A year ago at this time, an inexperienced IU baseball squad was starting a run of form that would carry it into its first Big Ten Tournament in five years.
Now, fresh off only its first conference series loss, coach Tracy Smith’s club finds itself in a rather different position as it welcomes Northwestern to Bloomington this weekend.
The Hoosiers currently sit at 11-6, two and a half games out of first in the conference standings and fourth in a conference that’s power-heavy among its top five. The visiting Wildcats, by contrast, have just three conference wins in 16 games, making IU the obvious favorite this weekend.
Junior left-hander Matt Bashore, who will toe the rubber Saturday for the Hoosiers, emphasized the importance of not allowing Northwestern’s record or expectations surrounding the Hoosiers to cause a lack of focus.
“It’s hard not to have it factor in a little bit,” Bashore said, “but we’ve just got to keep that out of our minds.”
IU brings into the weekend the Big Ten’s second-best offense, buoyed by freshman Alex Dickerson’s league-best 71 hits and junior Josh Phegley’s 13 home runs.
The Hoosier bats will get their chances against a Northwestern staff that’s sporting an ERA of 6.30, second-worst in conference.
But defense is on the lips of coach and players alike before the weekend tussle with the Wildcats; the Hoosiers have spent the better part of the last two years struggling with the game’s third wheel.
The Hoosiers finished last in the Big Ten in that category last year, and they find themselves ahead of only Purdue and Iowa this year.
“We need to sharpen up our defense, and our overall concentration was a bit up-and-down last weekend,” senior Chris Hervey said. “If you improve your pitching and defense, you will be in every game.”
The Northwestern series will also mark the beginning of what players and coaches often refer to as their favorite part of the season, when school ends and they can focus solely on baseball.
“This reminds me so much of professional baseball, because now you can practice and work out in the morning, and guys can not have to worry about the tests coming up and the next day and stuff like that,” Smith said. “It is kind of a unique couple weeks or so.”
This time last year, the Hoosiers were beginning a run that would see them win 11 of their last 16 conference games and clinch the sixth and final Big Ten Tournament spot. Now, they sit comfortably in the upper half of the Big Ten standings and are regarded as one of a handful of conference front-runners.
Smith said he and his coaches have worked to keep their team focused throughout this season, but a team he described as “mature” has made that job easier.
“Last year was just to see what it was like,” Smith said of the Big Ten Tournament experience. “(This year) the guys have a realistic expectation to win every time they take the diamond on the weekends.”