In mid-September, well before the his team compiled a 14-6 record over the first five weeks of the season, even before the first pitch was thrown in the fall-capping Scarlet and Gray World Series, Greg Beals liked what he saw in what would be the 2018 Ohio State baseball team.
But feeling good in the fall rarely holds much water, In fact, it would be noteworthy if a coach didn’t like what he saw in the fall, if optimism wasn’t falling alongside wind-blown leaves.
Players have a hop and skip in their step, returning to campus after a season of summer baseball. Recruits become freshmen, and in today’s recruiting cycle, it can take up to four years for a coaching staff to reap the fruits of their labor in recruiting, between the start of a recruitment and the time a player dons the school uniform for the first time. Coaches are revitalized, having spent the offseason examining what went wrong the prior season and determined to fix it, or to carry on what went right. And there’s the small fact that you can’t lose a game in October that will hurt your chances to reach Omaha in June.
However, now, in mid-March, the sentiment has only strengthen, Beals likes this team.
“[For us] to get to a national-caliber it’s just being a little cleaner, but there’s a lot to like about this ball club,” said Beals, following Ohio State’s 7-3 victory against Cal State Northridge on Sunday. “I like the depth, I like what we’ve done offensively, and the growth we’ve had.”
On paper, it’s easy to see what Beals likes about the current outfit of the Buckeyes.
A year after batting .260, the fourth-lowest mark in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s offense is hitting at a .295 clip, second best in the conference. A .352 on-base percentage has improved to .382, while the team is has a collective .435 slugging percentage, up .40 points. All together, Ohio State is averaging 7.45 runs through their first 20 games, a year-over improvement of 2.07 runs. And on the mound, Ohio State’s team ERA sits at 4.04, down from 2017’s 5.32 rate.
But to truly know what Beals likes about this team, why the program feels last year’s 22-34 campaign was an aberration and that they’re back on track to reach a regional, it’s what doesn’t show up in statstics, but what’s found in blueprints.
Posted through the coaches offices, coaches and players locker room, is the cultural blueprint of the Ohio State baseball program. It’s simplistic, it’s direct, and for Beals it resonates.
Nothing more, nothing less. Those three mantras define what it means to be a Buckeye. And after a year where Ohio State suffered its worst Big Ten finish, 11th, in program history, the Buckeyes’ bounce back season has been anchored in the cultivation of that blueprint.
“I dig into our cultural blueprint,” Beals said, as Ohio State welcomes Georgetown to Columbus during their conference bye week. “Win, lose, or draw, we have to respond, behave, and do the things we expect each other to do. We’re going to prepare at an elite level, we’re going to compete with toughness—that’s what we’re starting to see now.”
When it comes to elite preparation, its the commitment to preparation which has spurred one of the Big Ten’s breakout players.
A transfer from McCLennan Community College, Noah McGowan arrived in Columbus last year as a junior expected to fill the offensively voids created with the departure of second-round pick Ronnie Dawson. Like Dawson, McGowan sports No. 4 and looks the part of a linebacker for Urban Meyer, less three-hole hitter for Beals. McGowan flashed brilliance a year ago, recording a three-home run game against Xavier on March 19. But McGowan connected for only two other home runs in his 128 other at-bats, and only 25 other hits in total, to bat .214.
This year, through 79 at-bats, McGowan has 31 hits for a team-leading .392 average. With seven doubles and five home runs, McGowan’s .696 slugging percentage is second in the Big Ten, and his 27 RBI leads the conference.
“[It’s just] trusting what I’m doing,” McGowan said on his strong senior season. “Seeing what I’m seeing, seeing spin, or if I see ball up in the zone, offspeed pitch, put a good swing on it.”
That may explain how McGowan approaches each at-bat, but it’s the work done prior to that allows him to step to the plate relaxed, with a clear mind and trusting himself.
“I’ll hit with coaches, but then I usually like to come back later at night and hit by myself” McGowan said. “Just so I can have time to myself and hit, not have outside distractions and focus on what I do in the cage, get my reps off of the machine.
