Monday, June 29, 2009

Except for the Last Game...

...OSU baseball had a wonderful season, its best since 2003. But the last game was so dreadful that the success of the season will be overlooked by those who don't follow the team closely (which, since we're talking about college baseball, is just about everybody).

The sad truth is that Florida State laid a whooping for the ages on the Buckeyes in the first regional final game, a 37-6 rout in which multiple NCAA Tournament records were broken. It also broke several OSU futility records. OSU has played 3,810 games, and the previous high mark for runs allowed was 24 (incidentally, one of these occurrences was against the Seminoles in 1978, the other against Central Michigan in 1990). The worst loss in OSU annals was 20 (23-3 to Miami-FL in 1999 and 22-2 to New Mexico in 2002).

There's no doubt that the last act was a downer, and it highlighted the team's one glaring weakness (pitching depth), which had been on display all season long. However, the carnage should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that OSU was one of the last 32 teams standing in the NCAA Tournament and had dispatched Georgia earlier in the day to finish second in the Tallahassee regional.

OSU started with a fairly soft non-conference schedule, but it set the team up well for conference success. The Bucks won their first seven contests and were sitting at 18-3 entering Big Ten play. The biggest non-conference game was at Miami-FL, where Alex Wimmers pitched five strong innings on three days rest in a 7-1 victory.

The Big Ten switched from a four-game weekend series (with a Saturday doubleheader made up of seven inning games) to a standard three-game series. This change was fortuitous to OSU in this particular season as it reduced the importance of second-line pitchers. The Bucks won a series at Penn State and lost at Minnesota to open the conference season. At 3-3, they were in the middle of the early pack and lost ground to Minnesota, who figured to be one of the top contenders.

The Bucks were able to jump into first place with back-to-back sweeps (MSU at home and Purdue on the road), but even after taking two of three in the next three series (Northwestern, the forces of evil, and at fellow contender Illinois), they had fallen out of first by a half-game to Minnesota.

In the final weekend, OSU was able to sweep Iowa at home, meaning they would need just one Penn State win over Minnesota to take the title. On Sunday, Penn State obliged, and the Buckeyes had their first regular season Big Ten title since 2001.

Meanwhile, the weekday games (generally non-conference home games against weaker area opponents) had not been going as smoothly as usual. OSU's record in these games was just 3-6 (although two of the losses came at Louisville, a strong club and an exception to the normal scheduling).

Here is Ohio's record in non-conference home games (essentially mid-week games, with exceptions like Louisville) over the last five seasons:

2005: 6-1
2006: 5-2
2007: 5-4
2008: 6-3
2009: 3-4

This is another manifestation of the pitching problems (of course, the sample size of seven games could be a factor as well). Winning the Big Ten title with a sub-.500 record in those games is an oddity.

The Big Ten tournament was held in Columbus; under the old format, which was in place until this season, it would have been at Bill Davis Stadium. But for the first time the Big Ten tried a neutral site, off-campus location for the tournament, namely the Clippers' brand-new Huntington Park. OSU beat Illinois in the opener 7-4, but Indiana and Minnesota each roughed up the Buckeye staff (13-3 and 9-6) to consign them to a third-place finish.

In the NCAA Tournament, the Bucks were made a #3 seed in the Tallahassee region with #1 Florida State, #2 Georgia, and #4 Marist. A disastrous eight run first inning enabled Georgia to cruise to a 24-8 win (again, the second-line pitching was brought in to be drubbed), but OSU stayed alive with a 6-4 win over Marist. Meeting Georgia for the right to play for the regional title against Florida State, the Bucks rallied from a 4-0 deficit for a 13-6 win. The season ended with the FSU game, already covered above.

The Buckeyes finished first in the B10 with a .689 EW%, fifth with a .540 EW% (Minnesota led at .635), and fourth in PW% (Indiana led at .639). Of course, these measures were affected by the blowout loss to FSU and some other blowouts throughout the season (not all of which went against Ohio, of course, but more did than didn't).

