Much of the preseason buzz surrounding the IU baseball team has focused on reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Alex Dickerson, and understandably so.
But the Hoosiers’ pitchers said they feel they can make some noise as well.
With a starter returning from an injury-shortened 2010 campaign and an influx of young, versatile talent, the squad is hoping the 2011 season can see significant improvement from a pitching staff that allowed the most earned runs in the Big Ten a year ago.
IU coach Tracy Smith said the 17-member squad provided no shortage of options with the season-opening Caravelle Resort Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C., just a week away.
“I think we have a lot more depth this year,” Smith said of the pitching staff. “We’re not relying on (former IU closer Chris) Squires to throw three times in a weekend. We’ve got a lot of guys that can get the job done."
While Smith has not yet decided on a replacement for Squires, who became IU’s all-time saves leader before being selected by the Florida Marlins in the 2010 MLB draft, he does have three weekend starters in place.
Junior Drew Leininger, whose nine wins last season tied for second-most in the conference, will start in the Hoosiers’ first contest Feb. 18 against Virginia Tech.
Freshman Joey DeNato will make his first collegiate start the following day against Boston College, and junior Blake Monar will round out the rotation Feb. 20 against Coastal Carolina.
Monar, who spent just three-and-a-half innings on the mound in 2010 before sustaining a shoulder injury in the season opener, did not hesitate in saying how this IU pitching department stacks up against recent ones.
“I think in my three years, this is the best all-around staff we’ve had,” Monar said.
That’s high praise considering Monar started in a weekend rotation with future MLB draft choices Eric Arnett and Matt Bashore as a freshman in 2009.
However, the Rockport, Ind., native said the team’s pitching staff is better equipped to excel during the course of an entire week of games.
“Obviously my freshman year ... we had a lot of draft arms,” Monar said. “And obviously Bashore and Arnett got it done on the weekends for us, but I think this is the best feeling I’ve had about the entire staff as far as who we’ve got going mid-weeks, who we’ve got going relief.”
Monar, who Smith said was healthy and ready to play, said he is excited to bounce back in 2011.
“Any time you take a year off what you’ve done for the last 15 years of your life, it kind of puts into perspective how much it really means to you,” Monar said. “I think that’s one thing that will really help me a lot and will ultimately help us.”
Monar’s absence last season allowed Leininger, who worked primarily in relief duty as a freshman in 2009, to assume a heavy starting role. Leininger went 9-3 with a 4.04 ERA.
The Poway, Calif., native said he looks to pick up where he left off in 2010.
“(I’m) just looking to pretty much do the same thing and not try to do too much,” Leininger said. “I know the offense is going to be there just like we always have been. Just compete every day, give my team a chance for us to come out on top, pretty much.”
Sandwiched between Leininger and Monar in the opening-weekend rotation is DeNato, who was named a High School All-American by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
DeNato went 10-2 and posted a 1.15 ERA during his senior season at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego. Smith said the freshman has already one-upped those numbers at IU.
“We haven’t scored on him yet since he stepped on campus ... He pulled a 0 ERA out of the fall,” Smith said. “He’s just very mature on the mound. He just works both sides of the plate, (he has) an idea of what he wants to do, he executes his pitches."
Fellow freshman Brian Korte and sophomore Walker Stadler figure to compete with senior Matt Carr for the closer spot, Smith said. Junior Matt Igel appears set to handle mid-relief duties.
While much experimenting remains to be done with the pitchers, Smith said having a balance with veterans like Monar and Leininger will help the younger players on the staff.
“I do think it’s going to be the influence of having those guys who have been there and done that,” Smith said. “That’s a big plus this year that was not something we really had the luxury of last year.”