-- In 2003, the Big Ten proved to be an extremely balanced baseball league. With a 16-15 league record, the Hoosiers were just a half-game out of third place. IU collected 34 wins last season and made its second straight trip to the Big Ten Conference Tournament in 2003. With key players returning from injuries, and a solid core of veteran players, the Hoosiers are looking to battle with the league's best this season.
Head coach Bob Morgan, who won his 1,000th career game in 2003, has a positive outlook for 2004.
"I think we're going to be a good team offensively," Morgan explained. "We are going to be strong one through nine in our lineup. We're aggressive and have good team speed, which fits our philosophy."
TThe Hoosiers ranked as the nation's No. 12 hitting team in 2002. After a slower season at the plate last year, IU looks poised to regain some of its firepower.
Morgan expects a solid defensive team as well. Indiana returns a significant amount of experience, which should offer solid choices throughout the lineup.
The pitching staff will be a key to the 2004 season. In 2003, the IU staff was bitten by the injury bug. Injuries sustained during the summer forced multiple players to miss the campaign, but the good news is that, in addition to two full-time starters, Indiana has those players back in action. How quickly they regain form may dictate the Hoosiers' success.
"The key to our season is going to be the health of our pitching staff," Morgan said. "We will go as far as our pitching will take us."
Senior Nick Vitielliss returns to the mound after a one-year hiatus due to injury. Vitielliss had an outstanding junior season in 2002, which culminated in him earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. The righthander from Waldorf, Md., finished with an 8-1 record, including a 5-1 mark in conference action, and a 3.58 ERA in 16 appearances. In addition to his ability and talent, Vitielliss' experience and leadership should prove to be a valuable asset to the entire pitching staff.
"We are excited to have Nick back on the mound this year," Morgan said. "He will provide us with a solid starter in the #1 or #2 spot and will be the leader of the staff."
In addition to Vitielliss, Indiana welcomes back a pair of Big Ten starters from the 2003 team. Senior lefty Chris Behrens, who collected wins over the Big Ten's first and second-place teams Minnesota and Ohio State, and sophomore righthander Josh Lewis, who was the only underclassman to make the All-Tournament team at last season's conference championship.
Behrens' 4.50 ERA in 2003 was the best of his Hoosier career.
"Chris brings experience as a starter to this year's staff," Morgan commented. "We are counting on Chris to supply us with quality innings and leadership."
Lewis enjoyed an outstanding rookie season, compiling a 5-2 record and a 4.55 ERA in 61.1 innings of work. Morgan expects Lewis to be in the hunt for the top spot in the Hoosier rotation.
"Josh had an outstanding freshman year. He will be counted on to be our No. 1 or No. 2 starter this
year," Morgan said. "He possesses everything to be a dominant pitcher in the Big Ten."
Junior Steve Nielsen also has the potential to make an immediate impact on the mound as a starter. Nielsen, who has been chosen twice in the Major League Baseball Draft, transferred to IU from Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill.. He missed last season with a an injury he sustained over the summer, but should return to full strength during the 2004 season.
Look for sophomore Chris Hynes to pitch significant innings again this season, as either a starter or in a closing role. Hynes, who plays behind the plate as well, worked a total of 36.2 innings, recorded 26 strikeouts and had a 2-2 record in 2003.
"Chris saw most of his playing time on the mound last year," Morgan said. "He will be counted on again to throw major innings for us, as he has one of the best arms on the staff. He will see more action behind the plate as his defensive and offensive game improves."
One IU's most experienced pitchers, senior Adam Pegg will be counted for quality relief innings, and has a chance to be in the mix for a starting spot.
"(Adam's) role will be determined by his effectiveness in the strike zone. He could start or relieve based on his performance. We need Adam to have a good senior year."
In addition, junior Joe Kemp seems to be the early favorite to serve as IU's closer.
Overall, the Hoosier pitching staff could take this team a long way.
"With guys like Nick Vitielliss, Steve Nielsen and Josh Lewis healthy, we could have a very good year," Morgan said.
Senior Seth Bynum, who was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the First-Year Player Draft last June, returns to his starting shortstop position. Bynum hit .257 in 2003 and showed his power at the plate with seven home runs, the most of any player returning this season.
"Seth will be our everyday shortstop, and should be one of the better shortstops in the league," Morgan said. "He is very good defensively and shows good power. We are looking for more consistency offensively."
