Every clubhouse in college baseball has a checklist of goals before a season begins. It’s that magic number of wins. It’s raising a conference championship trophy in late May. It’s getting your name called on Selection Monday.
For the past three years, Greg Beals has done just that, leading the Ohio State baseball team to check marks to all of the above: 102 combined wins, two NCAA Regional appearances and a Big Ten tournament title. There’s a winning culture in Columbus, Ohio.
But when the ninth-year head coach first met with his team last fall, his message to the group was clear: it’s time to take the next step. It’s time to set the bar higher. It’s time to punch a ticket to a Super Regional.
“I think it’s that bad taste in our mouth after losing in regionals that we learned something,” Beals said. “We genuinely felt like we belonged playing in a Super Regional last year. Going to regionals two times out of three is good, but what’s next? Let’s get ourselves into a best of three series and see who goes to Omaha. That’s going to be fun competition.”
The 2018 season was a rebound year for the Scarlet and Gray. The team finished with 36 wins and advanced back to a NCAA Regional, marking one of the best turnarounds by a ball club in the country. Now in 2019, Beals and his veteran staff welcomed back 15 letterwinners from a year ago to go along with 16 newcomers. With Opening Day just eight days out, there are still question marks to be answered, but Coach Beals has an enthusiastic outlook for the journey ahead.
“My mindset is first of excitement. I’m excited about the talent level. I’m excited where we are from an offensive and defensive standpoint. I’m excited that we have the nucleus of the defense back. Offensively, we have guys like Dominic Canzone, Conner Pohl and Dillon Dingler returning to the lineup. We also return other upperclassmen who have scratched and clawed for multiple years in our program. It’s now time to see what their junior and senior years can bring for them.”
With excitement comes some caution from the Buckeye skipper. The pitching staff lost 83 percent of innings pitched on the mound from a season ago. First Team All-American Seth Kinker has graduated as well as several other veteran arms out of the bullpen. Beals and his staff also have to replace starting pitchers Ryan Feltner and Connor Curlis, who have moved on to begin their professional careers.
Frozen 🍕👀 pic.twitter.com/QnLfYnGHYP
— Ohio State Baseball (@OhioStateBASE) January 27, 2019
“We are going to be very young on the mound. This group is talented and we need to get them experience.”
To help guide that inexperience will be strong leadership. The team will be led by four captains: fifth-year senior outfielders Nate Romans and Ridge Winand, junior outfielder Dominic Canzone and sophomore catcher Dillon Dingler. It’s the first time the Buckeyes have had four captains in 12 years.
“Our captains are always very important to us and this group holds the same. Four doesn’t diminish anything. Four magnifies the leadership not in just those four but the leadership that is on the team. The culture and expectation in the clubhouse has grown and these four guys embody that culture at a top-shelf level.”
Beals is confident in his infield, especially up the middle. The group brings back junior shortstop Noah West, senior second baseman Kobie Foppe, junior Conner Pohl who has made the move to first base, and sophomore catcher Dillon Dingler.
“Noah West had an incredible fall with his training,” Beals said. “He finished the season last year playing the shortstop position every day after coming off an injury the summer before. He took the summer off to get his legs strong and he’s 100 percent now. He really showed to be a staple defensively for us.”
Foppe is back to start at second base after hitting .335 with a .441 on-base percentage during his first season in the Scarlet and Gray. Beals is looking for the senior to have another productive year at the dish at the top of the order. Backing up the shortstop position will be freshman Nick Erwin, while redshirt junior Matt Carpenter will back up at second base.
Pohl has solidified himself as the Buckeyes’ starting first baseman. The third team All-Big Ten honoree hit .279 with seven homers and 49 RBI a year ago. Freshman Zach Dezenzo, from Alliance, Ohio, will get the nod at third base after winning the job during the fall.
“It’s nice having a guy like Conner that is athletic enough to have played second base and third base in his first two seasons. Now in year three, the 6-5, 235-pounder is certainly going to be a nice target over there. I believe he will be the glue to hold the infield together. Zach is athletic and trains hard as he goes about his daily work. I think you are going to see a very good infielder with plenty of arm strength at the hot corner.”
Behind those guys for support will be redshirt freshman Aaron Hughes, freshman Marcus Ernst at both corner positions along with redshirt sophomore Scottie Seymour at first base.
Dingler, a 2018 Big Ten All-Freshman selection, will be the No. 1 catcher but also presents options for Beals after making 29 starts in centerfield last season. Behind him will be redshirt sophomore transfer Brent Todys, who joins the program after playing at Andrew College. Providing depth will be senior Andrew Fishel, junior Sam McClurg and freshman Mitchell Smith.
“I like Dillon behind the plate. I like his leadership and gamesmanship. He also will allow us to be creative and make sure that we can put the best nine players out on the field. Our backup Brent Todys showed me and his teammates that he is ready to compete here at Ohio State. He is a very hard-worker and is really good handling the pitchers. I feel good about the depth and strength in this position.”
