Smith concerned about middle of the diamond

Indiana baseball had its media day on Thursday. Wrote a story for today’s paper which is linked here. Wrote this to delve a little bit deeper into angles that didn’t fit in the main story. 

One of the biggest lessons Indiana coach Tracy Smith took from last year’s run to the College World Series is that for teams hoping to reach Omaha, February and March are not times for coaching experimentation. In previous seasons when it was clear that he had a team for which an at-large NCAA berth was not a real possibility, he’d spend non-conference play tinkering and allowing for open competitions before settling for Big Ten play.

But Smith learned that every game on the non-conference schedule is far too important to mess around with. Those are the games that mean a lot to the determination of RPI, which in turn does a lot to determine seeding and who gets to host regionals. The Hoosiers learned that earning a top-eight seed and therefore hosting a Super Regional isn’t necessarily critical, as they went down to Tallahassee and swept No. 7 Florida State 2-0. However, Smith said the advantage of hosting a NCAA regional was very important and the Hoosiers might not have been able to make it to Omaha if they didn’t. Hosting a regional means being a Top 16 team, which for a northern school that doesn’t play in a power conference such as the SEC, ACC or Pac-12 means winning games against such schools in February and March. 

For the most part, Smith is lucky this year. His lineup won’t require that much tinkering. Catcher Kyle Schwarber, first baseman Sam Travis, third baseman Dustin DeMuth, designated hitter Scott Donley and left fielder Casey Smith are all back, which means most of the core of the lineup is set. The pitching staff returns mostly in tact as well.

But Smith said he does have concerns about center field, shortstop and to a lesser degree second base, and for that reason, thinks his team is a little less set for the early part of the season than he’d like it to be. Shortstop Michael Basil, the captain of last year’s team, has expended his eligibility as has center fielder Justin Cureton, who covered tremendous ground for the Hoosiers and made an astounding home run-saving catch against Austin Peay at the NCAA regional final that effectively won the game for Indiana.

“That’s going to be the biggest part for us is really figuring out what’s really going on in the middle of the diamond for us,” Smith said. “With the departure of Cureton and Basil up the middle, that makes things a little bit interesting. … I’ve been trying to tell people that’s going to be a bigger factor than most people think.”

Deciding who to put in center field has been relatively easy. Redshirt junior Will Nolden started 34 games last season, mostly at the corner outfield spots. He’s a reliable left-handed leadoff hitter who hit .303 last season — an substantial upgrade over Cureton’s .216 — and even though he doesn’t have Cureton’s speed, he does have the team’s best outfield arm, having registered a team-high six outfield assists last year.

“It’s a little bit more ground to cover, but I feel comfortable out there,” Nolden said. “… Justin was a special player out there, but you know, at the same time, I can offer a few different things. I’ll be able to focus on my leadership, use my arm out there and just do the best I can.”

Shortstop is a little more tricky. At the moment, Smith said, sophomore Nick Ramos is the starter. Ramos was, for the most part, the backup second baseman to Chad Clark last season and he hit .228 with five home runs and 23 RBI, including a 10th inning grand slam against Ohio State in a game in which the Hoosiers clinched a share of the Big Ten title. Ramos has a stronger arm than Clark and moving over to shortstop shouldn’t be much of an issue, but he has been dealing with a hamstring injury all offseason and Smith said he just returned to practice Thursday.

“We’re going into this season with a starting shortstop who’s going to have one week of practice under his belt,” Smith said. “So we’ll see.”

Smith said there’s still a competition with sophomore Brian Willhite, who was used at both shortstop and second base as a defensive replacement last year. Willhite only had 24 at-bats in 31 appearances last season and was 7-for-24 (.292) without an extra-base hit.

“He’s shown right now the most consistency there,” Smith said of Ramos. “There’s going to be a battle. Brian Willhite has played well there, but I think if you take the total package of the offense and the defense, I’d give the nod to Nick at this point.”

At second base, Smith might make a move on his own volition. Chad Clark, who hit a walk-off home run to save Indiana in its first NCAA Tournament game against Valparaiso last year, is still around and with 32 RBI last year he was fairly productive. However, junior college transfer Casey Rodrigue is currently the starter there according to Smith and might eventually become the leadoff hitter. Rodrigue was a second-team NJCAA Division II All-American last season at Louisiana State-Eunice, leading the nation at his level with 68 stolen bases. He also hit .358 with 74 runs and 53 RBI. Whether the bat can transfer or not, the speed probably can, and with Cureton and his 22 stolen bases gone, the Hoosiers could use someone capable of thievery.

“What I love about him is his flexibility,” Smith said. “We can move him anywhere on the diamond. We’ve been working him last week at short because of the injuries that I’ve just spelled out. But in a perfect world we see him in second base. Nolden or him are the two that are competing (to be the leadoff hitter). Right now we’ve seen Rodgrigue for five weeks. I’d like to see him compete in a real game. We’re gonna let that kind of evolve. Right now I’d say he and Nolden have the best chance for that.”

The pitching staff is close to settled but not entirely. Senior Joey DeNato will serve as the ace and take the ball on Friday nights in conference play after going 10-2 with a 2.52 earned run average and a team-high 87 strikeouts last season and throwing a 136-pitch shutout in the Hoosiers’ 2-0 victory over Louisville to start the College World Series. Junior left-hander Kyle Hart will take one of the weekend starting spots in the rotation despite the fact that he wasn’t used at all in the postseason last year. He was 8-2 with a 3.01 ERA a year ago.

It does get a tad tricky after that, however. Sophomore Will Coursen-Carr would appear to be the obvious third starter. He was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team last season and came up huge for the Hoosiers in the postseason, finishing 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA. He had some arm issues and fatigue, however, and might not be ready to pitch 5-6 innings per game early in the season and might not start the first weekend of the season.

Sophomore right-hander Christian Morris appears to be the pitcher most likely to be the fourth starter and might even challenge Coursen-Carr for the third spot. The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder pitched 25 innings last season and posted a 4.68 ERA, but by all accounts he had an outstanding fall. Should he falter, the Hoosiers have options out of the bullpen, including right-handed reliever Scott Effross. As it stands, Smith is still hoping to keep him in the role he was in last year in which he served as a closer, set-up man and long reliever capable of being used mulitple times in the same weekend. He was 6-1 with five saves and a 2.44 ERA last year.

“I truly think Scott Effross is one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten and one of the best pitchers in the country,” Smith said. “We could easily put him in the starting rotation, but I like the idea that we can use him multiple times on the weekend. … I just think he’s a weapon. If you can get to the fifth or sixth with a lead and you bring him in, he’s going to make it pretty tough over the next few innings. I really like the role that he serves. It’s one thing if he couldn’t bounce back on a day’s rest, but he can bounce back. He’s very durable.”


One comment

  1. Thanks for the baseball update Dustin. Do you think our pitching staff is going to be as strong as last year. I know we lost one of our studs last year to the draft, but I hope we will be OK. Pitching owns Omaha.

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