Feb. 8, 2010

click here for CBI Big Ten preview


Buckeyes' Battery has Positive Charge

By Phil Stanton



Ohio State has something that makes the folks at Eveready and Duracell a bit envious: a battery that is still going strong after more than a dozen years. On one end is right-handed pitcher Alex Wimmers. On the other is catcher Dan Burkhart (left). They started as childhood buddies. They enter 2010 as junior preseason All-Americans looking to lead the Buckeyes to another Big Ten title and beyond.


“I caught with Alex since I was 9 years old,” Burkhart said. “We started on a travel team. We started out pretty competitive at 9. It’s funny how we’ve been going to the same high school and the same college.”


The pair lived five minutes apart and played together at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati before heading north to Columbus for college.


“I did commit first,” Burkhart said. “He pulled a joke on me, saying he was going to Michigan. But then he turned around and pulled out his Ohio State hat and told me he was going to Ohio State too. I was excited about it.”


“I had some other schools I was looking at,” Wimmers (right) said. “Dan committed here and Dan put in a word for me. The coaches looked at me a couple times pitching, told me to take a visit, look at the place. I came in, looked at it and I was sold.”


Burkhart had an immediate impact at OSU. He started 48 games as a freshman, hitting .308 with seven doubles, one homer and 29 RBI. The Buckeyes were 30-26 overall, 15-15 in the Big Ten. Wimmers had 25 relief appearances in his rookie season, going 0-3 with three saves and a 4.50 ERA. He allowed 35 hits in 40.1 innings with 31 walks and 51 strikeouts.


As a sophomore, Burkhart batted .354 in 57 starts with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 62 RBI. He walked 31 times and struck out 29. Burkhart was named 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year as OSU improved to 42-19 and 18-6 in conference play.


A season ago, Wimmers posted a 9-2 mark with a 3.27 ERA in 16 starts. He allowed 80 hits in 104.2 innings with 136 strikeouts and 55 walks. Wimmers recorded four complete games and two shutouts, including a no-hitter against Michigan on May 2, and was named the Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Year.


The biggest change for Wimmers? A changeup.


“My freshman summer,” Wimmers said, “I worked on a changeup because I knew I had a chance coming into my sophomore season as a starter and all I did was work on a changeup. That really benefited me to have three pitches to throw my sophomore season in the starter role.”


Burkhart (right) was happy with the new pitch as well.


“Freshman year he was pretty solid,” Burkhart said. “In the summer he developed this changeup that is almost unhittable. Last year he was dominant with it. He’s always had good off-speed, good curve balls. He got a little faster with his velocity and his changeup is unbelievable. It catches people off guard so many times. His pitches were so much better.”


Longtime Buckeyes head coach Bob Todd believes it was more than just one pitch that made Wimmers a winner.


“The biggest improvement was his work ethic and his attitude and his willingness to say ‘I am going to adjust to the next level,’” Todd said. “To use Alex as a freshman, it was more in a setup and even sometimes in a closer role, which he was not familiar with at all. He struggled, there’s no doubt about that. When we put him back into his comfort zone, which was as a starter, he blossomed. But he blossomed because he worked extremely hard to try to make himself better because he wanted to be in that starting rotation.”


It also doesn’t hurt to see a familiar face behind the plate.


“Dan behind the plate is something you can’t really describe,” Wimmers explained. “We know everything about each other. We have a feeling about what each other is going to call. We have a really good mindset for the game. We seem to flow unbelievably. With Dan being behind the plate, it’s an awesome, awesome thing.”


Burkhart likes that comfort zone as well.


He was behind the dish when Wimmers threw the first perfect game in Archbishop Moeller history. And he was behind the dish helping his high school buddy become a college star.


“We’ve played together so long,” Burkhart said. “I know what he likes to throw. Most of the time, I call the pitches. Sometimes he’ll shake me off because he wants to throw something at a certain time. We had that no-hitter game. That was unbelievable, the sequences we had going.”


The chemistry is evident from the dugout as well, where Todd has guided Ohio State to 873 victories in his 22 seasons, an average of nearly 40 wins a year.


“You marvel at it,” Todd said. “As many games as I have seen in my lifetime. It’s amazing. Once you can see, and you can sense it, that Alex and Dan are on the same page, the pace of the game picks up, the rhythm moves. It really is a joy to sit in the dugout and watch. Dan knows exactly what Alex wants to throw. There’s hardly any shaking of signs. The pace of the game really picks up when those two are on the same page.”


In fact, six of Wimmers’ 16 starts last season were games clocked under 2:20.


The Buckeyes surround Wimmers (left) and Burkhart with a veteran supporting cast. Eight positional starters return, as do nine of 11 pitchers.


The entire outfield returns in the form of leading hitter Ryan Dew, who hit .388 with seven homers, 42 RBI and only 12 strikeouts in 219 at-bats; Michael Stephens, who hit .346 with a team-high 14 homers and 63 RBI; and Zach Hurley, who hit .346 with six homers, 53 RBI and team-best 14 stolen bases.


“I think this team has a great attitude,” said Todd, who is three wins away from 1,000 for his career. “This team has been very enthusiastic about what us coaches have asked them to do. I think overall this team has demonstrated a tremendous work ethic. They’ve got some goals set and I think everybody’s working toward those goals.”


The Buckeyes reached the Tallahassee Regional final last year and hope to improve on that this year.


“As long as I’ve been here,” Burkhart said, “this is the hardest-working team that I have been a part of here. We all have one goal in mind; it’s to get to Omaha. If we get to Omaha that means we probably won the Big Ten. So we’re going to set our goal as getting to Omaha and that will take care of everything else.”


What would it mean to the program to reach the College World Series?


“It’s so important for the players,” Todd said. “As coaches, you’re doing this for the players. It’s something I would love to have this team, these players, experience Omaha. I was on the NCAA Selection Committee for seven years and we had meetings out there. I’ve been out there many, many times. I have experienced it. I think it’s one of the premier events the NCAA puts on and I would love for our players to experience it.”


It would be the ultimate trip for a pair of longtime teammates and friends.


(photos courtesy of OSU Media Relations Office)