(Photo via Ohio State Athletics, seen here)
At this time last year, Ohio State baseball was in the midst of a free fall. They had won only one Big Ten series and couldn’t figure out how to get their disappointing season back on track. Just one year removed from an NCAA tournament appearance, the Buckeyes could not regain the magic from their 2016 Big Ten Tournament run. They finished the season at 22-34 overall, and with a bottom-5 finish in the Big Ten they were not even invited to Bloomington for the 2017 Big Ten Tournament.
This year has been a completely different story. The Buckeyes just took two games in Champaign against the Illini in a crucial series to improve their record to 30-15, and 11-7 in Big Ten play. Their RPI has jumped from 154 last year to 30 right now—far and away the biggest improvement in the conference.
“The key word in that is just growth,” Coach Greg Beals said. “We were really young last year and we lost a lot of guys from our 2016 championship team. We struggled a bit and couldn’t pull ourselves out of that hole. This year’s group has grown a lot, physically, mentally and our game development has really grown.”
Senior Noah McGowan has undergone the most notable development this season. He leads the Buckeyes in all three triple crown categories, and is second in the Big Ten in hits and RBI. McGowan transferred from McLennan Community College to Ohio State before last season, but struggled in his first season in Columbus. He played every day, but hit just .214 with five home runs.
“We recruited him in here certainly to be a key part of our offense,” Beals said. “Last year, it just didn’t work out that way. I think he struggled for the first time maybe in his life on the baseball field.” Players have a tendency to look at the numbers, and I think he got caught looking at those and trying to chase them.”
This year, McGowan got hot during the opening weekend, hitting .400 with a pair of home runs to earn himself National Player of the Week honors. He hasn’t slowed down much since, with a 1.089 OPS through 45 games. His numbers look quite similar to his exceptional sophomore season at the Junior College level, when he had a 1.185 OPS.
“This year I think he’s grown up and has learned from that experience from last year,” Beals added. “We made a couple swing adjustments to free him up a bit, and make his swing a little more versatile. To hit, not just hit for power. He’s always had power, but he’s become a much better hitter as well.”
On the mound, one of the most significant improvements for the Buckeyes has come from one of their highest-potential arms. Junior right-hander Ryan Feltner has tons of MLB potential, with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a 6-4 frame, but he really struggled last year. His ERA ballooned up to 6.32, and he walked over four batters per nine innings.
However, his potential was enough to earn him an invitation to the Bourne Braves of the prestigious Cape Cod summer league, and there something changed. In 15 1/3 innings pitched for the Braves, he did not allow a run, struck out 15 batters, and earned eight saves for the Braves. He was awarded the league’s award for the most outstanding reliever after the season.
“The experience he had out on the Cape certainly helped him,” Beals said. “Last year he was stuck in a role between the bullpen and the rotation. This year, he’s been in the rotation the entire year, and he’s been able to settle into that role and solidify himself as a key part of our rotation.”
Feltner has worked as the Saturday starter all year, and he has lowered his ERA to 4.03 with 66 strikeouts in 67 innings.
At the back end, senior right hander Seth Kinker was a rare bright spot for the Buckeyes last year, posting seven saves and a 2.95 ERA last year. This season, he has taken his performance to another level—his 1.32 ERA and 11 saves lead the Big Ten, and Beals utilizes him as a multi-inning stopper at the back end of games.
“It certainly does wonders,” Beals added. “I can’t even explain what it does for managing a baseball game when you know you have a go-to guy and a guy that you trust. Put the ball in his hands, and you know you’ve got your best foot forward.”
With their road series win against Illinois, the Buckeyes have put themselves in great position for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and have a chance to solidify their spot with their final home series of the year against red-hot Purdue this weekend.