Baseball Preview - Buckeyes Set to Open 2007 Season
By John Porentas
The weather around Ohio is wintry and the sports world is beginning to turn its thoughts toward basketball tournament season. It's also time for the OSU baseball season to begin.
The Buckeyes open their season this Friday, February 23, when they take on James Madison in Tampa, Florida. When the first pitch is thrown, OSU Head Coach Bob Todd will enter his 20th season at the helm of the Buckeyes, and Todd says there is reason for some optimism heading into the season.
Like any other team playing the game, the Buckeyes will go as far as their pitching takes them, and at least on paper, the Buckeyes are returning lots and lots of pitching. Last season OSU entered the season with three new starters in the four-man rotation. This year, the situation is far different.
"For the first time since I've been here at Ohio State we've got all four or our starting pitchers back, which is kind of unusual," said Todd.
OSU ace Dan DeLucia returns for his senior season after leading the Buckeyes with a 10-2 record and was named first-team All-Big Ten. He led the league in wins and innings pitched and posted a 3.25 ERA. DeLucia says he is an improved pitcher coming into the 2007 season.
"This summer our coach was the former coach at North Carolina. He would only let us throw fastballs and changeups. Our staff ended up having the best staff ERA in the Cape Cod League. He taught us how we can be successful just using two pitches," DeLucia said.
DeLucia will be joined in the starting rotation by junior Corey Lubke and sophomores Jake Hale and J. B. Shuck. Like DeLucia, Lubke and Shuck are leftys, while Hale is the only right hander in the group.
As a true freshman last season Hale ended last season with a respectable 3.38 ERA after getting off to a rather slow start. Lubke matched Hale's ERA exactly at 3.38 as well, while Shuck ended the season at 2.58. As a true freshman Shuck not only was a starter in OSU's pitching rotation but also played in the outfield and at first base, but seemed to fade some both as a pitcher and at the plate as the season wore on.
"I felt like about three quarters of the way through the year, trying to play every day, trying to stay focused offensively swinging the bat, and then starting to pitch on top of that, it started taking its toll mentally," said Todd of Shuck.
"As a matter of fact we've done some things differently in practices, we've tried to get his bullpens and pitching on days he is on early in practice so he can get it over with, then just let him focus on hitting rather than keeping the pitching until late. In our mind he's still a two-way player.
"In our minds he really brings a lot to our team offensively in terms of speed and defense, and I really believe he's one of the best pitchers we have on this staff, so we're going to certainly utilize him."
Sophomore Josh Barrera, also a lefty, saw extensive action last season as a weekday pitcher and should also figure into OSU pitching plans. The OSU pitching staff will be bolstered this season by a pair of very promising freshmen, both of them left handers, in Theron Minium and Josh Edgin. Both impressed in fall drills, and both appear to be in Todd's plans. Todd has so much talent available that he is even considering juggling his starting lineup some and using one his starters from last season in a closer's role this season.
"One of the things we've toyed with is actually taking Jake Hale out of the starting role and making him our closer," said Todd. "We've talked to him about it and he's been very receptive, so that may be an experiment early to see whether that could happen."
If he makes the move to the relievers role Hale would join returning closer Rory Meister in the OSU bull pen. Todd would then use either Barrera, Minium or Edgin in a starting role. That trio will also provide middle relief for the Buckeyes. Todd is excited about the level of talent he will be able to call on in the bullpen this season.
"The bullpen last year was very inconsistent," said Todd.
"I thought we had some talent, but I'm not sure we reached our potential. We've been analyzing that in the off-season and we still look for Rory Meister to do a good job for us. He's got a good arm and he's been working hard on a second pitch for strikes, and we still have a lot of confidence in him, but there's a couple young freshman pitchers that have stepped up a little in the fall and especially in this early winter period that have shown signs of maybe being able to step into that middle relief role. The trouble is that both of them are left-handed. They've show that they've got some athletic ability and some ability to pitch, but whether we can put them in key spots in a game that would keep us there so that at the end of the game is yet to be known."
The Buckeyes must find both a third baseman and a shortstop this season. Last year's shortstop Jedidiah Stephen has graduated and third baseman Ronnie Bourquin signed a professional contract after his junior season in which he led the Big Ten in hitting. At third, Todd is looking at a returner as well as a true freshman with a familiar name.
"We're looking at Tony Kennedy at third base," said Todd.
"He came to us as an all-state shortstop out of Indiana. We moved him to second and he's been behind Jason Zoeller and Jason was the All-Big Ten second baseman last year, so we feel like Tony gives us an offensive threat, he can run, he gives us some base stealing threat. We'd like to find a way to get his bat in the lineup, but what's happened is that Brian DeLucia, Dan's little brother, also was a shortstop. We moved him to third and he has been very, very stable over there, so it's going to be an interesting battle as to who ends up winning that," said Todd.
