IU baseball players kicking snow off their cleats

Chris Lemonis chose to ignore the two or three inches of snow that blanketed Bloomington on Monday morning.

“I opened up my garage door and it felt like baseball season,” Lemonis told reporters at the team’s media day Monday.

For good reason.

Indiana’s season opener is in view, with a three-game series at Middle Tennessee on tap beginning Friday. For the Hoosiers, there’s a clear opportunity to follow last season’s success in Lemonis’ first year as the program’s coach. With a veteran pitching staff, Indiana doesn’t lack capable arms.

The team also returns a pair of its top bats in outfielders Craig Dedelow and Logan Sowers.

But there are also plenty of question marks both within their lineup and in the field that the Hoosiers hope to settle over the coming weeks. Last year — for the first time in program history — IU earned its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

This year, they hope to make it four.

To get there, they will have to weather the unexpected loss of shortstop Nick Ramos, who is no longer with the program after logging 112 starts over the last three seasons. Lemonis said Ramos is still in school at IU, but declined to discuss the nature of his departure.

“It’s tough,” Lemonis said. “He’s a really good player, really good defender. We’ve got Isaiah Pasteur, Brian Wilhite — Tony Butler’s a JUCO kid and he’ll give us some depth.”

Otherwise, there is some tangible momentum swirling around the program after Big Ten coaches picked IU to finish third in the conference this spring. The preseason pick is a nod to a pitching staff that should compete to be among the league’s best.

Kyle Hart, Indiana’s most consistent pitcher down the stretch last spring, will open as IU’s Friday starter. He’ll be followed in the rotation by Evan Bell on Saturdays and Caleb Baragar on Sundays.

Hart returned from Tommy John surgery and gradually returned to form in 2015, leading IU with a 1.21 ERA and a 5-0 record across his eight starts. He helped Indiana to its lone NCAA Tournament win last season after tossing seven innings and striking out six in a victory over Radford in the Nashville Regional opener.

Hart could give IU the Friday anchor it lacked last season, when the team used six different Friday starters across 11 weekend openers. While Indiana’s program hit its stride during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, it was able to count on quality starts from Friday pitchers Aaron Slegers and Joey DeNato.

Hart seems poised to become that kind of constant this year.

“No doubt, I think Kyle is that Friday night type of starter,” Lemonis said. “He proved it last year. We really took off again last year when he got all the way back and healthy and ready to pitch. I think that’s what we’re going to see this year. He’s been really good in our scrimmages against our guys.”

Jake Kelzer, IU’s highest draft pick last June, is back and ready to replace Ryan Halstead at the back end of IU’s bullpen. Kelzer, a 14th round pick by the Chicago Cubs, returns for his junior season looking to build on his draft stock and help Indiana make a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

For Kelzer, consistency is the goal for 2016. The Bloomington South product struggled with his command at times last year, flexing between roles as a weekend starter and reliever.

“Me and (pitching coach Kyle Bunn) have worked all fall and all spring being more fluid, being efficient (and) being able to repeat my mechanics and and hit the zone consistently,” Kelzer said.

Behind the plate, IU pitchers will be working with new battery mates. With Brad Hartong now playing in the Minnesota Twins’ organization, Indiana will now lean on sophomore Demetrius Webb and freshman Ryan Fineman.

Lemonis said that while he likes what Webb and Fineman give IU defensively, there is some uncertainty behind the plate.

“We’re just young,” Lemonis said. “I’d say it’s a big question mark for us. I think we’re talented in that area. We’re just young.”

For now, Butler — the junior college transfer — is expected to fill the void at second base left by Casey Rodrigue’s graduation. Butler comes to IU after a quick stop at Madison College in Wisconsin. Before that, Butler spent one season at Virginia. Lemonis originally recruited Butler out of high school while still on staff at Louisville.

“He’s a very talented player,” Lemonis said.

Indiana may expect a lot from another junior college transfer, Alex Krupa, who was drafted in the 35th round last June by the Cincinnati Reds. Krupa turned down the Reds and joined IU’s program after originally committing to IU out of Greenwood in 2013.

Krupa batted .428 with four home runs, 17 doubles and 10 triples last season. He is expected to replace Rodrigue as IU’s leadoff hitter.

“Alex is a dynamic outfielder and a good baserunner,” Lemonis said. “He is a left fielder for us right now.”