Chris Lemonis views his baseball team through two lenses.
Before him, there is an older, more mature lineup that features at least a couple of the Big Ten’s best bats. Then, there is also a pitching staff that, while appearing talented, lacks the experience featured in last season’s weekend rotation.
Getting both sides to blend together will be Indiana’s focus when the season begins on Friday night.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting season,” said Lemonis, now in his third season as Indiana’s coach. “This first weekend will be a lot of competition and everything going on. We set up our schedule to play some of the nation’s best and really test us. Our first couple weeks will be a good test of our ball club. I feel like we kind of have two different teams in some ways.”
Where last year’s strength was found on the mound, this year’s team should be anchored at the plate, where IU returns a trio of All-Big Ten caliber bats in Logan Sowers, Craig Dedelow and Luke Miller to the middle of its order.
Hitting was a struggle down the stretch last spring, when the Hoosiers batted .208 across the final 10 games and struck out 77 times during the final three weeks of action. Shortstop Brian Wilhite (graduated) is the only starter who doesn’t return in 2017, while All-Big Ten Freshmen team honorees Scotty Bradley (.257 average, 18 RBIs) and Ryan Fineman (.268 average, 25 RBIs) provide depth to the bottom half of the lineup.
“It’s awesome to not have to really rely on your first four or five hitters,” Sowers said. “We feel we have a really strong lineup, one through nine. We feel everyone has a chance to hit for power, get on base. We’re gonna steal some bags and hit for average, too. We have a really strong lineup and I’m really excited to see what we can do this year.”
Sowers and Dedelow are the headliners. The latter a 34th round selection of the Pittsburgh Pirates last June, and the former a junior slugger who earned the team’s most valuable player honors in 2016.
Sowers started 44 games as a sophomore, leading the Hoosiers in slugging (.466), on-base percentage (.377) and home runs (eight) — doing so while playing through a nagging wrist injury.
Dedelow, meanwhile, opted for a final year in Bloomington after the Pittsburgh Pirates picked him on the final day of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Dedelow, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, tied for 11th in the league in doubles (16), while leading the Hoosiers with a .302 average.
“These guys have played a lot of baseball,” Lemonis said. “They’ve swung it really well to this point, and I think they’re at a point in their career where they’re ready to have big years. With good lineups and good offenses, you feed off each other so there are a lot of guys out there — the Alex Krupas, the Tony Butlers, the Luke Millers (and) we have a new player (JUCO infielder) Matt Lloyd, a very talented hitter who will jump into that mix that we’ll be able to put out a lineup with good depth and do some different things together.”
Defensively, too, IU should feel good about its middle infield. At second base, Butler became the first Hoosier to win the Rawlings Gold Glove award after fielding 203 chances without making an error.
Jeremy Houston, who D1Baseball.com projects as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, will take over for Wilhite at shortstop.
“He’s really good defensively,” Lemonis said. “He just goes about his business a little bit different than some guys. To be able to put a guy out there that can play maybe the toughest position on the field at a high level is huge. He’ll have his ups and downs, but he’ll go out there and compete.”
That’s the same mindset Lemonis wants to see from his young arms.
Indiana lost its top two weekend starters, Kyle Hart (19th round, Boston Red Sox) and Caleb Baragar (9th round, San Francisco Giants). Sunday starter Evan Bell also graduated and signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox.
So the Hoosiers enter a new season with a completely new weekend staff.
Sophomore right-hander Jonathan Stiever, who appeared in 18 games last season, starting four, will get the opening night assignment in Friday’s contest with Gonzaga. Sophomore left-hander Tim Herrin, who made four relief appearances in 2016, will get the start Saturday against Duke, freshman left-hander Andrew Saalfrank will start Sunday’s rematch with Gonzaga and junior Brian Hobbie will close the weekend with a start on Monday against Oregon State.
“The experience is hard to replace sometimes,” Lemonis said, “but at some point, Kyle Hart was young. That’s the biggest side for us. A lot of our youth is in (the sophomore class). Jonathan Stiever pitched a lot last year, pitched a lot last summer. Pauly Milto. Timmy Herrin’s out there. He hasn’t pitched that much, but he pitched a full summer and has had a really good year for us getting back from the fall. Just getting them out there in real games and having success (will be most important). We’re excited about them.”
Although IU lost Bloomington South product Jake Kelzer to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 18th round of last June’s draft, there is still a bit of experience at the back end of the Hoosiers’ bullpen.
Late-inning situations will be split between juniors Luke Stephenson and B.J. Sabol and Milto, a sophomore.
“We just have a lot of young arms who will get out there and get a chance to throw,” Lemonis said.