The Indiana Hoosiers baseball team slugged their way into our hearts in 2013, making it all the way to Omaha. Last year, though they did not replicate their tournament success, they were chosen as one of eight National Seeds (though they lost their regional to some Junior College in Palo Alto).
This year they were lucky to get a bid at all.
What changed? First of all, Tracy Smith, the best baseball coach in IU history, jumped ship when a plum ASU job opened (think Poach Franklin and
the state pen Penn State). In his nine years with the Hoosiers, Smith led Indiana to two Big 10 titles, three NCAA Regional Appearances, and their first ever CWS trip to Omaha. Prior to that, the only other IU team to make the postseason was Bob Morgan's 1996 team.
In addition to losing their coach, the Hoosiers have graduated the bulk of the impact players who sparked their runs in '13 and '14. According to Crimson Quarry writer Alex Robbins:
Schwarber, Travis, and DeMuth combined for more than 1/3 of the team's at-bats, hit .359, and drove in 146 RBIs (43% of the team total) last season. They also hit 31 of the club's 43 home runs. That was an unbelievable amount of production to try and have to replace.
And the loss of Joey DeNato was almost as costly defensively. He was Indiana's all-time leader in wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. He was a guy that you could throw out on Friday night against anybody and know that you were going to get a minimum of six innings, and maybe all nine, and would have a chance to win it no matter who was pitching against you. He went 13-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 109.0 IP last season. And absolutely no one has been able to replace him.
With that perspective in mind, it's quite the achievement that Chris Lemonis's team qualified for the postseason in his first year at the helm, but it's understandable why IU fans might view this as a bit of a disappointing year.
Further, in most years, finishing 6th in the Big 10 is a ticket to an early summer vacation - as recently as 2012, IU finished 2nd in the Big 10, but did not receive a NCAA Tournament bid. This is especially odd, as Michigan State finished with a better conference record than IU, but are currently at the beach wondering what went wrong.
Whereas the '13 and '14 versions of the IU baseball team were mashers, this team has a slash line of .276/.347/.394 and their home run total dropped precipitously to 32 in a year where most teams experienced quite the uptick in power production due to the new, tight-seamed ball.
For comparison's sake, Vandy hit .289/.381/.453 this year, with 57 home runs (near tripling their power production from their CWS Championship '14 campaign).
So what, besides the NCAA's apparent distaste for the Michigan State Spartans, got IU a ticket to the dance? Let's look a little further at the #3 seed in the Nashville Region.
The Indiana Hoosiers
Record: 34-22 (12-10 Big
Ten Fourteen) *9-11 Away
NCAA RPI Rank: 31st (Vanderbilt is 13th)
All-Time Record Against Vanderbilt: Vandy leads 11-5-1. Hopefully that tie was due to weather, and not because the last time we played them, we were actually playing soccer.
Best Win: Swept regional host and perennial tourney participant Cal State Fullerton during the Ides of March in Bloomington. They swept the double-header on 3/14 5-4 (10 innings) and 2-0; and then laid the wood to the Titans in a 10-4 slobber-knocker. They also beat both Louisville and Kentucky, but, you know, mid-week games don't carry the same cache.
Worst Loss: I'm tempted to say back to back losses to Presbyterian and Furman at the First Pitch Invitational in Greenville, SC on 2/20 and 2/21, and so I will. However, that's so far in the past as to be less than relevant now. Instead, I'll go with back to back losses to Indiana State (90) and Evansville (99) around the Ides of April.
Batter to Be Wary Of: Though the guy who covers them assures me it's Scott Donley, I'm going to go with the numbers and say sophomore OF Craig Dedelow. Dedelow is batting .323/.373/.489 on the year, is tied for the team lead in HR with 6, and is 5-6 swiping bags. In short, they do not have a Kyle Schwarber on their team, but they do have three regulars batting .300 or above.
Pitchers to Watch: Here's where I'm going to agree with the Crimson Quarry scribe and say the big lefty, junior Kyle Hart. Hart is 6'5' 193 lbs, his fastball sits in the high 80s to low 90s, and his numbers speak for themselves. Though he only has 7 starts, he's recovering from Tommy John surgery last year, so he didn't get in the game until later in the season. Hart is 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA. He's not a big strike out guy (7.12 K/9), but he's only walked 3 batters in 30 and 1/3 innings on the year. That's... that's crazy talk. If the Hoosiers start him on Friday against Radford (which I would urge them to do), we'll have to deal with senior RHP Luke Harrison (4-1, 1.69 ERA) who has mostly been a reliever (2 starts), junior LHP Caleb Baragar (1-4, 3.33 ERA), or junior RHP Christian Morris (4-1, 5.18 ERA).
Senior RHP Ryan Halstead (2-2, 2.70 ERA) leads the team in saves with 10.
Key Stat: Control. The Indiana pitching staff as a whole has only walked 138 batters on the year. For comparison, we've issued free passes to 262 opposing hitters. Luckily, we're too aggressive to walk...
2nd Key Stat: The Hoosiers are 9-11 on the road, whereas we are 24-8 at home. No matter who we face in this Region, it will be done at The Hawk.
Final Key Stat: Like many Midwesterners, the Hoosiers are not exactly built for running. On the year, they've stolen 48/70 to our 90/122.