It's tough to say that the 2015 season wasn't a disappointment for Ohio State baseball. Though the Buckeyes won 35 games, made their first appearance in the national rankings in five years, and again qualified for the Big Ten tournament, a hellish month of May caused the team to fall short of its ultimate goal of an NCAA tournament bid.
"We weren't playing bad baseball, but we weren't playing great baseball, either," head coach Greg Beals said this fall. "I don't like to use the word frustrated, but down the stretch we weren't able to get that figured out."
With a new season fast approaching, Ohio State still has a lot to figure out, most notably on the pitching mound. Weekend starters Travis Lakins, a 6th-round pick in the Major League Baseball draft by the Boston Red Sox, and Ryan Riga, who was selected in the 13th round by the Chicago White Sox, must be replaced. Closer and all-time saves leader Trace Dempsey graduated, leaving a hole in the back end of the bullpen. Also gone is Jacob Niggemeyer, one of last season's midweek starters as a freshman, who has transferred to Marshall.
Pitching is so important in a Big Ten conference that is shaping up to be ultra-competitive, and how Beals and his pitching coach, Mike Stafford, handle the staff will be a key to Ohio State making another leap forward.
"With graduation and the draft, it's a natural part of college baseball to have to replace guys on the mound and we are ready to do just that," Beals said. "We just need to determine what roles are best for them and best for the team."
We begin our preview series on the 2016 baseball Buckeyes on the mound.
Starters - Sure things
While Lakins and Riga took with them nine victories, over 150 strikeouts, and nearly 200 innings pitched, the cupboard is not bare for Ohio State. A former Big Ten Freshman of the Year and an All-Freshman team pick from last season are still in the fold to anchor the rotation, along with a versatile collection of arms that will vie for the final spot.
Tully is perhaps the biggest X-factor for this Buckeyes' ball club, as he will be taking the ball as the Friday starter for the second straight season. A breakout star in his first season in Columbus in which he went 6-3 with a 2.22 earned run average en route to being named the top freshman in the conference, Tully had a much more uneven sophomore campaign. The Elkhart, Indiana native went 4-4 with a 4.32 ERA, while opponents sported a batting average of over .300 against him. In the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis, Tully was skipped in the rotation in favor of Lakins and Riga.
The southpaw had an encouraging summer, though, pitching for Orleans in the highly-touted Cape Cod League. He tossed 28.1 innings, allowing just four earned runs, and showed enough promise to be named to the conference's Preseason Players to Watch list.
A bounce-back season from Tully would go a long way towards solidifying the pitching staff, and give Beals the ace he so badly needs.
Niemeyer is also a wild card, as he made a good showing as a midweek starter last season after coming off Tommy John surgery. The Minster, Ohio product went 2-0 in 33.1 innings of work, posting a 2.16 ERA and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Most impressively, he threw five innings of two-hit ball in a huge upset win of Louisville in April.
Now another year removed from the elbow surgery that derailed the start of his collegiate career, the hope is that Niemeyer will continue to regain the velocity that he once had. In three appearances before the injury in 2014, the redshirt sophomore was consistently hitting the mid-90s with his fastball, but that was not the case last season.
Niemeyer showed that he is a very cerebral pitcher last season, and if he can regain his lost velocity, the Buckeyes could have one of the better 1-2 punches in the weekend rotation in all of the Big Ten.
Starters - Who steps up?
Beyond Tully and Niemeyer, Beals has a number of options to fill in the final weekend rotation spot and the midweek starters. There are veteran arms and a couple of newcomers who are in a position to earn innings. The question is who will step up?
Post has been conspicuously absent from a lot of the preseason chatter on the team, but the senior from Chesterton, Indiana could certainly crack the rotation if he's in the mix. In 15 appearances out of the bullpen last season, the righty posted a 2-3 record, with a 2.12 ERA, and 24 strikeouts to just six walks. Post made six starts as a sophomore two years ago, so he's proven he can take the ball at the beginning of a game.
Woodby redshirted in 2015 after transferring from the University of Cincinnati. A right-hander from Springboro, Ohio, he went 3-0 in 14 relief appearances with a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014 for the Bearcats. Woodby started two games in last fall's Scarlet and Gray series, allowing four runs in 10.2 innings, and will likely man the midweek if he's not part of the weekend rotation.
Havird equipped himself well in his first season in Columbus last year, making nine appearances, two of which were starts, and putting up a 4-0 record. The transfer from Mesa Community College in Arizona threw 27.2 innings, compiling a 3.58 ERA and striking out three times as many hitters as he walked. A lefty, Havird will definitely see work, whether it's as a starter or out of the bullpen.
Among the others who will push for innings, freshman right-hander Ryan Feltner, a 25th round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in last June's draft, will be in the mix for the midweek, as will redshirt sophomore Yianni Pavlopoulos, who sat out last season due to Tommy John surgery.
Bullpen - A stable of arms
Ohio State's bullpen looks on paper to be a strength of the team. Beals has at his disposal a stable of arms - three righties and a pair of southpaws - to play to matchups and eat up innings. While Dempsey had been the mainstay of the pen the past three seasons, several other players saw significant action and gained valuable experience. The Buckeyes will have confidence handing these hurlers the ball in tight situations.
As a freshman, Kinker pitched impressively in his 17 appearances, and will be relied on to anchor the back end of the bullpen as a sophomore. In his first year in Columbus, the Huntington, West Virginia native held opponents to a .179 batting average, striking out 19 and walking just three in 22.1 innings of work. He allowed just 14 hits, and posted an impressive 0.76 WHIP.
The righty with the funky arm angle was also extremely solid out of the bullpen for the Buckeyes in 2015, and should again get the call often. In 18 appearances covering 19 innings, Michalik surrendered a meager six earned runs and held the opposition to a .250 batting average. A redshirt sophomore in 2016, the Brunswick, Ohio product allowed just one extra-base hit as a freshman.
Murray is an intimidating figure on the mound, standing 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 220 pounds, but his success has been limited thus far in his career. A right-handed redshirt junior from Defiance, Ohio, Murray has made 11 total appearances in his time at Ohio State, getting roughed up to the tune of 15 earned runs in 10.1 innings of work. But he's also shown the ability to strike out opposing hitters, with 13 Ks in his limited action, and could be poised to put it all together after passing on the pros as a 39th round pick of the Texas Rangers last June.
A former Cleveland St. Ignatius standout, Horejsei has been the lefty mainstay of the Buckeyes' bullpen the past two seasons. In 19 relief appearances covering 14.1 innings last season, Horejsei struck out 15 and sported a WHIP of 0.94 while holding opponents to a .267 batting average. In 27 career innings, he has allowed just seven base on balls, and will be counted on to bring that same control in 2016.
Among those who also figure to log some innings out of the bullpen are freshman lefty Connor Curlis, redshirt sophomore right-hander Curtiss Irving, and redshirt junior southpaw Joe Stoll. Havird and Pavlopoulos have worked in relief in the past as well, and will provide depth if they are not starting.
Unlike this time a year ago, Ohio State's pitching staff seems to have more questions than answers. Tully and Niemeyer have the potential to make the weekend rotation very good, and the bullpen should be solid. If Beals can find a few players to step up, the Buckeyes' staff could again be among one of the Big Ten's best.
"We have the depth and we just need guys to step up and man their role," Beals said. "We have a bunch of guys that are capable to help this ball club on the mound this year."
Whether Ohio State can shake off last season's disappointing finish and make its NCAA regional dream a reality will hinge on the pitching staff stepping up just as their coach says.