Jace Middleton was excited for his junior season with the Olentangy baseball team for more reasons than just getting back on the field.
Middleton, who committed to Ohio State in November 2018, was in line to play his first full season as the Braves' top pitcher and starting center fielder after a back injury hampered him throughout his sophomore year.
Not only was Middleton eager to prove himself, he felt it was a necessity before the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"Right now, personally, I don't think I'm ready for college baseball, so I am trying to work on mechanics and getting my velocity up in order to get prepared for Ohio State," Middleton said. "I really struggled at the plate after I hurt my back. It was probably one of my worst-hitting seasons I've ever had, so this year I was working on hitting and getting my form down but also getting better as a pitcher, because at the next level that's what I'm doing."
Despite injuring his back during a spring break trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, during the first week of the season, Middleton played in 23 of Olentangy's 26 games but batted .207 with 12 hits and seven RBI. On the mound, he was limited to 11 1/3 innings in eight appearances, going 0-1 with a 3.70 ERA.
Coach Ryan Lucas saw plenty of signs that Middleton was ready for a breakout year, coming off a football season in which he was one of the Braves' top wide receivers en route to a Division II, Region 7 runner-up finish.
"His mound workouts were better than anybody we've ever had come through here," Lucas said, citing Middleton's command and speed that neared 90 mph. "He's a rare talent. We've never had anybody who's been that athletic and that big (6-foot-4). He's 17 years old and looks like a man."
Middleton played varsity as a freshman, batting .190 with four hits and going 0-2 as a pitcher.
According to Lucas, that limited role was by design.
"We knew how talented he was and we wanted him to be with us every single day so he'd learn the system and learn the program," Lucas said.
Middleton recovered from his back injury in time to have a strong football season, catching 57 passes for 856 yards and seven touchdowns as well as recording three interceptions as a defensive back.
With 91 career catches for 1,231 yards and nine scores entering his senior season, Middleton said deciding between baseball and football in college was a tough choice, even though his father, Matt, played baseball at Ohio State in the late 1990s.
Matt Middleton later coached at Jonathan Alder, Kings Mills Kings and Upper Arlington and was an assistant at Indiana from 2007-09.
"It's cool following in my dad's footsteps, but it was a struggle to decide if I wanted to play football or baseball," said Jace Middleton, who after his baseball commitment and injury altered his pitching mechanics to better utilize his lower body. He continues to work with Mike Stafford, who recruited him to the Buckeyes but no longer is on OSU's coaching staff.
"Last year, I used my legs more and tried to get my mechanics down to where I could go six innings and be consistently in the high 80s (mph) rather than be one inning in the high 80s and then go all the way down to 80 or 82 because I was just using my upper body," Middleton said. "I wanted to hit over .300 this year and be our starting pitcher in the big league games. I wanted to be all-state, too. I didn't care if it was first- or second-team, whatever. Now, my goal is to have a huge senior year."