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Thursday, Nov. 30
The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

Hoosiers take on Ohio State in final home series

Heading into the final series of the regular season against the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Indiana baseball team might feel a little more pressure than usual. If it wins the series, the team can clinch second place in the Big Ten and, with it, a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

First pitch is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. Thursday at Sembower Field. Lefthander Joey DeNato (7-2, 2.70 ERA) will start for IU against Ohio State righthander Jaron Long (6-2, 1.85 ERA).

“I think everybody realizes what’s at stake, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the guys are walking around here,” Head Coach Tracy Smith said. “I like our mentality. It’s a very mature approach. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of pressure.”

For the better part of the season, it did not feel that way to the skipper.
“I don’t want to say I doubted, but it was one of those things where I’m like, ‘Holy cow, are we every going to figure this out?’” Smith said. “And these guys all along, they weren’t worried about it.”

In 41 games prior to the start of the Michigan series Apr. 27, IU had a Big Ten worst .946 fielding percentage and an overall ERA of 4.89. Poor pitching and a lack of fundamentals led to a 19-23 record overall and 6-6 record in conference.

The sweep of the Wolverines series April 27-29 seemed to get an inconsistent team on track. Specifically, IU shored up its pitching and defense.

“In the Michigan series, it was just guys settling in and not pressing,” Smith said. “Through those times of struggles, it kind of gave this group a little bit more determination, a little bit more confidence.”
Now, a streaking IU team (27-26, 13-8 in conference) has a .976 fielding percentage while posting an ERA of 4.10 in 11 games since April 27. In that span, the team is 8-3 overall and 7-2 in conference, winning five of six on the road.

Credit vastly improved pitching and defense to the recent surge.

“Guys are making plays behind them, too,” Smith said of the pitching staff, which has allowed four or fewer runs each of the last four games. “We’ve actually saved a couple of base hits over the weekend, and we weren’t even coming close to saving base hits. We weren’t even making routine plays for the better part of the year.”

The recent turnaround coincided with preseason all-American second baseman and junior Micah Johnson’s return to the lineup, Smith said. Johnson had elbow surgery on Mar. 7.

In Tuesday’s 5-4 walk-off win against Evansville, Johnson came through in a big way.
He tied the game at four by lining a three-two pitch through the right side of the infield, plating freshman Kyle Schwarber. He then stole second and scored the winning run on junior Trace Knoblauch’s single.

“He’s so dynamic on the bases ... it allows us to be a little better offensively,” Smith said.

While the team’s pitching and defense have improved, Smith knows his offense must improve as a whole for the conference tournament.

In the series this weekend against Northwestern, IU took two of three games despite hitting only .118 with runners in scoring position.

“Over the weekend we struck out a gazillion times with guys on third and less than two outs,” Smith said. “We didn’t just not get him in, we just struck out. To me, that’s lack of concentration, lack of focus, and we need to be better than that.”

As for the Buckeyes (31-22 overall, 11-10 in conference), Smith knows they’ll give IU a competitive series.

“They’re always a very sound team,” Smith said. “To me, it’s going to come down to the teams that make the plays defensively because both teams are going to move the baseball. It’s not real strikeout-dominated pitching staffs.”

In 2009, Indiana won the Big Ten Tournament without the benefit of a first-round bye, as a three-seed.

“In ’09 we didn’t have that seed and rolled right through the tournament, so we know that can be done,” Smith said. “(The two-seed) is a definite advantage. It allows one more day’s rest. It would sure be nice to have it.”

For now, Smith is just focused on the series in front of him.

“Our whole mindset every year is we try to win one conference game at a time,” Smith said. “If we need to use 15 pitchers on Thursday to win, we’ll do that. It’s not so much the seeding, it’s just win one game at a time. And then we’ll check the standings at the end of the weekend and see where we fall.”

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