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Cautious optimism for Ohio State baseball after fall practice

The team still has question marks, but the fall ball season gave reason for hope for the Buckeyes on the diamond.

Ohio State baseball

After a disappointing 2017 campaign that saw Ohio State baseball stumble to a 22-34 record and miss out on the postseason entirely, and a summer spent with players spread out in leagues around the country, Buckeye head coach Greg Beals couldn’t be sure what he’d get from his team as it returned to campus for fall practice. By all indications, though, he found a team that’s hungry to get back into contention in the Big Ten and put last season’s struggles behind them.

“The first thing would be the attitude of the players this fall,” Beals told Sonny Fulks of Press Pros Magazine. “There’s a sense of urgency that’s been created as a unit. There’s more energy.”

That energy culminated in a spirited set of intrasquad games to conclude the fall ball schedule, the annual Scarlet & Gray World Series. The Scarlet squad emerged victorious, four games to one, and put on an offensive display that would be welcome come next February.

Powered by five of the top six hitters in the series, the side coached by director of baseball operations Blair Everhart accounted for 47 of the 65 runs scored in the five contests, including games of 11, 9, and 17. As a whole, the bats dominated, posting a collective .324/.376/.476 slash line and 26 extra-base hits.

All of which begs a few questions: who were the standouts at the plate? What have we learned about how the lineup may look come the spring? And what does the explosive offensive performance mean for a pitching staff that was much maligned last season?

With just under four months remaining before the Buckeyes take the field in Florida to kick off the 2018 season, some of the answers to those questions have come into sharper relief. Nothing can be set in stone, but we can draw a few conclusions as to the direction Beals is likely to go.

Carrying over

When the dust settled on 2017, the two most dangerous bats in the lineup were not at all the names that were expected at this time last year. Freshmen Dominic Canzone and Connor Pohl were forced to grow up quickly, and the pair responded with dynamic rookie seasons. The news out of fall ball is that they have carried over that success.

Canzone, who was a third-team All-Big Ten choice this past spring after slashing .343/.390/.458, went on to light up the Valley League in Virginia over the summer, hitting .404, garnering an all-star nod, and being named the league’s top prospect by Perfect Game. All the Walsh Jesuit High School product did for the Gray squad in the fall series was go .368/.400/.632 with three extra-base hits, three runs batted in, and three runs scored.

Pohl, who was Canzone’s teammate over the summer with the Front Royal Cardinals, came out of nowhere as a walk-on in the second half of last season, posting eight extra-base hits in just 80 at-bats. Seemingly entrenching himself as the team’s third baseman this fall, Pohl raked at a .400/.455/.450 rate in the series, scoring seven runs and driving in four.

“He’s just that close to ‘dude’ status,” Beals told Fulks. “I mean, he’s a dude already, but if he makes the next progression he’s going to be a serious ‘dude’.”

With a year of experience under their belts, Canzone and Pohl will be counted on even more heavily in 2018, and both could be headed toward all-conference types of careers.

Rebounding and raking

Two players who experienced the opposite of the success of Ohio State’s super freshmen in 2017, used positive summer league experiences as a springboard into the S&G series, and showed flashes of becoming the middle-of-the-order anchors Beals needs.

The first was junior Brady Cherry, a much-lauded recruit out of Pendleton, Indiana who has gone through major ups and downs in his first two years in Columbus. Cherry is transitioning to second base after primarily manning the hot corner, and the move appears to agree with him. Back at his high school position, he belted nine home runs for the Terre Haute Rex of the Prospect League.

“I’m really happy with Brady Cherry,” Beals said. “He has redefined himself.”

Cherry went .381/.409/.952 in the five games, posting series-highs with a 1.361 OPS, three homers, and eight RBIs.

Also looking for redemption was senior Tyler Cowles, who struggled mightily in his first year of Division I play after transferring from the community college ranks. What the Grove City, Ohio native called an “embarrassing” .190 effort at the plate in 39 games became fuel for a summer that saw him hit .295 with 15 doubles, four home runs, and 32 RBIs for Chillicothe in the Prospect League.

In five games for Scarlet, Cowles put up a .429/.455/.714 slash line, with series highs of nine hits and eight runs scored, and added two longballs and five RBIs of his own.

Unfamiliar faces

Canzone’s name can be written in ink as the starting right fielder, and with Cowles making a strong push for the left field job, the lone remaining outfield question facing Beals before February is who will replace center fielder Tre’ Gantt — who departed to the Cleveland Indians organization in June’s Major League Baseball draft. The answer to that comes down to a pair of new faces.

Malik Jones would appear to be the frontrunner to get first crack at the position. A JUCO transfer from Weatherford Community College in Richardson, Texas, Jones was on base seven times in the series and his speed was evident. He stole three bases in three attempts, tops among all players, and played flawless defense.

Also in the equation is freshman Jake Ruby. A two-sport star from Bishop Hartley High School in Groveport, Ohio, Ruby slashed .294/.333/.353 in his first taste of collegiate action, and may be the fastest player on the roster.

Another position up the middle of the defense with big shoes to fill is that of shortstop, where two-time team co-captain Jalen Washington patrolled in 2017. Another duo of fresh faces is vying for the spot in JUCO transfer Kobie Foppe and redshirt sophomore Matt Carpenter. Foppe, called “a steady defender” by Baseball America, comes from South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, and set the turf on fire at Nick Swisher Field, going 8-for-17 with a double and a triple during the S&G Series, and made every play in the field.

Carpenter actually appeared in 15 games last season as a redshirt freshman, making two starts, but went 0-for-13 at the plate. A favorite of Beals because of his work ethic, though, the former Aurora High School standout posted a healthy .412/.444/.412 line this fall.

