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By Pete Nakos
ATHENS, Ohio -- Fifth-year Ohio baseball head coach Rob Smith enjoys tinkering with his his pitching staff, working to put his team in the best situation to win.
This offseason, senior right-handed pitcher Jake Rudnicki -- the starting pitcher for the majority of Ohio's games last year -- approached Smith, asking to move to the bullpen after he was informed MLB scouts saw him being successful in that role.
When the season starts on Feb. 17 against La Salle, Rudnicki will be at the back of the bullpen as a late-game reliever, along with senior righty Tom Colletti and redshirt junior right-hander Jake Roehn.
Smith believes this move will help put the Bobcats back in the Mid-American Conference Championship tournament and make the bullpen one of the strongest in the conference.
"I think it has a chance to be our strength this year," said Smith. "We could roll out obviously Jake Rudnicki, Tom Colletti and Jake Roehn. All have the potential to throw above 90 mph and have swing and miss stuff."
Rudnicki finished last season with a record of 5-3 and totaled a team-high 76 strikeouts in a team-high 14 starts. With the addition of junior southpaw Butch Baird, a junior transfer from Wabash Valley Community College, Rudnicki was able to move to the bullpen.
And as excited as Rudnicki is to make the switch, Colletti and Roehn are just as thrilled to add another strong arm to the bullpen.
"One of the things that me, Tom and Roehn do is take pride in it," said Rudnicki. "It's something that we've made an identity out of. Hopefully we'll have a lot of fun and close out a lot of games."
Roehn used a medical redshirt his sophomore year. The following season was his first as a closer. Now, after pitching an entire season in that role, he feels more confident in himself. In his first year as Ohio's closer, he finished with a team-best 2.18 ERA and led the Bobcats with seven saves, which tied him with Doug Stackhouse (1983) for the fourth-most in a single season in program history.
This past summer, Roehn pitched in Illinois for the Springfield Sliders of the Prospect League as a closer, giving him the opportunity to work even more on his confidence. He was recently named to the 2017 Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List, which is awarded to the best relief pitcher in college baseball by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
"One of my goals was to gain velocity, and I think I've done that a little bit," said Roehn. "I worked pretty hard in the weight room, specifically winter break. Just wanted to come back and be dominant."
As for the beginning of games, Smith said Gerry Salisbury will start Friday, Baird and Logan Jacik on Saturday, and Michael Klein on Sunday.
Salisbury had Tommy John surgery his sophomore year, taking a medical redshirt. When he returned in 2016, he had not pitched in a game in 22 months. Smith selected him as the staff's ace, but four starts into the season he switched to the bullpen. By the end of the season, he was back to pitching the way he was before his surgery.
Now entering his redshirt junior year, he is being handed the reins of the Bobcats' pitching staff once again.
"Last year, not pitching in a game in 22 months and the lights are on and you're out there in the first game of the year trying to defend a MAC title, that's a lot of pressure," said Salisbury. "I moved on and learned a lot from last year. It feels good (Smith) still has confidence in me."
Pitchers such as Salisbury, Roehn and Rudnicki have more confidence in their pitching this year, partially because of the faith they have in the Bobcats' defense.
Smith calls it the strength of the team, a position group that has really come on as of late. The group is led in the middle by a pair of seniors -- second baseman Ty Black and shortstop Tyler Finkler.
For now, most of Smith's excitement for the season is coming from the bullpen. He has hopes that Rudnicki will become the leader.
Until then, all that Smith can do is wait and continue to make adjustments where they are needed.
"What I hope is that we get really good synergy out of these guys," said Smith. "Someone can knock out the seventh inning, someone can knock out the eighth inning, and someone can take care of the ninth. If we can do that, that really sets the tone for the team and does a lot in terms of creating a confidence for you team. If you can get a lead after six innings, the game's over."