The Hoosiers have a hole to fill at third base for the first time in four years after All-Big Ten pick Vasili Spanos graduated and was drafted by the Oakland Athletics, but the transition looks to be an easy one. Junior Corby Heckman, who earned third-team All-Big Ten honors at second base last season, will slide over to third this season. Heckman enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore. He finished the season with a .372 batting average, 15 doubles and 44 runs scored, all of which ranked second on the team behind Spanos.
"Corby was one of our better offensive players a year ago," Morgan said. He is a quiet leader who plays hard everyday and contributes offensively to our lineup".
The second base position is up for grabs, and any of three players have a shot to earn a starting nod. Sophomore Jay Brant started there as a freshman in 2002, but had to take a medical redshirt in 2003. If healthy, Brant should be in the hunt.
In addition to Brant, senior David Hughes and freshman Josh Richardson have the potential to play there. Hughes saw action in 17 games and made 12 starts as a junior after transferring from Morehead State, where he played in 2001 and 2002.
Richardson seems to have made a smooth transition from high school to college. After a successful fall, he proved to the coaching staff that he can be an impact player as a freshman.
Freshman Michael Nilles had a solid fall and can also play on the left side of the infield also.
"Richardson and Nilles both showed promise and proved that they could play at this level," Morgan said.
The Hoosiers have multiple options at first base. Joe Kemp is back after missing the 2003 campaign while recovering from arm surgery. In 2002, he hit .284 and drove in 41 runs. One of the most versatile players on the team, Kemp can play at first or in the outfield, in addition to pitching.
"We are excited to have Joe back in the lineup after missing last year," Morgan said of Kemp. "He brings many dimensions to our team. We look for him to hit in the middle of the order and be one of our go to guys."
Sophomore Ryan Parker, who had a year season in 2003 after spending a redshirt season at IU, and sophomore Troy Ragle can both play at first as well. Parker saw his playing time increase as the season went on and registered an impressive .441 batting average and drove in 16 runs.
"Ryan is one of our best offensive players after his breakout year last year," Morgan commented. "His bat will be in the lineup everyday at either first or designated hitter."
Ragle, a lefthander, will pitch for the Hoosiers also.
"Troy could possibly be one of the best dual players at IU," Morgan said. "He possesses great power offensively and has a good arm on the mound."
After an outstanding showing in the fall, sophomore Reggie Watson has established himself as the team's starter in center field heading into the season. Watson played in 30 games and stole nine bases in nine attempts in 2003.
"Reggie has solidified himself in the outfield and at the leadoff spot," said Morgan. "He is still learning and will figure to be a major part of this team's success. His energy and enthusiasm lights up the park everyday."
Senior Kevin Mahar, one of the team's best pure athletes, will move to the outfield after starting at first base a season ago. Mahar is the frontrunner in left field. He hit .298 and drove in 30 runs last season.
"Kevin is a good defensive outfielder and we are looking for him to be more consistent at the plate." Morgan explained. "He can run, throw, and hit for power."
Either senior Ryan Donley or Kemp could start in right field. Donley belted five home runs and hit .250 as a junior.
"Ryan is a four-year player who has a chance to be an everyday guy in the outfield or in the designated hitter spot," Morgan said of Donley. "He's a fierce competitor who loves to play the game and he will bring great leadership to our team."
BEHIND THE PLATE
Senior Cody Wargo returns as the Hoosiers' starting catcher. Wargo hit at a .244 clip and had eight doubles as a junior. His leadership from behind the plate should be a key for IU.
"Cody is a four-year catcher for us and will be a solid catch and throw guy," Morgan commented. "We look for consistency offensively from Cody as well as someone who can run the game. He is an outstanding defensive catcher whose overall game has made great strides."
In addition to Hynes, junior Kurt Weigle came on in the fall and may see increased action this season at catcher.
"Kurt has made major improvements this fall. He has made himself a consistent offensive player and needs to improve defensively to contribute. Kurt gives us depth behind the plate."
Indiana's eight seniors (Vitielliss, Hughes, Donley, Mahar, Wargo, Bynum, Pegg and Behrens) will serve as team captains.
"This team can be as good as our seniors want it to be," Morgan said. "We'll depend on them to provide leadership. This is a close group of kids, and I hope that translates to chemistry on the field."