Being a team that has to stay home while the College World Series plays out in Omaha, Neb., is always tough. Being a team that just barely missed the cut to play in the tournament, though, leaves a far worse taste in the mouth.
The Ohio State baseball team is having to deal with that bad taste, leftover from last season, and is looking to focus on being able to punch its ticket to the postseason in 2014.
Perhaps the person with the most to prove, however, is one who did not see a single minute of action last year. That is the case for redshirt-junior Josh Dezse, who missed all of last season with a stress reaction in his back.
The Powell, Ohio, native always attended OSU baseball games while growing up, and said it was his dream to play for the Buckeyes. After a standout high school career, the dream became a reality and Dezse came to Columbus. His freshman campaign saw him lead the team in batting average, RBIs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage on his way to earning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. Even though his offensive numbers dipped a bit during his sophomore year, Dezse saw his ERA drop almost three points and allowed 14 fewer runs in one more inning of work. It was after that second season when he realized there was a problem, though.
After playing for a month in Massachusetts for the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod Baseball League, his back began to ache during batting practice. He decided to shut himself down and come back to Ohio, thinking it was nothing serious.
“Maybe a pulled muscle or something tweaked. Nothing too serious,” Dezse said, “In the fall, we tried to fire it back up again, but it just didn’t feel right.”
After three months, and with the season right around the corner, he felt it was time to seek medical advice.
“We sent my images to a board of spine directors throughout the country and (the diagnosis) came back that I had a nonunion L4 fracture.”
Two of his vertebrae processes had cracked off and formed a gap between the two bones. To repair it in surgery, doctors shaved off a piece of his hip and fused it with the vertebrae in that gap.
It was not until February 2013 that Dezse found out he would miss the entire upcoming season. After finding out, he and his coaches were crushed.
“Most importantly, I was disappointed for him, entering his junior year, his draft year. There was a lot of excitement and hype for the year he was going to have,” OSU coach Greg Beals said. “I was disappointed he had to have that letdown.”
All Dezse could do was watch and cheer on his teammates as they fought hard all season before coming up just short of making the College World Series. Once his rehabilitation began, he started working to get back to playing shape.
Despite not having played since 2012, Dezse was recently named to the third team of Louisville Slugger’s preseason All-Americans.
“That was a shock to me, to be honest. It humbled me a lot,” Dezse said. “That people still think highly of me, even missing a season and not even proving myself yet, puts a weight on my shoulder. It was nice though, people still recognizing after being out a year.”
His teammates are strong believers in his return as well, naming him one of the team captains for the 2014 season.
Beals said the focus is getting Dezse back to where he was before the surgery.
“We have to be smart about it and not push him too fast too soon,” Beals said. “He wants to be out there. He’s a competitor and an athlete. We can’t be moving him at too quick of a rate where we may cause ourselves a setback.”
Even though he pitched his first two seasons, it is looking like designated hitter is where Dezse will start out this year. Because of the Buckeyes’ lack of experience in the bullpen, however, Dezse could make his way back to the mound to help his team.
“We want to get Josh on the mound when he’s healthy,” assistant coach Mike Stafford said. “We want to get that pitch count up and possibly get him into a starting role.”
Whatever role Dezse takes on the field, his presence is expected to be an enormous boost for a team looking to improve on what it did last year.
“Our expectations this year are through the roof,” Dezse said. “We want to get to the National Tournament.”
With the new season just around the corner, Dezse and his coaches have been able to look back and see the positives of him missing last season.
“In the long run, though, I think he’s grown a lot,” Beals said. “I think he’s learned from that, and it’s been part of his maturation process.”
Dezse added that he thinks the time off showed him a new appreciation for the game.
“It was a good experience for me because it taught me that I really do love to play,” Dezse said. “Maybe it was a good thing, after all. I got everything fixed and feeling good. Now (I) just cross my fingers and hope everything goes well.”