Experience seven position player starters along with six pitchers are a part of 21 returning lettermen along with flexibility will be the cornerstone for the 2009 Ohio State Buckeyes in their pursuit to win a Big Ten championship and advance to the NCAA tournament for the 13th time under 22nd-year head coach Bob Todd.

The entire starting infield C Dan Burkhart, 1B Justin Miller, 2B Cory Kovanda, 3B Cory Rupert and SS Tyler Engle returns intact. Miller, a senior captain, and juniors Kovanda and Rupert have started for two years now and have 331 starts between them. Burkhart and Engle are sophomores. 

The pitching corps’ experience is headlined by senior Jake Hale, who has made 26 starts among his 52 appearances, and junior Eric Best (46 appearances with eight saves). A quartet of sophomores also return. All gained valuable playing time last season as either a starter (Dean Wolosiansky and Andrew Armstrong) or as a reliever (Alex Wimmers and Drew Rucinski).

Additionally, three outfielders return who have combined for 161 starts: senior Michael Arp and juniors Zach Hurley and Ryan Dew.

“The experience we will bring into this season is invaluable,” Todd said. “You can’t teach experience and, as I look at this team, I think we have a nucleus of being good defensively.”

The team was sixth in the Big Ten in fielding last year with a .959 rate, but credit that to early season inexperience. As the Big Ten season unfolded, the Buckeyes improved their fielding to .964 which was good for fourth in all conference games.

Offensively, the team hit .318 in all games (third-best among Big Ten teams) but .299 in conference games, which ranked eighth. The Buckeyes managed just 19 home runs all season, which meant the team was manufacturing its runs and made coming from behind somewhat of a challenge.

Miller is the team’s most accomplished hitter. A .348 career hitter, he’s coming off a junior season in which he led the team in eight offensive categories including batting (.395 overall average), hits (79), home runs (four) and RBI (61). A two-time team captain, he’ll lead at the plate and in the field, where he is flexible enough to play first base, catcher and third.

Kovanda is solid at second base, with 104 starts behind him and a plate presence that continues to improve. He increased his average last season 35 points over his freshman numbers, and enters the season a career .304 hitter. He led the team in runs scored (45) and was also best at reaching base with an on-base percentage of .441.

Rupert, a shortstop as a freshman in 2007, adjusted nicely to a move to third base, hitting better than 50 percentage points above his freshman year numbers with a .313 average and 39 RBI, which ranked second on the team.

Engle’s exceptional defensive efforts at shortstop prompted Rupert’s move to third. Engle started 48 times as a true freshman and, coming off a summer surgery that limited his practice time in the fall, is expecting to be better than ever this spring.

Only two freshmen catchers have started for Ohio State the last 21 years: Mike Durant in 1989 and Eric Fryer in 2005. Durant played in the majors and Fryer was a top 10-round draft pick. Only time will tell if Burkhart advances that far, but he is a terrific talent…defensively as well as offensively. He hit .308 overall and .284 in the Big Ten and did so while handling the responsibility of starting 48 times.  

Junior Brian DeLucia hit .354 in 28 games last year with 18 starts. He and Ben Toussant (17 games) are capable replacements at third and first base, respectively, and sophomore middle infielder Matt Streng is coming of a solid 2008 fall camp. Second-year player T.J. McManus continues to work on his swing and first base duties, and veterans Shawn Forsythe and D.J. Hanlin are behind Burkhart behind the plate.

Despite the loss of center fielder and sixth-round draft pick J.B. Shuck and 46-game outfield starter Tony Kennedy, Todd and Co. will have experience and options in the outfield. Zach Hurley hit .302 with 18 RBI in 35 starts last year and Ryan Dew hit .261 with 27 RBI in 34 starts. Arp made 20 starts in the outfield and hit .367 overall and .419 in 18 Big Ten games.

Juco transfer Michael Stephens was an All-American last year and he will make an impact in the outfield. Junior Chris Griffin performed well when called upon last year and David Corna is in his second season with the team.

Although much of the staff from last year returns and it was a good staff with the No. 2 ERA (4.76) in the Big Ten the mound make-up may look dramatically different. That’s because Hale, Wimmers, Best and Rucinski may all be pitching in different situations than they did last year.

Wolosiansky won’t change positions. He will remain a starter. That’s because the 6-5 sophomore is coming off a freshman All-America season last year with a 7-4 record and a 4.22 ERA. He went 5-2 in the Big Ten, including a win over Michigan, and amassed 70.1 innings pitched. He was named second-team all-Big Ten.

Hale, last season’s Friday starter throughout the Big Ten season and a second-team all-Big Ten selection, is expected to be used as the team’s closer this season. He saved 10 games in this role in 2007 and with a resume of over 200 innings pitched, he’s got the experience to not only handle the move, but excel in it.

Best, who moved into the closer’s role last season and excelled with eight saves and 18 games finished, may have an opportunity to start this year. He’s made four starts in his 46 previous appearances and he has a 7-3 career record.

Wimmers was typically Best’s set-up man last year, playing in 25 games and finishing 17 with both figures ranking among the Top 10 in the Big Ten. He was also one of the team’s top strikeout artists, with 51 in 40.0 innings. He, too, will have an opportunity to start this season for the Buckeyes.

Armstrong, like Best, is a left-hander who picked up valuable experience last year as a true freshman and supplemented it with a fine summer in the Valley Baseball League. Armstrong was 4-3 with the Buckeyes and posted a top three (among starters) ERA of 4.50.

Rucinski played in 15 games last season and, coming off a fine summer league campaign as well, could work his way into a starting assignment position. Regardless who starts, Todd is optimistic about his staff.

“We have uncertainty among our starting pitchers,” Todd said, “but we do have five or six players in a position to win our top three pitching spots. Those who don’t become one of those top three starters will certainly give us a quality bullpen.”  

Josh Barrera returns to the mound this season after a medical red-shirt season in 2008 and he could provide a lift to the staff. He is 7-2 at Ohio State with a 4.44 ERA through 73.1 innings pitched.

Jared Strayer (1.59 ERA in five appearances), Theron Minium and Eric Shinn are upperclassmen who will also be in the mix for playing time this season.

In addition to the juco transfer Stephens, the Buckeyes added five freshmen newcomers for a total of six new players to the team. Ross Oltorik is a pitcher who spent the fall as a member of the Ohio State football team. Infielders include Ryan Cypret, Brad Hallberg and Zach Nowland. Joe Ciamacco is an outfielder. All but Oltorik experienced the intensity of the Scarlet & Gray World Series last fall. Freshman catcher David Fathalikhani joined the team in time at the start of the winter quarter.