Baseball coaches often talk about pitchers having the “mentality of a closer.” It takes a lot of nerve to step on the mound with the game on the line day in and day out and not every player is cut out for it.
Ohio State junior pitcher Trace Dempsey, however, has the mentality of a closer. When Dempsey is off the mound, he is laid-back and calm, as his Twitter profile says: “good vibes only.”
While that attitude helps Dempsey have a short memory after a poor performance, OSU coach Greg Beals said Dempsey also has a great ability to turn up his intensity at a moment’s notice, which is vital to Dempsey being an effective closer.
“Trace is pretty calm, pretty cool normally, but when it’s competition and game time, it fires up,” Beals said. “I look at closers as a guy that has something special, that if you don’t get to see it very often, if you only get to see it a few times, they’re going to be really tough.”
Junior starting pitcher Ryan Riga has similar opinions of Dempsey.
“He’s not an intense guy until he’s on the mound,” Riga said. “He’s chill, he does his own thing and once it’s down to the bullpen, it’s time to go.”
Last year, Dempsey’s 3-0 record, 1.02 ERA and 17 saves earned him National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings third-team All-American, ABCA/Rawlings first-team All-Mideast Region and unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selections.
Heading into this season, Dempsey was named an NCBWA preseason second team All-American and third-team All-American by Louisville Slugger.
Although he is honored and appreciative of the preseason acknowledgements he received this year, Dempsey said his only concern right now is helping lead OSU to its first NCAA Baseball Tournament appearance since 2009.
“Obviously, it was nice to get that recognition preseason, but postseason is really what matters and I’m more focused on the team at this point,” Dempsey said.
Redshirt-junior first baseman and pitcher Josh Dezse said Dempsey capably filled the closer role right away.
“As a teammate, I feel whenever he’s in the game we’re going to win, and I think that’s the confidence we have in Trace and that’s the confidence everyone in our team has in Trace,” Dezse said.
Riga said having Dempsey in the bullpen is a key component of OSU’s success.
“Last year, I started out in the bullpen. For that role, it was get your three outs and get it to him (Dempsey) and, pretty much, game’s done. It shortens the game for us definitely,” Riga said. “When Trace is on, nobody is better.”
Having a job where every single pitch has the game riding on it also means everything can fall apart in a matter of minutes, something Dempsey said he learned firsthand Feb. 16 against Indiana State when he took his first loss of the season. Indiana State’s four earned runs in the ninth inning of that game equaled the number Dempsey allowed all of last year in 35.1 innings of work.
“The Indiana State game, we had a two-run lead and I blew the save and as a closer, obviously that’s tough,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t pitch to my strengths and it came back to bite me. You’ve got to stay with what you know.”
Beals said the loss has brought out the best in Dempsey, who was eager to review the game tape and get back on the mound.
“He took it as an opportunity and it showed maturity,” Beals said. “We got into some videotape from the Indiana State game and looked at videotape from last year during his scoreless streak just to see where he was and notice some littler differences.”
Since that game Dempsey has gotten his pitching back on track. In four appearances he has pitched 4.1 scoreless innings with three saves. His record is now 0-1 on the year with a 4.91 to go along with four saves.
“I’ve had better outings since the first weekend and the arm feels really good, but I’m just trying to mix everything (pitches) and keep it all balanced,” Dempsey said.
Despite leading the Big Ten with those four saves, Dempsey’s many preseason accolades made for heady expectations that could make his current stat line seem disappointing. But he said none of that has affected him mentally.
“As a reliever, you have to have a short-term memory, you can’t dwell on things,” Dempsey said. “Just learn from it and get over it, I was over it after I got out of the shower after that game (against Indiana State). You know I’ve got to move on to the next day.”
The Buckeyes (7-3) are set to travel to Eugene, Ore., to take on the Oregon Ducks in a three-game series that begins Friday. First pitch is set for 9:05 p.m.