Hoosiers look to Hart in regional opener #iubase

NASHVILLE — As Indiana’s ascension in the college baseball world took shape over the last two seasons, Kyle Hart waited for an NCAA Tournament appearance that never came.

He could have been in line for a start during both the 2013 regional and super regional, but Indiana won in such short order that it never needed him. Last season, Tommy John surgery limited Hart to merely watching IU’s tournament action from the dugout.

So after four years on campus and two seasons of postseason inactivity, Hart will make his first NCAA Tournament appearance this afternoon.

The left-hander is the natural option for No. 3 Indiana in today’s Nashville Regional opener against No. 2 Radford, but it’s not simply because of his patience. It’s because no one on the Hoosiers’ staff at the moment has a better feel for the craft or a better run of recent success than Hart.

“It won’t be my first big game,” he said matter-of-factly after the Hoosiers wrapped their final pre-tournament practice Thursday afternoon at Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field.

Hart is correct, of course. A weekend starter since his freshman season, he was on the hill to clinch the outright Big Ten title on the final day of the 2013 regular season and started a Big Ten Tournament game the following week. But his season ended there after IU needed only games to win its regional. After Aaron Slegers and Joey DeNato started the first two games, former IU coach Tracy Smith turned to another left-hander, Will Coursen-Carr, to pitch the clinching game against Austin Peay.

The next week at the Florida State Super Regional, DeNato and Slegers once again started the only two games of the series, while Coursen-Carr came out of the bullpen in both. That meant Hart was very likely in line to start had the Hoosiers required a third game to dispatch the Seminoles.

They didn’t, and Hart’s wait continued.

“I’m geared up,” Hart said. “I’m not going to overhype it. It’s just another game of baseball. You have to get outs until they take you off the mound, but I have a lot geared up from the year. At the end of the day, I’m going to go out and give my best. We’re going to give our best and we’re not going to fear the result.”

As he’s shaken off the reminders of last year’s elbow surgery, Hart once again looks like his former self as the tournament begins. He’s gone six innings over each of his last two starts, allowing only one unearned run, striking out six and walking none over that span.

Hart’s done it with confidence, while pitching to contact and mixing his spots. He’s also seen an uptick in his pitch count as he stretches himself over the full season. Prior to this month, Hart hadn’t thrown more than 57 pitches in any of his first five outings. Over his last three, he’s thrown 93 pitches twice.

“I’d love to go ut and throw 100 pitches (today), but I don’t know what that’s gonna be,” Hart said. “Is that gonna be three innings? Six innings? I’m just gotta try and be effective and efficient for as long as I can.”

On the verge of his first tournament start, he’s also able to draw upon the past tournament success of Slegers and fellow lefty DeNato, both of whom helped Indiana to regional, super regional and College World Series wins on the way to professional careers.

Slegers is currently starting with a 2.59 ERA at High-A in the Minnesota Twins system. DeNato is coming out of the bullpen with a 1.71 ERA at Low-A in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

“I’m pretty close with both of those guys, DeNato especially,” Hart said. “He’s been a role model for most of the guys on this pitching staff. I’m sure I’ll talk to him tonight and just kind of feed off him.”

Beyond Hart, Indiana’s starting pitching has gone from a concern to one of the reasons the Hoosiers could be the team to watch this weekend.

Over four games at last week’s Big Ten Tournament, each of Indiana’s starters pitched well. Hart was his usual self, Luke Harrison gave the team four solid innings in a staff day start, Christian Morris authored one of his best outings of a rocky season and Caleb Baragar gave IU five scoreless innings in the tournament finale. Morris’ and Baragar’s emergence have been especially encouraging as both continue working through adjustments. For Morris, it was a slight mechanical fix that IU coach Chris Lemonis said gives him more angle to his fastball. Baragar, meanwhile, has found results with a refined curveball.

“It’s a little different for each guy,” Lemonis said, “but it’s good for our ballclub.”

Radford left-hander Michael Boyle will oppose Hart in today’s opener. Boyle is a First Team All-Big South selection and enters play with eight straight wins. He’s the first pitcher in Radford history to win 10 games in a season, and he’s coming off eight shutout innings during his last start against High Point.

When it came time to select a matchup earlier this week, Chris Lemonis looked to Hart. The IU coach isn’t one to hold his top arms for later in the tournament. Win now, is the mantra, and Hart gives Indiana its best chance.

“I’ve always been a big believer of getting your best guys out there first and winning the tournament,” Lemonis said. “It’s just a lot easier to win it when you’re in the winner’s bracket than having to fight through a loser’s bracket. I’ve never been a fan of holding a guy back.”

So Hart will wait no longer.