IU returns to Omaha for a different tournament

OMAHA, Neb. — The streets aren’t nearly as full here in late May as they are in mid-June. If you’re a visiting baseball team, the reception isn’t as grand either.

The vendor tents that surround TD Ameritrade Park during the week it was built for aren’t here yet, and neither are the signs throughout town that make teams feel like they’ve accomplished something just by being there.

In short, being in Omaha for any other baseball event is not much like being here for the College World Series.

“Right now, I feel like the city’s kind of empty,” senior left-hander Joey DeNato said. “When the College World Series, when we were here last year, it’s like New York City in this little town. All the streets were packed. The stadium was packed every single game.”

That’s why it’s a little strange for Indiana to return to this scene for this week’s Big Ten Tournament — which for the No. 1 seed Hoosiers begins at 6 p.m. today against No. 8 seed Iowa — 11 months after reaching its first College World Series in program history in 2013. In college baseball, the terms “Omaha” and “College World Series” are used as exact synonyms, and it’s almost disorienting for them to be here without having first survived the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m excited, obviously, playing in an unbelievable venue and an unbelievable baseball town,” IU coach Tracy Smith said. “But truthfully, I’ve always looked at the College World Series, Omaha specifically, as kind of sacred ground. … To me, it’s just out of order.”

Still, the Hoosiers want to repeat as Big Ten Tournament champions, and just being back in Omaha is motivational. They want to return for the main event June 14-25 and because if they do, they want it to go better than last year’s. Simply reaching the College World Series made the Hoosiers the surprise of the college baseball season in 2013 and their 2-0 win over Louisville in the opener proved they belonged, but they remain haunted by their 5-4 loss to Mississippi State and 1-0 defeat against Oregon State.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” catcher Kyle Schwarber said. “… I think about the good against Louisville, but I think about the bad against Mississippi State and Oregon State. We could’ve easily won that Mississippi State game, then we put ourselves in a hole against Oregon State and we just couldn’t fight out of it. It still leaves a hole in my stomach to this day knowing that we could’ve done more here.”

This time around, the Hoosiers have the advantage of having played in TD Ameritrade Park before and they know how big it plays. Though IU coach Tracy Smith said he wouldn’t ask his players to change their approaches, they realize that the wind makes it extremely difficult to hit the ball out of the ballpark and that outfielders can play shallow and take away pretty much anything with arc underneath it.

“It plays really big, especially if the wind blows in,” third baseman Dustin DeMuth said. “You try to stay on top of balls, try to hit line drives and ground balls and hope they scoot through. You don’t really try to get big or take too big of hacks unless you see the wind blowing out, but that rarely happens.”

Iowa is also aware of that though, because coach Rick Heller spent the last four seasons at Indiana State before joining the Hawkeyes this year, and that meant playing Creighton in TD Ameritrade.

His team appears well-built for the ballpark. The Hawkeyes finished tied for second in the Big Ten with 23 home runs behind Indiana’s 37, but they’re an even-more gap-oriented team and that made Iowa the most productive offense in the Big Ten this year. The Hawkeyes were a small-ball club last year, hitting just two home runs all season, but under Heller they’ve bulked up and learned to drive gaps, hitting .302 as a team and leading the Big Ten with 332 runs scored.

“They all bought into our system,” Heller said. “We got stronger in the weight room. A lot of the guys put in some good weight in the winter. We worked really hard on some alignment issues I thought we needed to work on. Then we just went to work on our pitch selection and our plan that way.”

Thanks to that, eight of the Hawkeyes nine every-day starters are hitting .272 or better and six are hitting at least .300. They’re led by All-Big Ten first team shortstop Jake Yacinich, who finished second in the conference with a .369 batting average.

The Hawkeyes pitching staff was injury riddled — starters Calvin Matthews and Tyler Peyton both went down with mid-season injuries and several others who were supposed to be part of the rotation never threw a pitch because of offseason issues. Still, the Hawkeyes kept it together, even moving former catcher Blake Hickman — who happens to throw 95 mile-per-hour heat — to the mound to keep the staff strong enough to produce a 29-21 season.

“It’s just a matter of everybody making a vow at the beginning of this season that they were going to go out and not worry about results and focus on the plan every single day,” Heller said, “and try to win every day no matter what.”

The Hoosiers swept Iowa when they played in Iowa City, but Smith said he knows not to take much from that.

“I would love to think that we’re going to do that again,” Smith said. “But we hit a lot of home runs that weekend that maybe wouldn’t be home runs here. I would anticipate that it’s going to be a much-harder fought baseball game. It’s a different day.”

And it’s a different tournament in Omaha.

One comment

  1. I feel that the more Coach Smith gets to play games in this ball-park, the more he will figure out how to get wins in this ball-park! GO IU, come back in June and win the College World Series!

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