While most of the attention on the campus of Ohio State is set squarely on the crack of shoulder pads at this time of the year, the past month and a half has also included the crack of the bat as the Buckeye baseball team engaged in fall practice. Some 40 student athletes, including 16 returning letterwinners, went through conditioning, drills, and the annual Scarlet and Gray World Series.
"We're excited about the 2017 season," head coach Greg Beals said at the outset of fall ball. "There are obviously a lot of holes that we have to replace from last year's ball club, but we have a lot of pieces and we are looking forward to putting that puzzle together and having another championship run next spring."
Beals, who is in his seventh year at the helm of the program, guided Ohio State to a 44-20-1 record in 2016, with the Buckeyes making an improbable run to the Big Ten tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. But a sizable chunk of the team's production left via the MLB draft and graduation, leaving many more questions than answers.
"We have a lot of talent that will push the program through very competitive scrimmages and position battles this fall," Beals said. "The newcomers are very talented and will learn from the veterans who have worked very hard to get us here today."
Gray took the series from Scarlet three games to two, but the outcome is far less important than what the players showed on the field. So what did we learn about the baseball Bucks in the S&G World Series?
Ohio State lost a total of 13 contributors (nine seniors, four juniors) from 2016's championship team. In all, the offense must replace 80 percent of its hits, 80 percent of its doubles, 86 percent of its home runs, 83 percent of its total extra-base hits, and 77 percent of its runs batted in. The pitching staff must look to fill holes after losing 57 percent of its starts, 45 percent of its innings, and 42 percent of its strikeouts.
While that's a whole lot to lose, the cupboard is not entirely bare. Senior Jalen Washington, a co-captain on last year's squad and the starting catcher, is making a position switch to shortstop after the entirety of the starting infield departed. Washington put together a 4-for-18 effort with four runs scored in the S&G series, and has the kind of athleticism to seamlessly make the switch from backstop to middle infielder.
The only other returning upperclassmen who saw regular time a season ago are junior Tre Gantt (4-for-17, four RBIs), who will be moving from right field to center field, and fifth-year senior first baseman Zach Ratcliff (7-for-14, three runs, seven RBIs).
Sophomores Brady Cherry (5-for-17, five runs, four RBIs), who is the favorite to claim the third base job, and Jacob Barnwell (2-for-9, four runs), who will take over for Washington behind the plate, are the only other returnees with any real game experience.
On the mound, redshirt junior Adam Niemeyer and sophomores Ryan Feltner and Connor Curlis are in the mix for the starting rotation, while redshirt senior Jake Post, redshirt juniors Yianni Pavlopoulos and Kyle Michalik, and junior Seth Kinker bring back plenty of experience in the bullpen.
Among the 17 newcomers to the Buckeyes' program, five are transfer students from the community college circuit. The most impressive among them during fall ball were left fielder Tyler Cowles, second baseman Noah McGowan, and first baseman Bo Coolen, all of whom played for the Gray side.
Cowles, a Grove City, Ohio native, attended Sinclair CC, and was a monster this past season. He had a .364/.471/.636 slash line with 17 doubles, 13 home runs, 51 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases in 65 games for a Tartan Pride club that placed third in the NJCAA Division II World Series. Cowles was 5-for-20 with a home run, two runs scored, and seven driven in the S&G series to put himself into the discussion for outfield playing time.
McGowan, slashed .393/.511/.674 with 13 doubles, seven home runs, and 38 RBIs in 2016 for McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. He displayed that impressive bat this fall as well, going 6-for-15 and scoring two runs.
Coolen, who is from Honolulu, Hawaii and put up a .343/.396/.414 slash line in 44 games at Cypress College in California this past season, was 4-for-17 in the fall games, including two doubles, four runs, and a pair of RBIs.
A pair of McGowan's teammates from McLennan also transferred in to help the pitching staff, and had mixed results. 6-foot-6 right-hander Reece Calvert got pounded in Game One to the tune of five runs, four earned, in four innings of work, while righty reliever Dustin Jourdan was perfect in 1.1 innings out of the bullpen in Game Five.
New kids on campus
There were 11 true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen trying to make an impression during the fall ball season. These players are the future of the program, but the results were mixed during the S&G series.
The most impressive was true freshman Dominic Canzone, a Louisville Slugger High School All-American from Walsh Jesuit. Canzone made a strong play to be considered for the starting right field spot, going 6-for-15 with four runs scored three RBIs in the series while batting in the No. 3 hole for the Scarlet side.
But the remaining newbies appear to be a work in progress. Middle infielders Casey Demko and Noah West impressed with their glovework, but still need work at the plate, and 6-foot-5, 205-pound Conner Pohl has the intimidating physique and physical skillset, but needs to adjust to the college game.
It was a tough series for pitchers, with 51 runs being scored between the two sides in the five games, and the freshmen hurlers took the brunt of it. 14 of those runs were charged to Andrew Magno, Michael McDonough, Jake Vance, Gavin Lyon, and Collin Lollar in their first taste of collegiate competition.
Now we wait
We're roughly four months away from Opening Day of Ohio State's 2017 season, so there's plenty of time for Beals and his coaching staff to sort through the performance of the players in the Scarlet and Gray series and throughout fall practice. There are positional battles that will likely be waged into January and early February as the squad takes shape.
This much is certain, though: the Buckeyes have tremendous holes to fill from last season's club, and, particularly offensively, fall ball left a lot of questions unresolved. How quickly certain freshmen develop and whether or not the transfer students can acclimate themselves to the higher level of competition will go a long way towards determining if this team is rebuilding or just reloading.
Beals is no stranger to starting over at Ohio State, as the program was a total reclamation project when he arrived, and he turned it into a winner. He'll have to do his best coaching job to date to prevent the Buckeyes from a steep dropoff in the coming season.