Ohio State baseball will take the field to open its 2017 season on Friday with big questions concerning where the team will get its offensive firepower from. As we pointed out yesterday, having to replace the entire starting infield and two-thirds of the starting outfield will do that. But in spite of the unknowns with the everyday lineup, seventh-year head coach Greg Beals has one position group he can count on: the pitching staff.
“I think the strength of the ballclub is going to be on the mound and it needs to be,” Beals said.
The Buckeyes will be without the services of last season’s Friday starter Tanner Tully, a former Big Ten Freshman of the Year and All-Big Ten selection who was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, Saturday starter John Havird, who graduated, and Michael Horejsei, one of the toughest left-handed relievers in the conference, who was taken by the Chicago White Sox last June. Every other arm that played a major role in 2016 is back, though, along with a veteran returning from injury, a pair of junior college transfers, and a sizable freshmen class.
Last season, Ohio State’s hurlers ranked third in the Big Ten in earned run average (3.35), and struck out more batters than any other staff in the conference, all while gaining valuable experience in big situations during the club’s run through to the Big Ten tournament title and berth in the NCAA tournament.
So Beals and pitching coach Mike Stafford should feel a high level of comfort with the pitching staff, though there are a few holes to fill. With back-to-back four-game weekends to open the new campaign, they’ll have plenty of innings to fill, and an opportunity to find out which players rise to the occasion and thrive on the pressure of the moment.
Let’s take a look at what to expect on the mound for the Buckeyes.
Getting things started
Despite the losses of Tully and Havird from the weekend rotation, Ohio State looks on paper to be set up well with its starters. The leader of this unit will be Adam Niemeyer, a redshirt junior who was voted co-captain by his teammates this year, and who manned the Sunday spot last season.
A right-hander, Niemeyer went 4-2 with a 4.31 ERA in 14 starts covering 71 innings despite being hampered by a lingering hamstring injury last season. The Minster, Ohio native’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 6-to-1 was excellent, as was his 1.21 WHIP.
Joining Niemeyer on the weekend will be sophomore Ryan Feltner, who came on strong at the end of his freshman season in 2016. The 6-foot-4 righty from Walsh Jesuit had a 3-4 record with a 4.06 ERA in 20 appearances that included 11 starts. Possessing a fastball in the low 90s, a sharp breaking ball, and a solid changeup, Feltner’s development will be critical if the Buckeyes are to remain a contender in the Big Ten.
The third weekend spot, as well as midweek duties, are up in the air, and several arms are competing for their chance. One will be redshirt junior Yianni Pavlopoulos, who last season served as the team’s closer. Pavlopoulos, returning from Tommy John surgery, led the Big Ten with 14 saves while limiting the opposition to a .229 batting average and averaging more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. He’ll make his first career start opening weekend, and has the kind of stuff that can translate to a starting role.
Also in the mix will be redshirt senior Jake Post, who sat out 2016 after his own Tommy John surgery. In three years in Columbus prior to the injury, the right-hander was utilized both as a starter and out of the bullpen, amassing a 7-7 mark with a 3.48 ERA in 38 career appearances that include 13 starts. Now healthy, Post provides Beals and Stafford with solid experience and flexibility in usage, and will get a chance during the team’s first weekend to solidify his spot.
Another candidate to spot start in the weekend rotation, and to see a major workload in midweek games, is sophomore Connor Curlis. He appeared in four games as a freshman, yielding two earned runs and collecting 10 strikeouts in six innings of work. The advantage that Curlis has is that, unlike the other names mentioned, he’s a lefty, and can provide a different look to hitters than the other starters.
Ohio State also brought in a pair of pitchers from McLennan Community College in Texas, one of whom, the 6-foot-6 Reece Calvert, should see some innings as a starter. Calvert went 11-2 with a 3.70 ERA in 2016, with a fastball in the low 90s that has room for velocity growth.
The point is that Beals and Stafford have a number of options to start games, and despite the questions about the Buckeyes’ offense scoring runs, should have a good amount of confidence in the team’s ability to keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Finishing things off
Even as the starting pitching for Ohio State looks to be solid, the bullpen has the potential to be among the very best in the Big Ten. Even with a Pavlopoulos move into the rotation, the Buckeyes have the back-end arms to not skip a beat and continue making the late innings a nightmare for opposing batters.
The key cogs for Beals will be the side-winding duo of Seth Kinker and Kyle Michalik, both of whom played crucial roles in the scarlet and gray’s postseason run a season ago. Kinker, who has been named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Preseason Stopper of the Year Watch List, led the Big Ten with 38 appearances as a sophomore last season, going 6-1 with a 1.65 ERA and two saves in 54.2 innings. He held opponents to a .250 batting average and sported a WHIP of 1.10, and figures to slide into Pavlopoulos’ closer role.
Michalik was similarly nasty, making appearances in relief 19 times, and posting a 4-1 record with a 1.69 ERA and one save. The side-armer from Brunswick, Ohio limited opposing hitters to a .198 average and had an astounding 0.84 WHIP.
Calvert’s McLennan teammate Dustin Jourdan should complement Kinker and Michalik. The righty went 4-0 with a 1.14 ERA in 11 appearances at the JUCO level, covering 23.2 innings. Jourdan averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings and posted a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
A fourth righty, and another arm that has experience both starting and relieving is redshirt junior Austin Woodby, who appeared 19 times, including three starts, in his first season in Columbus after transferring from Cincinnati. Woodby had his struggles, posting an ERA of 6.00 and a .323 opponents' batting average, but he went 5-1 and his 39 innings were fifth on the 2016 team.
Finally, redshirt sophomore Thomas Waning, a transfer from Xavier, has made a good impression since joining the program as a side-arming righty, and could also log innings out of the pen.
The only real question for Beals in the bullpen is how to replace Horejsei as the left-handed matchup guy with so many quality right-handed options. Redshirt senior Joe Stoll is the only southpaw outside of Curlis that has college experience. The Lakewood St. Edward standout tossed 19.1 innings of relief a year ago, allowing 11 earned runs (5.12 ERA), striking out 16, and walking eight.
Five members of the freshmen class are also pitchers, and if the fall ball season was any indication, they may need to be brought along carefully. The quintet of Andrew Magno, Michael McDonough, Jake Vance, Gavin Lyon, and Collin Lollar combined to allow 14 earned runs during the Scarlet and Gray Series.
Will it be enough?
Given the amount of offensive production the team has lost, Ohio State will need their pitching staff to perform as strongly as they appear capable of doing. There is championship experience both among the starters and the relievers, and several have the kind of stuff to garner All-Big Ten consideration.
The non-conference schedule, playing high-quality opponents away from home in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina for the first month of the season, will challenge the team’s arms and allow Beals and Stafford to smooth out the rough edges before Big Ten play gets underway. If the staff comes together as they hope, it should at least keep the Buckeyes competitive as they attempt to find their way back to an NCAA regional for a second straight year.