beals said. "Things didn't work out there so we tracked him through his junior college days, had a chance to see him play a few times."

The Buckeye staff saw a player in Sergakis they felt would be a positive addition to their program. Citing the mental toughness, the grind and the work he's willing to put in, the Ohio State staff provided an opportunity for Sergakis to come home.

"All of my trial and tribulations made me who I am right now," Segakis said. "I can't tell you how many times throughout my career where I thought this going to be my last game. I look back on where I came from, I could be vindictive sometimes, but I'm grateful for where I'm at right now."

Where he is right now is entering a second season as a key cog in Ohio State's offensive attack. Starting the 2014 season as a reserve, grabbing at-bats here and there, Sergakis stepped into the Buckeye lineup when shortstop Craig Nennig suffered an ankle injury sliding into second base Mar. 22. Sergakis seized the moment and forced the Ohio State coaching staff to insert his name into the lineup throughout the rest of the season, batting .318.

"He's developed offensively beyond kind of what our expectations were," Beals said. "That has a lot to do with his makeup."

Sergakis speaks seizing the moment provided last year and continuing to work with the same diligence and effort. Not taking any day for granted, as he could find himself on being the one needed filled in for, he says he can never let down. His coach says it's his makeup, a bit of a little man complex where he takes to his craft in a way he's always out to prove himself.

But there's another driving force in the player Sergakis is, Ratcliff.

"Zach's my oldest friend, since we were 11 we've been playing together. Pretty much all of my memories stem from our competition."

That competition, whether as Nick said playing putt-putt when they were 13 or 14 after a baseball tournament in Myrtle Beach or playing video games at each other's home, helps each other.

"He knows my swing probably better than I know my own, and vice versa," Ratcliff said. "Nick and I have been playing with each other and best friends since we were 11 years old. Having the bond on and off the field, you're really like brothers."

The mental makeup of a baseball player is unique to his sport. Success for a hitter is achieved when failure is limited to 70% of the time. There are more downs than ups, there are slumps, there are grueling 12-pitch at-bats where one can do everything right and end with a rocket liner to the shortstop and it's no different than a three-pitch strikeout, an out.

Add classes, draining cross-country travel and the overall physiological and mental change a person goes through between 18-23, college baseball can be mentally taxing.

With Ratcliff and Sergakis, though home is only 20 minutes east, the bond between the two requires only a look to Ratcliff's right on the diamond, Sergakis to look across the lockerroom for comfort.

"If there's one person I can go to or vent to it's him," Sergakis said. "He understands where I came from, I know where he comes from. We understand our backgrounds, how everything has played out in our lives and how things could weigh on us. Whether it's baseball, class, girls, any type of thing; I feel I can go to him because he knows me better than anybody."

When Sergakis hit his first home run of the season in Ohio State's 8-2 win Feb. 20  at Florida Atlantic it brought him within one career home run of Ratcliff. Ratcliff assures he undoubtedly has the most power between the two, but, even though he has nine inches on him, Sergakis let it be known the one-on-one battle was on. But even the light jesting can't hide the bond of their friendship.

"His home run last year on his birthday and mine against Penn State, just seeing him in the dugout after it's like wow, we really did this, we're here," Sergakis said.

Just two of the many memories the boys from Columbus have between them, each with plans for many more.