Hoosiers have championship aspirations in ’18

Ryan Fineman’s most pressing goal for 2018 has nothing to do with statistics.

Indiana’s junior catcher simply wants to be in the middle of a postseason dogpile, the classic postgame victory celebration of teammates jumping on top of other teammates.

“That’s something we always talk about,” Fineman said.

A Big Ten championship title would lead to such a scenario. So, too, would further success in the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s Indiana team has the talent to do it.

On an unseasonably warm January afternoon Friday, the Hoosiers took to Bart Kaufman Field for their first practice of the 2018 season, kicking off a campaign that has Indiana viewed as the conference favorite.

In his fourth season in Bloomington, coach Chris Lemonis may have his best team yet. The Hoosiers certainly have experience, and just as important, they hold the belief that they’re good enough to meet their expectations of a conference title — and beyond.

“Our guys, they’ve been there, they’ve done that,” Lemonis said. “They’ve been in regionals. They’ve played a lot of college baseball in this clubhouse. … One of our goals is to win the league, then host a regional, host a super regional and do the things that get you to Omaha. I think our kids have heard it enough that it’s kind of the standard now.”

When it opens the season on Feb. 16 against Oklahoma in the Brittain Resorts Baseball at the Beach showcase event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Indiana will do so ranked No. 20 nationally in the Baseball America preseason poll. The Hoosiers are also ranked No. 23 by D1Baseball.com and No. 17 by Perfect Game.

No other Big Ten team cracked the rankings in those publications.

Indiana, which is seeking its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in the past six years, is loaded with experience, particularly on the mound.

The Hoosiers return 100 percent of last season’s starters, 94 percent of their winning pitchers, 91 percent of their innings and 91 percent of their strikeouts.

IU will use the next few weeks of spring training to sort out its weekend rotation. Jonathan Stiever, last year’s Friday starter, along with Pauly Milto, Tim Herrin, Andrew Saalfrank and Cameron Beauchamp, are each in the mix for starts.

It’s a talented group, though the question is whether any of them have the ability to step up as a premier Friday night starter.

“It was awful last year because we didn’t know where guys fell into roles,” Lemonis said. “This year (the experience) gives you a sense of what a guy can do and where he fits best. We had to go through some ups and downs last year just trying to figure it out. Pauly started in the pen last year and obviously he was much better as a starter, and vice versa with some other kids. Having pitching experience and depth makes you sleep a little better at night.”

Indiana’s lineup took some hits over the offseason. Senior outfielder Craig Dedelow, who finished second in the Big Ten with 19 home runs and 135 total bases last season, was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the ninth round of the MLB Draft. The Hoosiers also lost Gold Glove second baseman Tony Butler.

But sophomore third baseman Luke Miller, who was picked in the 31st round of the draft by the Minnesota Twins, opted to return to school for his junior season. Miller, who hit .333 in Big Ten games, rejoins a batting order that also returns right fielder Logan Sowers, super utility man Matt Lloyd, outfielder Matt Gorski and Fineman, among others.

The Hoosiers also have high hopes for shortstop Jeremy Houston, a sophomore viewed as one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten, if not the entire country.

Butler’s absence raises a couple questions Lemonis will seek to answer in the coming days, with the Hoosiers needing a replacement both at second base and at the top of their lineup.

Gorski is among the candidates to slide into the leadoff role, while second base duties could go to either Cade Bunnell, Bloomington North graduate Colby Stratten or Lloyd, who will once again serve as the team’s closer.

As a lineup, IU returns 62 percent of its runs from last season, 62 percent of its hits, 61 percent of its RBIs and 59 percent of its extra-base hits.

Altogether, it’s experience at the plate, in the field and on the mound that IU is counting on to achieve a championship season.

“That’s the main goal,” Fineman said.