It was St. Patrick’s Day in 2016, and instead of drinking green beer at an Irish pub in downtown Cleveland, I was soaking up some sun 2,000 miles away. Sitting in the stands of Goodyear Ballpark to take in a spring training game between the Tribe and Reds, I found myself surrounded by snowbird Ohioans seeking refuge from what had seemed to be a never-ending winter.
Case in point was the gray-haired couple sitting to my right. I’ve long forgotten their names, but I remember they said they were from Findlay, Ohio. And I remember the name they asked me about when, in the course of our chatting, it came up that I wrote about the Ohio State baseball team here at Land-Grant Holy Land: Connor Curlis.
At the time, Curlis, who had starred at Findlay High School, was a freshman for the Buckeyes. The left-hander saw little action for a team that went on to win the Big Ten tournament and secure a spot in an NCAA regional. Still, I tucked his name away in my mind, along with the memory of that day in Arizona and the kindly old couple I spent a few innings talking with.
Fast forward to today, and what we have seen from Curlis is exactly the type of development every coach hopes for when they bring a young man into their program. After making just four relief appearances as a freshman, the southpaw appeared in 20 games (eight starts) as a sophomore a season ago, showing flashes of the talent that brought him to Ohio State in the first place. Curlis won a team-high five games for a 2017 Buckeye squad that endured a disappointing 22-34 campaign.
So Curlis went into the summer knowing his teammates would be counting on him to shoulder a larger load in 2018, and to do so with consistency. What he didn’t know at the time was that the summer would put him into position to emerge as the ace of Ohio State’s starting staff.
Playing for the Champion City Kings of the Prospect League, Curlis had a memorable run, going 2-3 with a 2.63 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP, striking out 82 in 58 innings of work. Most impressive, though, was a three-start stretch in which he allowed just two earned runs in 19.2 innings, striking out 35. In the last of those three performances, he tied the Prospect League record with 16 punchouts.
“He opened some eyes,” Rick White, his summer league coach, told Press Pros Magazine. “Suddenly Connor Curlis was on the radar of scouts who came to see him pitch.”
Riding that momentum, he put together a solid fall ball season, including a “Cy Young”-winning performance in the Scarlet and Gray Series. A year’s worth of development had turned Curlis not just into a member of the weekend rotation, but the Friday night starter’s role, one reserved for the unit’s top arm.
“From the time I saw him in high school until now, the thing I’ve liked about Connor is his willingness to compete,” head coach Greg Beals said prior to the start of the season. “He’s gotten steadily better along the way, and with the summer he had after last season – and with what he showed in fall baseball – there’s no reason that he can’t come on this year and have his best year as a Buckeye.”
At the outset of the season, Curlis ranked as the No. 21 prospect for 2018 in the Big Ten by Perfect Game.
And throughout this resurgent season for the Buckeyes, Curlis has acted the part, racking up a 7-3 record, posting a 3.59 ERA, and notching 2.5 strikeouts for every walk surrendered, all while limiting opposing bats to a .260 batting average in 77.2 innings. He has been a workhorse for Beals, and along with fellow-junior Ryan Feltner, has given the club a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation.
As Big Ten baseball site 10 Innings wrote of Curlis, “[He] has ran with the role of weekend ace. But the title means less to him, it’s more what he can do to set the tone for the weekend.”
“It feels awesome to have the coaches tell you that you’re the Friday starter, but more it’s to go out there and give it your all for the team,” Curlis said. “Every Friday night, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
With the Big Ten tournament beginning Wednesday, and a strong chance for an NCAA regional berth upcoming, Ohio State is going to need Curlis to do just that; compete, be the ace, and set the tone.