With his team struggling through the season’s early stages, IU coach Tracy Smith consistently pointed to pitching as one of its most glaring weaknesses.
IU’s weekend series sweep against Iowa, however, saw a markedly different result from the incline.
All three pitchers lasted more than eight innings, with freshmen Blake Monar (4-2) and Eric Arnett (7-1) pitching complete games. Junior Matt Bashore (2-3) went eight and one-third innings, posting 10 strikeouts in his most impressive start of the season.
Usually a tough grader, Smith was won over by the performance of his three weekend starters.
“They were great – to give the innings they did and give the quality they did,” he said. “You hope the rest of the staff will learn from that and feed off of that as we go.”
The dominant showing marked the culmination of a mounting confidence from the mound. IU is now 9-3 since entering Big Ten play and is tied for first in conference.
The performances of Arnett, Monar and Bashore weighed heavily on IU’s recent success. Each has contributed in a different way, but all have sent IU toward a degree of success it didn’t seem destined to reach early in the season.
In the weeks preceding IU’s Big Ten stint, there was only one constant on the mound.
While Monar and Bashore struggled to find the strike zone, Arnett kept IU afloat. He worked quickly, causing pop-ups and placing Ks on the stat sheet.
Smith spoke to the significance of Arnett’s play in the season’s slow start.
“When we were really struggling to get wins as a team, he had almost half of them,” Smith said. “Thank goodness he was on the top of his game. He carried us there for a second. Thank goodness he was solid all the way through, or we really would have struggled.”
When failing to find wins, some IU players became dejected. By all accounts the 2009 season was supposed to be IU’s breakout year, and it was slowly slipping away. IU’s previously lauded hurlers seemed to succumb to the pressures of preseason expectations.
Smith said that Bashore, the most visibly affected of the three starters, was somewhat influenced by IU’s preseason praise.
“With a lot of expectations, you sometimes get distracted with things,” Smith said. “I just think it’s more about keying in on what he needs to do to help this ball club win and to be prepared to carry us into the rest of the season.”
Bashore, this season’s Big Ten’s preseason Pitcher of the Year, said it feels good to finally find his way on the mound.
“I had a little rough start there in the beginning,” Bashore said. “I’m just trying to get back to being myself. I’m just figuring it out.”
Thanks largely to a rocky start to their season, the Hoosiers rank among the Big Ten’s worst in several pitching categories, the most damning of which being a team ERA of 5.95 ERA with 184 earned runs.
When IU began the Big Ten season, its numbers didn’t seem to matter as a once formidable pitching staff reemerged. Its ascension made an immediate effect on the product Smith sent onto Sembower Field. IU rode a streak of notable pitching performances to a five-win streak and hasn’t reverted to its inconsistent ways since.
Hoosiers manning the mound didn’t allow any team more than four runs in that streak. In the batter’s box, the Hoosiers scored 11, 16 and 14 during that streak in those games.
The momentum has carried over.
IU’s performance against Iowa, its best of the season, was triggered by Monar, who struck out a career-high nine batters in his start on Friday.
“He’s an unusual freshman,” Smith said. “He’s very competitive and very mature. He’s a unique individual, and that’s the reason we liked him on Fridays. He’s going to compete and get after it – which is what he’s done in the past two weekends.”
Monar proved his coach right in pitching two solid games following a shaky start to the Big Ten against Minnesota on March 27, a start that would have rattled most freshmen. Although he received much praise from his coach, Monar spoke of the pitchers’ effect on IU’s total game.
“The hitters used to carry the team,” Monar said. “They knew they had to score a lot of runs. Now, the pitchers can get a win on any given night.”
Confidence runs deep in IU’s pitching core. While Arnett speaks in a soft, modest tone, he is not so somber when it comes to IU’s throwers.
“We all knew the pitching was going to be there,” Arnett said. “I think we have by far the best starting pitchers in the Big Ten.”