IU relaxed in preparation for Mississippi State

OMAHA, Neb. — Indiana’s Sunday morning practice after its landmark Saturday night College World Series victory was the same as it ever was.

The Hoosiers were focused but loose, dishing out wisecracks and taking them right back from wily coach Tracy Smith. It was a practice sandwiched between two of the most important games in program history — with the second being Monday’s 8 p.m. game against Mississippi State at TD Ameritrade Park — but it just as easily could’ve been a short walkthrough practice in April.

“This is them,” Smith said after practice on Sunday. “This is them. …They take care of business. When it’s time to turn it on, they’ll turn it on. When it’s time to be having a little fun (they do). We keep saying this, I think this is the key ingredient for us. If you can’t come to a baseball yard and have fun, you’re doing the wrong thing here. We try to make that a part of it, but our guys will lock in when they have to.”

Of course, it’s a lot more fun when you’re winning, and it’s much easier to stay relax when your season isn’t on the brink of ending.

And that is just one more reason why Indiana’s 2-0 victory over Louisville was such a critical one. The Hoosiers can move forward knowing that they have already made a mark on this College World Series, and that regardless of what happens on Monday, they’ll be in Omaha awhile. Even if they should lose to Mississippi State, they don’t have to play their first elimination game until Wednesday. If they win that, they don’t have a game until Friday at 3 p.m.

“It’s huge,” junior left fielder Casey Smith said. “I think you have a day off like today, you don’t want to be sulking in a loss and getting in your head. I think it’s good that we can relax today. I’d say tomorrow is probably the biggest game. It’s nice to have a mentally calm mindset going in.”

It’s also nice to have a pitching staff that is almost entirely rested. Junior left-hander Joey DeNato’s 136-pitch shutout earned him a place in College World Series history and preserved the bullpen and even the rest of the starters. Tracy Smith said he was willing to any of his three other three starters — Aaron Slegers, Kyle Hart or Will Coursen-Carr— if need be to get a win in the first game. He didn’t have to, and therefore all three are available for today’s game.

As of Sunday, he wasn’t sure which of the three he’d go with. The right-handed Slegers was Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season with a 9-1 record and a 2.13 ERA, but he’s failed to make it through the fifth inning in his previous two NCAA Tournament starts. He’d also be facing a Mississippi State lineup with four left-handed bats and two switch hitters.

The sophomore Hart hasn’t pitched since May 25 in the Big Ten Tournament, but is 8-2 with a 3.01 ERA this season. The freshman Coursen-Carr is 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA so far in the postseason and 5-0 with a 1.80 ERA for the season.

“We’ll be looking at their matchups,” Smith said. “Righty-lefty combinations, those kinds of things. I think a little bit has to be who we think is going to throw the most strikes. I keep saying that’s how you get yourself in trouble is free baserunners. We’ll look at all that. … It not so much what (Aaron’s) not doing. It’s one of my favorite sayings with my guys. It’s not so much what you’re doing, it’s maybe somebody’s doing it better.”

Whoever they go with will face a formidable Mississippi State lineup that came into the College World Series ranked third in batting average (.297) and runs scored (399) in the mighty SEC.

Right fielder Hunter Renfroe is the most potent bat. The first-round pick of the San Diego Padres — No. 13 overall — is hitting .358 with 15 home runs and 61 RBI and was leading the SEC in slugging percentage at .638 going into Sunday’s games. Shortstop Adam Frazier, the sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is hitting .361 and set a single-season school record with 104 hits. Two other Mississippi State hitters are hitting over .300 and that doesn’t include 6-foot-5, 272-pound first baseman Wes Rea, who is hitting .293 with seven home runs and 39 RBI and came through the game-deciding two-run double in the Bulldogs’ 5-4 win over Oregon State on Saturday.

The Bulldogs are solid on the mound as well, though they rely on their bullpen more heavily than most. The starter they used on Saturday, Kendall Graveman, is the only starter who has pitched more than 77 innings this season. They have left-handers Luis Pollorena and Jacob Lindgren available to start today, but it’s quite likely that the Hoosiers will see left-hander Ross Mitchell at some point. Though he hasn’t started a single game, Mitchell is 13-0 with a 1.31 ERA.

And should the Bulldogs have the lead in the ninth, they can turn to one of the best closers in college baseball, Kenny Powers look-alike Jonathan Holder. Holder picked up his SEC-leading 19th save on Saturday and boasts a 1.27 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings.

Smith said he hadn’t studied the Bulldogs much as of Sunday afternoon, however, and IU first baseman Sam Travis flatly admitted knowing nothing about the Bulldogs, other than that they must be good to still be playing. But that too is part of the IU mindset in this tournament.

“We’re going to prepare as if they’re one of the best teams in the country, which they are,” Smith said. But we’re not going to focus on who they are, we’re just going to try to be us. … I just keep saying it over and over. We’re just going to keep doing what we do. If it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If it’s not, it’s not.”

One comment

  1. Focused and relaxed. That is a great way to approach a game. Coach Smith has done a great job and it is amazing to see this team excel at this level. I am sure all the old IU alumni (myself included) who played at sembower all those yrs would have loved to play for this coach.

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