The deadlock between the Major League Players’ Association and the baseball owners continues, and the start of spring training is in jeopardy. But, if you listen closely, you still might hear the distant ping of a metal bat or a smack against leather. That is the sound of the beginning of the college baseball season.
COVID-19 wiped out nearly all of the 2020 college baseball season. In 2021, Big Ten teams played an all-conference schedule. There was no travel to the deep South to start off the year, no regular year-long training regimen. For 2022, things are getting back to normal.
The pre-conference schedule
The Buckeyes start their baseball season this week — yes, this week! The Bucks are headed south for four games in Port Charlotte, Florida. It’s a lovely place (I’m told) on Florida’s Gulf coast, between Venice and Ft. Myers. The Weather Channel predicts highs for the Friday through Monday games in the low-to-mid 80s. Not a bad trip.
On Friday, OSU will take on the Marshall Thundering Herd, then two games Saturday and Sunday against Indiana State. The Monday finale against BYU will close this year’s Snowbird Classic.
The Buckeye schedule this year provides a pretty full slate of games before the conference schedule starts on March 25 at Purdue. Until the one-game home opener against Wright State on March 22, however, all of the Ohio State games are away, or at a neutral site.
Here’s the lineup following the Port Charlotte journey: February 25-27 (3 games) at Texas State in San Marcos, TX; March 4-6 (3 games) at Fayetteville, NC, in the Armed Forces Invitational, against Campbell, Pitt, and Army. Then the Bucks go to Morgantown for three games against West Virginia, March 11-13, followed by four games at UNC-Wilmington, March 16-20. That’s 17 games in the books before even stepping into their home field dugout.
Buckeyes last year
For the 2021 season, the Buckeyes finished 22-20. As I said, all of the games were against conference opponents, and that record placed them sixth in the final Big Ten standings. Nebraska won the conference with a 31-12 mark. Not surprisingly, the Cornhuskers are figured to fare well again this year and, in fact, are ranked No. 20 nationally in the preseason Baseball America poll.
The primary strength of the Buckeye team last year was its pitching. Right-handed reliever T.J. Brock registered a 2.08 ERA in 19 appearances, chalking up nine saves and recording 33 strikeouts in 21 and 2/3 innings. He’s picked as a preseason All-American for 2022. Brock’s bullpen mate, lefty Isaiah Coupet, appeared in nine games, with a 3.63 ERA and 29 strikeouts in his 17 and 1/3 innings. He’ll likely move to the starting rotation for 2022 because the Buckeyes lose three starting pitchers from last year.
Garrett Burhenn and Seth Lonsway were the aces of the staff last year, and both, having been selected in the MLB draft (Lonsway in the sixth round by the Giants and Burhenn in the ninth by the Tigers), will be taking their arms to the professional mound.
Lonsway, a 2019 freshman All-American, led the nation with 21 strikeouts per nine innings in the very shortened 2020 campaign. In 2021, he was 3-5 with a 4.37 ERA in his 12 starts. His killer curve ball, which baffled college hitters for three years and helped account for 98 strikeouts last season in 68 innings pitched, moves on. Burhenn posted a 2021 record of 7-2, as the Buckeyes won 10 of the 13 games that he started. He combined a 3.81 ERA with 91 strikeouts in 80 innings pitched.
The third starter in the 2021 rotation, Jack Neely, was picked by the Yankees in the 11th round of the MLB draft and will also be gone. He started nine games for OSU last year, going 2-3.
What’s 2022 look like?
Well, the cup looks half full – and half empty. The 2022 roster is full of veteran players, a couple of whom will be playing their COVID-granted fifth year. In fact, nearly all of the position players from 2021 are returning for this year. That group is led by team captain Zach Dezenzo, a senior infielder from Alliance, Ohio.
Dezenzo was second in batting last year, with a solid .302 batting average, nine home runs, and 31 RBI. This year, he will provide leadership and look to improve his stats, particularly to cut down on his errors in the field. Kade Kern was last year’s leading hitter. The returning sophomore outfielder batted .325 with 30 RBI, and was a freshman All-American. Other returners who saw regular action last year are Brent Todys, Colton Bauer, Nick Erwin, and Mitchell Okuley. All in all, it’s a strong, veteran group. So, there’s lots of reason for optimism.
Missing from the lineup will be Sam Wilson and Conner Pohl. Pohl, especially, will be missed, as he was the Buckeyes’ top power hitter last season with team-leading 13 homers and 36 RBI.
The “empty” is, as I noted above, the starting pitching rotation. All gone. So that’s the big question mark for head coach Greg Beals and his staff. Beals has talked about moving sophomore Isaiah Coupet from the bullpen to a starting role. That seems like a safe move, with Brock remaining as the closer. Griffan Smith, a senior lefty from Cincinnati – and the other team captain – is likely to be part of a three or four-man rotation for the Bucks. Smith started one game last year, pitched 19 innings over the season and sported a 5.79 ERA. Senior Will Pfennig and sophomore Nate Haberthier, both right handers, are the other names mentioned as potential starters.
A number of true freshmen joined the OSU roster this year. Most of them played in October’s five-game Scarlet/Gray series, but it’s hard to say at this stage what role they’ll play as the regular season begins. With so many experienced players around, it might be difficult to earn some at bats or some innings.
The newcomers: Drew Bachman (LHP), Gavin Bruni (LHP), Jacob Gehring (RHP), Jake Johnson (P/IF), Trey Lipsey (OF), Josh McAlister (IF), Jace Middleton (RHP), and Trey Pancake (C). Of these players, Bruni, from Alliance, Ohio, is probably the most highly touted. A high school All-American, Bruni had his senior season cut short when he was hit by a pitch and broke his arm. Before that, he gave up only one earned run in seven starts (0.19 ERA) and struck out nearly two men per inning. Maybe he’ll see some time on the mound for the Buckeyes this year.
With four games coming up this weekend, we’ll get a good idea of who’s playing (and who’s not). We’ll also get some inkling of how the starting pitching will look, and how it will hold up. Teams from the Northeast and Midwest are at a distinct disadvantage in baseball. In the South and in the West, baseball is played outdoors year around. Those guys don’t have much of an offseason. Of Baseball America’s top 25 preseason picks, only Notre Dame and Nebraska come from cold regions.
Let’s hope that the Buckeyes’ road trips south will pay off when it begins to warm up in Ohio and conference play begins.