— Ohio State Baseball (@OhioStateBASE) February 5, 2019
There are certain players on a ball club managers draw their lineup around and junior right fielder Dominic Canzone is that guy for Beals. In two years, Canzone has collected 140 hits for a .331 career average, while driving in 71 runs. He’s also swiped 28 bases and has 11 outfield assists in 99 starts.
“Dom is just really steady-eddy, solid,” Beals said. “He’s an accountable guy that is a plus defender and has a very accurate arm. A staple-type bat in the lineup. Last year he was in the lead-off spot and this year I see him being in either the 1-2-3 hole positions. Dom is a guy that continues to evolve as a hitter and had a great summer in the Cape. He’s showing signs of developing power which will certainly help our run production.”
Backing up Canzone will be freshman Nolan Clegg. Left field will be the duo of senior Brady Cherry and fifth-year senior Nate Romans. Beals sees them playing left field and holding the DH spot in the lineup. In centerfield will be senior Malik Jones and fifth-year senior Ridge Winand, both continuing to compete for playing time.
— Ohio State Baseball (@OhioStateBASE) February 4, 2019
“The one piece to that puzzle in left is Brady pitching which lends itself to DH some, just to be able to get ready. In center, both of them can really defend and we are looking to see which guy we can get offensive production. There is also Dingler who can provide support too.”
Also backing up in the outfield is freshman speedster Alec Taylor. Redshirt freshman Jake Ruby will miss the 2019 season due to an arm injury.
ON THE MOUND
The biggest question heading into the 2019 season is the young Buckeye pitching staff. Having to replace more than 440 innings pitched from a year ago is a huge challenge for any coaching staff, but Beals said he is excited to see this talented group gain experience on the bump.
Returning on the mound is sophomore left-hander Griffan Smith, who Beals said is one of his most-dependable arms, which lends itself to pitching out of rotation and pitching out of the bullpen. Smith made 25 appearances as a true freshman.
“Griffan is a swing-man right now. My hope is that he is a starting pitcher and that means the backend of the bullpen is doing what I think they are capable of doing. With his experience on the mound, we would like to use him initially out of the bullpen with how young that group is going to be.”
Freshman left-hander Seth Lonsway, who was drafted out of high school in the 19th round by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2017 MLB Draft, has earned a rotation spot. He set the Celina High School single-single season record with 92 strikeouts during his senior year. Next is freshman right-hander Garrett Burhenn, a native of Indianapolis, Ind., who really impressed the staff during the fall. Burhenn struck out 101 batters during his senior year at Lawrence High School. Junior right-hander Jake Vance is also ready to man a role. He’s made 24 career appearances with 11 starts and has 56 strikeouts in 62.0 innings of work.
“We can’t wait to get Seth on the mound and compete. He’s a very talented left-hander that is leading the race in the rotation. Garrett showed us in the fall that he is ready to get the ball and that’s exciting to see.”
There’s no way around a young bullpen. Guys are going to pitch. Beals is going to rely on junior left-hander Andrew Magno and fifth-year senior right-hander Thomas Waning, who have combined to make 48 career appearances.
“When you look at their numbers, they haven’t been stellar. But when you look at their ability and pitch quality, they are very capable and talented to perform well. We need those guys to be productive.”
There will be several talented rookies in the bullpen with 90-plus mile-hour arms, including freshmen right-handers Bayden Root, TJ Brock and Will Pfennig.
“We are very excited about their talent, just a little cautious with little experience. We need to get them experience early so that when we get to conference time they have some track record.”
Also in the bullpen is senior right-hander Brady Cherry and freshman left-hander Mitch Milheim. Junior right-hander transfer Joe Gahm also joins the staff and Beals said he showed signs of being dependable in the back-end of the bullpen. Rounding out the relievers include redshirt sophomore left-hander Jonathan Jahn and freshman right-hander Cole Niekamp.
THE 2019 SCHEDULE
Beals has put together a schedule that will allow the team to compete for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State begins the season Feb. 15-17 vs. Seton Hall at the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla.
“Our schedule is very similar to what we’ve done in the past. Opening weekend is always a weekend where we are looking to play other northern schools that have been very strong. Seton Hall has been in the tournament many years recently so I think they are a formidable opponent.”
The Buckeyes open the 23rd season at Bill Davis Stadium March 15, hosting two non-conference series before beginning Big Ten play on the road at Rutgers March 29-31. Ohio State will host conference-rival Michigan April 12-14 in Columbus.
“It’s hard to make conference predictions during the preseason. I think we have a lot of teams in our conference that are going to be good. It’s going to be a matter of who is going to get off to a good start and who gets hot come championship time in May. It’s certainly nice to have our rivals here at home.”