“People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball,” the legendary Rogers Hornsby once said. “I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
There’s not an awful lot left to be said about the 2017 Ohio State baseball team. About all fans of the Buckeye nine can do now is go stare out the window, waiting for the February afternoon some nine months from now when spring arrives and the scarlet and gray takes the field once again.
That the season’s drop-off to a 22-34 record and a failure to reach the Big Ten tournament were a disappointment for Ohio State after the successes of the 2016 club, albeit one that was in some ways to be expected, has been analyzed, belabored, and picked clean.
There are those who would argue that this year’s team was closer to reality for the program than that of a season ago, and that the Buckeyes would be better served by blowing things up, firing the coaching staff, and moving in a new direction. This observer believes that while there are definitely areas in need of improvement, the program is in the right hands.
“Today was a microcosm of the season,” head coach Greg Beals told Sonny Fulks of Press Pros Magazine after Ohio State watched a late rally fall short in the season finale at home against Indiana. “But I think you’re going to see the spots off the leopard come next year.”
Let’s take a look at how the program will try to make that happen.
On the trail
As skipper, Beals deservedly takes a lot of heat for the way this year turned out. The Buckeyes past few recruiting classes have not been on the level of the first two that he brought in after taking over the program. Compounding the issues on the recruiting trail are the fact that the Big Ten as a whole continues to improve, and in-state schools like Kent State and Wright State have become regular contenders for the NCAA tournament.
Perfect Game ranks the 2017 class headed to Columbus No. 87 in the country. It’s 98th for the 2018 class and 88th for 2019. This puts Ohio State near the bottom in the Big Ten, and although it’s still early in the process for the latter two classes, must be bolstered.
There is reason to believe that the needed improvement in recruiting is starting to take place ever so slowly, though. According to Prep Baseball Report, Beals is bringing in four of the top ten recruits in the state of Ohio’s 2017 class, and has commitments from two of the top ten in 2018 and one already in 2019. What’s more, only two players in those three classes are currently committed to other in-state schools, with the vast majority of non-Ohio State commits headed to the SEC and ACC.
Two names in next fall’s incoming freshmen class to watch that we’ve already mentioned in our season review are left-handed pitcher Seth Lonsway, the fourth-ranked high school prospect in the state, and outfielder Jake Ruby, who comes in at No. 10. Joining them are right-handed pitcher Xavier Moore (No. 5) and catcher Dillon Dingler (No. 9).
Big-time recruits are always at risk of being lost to more baseball-friendly climates like those down south and out west, or as is possible in the case of Lonsway, who some believe could go in the first five rounds of next month’s MLB draft, being drafted high enough to forego college altogether.
But it goes without saying that in order to compete for Big Ten titles and NCAA regional appearances, the Buckeyes have to keep as many of the top in-state players as they can, and continue to recruit surrounding states as well. While competing with places like Vanderbilt, Louisville, and North Carolina is not likely to happen, conference rivals and other in-state schools are out-recruiting Ohio State right now, and turning that around must be priority number one for Beals and his staff.
Time to grind
Improvements on the field in 2018 will in large part be due to the development that takes place in summer ball, and Ohio State has 18 players slated to play in collegiate wood bat leagues from Cape Cod to California and everywhere in between.
“We made the point in the final huddle in the outfield about taking what we’ve learned from this season into a 40-game summer schedule,” Beals said.
While the Buckeyes took their lumps this season, they also laid the foundation for the years to come, with several underclassmen receiving invaluable experience on the field. The freshmen class, led by third-team all-conference honoree Dominic Canzone, Noah West, Connor Pohl, and Jake Vance, and the sophomore core of Brady Cherry, Jacob Barnwell, Ryan Feltner, and Connor Curlis will all be expected to make strides and help lead the club in 2018.
Feltner and his mid-90s fastball will be spending the summer in the Cape Cod League, the top collegiate summer league in the country and a feeder to the MLB draft, while the others will get their work in against solid competition in reputable places like the Prospect League, the Valley League, and the Cal Ripken League, among others.
In recent summers past, Ohio State players such as Ronnie Dawson, Tanner Tully, Travis Lakins, and Pat Porter have boosted their draft stock as well as come back to campus playing at a higher level after successful stints in these leagues. The expectation is that this year’s summer league players will take the hard-earned lessons of 2017 with them, and come back for fall ball in September having put in the work to take the next step in their careers.
If recruiting is the lifeblood of a college baseball program (or any collegiate sport, for that matter), the program’s culture is its beating heart. On this count, more than any other, Beals and his staff excel. While the Buckeyes seemingly invented new ways to lose at times this past season, and frustration was often palpable, one thing the team never did was roll over. It’s a credit to the culture of the program that the players fought tooth and nail to the final out in every game, despite the results in the win/loss column.
“There were mistakes this year, and today, but physical mistakes that are a part of baseball,” Beals said after the final game. “They’re things that bother a coach, but they don’t make you mad...We’ll come back and get together in the fall and begin to build a new brotherhood. Because that’s what this is all about. These guys know they’re brothers, regardless of what the record shows.”
Anyone who paid attention to this team this season saw that in action. From senior co-captain Jalen Washington down to the freshmen who rarely if ever saw the field all the way to the team’s student managers and their must-follow Twitter account, Ohio State was a club that showed up and played for each other.
“These were my brothers and the season didn’t go the way we wanted,” said Washington after his final game in scarlet and gray. “I told them to keep working, and keep grinding, because this is a championship team. We fell short this year, but it’s something to look forward to next year and beyond.”
There is little question that Beals’ seat will be warm next season. Another year playing .393 ball would turn up the heat, and perhaps force the powers that be in the athletic department to make a change. But the culture he has built in his seven years at the helm is indicative of the fighting spirit of his team, and points to the potential for better days ahead. The 2018 Buckeyes will be tasked with applying that culture to a return to contention in the Big Ten and possibly saving their coach’s job.
For now, though, everything in the future is conjecture. Ohio State fans can only stare out the window, waiting for the cold winter of the offseason to pass, until Buckeye baseball returns in the spring.