This time last year, Ohio State baseball's biggest question mark on the brink of a new season was all about who would be taking to the mound. Needing to replace the entire starting rotation, the Buckeyes leaned heavily on some young arms, and the results were better than could have been expected.
While the pitching overachieved for Ohio State last season, this year it is expected to be an anchor of the team.
"We have built this team around the fundamental philosophy of pitching and defense wins championships," head coach Greg Beals said. "Team defense starts on the mound and this group embodies that philosophy."
We begin our positional preview of the 2015 Buckeye nine on the mound.
Starters - Weekend Rotation
Taking the hill for Beals will be a mix of experience and electricity, highlighted by last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a senior who won multiple conference Pitcher of the Week honors last season, and a sophomore who already has professional scouts salivating. The weekend rotation looks to be very solid, and there are a number of intriguing candidates to handle midweek duties, as well.
Talk of Ohio State's starting pitching must begin with Tully, who took home the hardware as the conference's top freshman last season. Joining the weekend rotation once the Big Ten schedule hit, the lefty made 16 appearances for the Buckeyes, 11 of them starts, covering a team-high 93.1 innings of work. Tully finished up his rookie campaign with a 6-3 mark and a 2.22 ERA, limiting opponents to a .253 batting average, sporting a WHIP of 1.05, and posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.57 to 1. As impressive as those numbers are, though, the most staggering stat is the fact that the southpaw walked a meager seven batters all season, ranking him second nationally in walks per nine innings at 0.675.
If Tully can continue to develop and give Ohio State the same kind of quality innings as a sophomore, the foundation for a strong rotation will be firmly in place.
The now senior statesman of the Buckeyes' rotation, Riga's 2014 campaign was essentially a tale of two seasons. After logging the third-most appearances in the Big Ten out of the bullpen as a sophomore in 2013, the southpaw found himself logging starter's innings as a junior, and began the season with a bang. Riga claimed conference Pitcher of the Week twice during the non-conference schedule thanks to shutouts against nationally-ranked teams from Auburn and Oregon State. But arm fatigue put him on the shelf for a month. Once he returned to the mound, Riga was much less effective. He finished the season 4-4 with a 4.33 ERA, logging a career-high 68.2 innings in 11 starts. The opposition hit a healthy .311 against Riga, who gave up a team-worst five home runs and had a WHIP of 1.53.
If Riga can bounce back and regain the form he showed early a season ago, he should provide a steady presence and veteran leadership for Ohio State's staff.
Lakins is a player on the rise, both in the Big Ten and nationally. Pitching primarily as a setup man as a freshman last season, the righty posted a 1-3 record and a 2.45 ERA. He made 25 appearances, two of which were midweek starts, and threw 55 innings, by far the most of any reliever on the team. The opposition hit just .250 against Lakins, who boasted just under a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.27 WHIP.
Following up his freshman season, Lakins had a dominating summer, notching a 5-0 mark with a 1.93 ERA over five starts, striking out 28, while allowing only 15 hits and just one walk. Named a Prospect League All-Star, the Franklin, Ohio native threw a perfect game on June 20th, striking out 14 in the effort.
Among Ohio State's hurlers, Lakins has perhaps the most pro potential, being named the No. 27 sophomore in the country by Perfect Game. Draft eligible after this season, it will be interesting to see how he makes the transition to the starting rotation from the bullpen. With electric stuff, it should sure be fun to watch.
Starters - Midweek Rotation
Beals has depth in the rotation to handle the midweek starting duties, with a veteran and two newcomers. The midweek schedule is highlighted by a home game against Louisville, and also includes in-state schools Toledo, Akron, Ohio, and Dayton.
The top arm in Ohio State's incoming freshman class, Niggemeyer was a 28th round selection of the Chicago Cubs in last summer's draft. Foregoing the beginning of a pro career, the former Olentangy Liberty standout was sensational in the team's fall practices. In the annual Scarlet and Gray Series, Niggemeyer allowed just five hits while fanning five in 13 shutout innings, posting a 2-0 record.
Post, who like Niggemeyer turned down an opportunity to go pro out of high school, was believed to be poised to push for a regular spot in the starting rotation as a sophomore a season ago. The Chetserton, Indiana native finished out the year going 3-3 with a 3.35 ERA in fifteen appearances. He made six starts, filling in for both Riga and Zach Farmer, giving up a .276 opponents' batting average, 1.51 walks and hits per inning, and a two-to-one strikeout to walk ratio in 48.1 innings of work. Post has shown flashes of his potential in his first two years in Columbus, but must find more consistency if he is to see increased innings.
A transfer student from Mesa Community College, where he was an All-Region selection on a national championship club, Havird figures to see work both as a starter and a reliever. The 6'1" southpaw went 11-1 in 16 starts last season, posting a 1.60 ERA, fanning 68, and walking 21 in 101.1 innings of work. Havird threw 5 complete games and 3 shutouts for the national junior college champion Thunderbirds.
As much of a question as the starting pitching was for Ohio State entering last season, the bullpen was thought to be a no-brainer. While the stable of relievers was solid on the whole for Beals, the lingering feeling from the 2014 campaign is one of underachievement and nightmarish blown late leads.
With Lakins making the move to the starting rotation, a host of less-experienced arms will need to step up in the Buckeyes' pen, including Adam Niemeyer, who is expected back mid-season after Tommy John surgery last year, Michael Horejsei, who could step into Lakins' setup role, Shea Murray, Kyle Michalik and possibly Curtiss Irving. This unit logged just a little over 40 innings collectively in 2014.
The only truly known quantity for Ohio State's relief corps is a closer who had a forgettable season a year ago. But after being named a Prospect League All-Star over the summer, there is hope that Beals' stopper is primed for a return to form.
After a sophomore season in which he saved 17 games and earned first-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-America honors, expectations were high for Dempsey in 2014. The righty was a preseason All-America selection, and was locked in to the back end of Ohio State's bullpen. To call the season a disappointment for the Huntington, WV native would be a massive understatement. Dempsey went 1-4 with a 5.94 ERA in 24 relief appearances, saving just eight games. Opponents hit .269 against him, and his career-high 18 walks allowed led to a WHIP of 1.59, which is much too high for someone expected to close out ballgames.
Dempsey, who is just three saves shy of tying Ohio State's career record, is looking for a bounce-back year. If he can regain the form that made him an All-American, the back end of the bullpen should once again be a place where leads are safe.
With six capable arms to handle starting duties, including perhaps the best 1-2 combination in the Big Ten in Lakins and Tully, Ohio State's pitching staff looks to be a strength for the team this season. If the bullpen can solidify itself and Dempsey can have the type of year the Buckeyes know he can have, scoring runs could be a difficult task for opposing teams. With high aspirations for the Big Ten campaign and beyond, Beals has made it known he has confidence in how far this squad can go.
"We are very excited about this team and the upcoming season," Beals said. "Last year, we had a young team and dealt with a lot of adversity, growing pains, injury and health that slowed down the upward progress of the program. We have learned and grown from those experiences and are confident we are a much tougher team this season."
If that toughness becomes palpable on the mound for the Buckeyes, the program's postseason drought could come to an end.