Kennedy is a redshirt junior who hit .378 in spot duty last season. He hit .389 in Big Ten competition and is a genuine offensive threat. Kennedy appeared in 30 games last season, seven as a starter.
Zoeller will return at second and Justin Miller will return at first base after winning that position about half way through last season. Zoeller is a senior who hit .337 last year, .354 in Big Ten play. He also hit four home runs last year. He appeared in 54 games, 52 as a starter. Miller is a sophomore who was listed as a catcher last year but earned a spot on the field at first as OSU struggled to find an everyday player at that position in the first half the season. After a slow start, Miller's bat came to life late in the season and he ended up hitting .260, but .351 in Big Ten play as his swing came together in the later stages of the season.
OSU will be looking for a shortstop in 2007, and it appears a true freshman has won that position. Freshman Corey Rupert was the Ohio Division I player of the year last year at Mansfield Madison High School. As a senior Rupert his .515 with 33 RBI. For his high school career, Rupert hit a gaudy .465 with 46 doubles and 14 home runs.
"I don't necessarily like it for a team that's going to try to win a championship but Corey Rupert, the freshman out of Mansfield who was the Ohio Player of the Year out of high school looks like he's won job. As long as he goes out and just plays sound defensively, which he's shown he's capable of doing, I think we'll be all right," said Todd.
The catching position should be a strength for the Buckeyes in 2007. Junior Eric Fryer will concentrate on catching this season after spending part of his time last season platooning at first base until Miller eventually won that job.
"Thank goodness," said Fryer of his return to full-time catching.
"I'm better at catching than at first base, maybe more comfortable back there, so maybe it transfers to better offensive numbers when I'm catching. It's a total comfort thing. I think Gus did a great job at first base and he should have that right now."
Fryer's .368 batting average last season was not exactly shabby, but his Big Ten average of .360 was down from his .400 Big Ten average of his freshman year. Fryer was one of the few power threats in the lineup last year with five home runs.
Outfield: The outfield will be headlined by junior center fielder Matt Angle. As a sophomore Angle was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection. He hit .369 last season and .396 in Big Ten play. He also posted a fielding percentage of .982.
Joining Angle in the outfield when he is not pitching will be sophomore J. B. Shuck. Like Angle, Shuck brings outstanding speed to the outfield and is extremely solid defensively. He hit .325 in his freshman season, but just .319 in league play as his play seemed to tail off some as the season wound down.
The unknown in the OSU outfield is Jacob Howell. Howell was the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2004 when he hit .380 in league play, but has been plagued by injuries since his freshman season. He underwent a shoulder surgery after last season and it remains to be seen whether he will return to form this season.
"Jake is getting very close," and Angle.
"Jake is swinging at 100 per cent. I don't think he's throwing at 100 per cent yet, but Jake is getting close. From the swinging standpoint, I think he'll be able to contribute next weekend, at least from talking to him, he thinks he's 100 per cent swinging the bat."
"Jake we're still hoping he'll be able to bounce back from the shoulder surgery he had in the fall," added Todd.
"He's working hard to get back, but you can't rush mother nature sometimes."
If Howell is not available defensively or on days when Shuck is on the mound the Buckeyes will be looking for additional outfielders. Todd says there are a number of candidates including a promising freshman.
"The other one that is really going to get some playing time and I think is going to have a good year for us is Ryan Dew," said Todd.
"He gives us a little pop at the plate and he can run and go catch the ball in the outfield. The other guy that I think really has worked hard is Zach Hurley. He redshirted last year and he's really improved."
Dew played his high school baseball at Worthington Kilbourne and batted .440 with 35 RBI as a senior. Hurley hit .468 as a senior at Springboro, Ohio, and had a slugging percentage of .840 with eight home runs. Both Dew and Hurley are left handed hitters.
Todd is hoping that Dew and Hurley can bring some power to the OSU lineup, something that has been missing the last couple of seasons, but still sees his team mostly a small-ball team offensively,
"I think this team is going to have to rely on its overall team speed," Todd said.
"If you're looking for the person who with one swing of the bat can give us three runs, Eric Fryer gives us that ability and we've got a couple of others that might be able to do that, but they're freshmen and that's just untested."
Overall, the potential is there for a very good season. According to Jake Howell, this is the most talented team he has been on in his OSU career.
"I think it's the best. Absolutely," said Howell evaluating this year's overall talent.
"The guys that we have back, the number of all-Big Ten selections that we have on this team, the amount of leadership, it's unlike anything I've been part of."
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