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The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

Schwarber focuses on College World Series

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It’s Feb. 6, eight days before the 2014 season starts, and Kyle Schwarber can’t miss.

The 6-foot, 240-pound All-American sits low in his stance. He bends his knees and locks his eyes on the pitcher ahead of him.

He exhales. His eyes narrow. And he waits.

As each pitch approaches, the junior catcher coils his upper body, ready to unleash what has been called the most powerful swing in college baseball.

When the lobbed pitches reach the plate, Schwarber sets the chain in motion. First, a fluid movement, working from the ground up, then ending in the sharp ping that rings throughout the building.

It is a steady cycle: pitch, swing, ping, back to the crouch.

The season has yet to begin — instead of battling with an opposing pitcher at Bart Kaufman Field, Schwarber takes his swings under a protective cage inside John Mellencamp Pavilion.

None of that matters to him. He is locked in.

Each pitch is met with the same intensity and controlled violence of the last, and each ball careens through the cold air, whizzing past the pitcher’s head with the same fear-inducing velocity.

Even in batting practice, this repetition is a comfort zone.

“You’re in there, you’re locked into that at-bat, that moment,” Schwarber said.

For others, Schwarber’s swing is something to be marveled at, an exercise in muscle memory that could lead IU baseball to its second College World Series in two years and make him a surefire first-round draft pick in June.

For one of the country’s top collegiate hitters, it’s just another day at work.

***

It was the spring 2010, and Kyle Schwarber couldn’t be missed.

At the urging of Assistant Coach Fred Nori, who coached in Schwarber’s native Middletown, Ohio, for almost a decade, IU Coach Tracy Smith made the three-hour drive from Bloomington to Middletown to see a high school catcher play. It was Schwarber.

“Coach Nori kind of dropped the beat on Coach Smith about me, so he came out and watched me play a game,” Schwarber said.

On the mound for Schwarber’s opposition that day was left-hander Joel Bender, who was drafted later that year by the Cincinnati Reds.

For the left-handed Schwarber, the matchup was not ideal.

He hit three home runs anyway, securing a scholarship offer from Smith on the drive back from the game.

“I was playing a pretty quality left-hander, and had some success, hit a couple home runs off of him,” Schwarber said. “I gave (Smith) a call after the game, and he offered me there. It’s kind of like a dream school for me, and I couldn’t be more happy with my choice.”

Apart from the quick-trigger offer from Smith, Schwarber was mostly overlooked by the country’s top baseball powers while mashing pitches at Middletown High School.

He batted .474 his senior season, adding eight home runs and 11 stolen bases. The
recruiting world didn’t notice.

He was named Middletown’s team MVP four consecutive years, collecting Co-Player of the Year honors in the Greater Miami Conference in 2011. The country’s top baseball institutions yawned.

Now, two seasons into a career that has him on pace to shatter a handful of IU records, Schwarber said being glanced over as a recruit has not bothered him.

“It doesn’t really play a factor,” he said. “You come to college, you want to be a mature player, you want to be able to take that next step to get to the majors, get to the big leagues.

“That’s what we do here. We want mature guys. Take them in as boys, make them into men.”

***

Major League Baseball scouts and prospect rankings agree — Kyle Schwarber can’t miss.

Perfect Game USA ranked him the No. 7 college prospect in the 2014 MLB Draft, calling him “one of the best all around hitters in recent years in college ball.”

He is Baseball America’s No. 16 college prospect, collecting preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and first team All-America honors.

“Schwarber has a strong case as college baseball’s best hitter and most powerful slugger,” the publication’s Big Ten preview reads.

He is as sure a prospect as any to come through the IU pipeline, boasting raw power and an ability to stay patient at the plate and wait for a pitch he likes.

His statistics emphasize that plate discipline: 72 walks against only 61 strikeouts in 465 at-bats.

That patience and ability to select pitches is a point of pride, he said.

“You’re in there battling your butt off, trying to get a pitch to handle,” he said. “I really pound myself on not missing my pitch. I feel like I’m going to get one pitch an at-bat, and I’m going to take advantage of that pitch.”

For two seasons, Schwarber has done exactly that — taken any advantage he can find and turned it into a mistake for the opposing pitcher.

In his 121 collegiate games, Schwarber has simply dominated at the plate, hitting .333 with 26 home runs and 101 runs batted in during his two seasons.

After leading IU to its first College World Series appearance last season — hitting .366 and 18 home runs in the process — he became the Hoosiers’ sixth-ever first team All-American and was selected as the country’s best catcher by Perfect Game and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

Should he continue at his current statistical pace for two more seasons, Schwarber will threaten almost every IU offensive record: 52 home runs would be the most in program history; his 310 hits would rank No. 2 all-time; 202 RBI would place him No. 3, as would 232 runs scored.

If he eschews whichever MLB club calls his name in this summer’s draft and plays four seasons in Bloomington, Schwarber will almost inevitably become one of IU’s greatest players, should he avoid the minor injuries that have cropped up throughout his time at IU.

Individually, he is well-decorated. With just two seasons behind him, Schwarber has already collected more accolades and honors than all but a handful of IU’s greatest all-time players. Despite that success, his goal remains singular and
team-oriented.

Return to the College World Series. Win a national championship.

“What I’m more focused on right now is getting to Omaha and leading the team,” he said. “That’s my main goal. All that’s goody-good for everyone else to read, but I don’t take that stuff to heart. Right now it’s 100 percent Omaha and how to get there.”

***

Due to his abilities with a bat in his hands, Kyle Schwarber has been described as a “can’t-miss” prospect.

His prowess behind the plate lags behind that bevy of offensive weapons. It’s a discrepancy both Smith and coaches from USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, who Schwarber played for after the 2013 season, have worked to erase.

“We were very honest with him, and I don’t see the players they’re seeing all the way across the country, but I think Kyle’s a good defensive catcher,” Smith said. “Is he one of the best in the country? I don’t know. But he did play for the best amateur team in the country this last summer, and they did say at the end of the summer he did a fine job when he caught.”

With just 14 career errors and a .979 fielding percentage to their credit, Schwarber’s defensive numbers are average for a college catcher, though he expressed a renewed dedication to his work behind the plate.

“I feel 20 times better,” he said. “I really want to put emphasis on it. I feel a lot better throwing the ball, a lot better blocking, handling the pitching staff. I feel like’s it’s going to be good to have me back there.”

In practice, Schwarber is reserved, preferring to lead his teammates by setting the standard for dedication and showing off his skill set, forgoing a brash, loud approach.

Exemplary of this was a batting practice session before the 2013 season, one of the Hoosiers’ first at then-brand new Bart Kaufman Field.

When his turn came, Schwarber quietly stepped into the batter’s box, settled into that ever-recognizable crouch, and took his swings.

One baseball left the stadium. Then another. Ball after ball rocketed over the outfield fence, leaving the small crowd of Hoosier teammates that had gathered to look on in awe, mouths agape.

When his time in the cage ended, Schwarber stepped out and joined his teammates, refusing to acknowledge the show he had just given.

Now, as IU prepares to enter a season with higher expectations than any in program history, those teammates will look to him as the head of a leadership corps that has the College World Series in its sights.

To deliver on those intentions would be to answer a cloud of questions that swirl around the All-American.

Can he stay healthy? Is he good enough defensively? Will the skills transition to the next level? Are the Hoosiers’ goals reachable?

To provide an answer to those questions and make another deep tournament run, only one thing is certain.

Kyle Schwarber can’t miss.

Follow baseball reporter Alden Woods on Twitter @acw9293.

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