As a whole, the defense allowed 7.3 runs/game, ninth in the Big Ten--this despite the fact that Bill Davis Stadium is a fairly strong pitcher's park. The pitching staff had two shining bright spots. The first was sophomore Alex Wimmers, who went from a potentially brilliant but maddeningly inconsistent middle reliever to staff ace. Wimmers had multiple double digit strikeout games, pitched the first nine-inning no-hitter in OSU history on May 2 against the servants of evil, was the co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, and was named a first-team All-American by PING. He averaged 11.7 K/9 and was 35 runs better than an average Big Ten pitcher.

Senior closer Jake Hale also had an amazing season. A starter as a freshman and junior and the closer as a soph, he returned to the pen and set the OSU single season saves record with 18, appearance record with 40, and career save record with 29. He had a 11.0 K/9 and was +25 RAA in just 55 innings, and was drafted by Arizona in the 27th round.

Beyond that pair, OSU had three pitchers of moderate effectiveness. Sophomore reliever Drew Rucinski led the team in wins at 12-2, and early in the year was lights out. He faded a bit down the stretch, and ended at just +3 RAA (Rucinski's season stats, like those for most of the pitchers that follow, were hurt by their battering in the Florida State game, which for many of them was their third appearance in a must-win game in two days.)

The other two starters, sophomore Dean Wolosiansky and junior Eric Best each checked in at -3 RAA. Past that, the pitching was a disaster, as six other pitchers combined for 133 innings and a 13.53 RA. Most disappointing was that sophomore lefty Andrew Armstrong (penciled in the rotation with Wimmers and Wolosiansky) was derailed by injuries as was strong-armed freshman righty Ross Oltorik (a walk-on quarterback in the fall).

Coming into the season, I and other followers of the team felt that pitching depth might be a strength. Oops. However, most people felt that the offense would continue to be mediocre and woefully lacking in power, and that was decidedly not the case. The Bucks scored 7.9 runs/game to pace the conference, led in BA at .328, were second in OBA at .390 (Purdue, .395), and first in SLG at .495. Rather than lacking in power, the Buckeyes were second in the conference with 118 doubles (Indiana, 119), first with 66 longballs, and first with a .168 ISO.

Sophomore catcher Dan Burkhart had a breakout season, taking Big Ten Player of the Year honors with a .354/.438/.589, +21 RAA performance and solid defense behind the plate. At first base, sophomore Matt Streng was forced into action and acquitted himself fairly well with a surprising 8 homer, +3 RAA campaign. Junior second baseman Cory Kovanda did a great job getting on base, tying for the team-lead with 33 walks, finishing second to Burkhart in OBA at .427, and winding up +10 RAA despite lacking power (.101 ISO). At shortstop, sophomore Tyler Engle didn't do much well except get on base, but drawing 28 walks in just 130 at bats enabled him to post a respectable .285/.411/.423, +3 season.

Senior captain Justin Miller was ice cold early in the season, and wound up at third base after the expected starter, junior Brian DeLucia, went down with a finger injury. Miller closed his career with a .310/.369/.506, +4 season. The key infield reserve was junior Cory Rupert, who saw significant time at short and third, struggling to .279/.329/.388, -8.

Junior left fielder and leadoff man Zach Hurley teamed with Kovanda to form a dynamic on base duo at the top of the lineup (.346/.421/.510, +15), and was picked by Florida in the 45th round of the draft. Junior college transfer Michael Stephens (a junior in eligibility) manned center ably and while billed as having doubles power, paced the team with 14 round-trippers and wound up at .346/.375/.608, +13. The hole in his game was his walk rate, with just 11 in 237 at bats. In right field, senior Michael Arp was not particular productive, hitting .295/.345/.405, -7 RAA. Junior DH Ryan Dew finally delivered on his offensive promise, hitting .388/.420/.562, +16. Those four combined to play almost all of the available innings in the outfield.

The early outlook for the 2010 Buckeyes is bright. Most of the key players return, with Jake Hale, Justin Miller, and Michael Arp the only senior starters. Given Hurley's low draft position, it is likely that he'll be back as well. Hopefully OSU will be able to find some freshman pitching that can at least soak up innings, and get Armstrong and Oltorik healthy to go along with Wimmers, Wolosiansky, and Best. This season showed that it's possible to achieve great things with a paper thin staff, but it's not a feat that Bob Todd will want to attempt again any time soon.

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