“He goes out there and earns it every day,” the Ohio State skipper said of Carpenter. “He’s really had a good fall for us.”

Rounding it out

With the outfield and three-fourths of the infield coming into focus, a number of familiar names will also be called upon to make contributions in both starting roles and off the bench. Junior Jacob Barnwell will be back behind the plate, where he is one of the more advanced pitch receivers in the conference. Barnwell will be joined by highly-touted freshman Dillon Dingler who has impressed since setting foot on campus.

At first base, senior Bo Coolen would appear to be the opening day starter. After a disappointing .230/.345/.304 effort last season, his first at the Division I level, he will need to do more to hold onto that spot. A 4-for-15 performance with four runs batted in during the S&G Series may not be enough to do so. Any number of others, including senior Noah McGowan and junior Andrew Fishel, could be called upon if Coolen falters, and both should see at-bats as designated hitter.

Arm problems

So, the offense looked good over the course of the past six weeks, surely a positive for a club that finished third from the bottom in runs scored in the Big Ten in 2017. The flip side, though, is that the pitching staff took a beating in these games. A unit plagued by inconsistency a season ago could once again be a source of indigestion for the Buckeyes.

At the outset of fall ball, four returning pitchers seemed the most likely candidates for the weekend rotation come springtime in fifth-year seniors Adam Niemeyer and Yianni Pavlopoulos and juniors Ryan Feltner and Connor Curlis. Pavlopoulos (10.29 earned run average in seven innings pitched) and Feltner (9.64 ERA in 4.2 IP) did little to help their causes.

Feltner’s case is particularly baffling. Capable of hitting the upper 90s on the radar gun and fresh off an all-star turn in the prestigious Cape Cod League in which he did not allow an earned run, the Hudson, Ohio native simply has not been able to harness his command. A top pro prospect in the Big Ten, Feltner has posted a 5.14 ERA in 131.1 innings as a Buckeye, and could find himself in a relief role without improvement.

“We really wanted to see Ryan Feltner come in and pitch with the success he had in the Cape Cod League over the summer,” Beals said.

While Feltner and Pavlopoulos were getting knocked around, Niemeyer and Curlis equipped themselves relatively well. Niemeyer, a co-captain last season, gave up three runs in his eight innings, holding batters to just a .207 batting average. Curlis basically matched that, allowing three runs in 8.2 innings of work, and striking out a series-high 14. Both should find themselves in the weekend rotation when the season gets underway.

“Connor Curlis came out of a good summer and was even better with what he showed us here in the fall,” the head coach said. “He was outstanding.”

The wild card for the starting staff is freshman Seth Lonsway, who passed on a signing bonus in excess of $400,000 from the Cincinnati Reds to play collegiately. The left-hander, and top recruit in the state of Ohio, dazzled in his six innings on the mound during the S&G Series, allowing just a run on four hits, striking out 10, and routinely sitting 94 mph with his fastball. Lonsway having the talent to be a weekend starter as a freshman is not in dispute, but an eligibility issue pertaining to his high school transcript could keep him off the field.

“He’s obviously blessed with a great arm and no one’s worked harder than he has here in the fall,” Beals said of his young hurler. “The issue with his eligibility is a matter that’s squarely in the hands of the NCAA. We’re cautiously optimistic over the appeal, but when you’re dealing with the NCAA you never take anything for granted.”

As was seen last season, the Buckeyes will be as successful as their pitching staff allows them to be. Right now, the starters leave some doubts as to how successful that can be.

Old faithful

Where the starting rotation is an unknown, the bullpen should once again be a strength for Beals, who knows exactly the arm he can turn to in just about any situation.

“What I don’t worry about is our bullpen situation, starting with ‘Mr. Do-Everything’, Seth Kinker,” he said.

Kinker, now a senior, has appeared in 79 games through his first three seasons with the program, and he has done so in every role imaginable. The Huntington, West Virginia product has been a spot starter, a long man, a setup man, and a closer, and one assumes he will wear many hats once again in 2018.

Kinker is not the only experienced arm in the pen, either, anchored by fifth-year senior Kyle Michalik. The duo combined to allow just two runs in 9.1 innings of relief during the fall series.

“A lot of those guys out there have pitched important innings before in the Big Ten Tournament two years ago, and I’m really eager to mix and match things come spring, because I think they’re going to be a strength of our team,” Beals said.

Fifth-year Austin Woodby, senior Reece Calvert, redshirt junior Thomas Waning, and sophomore Andrew Magno have all seen time out of the bullpen as well, and each made multiple appearances during the five games. So too did a trio of freshmen southpaws in Griffan Smith, Alex Theis, and Jonathan Jahn, all of whom will be looking to prove themselves capable of getting hitters out at the college level.

Should the starters experience the same kind of struggles as a season ago, the Buckeyes can breathe just a little easier knowing that the bullpen has been through it before.

Wrapping up

February 16th is still a long way off. Much can happen, both positive and negative, over the course of nearly four months. But this much is apparent: Ohio State seems poised to put the travails of 2017 behind it, and thanks to a wave of young talent, could bounce right back into contention in the Big Ten.

“I believe this team has the ability to earn an at-large bid,” Beals said when the Buckeyes unveiled next season’s schedule. “We are excited to continue our development throughout the fall and winter. We will be ready to compete and make a championship run in 2018.”

Whether that is wishful thinking or not, Ohio State should be improved over last season. If players like Canzone, Pohl, and Cherry continue to develop, if the starting pitching can hold up to even a slightly-better-than-average standard, and if faces old and new can mesh to form a team identity, a return to the postseason isn’t out of the question.

That’s a lot of “Ifs.” And as fans of the Buckeye Nine have witnessed before, sometimes those “Ifs” become “Don’ts.” For now, though, all we have is the long, cold winter to wonder what the spring will have to offer.