Saturday, April 16, 2005

Frustration

Since Bob Todd became head baseball coach at Ohio State in 1988, the program has, along with Minnesota, dominated the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have won the regular season title in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999, and 2001. They have won the tournament title in 1991, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002, and 2003, making NCAA Tournament appearances in all ten years listed above. They have three times come within one or two games of becoming the first Big Ten team to advance to Omaha since 1984.

It is with that pedigree that the success of Buckeye baseball is judged. The 2004 team narrowly lost both the regular season and tournament titles to Minnesota and was edged out of the NCAA Tournament, but had what could clearly be described as a solid season. High hopes reigned in Columbus for the 2005 squad.

There were losses of course, to graduation and the draft. Catcher Derek Kinnear graduated, but was a fairly poor hitter and did not seem to be too big of a loss. The solid double play combination of Drew Anderson and Brett Garrard was lost to the draft and graduation respectively, but incumbent third baseman Jeddidiah Stephen figured to handle short and well-regarded sophomore Jason Zoeller would fill in at second. Ronnie Bourquin, the primary DH on the ’04 team, would be Stephen’s successor at third baseman. And the Buckeyes holy trinity of outfielders returned intact. Centerfielder Mike Rabin was perhaps the weakest hitter on the squad, but he was bookended by Big Ten Player of the Year Steve Caravati and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jacob Howell.

On the mound, ace Scott Lewis had been plucked away in the draft by the Indians, but he spent 2004 recovering from Tommy John surgery and was not a major factor on the field. Josh Newman, the solid #2, was out of eligibility and drafted by the Rockies, and would be missed. But #3 starter Mike Madsen and long reliever(and late-round Cubs draftee) Trent Luyster figured to anchor the Buckeye rotation with help from Baseball America’s pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year Cory Luebke. The bullpen trio of Trey Fausnaugh, Brett Hatcher, and Jeffrey Carroll that led OSU pitchers in Runs Above Average returned as well. So while the Buckeyes were dealing with losses as all college teams invariably do, things looked bright for another typical year of winning Buckeye baseball.

And for a while, that’s exactly how it played out. As all northern teams must, the Buckeyes opened with games in warm locations like Florida and North Carolina and acquitted themselves well, generally beating other northern teams and playing with some big-name southern schools(the Buckeyes beat top 10 ranked North Carolina and lost close games to Georgia and Arizona State). The only big negatives were nagging injuries to Caravati and Howell. They then opened the home schedule against in-state foe Toledo on an amazingly beautiful March 30 at Bill Davis Stadium(it’s fairly amazing when you can where shorts in Ohio in March) with a 12-4 romp.

Maybe we should have seen the warning sign from the weather on that Opening Day—it was too good to be true. And so the Buckeyes opened the Big Ten schedule at Illinois with a 13-4 record—and were swept in four games, losing by a combined score of 22-10. To add insult to injury, Ronnie Bourquin was lost for at least a month with a finger injury and the Buckeyes were stunned by Oakland University in the almost weekly Wednesday home affair, 6-5.

It was then time to open the Big Ten home schedule against Purdue. And on opening night, Purdue scored four in the ninth to win an easy 7-1 win. Since the twelve run performance against Toledo, OSU had scored just sixteen runs in six games.

And so now despair set in on Buckeye rooters far and wide(or at least the author). An offense that seemed completely impotent. A pitching staff that while not as bad as the offense, was not making anyone forget Steve Arlin either. An 0-5 Big Ten record. And so it went in the first game of the doubleheader on Saturday, with Purdue up 3-1 after four of the seven innings and the last six Buckeyes retired in order.

So what happened of course is that the Buckeyes followed the Big Bang theory of baseball and put up a crooked number. Single, single(pickoff!), sac fly, single, single, RBI single, and a two out three run homer by Zoeller later, and the Buckeyes went on for a 6-4 victory.

And the world returned to its usual state of the Buckeyes winning baseball games. 5-1 in the nightcap, 4-2 on Sunday, and 15-4 on Wednesday against a NAIA Malone College squad that featured two guys I went to high school with. Of course, the offense was still struggling. Fifteen runs on ten hits and thirteen walks against Malone is nothing to write home about, and through eight B10 games OSU was still on the short end in terms of wins and losses 3-5 and runs 36-26(that’s 3.5 runs a game).

Now any sensible analyst, seeing those numbers(with sample size caveats of course) should say to himself, “That’s not very good”. But there are things stronger then sabermetric thinking, and loyalty to the scarlet and gray is one of them. So in comes Michigan State…and down go the OSU bats. 2-0 yesterday in excruciating fashion, leaving two runners on base in the sixth, and three a piece in the eighth and ninth. And today in the doubleheader, a massacre. Two blowout losses to the tune of 20-4.

But today things got really bad, as despondency set over the crowd and desperation over the players. Now all of the little traditionalist clich├ęs about “making things happen” and “manufacturing runs” become paramount. “Hustle makes it happen”, tee shirts for Malone baseball tell us, as the team is blown out because their pitchers can’t throw strikes. But the little things win ballgames, of course, so when you are losing, you resort to them.

And resort to them our heroes did. In Game One, already down 3-0 in the bottom of the first, Mike Rabin on first with one out, caught stealing. Down 6-1 with one out and nobody on in the top of the third, Rabin dove at a sinking liner in center field, turning a sure single into an easy triple. And down 9-1 with nobody out in the fifth, Chris Macke was thrown out darting for second on a would-be wild pitch that was easily within the catcher’s reach. Then, with two outs in the first and a runner already home on the play to give Ohio their first lead of the weekend, Jason Zoeller gets cut down tying to get into third base, leaving a runner stranded at first.

After today’s massacre, the picture is bleak. The Buckeyes are now 3-8 in the Big Ten. The worst a Todd team has ever done is 15-13. The season is now 32 games long rather then 28, but to reach just 15-17 on the season would require a 12-9 finish. Being outscored 58-30 results in an EW% of .235, uglier then the actual .272. So what is wrong with this team? In the Big Ten, the Bucks have so far compiled a .258/.304/.343 line. The walk ratio of .06 per at bat is bad, but the real culprit is the putrid .085 isolated power. With so little power, it’s no wonder many runners get stranded. For instance, in the game yesterday, eight runners were left on base, but only nine reached to begin with, all on singles and walks. Still unlucky, but less so then usual. Even last year, power was not the Buckeyes’ strong suit, with an ISO of .131 versus a B10 average of .126. But this year, it has completely fallen off the table.

It is difficult for me to point out the weaknesses of specific players since they are just college athletes and not professionals, but when you have a first baseman who is hitting .263/.288/.404, that is not a good thing. Paul Farinacci is a senior, from California who chose OSU, and I thank him for that. When he stands at the plate, he looks for all the world like a prototypical first baseman. He strikes me in the box as a right-handed Will Clark. Until the pitch is thrown that is. I don’t mean to pick on Paul, but he is playing first base. Surely we have someone on the roster who is not playing who is capable of walking once in a great while, hitting for average power, and taking throws from the other infielders.

But of course I will be there at Bill Davis Stadium tomorrow, waiting for the turnaround. Even cynical sabermetricians can hope.

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