Buckeyes Hope To Make Big-League Impact

Cory Luebke is set for San Diego's rotation

Last summer was a big one for a group of friends from the Ohio State baseball program who made impacts on Major League Baseball. Ohio State's draft class of 2007 – Cory Luebke, Matt Angle and Eric Fryer – reached the majors at the same time last year, and the Buckeyes hope to go even further in 2012.

For many people, a good celebration entails popping a bottle of champagne and a night on the town.

For three former members of the Ohio State baseball team last summer, the celebration simply included getting out the telephone.

On July 17 of last year, Matt Angle was called up to the Baltimore Orioles, joining Eric Fryer of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cory Luebke of the San Diego Padres. At that point, the three, who led Ohio State to an NCAA tournament berth in 2007 before all being chosen in the top 10 rounds of the draft that year, were in the majors at the same time for the first time.

"There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of good text messages," Angle told BuckeyeSports.com. "To know the work that both of those guys have put in, it was awesome to see."

Now, the three friends – all Buckeye State residents who roomed together at Ohio State and have worked out with one another each of the past few winters – will do their best to stay in the majors for the foreseeable future.

The one with the best shot of that is Luebke, a left-handed starter for the Padres who seemed to cement his credentials as a bona fide big leaguer last season.

After making his debut in 2010 with four appearances, Luebke spent the entirety of the 2011 season with the Friars, going 6-10 with a 3.29 ERA in 46 appearances and striking out 154 batters in 139.2 innings. In 17 appearances as a starter in the last half of the season, Luebke – who turns 27 on March 4 – was 5-8 with a 3.31 ERA.

That's exactly what the Padres had in mind when they took the Maria Stein native 63rd overall in the 2007 draft as a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds. At the time, Luebke was coming off of a 9-1 campaign with a 2.07 ERA for Ohio State and was named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.

Now fulfilling that potential, Luebke is set to begin the season in the Padres rotation "as long as I don't screw it up," he said, but he's not taking anything for granted.

"You're always in a proving process," he said. "(Current OSU All-America candidate Josh) Dezse asked me the other day, ‘Do you wake up every once in a while and say it's nice to be a big leaguer?' I was like, ‘You know what – not really.' I think you talk to every guy the first two or three years in the big leagues, and I think the guys that stick around are the guys that wake up every day and ask, ‘What do I have to do to be a big leaguer tomorrow?'

"There's never a stage where you get real comfortable because they can send you down pretty much anytime they want."

The 6-4 southpaw is unfailingly humble, but Padres manager Bud Black told FanGraphs.com that he believes Luebke – who is working on a changeup this offseason – is ready to become a "potential top-of-the-rotation starter going forward."

Luebke did admit that one of his biggest learning experiences a year ago came early in the season when he gave up six runs in the 10th inning of a loss vs. Cincinnati, a setback that caused him to realize he needed to attack hitters more often.

"I think getting up there last season like I did and being able to face some of the best players all year, it's just like you go out there and you strike out a Matt Kemp or a David Ortiz or something like that, you're like, ‘They're human,' " Luebke said. "Once you can get past that and really attack guys and not be timid and not be afraid to screw up, I think that was the biggest change in me this year."

While Luebke was establishing himself in The Show, Fryer and Angle were breaking into the ranks. Fryer was the first to make his debut, as the 10th-round pick used a searing-hot start at Double-A Altoona to grease the wheels on a June 25 call-up to the Pirates.

Playing on a team that spent part of July in first place for the first time in nearly two decades, the catcher stayed on the team until Aug. 3, playing in 10 games and hitting .269 with a .345 on-base percentage.

"It was great," the Reynoldsburg native said. "Probably the best month of my life, I could say. It was a blast. My wife and son were able to drive out there, too. It was a really good time for them also. It's something they can't take away. I finally made it, and that's what was really neat."

The Pirates designated Fryer for assignment in November, but he cleared waivers, allowing the team to re-sign him. The 26-year-old expects to begin the season with Triple-A Indianapolis and is working in the outfield and the infield to increase his versatility.

"I think eventually they'd like me to be a jack of everything," said Fryer, who was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. "In spring training for sure they said catching and outfield. Being able to run a little bit helps out. Especially when you get down to the end of the roster, they want guys who can do multiple things."

Angle, meanwhile, played his first major league game July 17 against the Cleveland Indians. The speedy 26-year-old outfielder's stay was short, as he was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk after just two games, but he returned Aug. 23 and was with the Orioles through the end of the season.

In 31 games, Angle hit only .177, but his on-base percentage was .293 thanks to 12 walks and he had 11 steals and seven RBI. He also had his first career homer Sept. 24, leading off a road game against Detroit with a bomb deep into the right field seats against eventual Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.

Angle – originally a seventh-round draft pick after hitting .366 as a senior at OSU – has been projected by many analysts as a potential utility outfielder this year for the Orioles, but he was designated for assignment recently. While his immediate future is uncertain, he'll still likely get a shot this spring training.

"It was really exciting," he said of last year's chance at the bigs. "It's something I've been working toward for a long time. After being there, it's the only place you really want to play. Now you have to put in even more work in order to stay."

To that end, those three spent January and the early part of February working out at Ohio State's facilities with some friends. The group includes former OSU slugger Doug Deeds, who is in the Texas Rangers organization; former OSU two-way player J.B. Shuck, who debuted as an outfielder with the Houston Astros last summer as well; and former Indiana outfielder Evan Crawford, a Reynoldsburg native who is in the minors with the San Francisco Giants.

"I don't think you could have a better situation," Luebke said. "It's a good, hardworking group, and we're all pretty competitive, so whether it's lifting or running, we're all kind of pushing each other, making sure each other gets better. It definitely helps out."

Those players have also been conspicuous around Ohio State practices, which began in late January. Though second-year head coach Greg Beals wasn't at OSU when those former players donned the scarlet and gray – that honor belonged to Hall of Fame coach Bob Todd – he is happy to have the major leaguers around on Nick Swisher Field.

"They're a resource to our guys, they're a resource to us as coaches, and they are a great illustration of what can happen here from Ohio State," Beals said. "You can come play here at Ohio State University and make it to the big leagues. They're living proof, right here every day.

"The second thing is the guys see the hard work that they continue to put in even now that they've made it to the big leagues. Our guys see that, so they know it doesn't just happen. Great things happen when you put in the effort."

Great things like making the major leagues at the same time as some of your best buddies, five years after you were all chosen in the major league draft.

"We all met each other as seniors and high school," Luebke said. "I think compared to a lot of guys, us three probably pull for each other more than anybody else.

"It meant a lot to me when Matt got called up and when Eric got called up just because I've seen what we've all gone through the last seven or eight years, the work we put in. To see it pay off for all of us, it was pretty neat."

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