Eastern Kentucky's Aaron Ochsenbein has been one of the most dominant closers in college baseball this year. In 23 appearances, the fifth-year senior righthander is 4-1, 0.46 with seven saves and a dazzling 63-10 K-BB mark in 39.1 innings. He's given up just two runs all season, and he had yielded just one run through the first 10 weeks.
"He's as dominant as I've seen - and I coached Marcus Stroman, but he's as dominant as I've seen every time out," said Eastern Kentucky coach Edwin Thompson, who coached Stroman at Duke. "Doesn't matter who we've played - Louisville, Kentucky, Boston College - he's been that dominant. And obviously it's comfortable to have that at the back of the game."
Ochsenbein's emergence as a shutdown closer was a long, gradual process that kicked into overdrive over the last year. As Thompson put it, Ochsenbein was not a "blue-star" recruit coming out of high school in Lexington, Ky. He made eight appearances as a freshman in 2015, but his season was cut short by Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2016.
When he returned to action in 2017, Ochsenbein split time between starting and relieving, posting a 7.90 ERA in 14 appearances (eight starts). EKU thought he was ready to take over as the staff ace in 2018, especially after he threw five strong innings in a win against Virginia in Week Two and five shutout frames against Coppin State in Week Three. But a week later, a setback: Ochsenbein was shelled for 10 earned runs by Belmont, prompting Thompson to re-evaluate his role.
"The next week we decided to make a change," Thompson said. "He didn't really have a third pitch, the changeup wasn't there. The next week he got a couple saves, he was throwing 94-95, and it was like, 'Whoa, man.' He was more 88-92 as a starter. He didn't really like moving to the bullpen at the time, but I told him long term I think this is a good option for him."
Considering how Ochsenbein has thrived in the bullpen, that comment looks prescient in hindsight. He wound up recording nine saves last spring and striking out 71 in 51.2 innings over 25 appearances, though his ERA was still a bit inflated (4.70) by that rough start at Belmont.
Ochsenbein carried his momentum into the summer, posting a 3.42 ERA in 18 appearances for Orleans, recording seven saves and racking up 43 strikeouts against 12 walks in 23.2 innings. Thompson said he went to Orleans on a temp contract and wound up sticking around and becoming one of the top closers on the Cape. At the end of the summer, he had opportunities to sign as a nondrafted free agent, but he elected to return to EKU instead - and that move sure looks like it will pay off handsomely.
The physical 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ochsenbein already had the ability to strike hitters out last year with his fastball and his hard slurve at 78-80 mph, but he's taken it to a new level this year, thanks in part to the addition of a nasty split-finger he developed with the help of EKU pitching coach Shaun Cole in the fall. That's become his best putaway pitch, relegating the slider to a third pitch that he uses more to get ahead in counts.
"Everyone saw Casey Mize last year and saw what he did with the splitter. It's kind of a pitch that you don't see in college baseball, so if you can hone it … we wanted something different for him to have the option," Thompson said. "Pretty much from day one he just took that pitch and ran with it, really, and hasn't looked back since. It's working out pretty well."
And that's not the only difference for Ochsenbein this spring.
"I think one is confidence. Anytime you have some success in the Cape, you naturally feel good about your situation coming back, but then I think he took the next step as far as how hard he worked, in the fall and then in the season, in between outings taking care of his body," Thompson said. "Then his velocity has creeped up to, where he can touch 97 miles an hour. He doesn't sit there, but he's touched it many times this year. And his fastball command has really increased, that's something Coach Cole and him worked on a lot in the fall. So it's being able to get ahead, and then put guys away with the splitter."
Ochsenbein is a graduate student who already has his degree in Aviation, so he'll have other career opportunities when his playing days are done. But that might not be for a while, because Thompson is confident Ochsenbein will be selected on Day Two of the draft, and he's got a chance to be one of those rare senior signs with a legitimate chance to carve out a big league career. He has the right makeup.
"He's a leader. He's older, he's mature. Not a lot's gonna faze him," Thompson said. "He just has a presence about him, when he talks. He's not a vocal rah-rah type of guy, but he'll get on guys and challenge guys, and they really respond in a positive way.
"He's really just handling himself in a way that sets such an example for our program. Coaches will be like, 'What are you looking for?' I'm looking for that - a 3.5-plus student, great leadership, good on the field. That's the part that's been fun for me to witness every day."
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