“Last year I didn’t hit off the machine as much, and when I was in JUCO we hit off the machine a lot, and I think that was a part of my success…off the machine, that’s when you find the flaws in your swing.”
With the preparation established, taking on the opposition with competitive toughness is where results come.
Starting with the season-opening 11-7 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Ohio State scored nine runs over their final two at-bats, of the team’s 16 victories, four have come with Ohio State trailing after seven innings. The comeback wins include its two marquee victories, a 9-6 win over Southern Miss, and a 7-5 win at Coastal Carolina, both are ranked teams.
“This team has a lot of fight in them,” Beals said. “You’ve seen that with comeback wins, late-inning breakouts, those type of things. Our guys are willing to play the whole game, go the long haul and that leads back to the competitive spirit we have.”
McGowan leads a charge of seven players batting .286 or better, on a team with “guys in our dugout that’ll be able to score runs and put up just as many runs as anyone else.” To him, Ohio State is never out of a contest, there’s never a moment to relent.
A beneficiary of Ohio State’s powerful offense is freshman Griffan Smith. Appearing in six games, including one start, Smith has logged 11.2 innings for the Buckeyes.
“You just go out there and pitch and do your thing, knowing that your offense has your back, especially with the way we’ve been hitting. There’s not a doubt in my mind when I step on the mound or go back in the inning that they’re going to pick me up, whether I do bad or good.”
And that’s where the final pillar of the Buckeyes foundation comes together: the brotherhood.
Co-captains for Ohio State are Kyle Michalik and Adam Niemeyer. Fifth-year seniors, the pitchers were part of a prolific high school class of 2013 recruiting haulthat Beals landed. Along with Dawson, Travis Lakins, Troy Montgomery, and Tanner Tully, the recruiting class is one of the Big Ten’s best over the last decade.
But tragically, there was only a glimpse of the unparalleled potential of the best prospect, Zach Farmer.
After a courageous two-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia, Farmer passed away in August 2015. Never prepared to suffer such a loss, the Ohio State players found comfort in each other, found a renewed sense of commitment to each other, and formed an unbreakable bond.
Arising from tragedy, taking the fight Farmer valiantly displayed, Ohio State ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought, claiming the 2016 Big Ten Tournament title and leading the Big Ten with 44 wins.
A championship will never replace a life. Whenever a player’s career is over, be it at the end of his senior year or when the professional game passes him by, there is still life to take on. The best in athletics is preparing an individual to succeed in life, to take lessons learned from sacrifice, hard work and selflessness to be an asset to society. It would never be appropriate to compare a losing season to the loss of a life. But the brotherhood, the commitment to others that fueled Ohio State in 2016 has returned to Bill Davis Stadium.
Atop Ohio State’s pitching staff is junior left-handed pitcher Connor Curlis. With a 3-0 record, next to a 3.07 ERA in 29.1 innings, Curlis has ran with the role of weekend ace. But the title means less to him, it’s more what he can do to set the tone for the weekend.
“It feels awesome to have the coaches tell you that you’re the Friday starter, but more it’s to go out there and give it your all for the team,” Curlis said. “Every Friday night, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
McGowan, arguably the Big Ten’s top player over the first month deflects individual glory.
“Our focus this year has been more of a team, to come together and enjoying being around each other.” he said.
And when you have elite preparation, competitive toughness, and each player takes on the life of a brotherhood, to Beals that is what has spurred the Buckeyes to win tough games, go into tough environments and fight and enter the last week of non-conference play with all goals in tact.
“They believe they can do it. That belief goes back to everything we’ve talked about, the competitive toughness, the brotherhood, and it’s the elite preparation that they all know they’ve done. Then to be able to go out and do it, like we’ve done a few times this year early in the season, to prove it on the field also, just really builds that belief and feeling our guys have right now.”
Now, even though it was well before a pitch was thrown, a home run hit, or a game was won, it’s clear what Beals liked about this ball club in the fall. It’s in the blueprints.