Feb. 15, 2011
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -
Entering his sixth season at the helm of the IU Baseball program, Head Coach Tracy Smith has one thing on his mind ... championships. Thirteen players remain from the 2009 squad which won the Big Ten Tournament Championship and advanced to the NCAA Regionals, each hungry for another piece of hardware.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about winning a Big Ten Championship," said Head Coach Tracy Smith. "We have a potent line-up, and a good mix of experienced pitchers and young, talented arms. The potential to be a very good team is there."
Coach Smith and his coaching staff stress the importance of competition year-round, and competition will be aplenty for playing time at several positions heading into the 2011 campaign.
All-American Alex Dickerson's name has been stamped into left field on the line-up card, but the remaining outfield spots remain wide open. Dickerson is the reigning Big Ten Triple Crown winner, hitting .419 with 24 homeruns and 75 runs batted in last season.
"With Dickerson, if we can get anything close to what we got last year, then we'll be good out in left," said Coach Smith.
A quartet of experienced Hoosiers are expected to battle it out for time in center, including seniors T.C. Knipp and Brian Lambert, junior Matt Serfling and sophomore Justin Cureton.
"I'm not too concerned about the outfield offensively. The guy who can show their consistency defensively is going get the first look in center field."
Right field is the same cast of characters with the addition of All-Big Ten designated hitter Josh Lyon thrown into the mix. Lyon belted 11 homers, 39 RBI and batted .371 as the Hoosiers' primary DH in '10.
"All those guys are going to have the opportunity to win the spot in the early goings. We'll see who performs when the lights are on."
Competition for time behind the plate is a three-way battle featuring a pair of seniors and a very talented freshman. Dylan Swift and Wes Wilson have combined to play in 121 games, including 59 starts during their first three seasons donning the Cream and Crimson. Freshman Ty Downing, meanwhile, comes to Bloomington with a high level of athleticism evidenced by his selection as the region player of year on the diamond and quarterbacking his team to the Kentucky semi-state finals on the gridiron.
"Catching is much like the outfield, we will give them opportunities early in the season and see who emerges. The good thing is we have three legitimate division one catchers and each one brings a little something different to the table. Dylan is the coach on the field, Wes has all the tools and Ty is very, very talented but is just lacking the experience of the other two. It will be an interesting race."
The starting infield picture is a bit more clear than the outfield. Mr. Steady, Jerrud Sabourin, has locked down first base following his 2010 season that ended with All-Mideast Region laurels. Micah Johnson, a Freshman All-American, has transitioned from third to second base and is likely the everyday starter there.
"I always joke around and say Jerrud could fall out of bed and hit .380, but it's true. He's just an all-around good baseball player and is a staple for us there at first."
"Micah is a unique guy to have in the line-up, one who has power but can also steal a base. He's going to have to make the cerebral change of moving from third to second, but he has the skill set to do that at this level, and also the next level."
On the left side of the infield, sophomore Michael Basil and Dustin DeMuth will be the first look. Basil, who made some stellar defensive plays while starting 39 games as a freshman, has made strides offensively this offseason.
"Michael has been very consistent throughout the fall and early spring. He's made some adjustments in the batter's box and shown the ability to drive some baseballs."
"I really like what I've seen from Dustin DeMuth. He's made big-time progress from the fall and getting some live college games under his belt will really help with confidence. He has the best infield arm I've ever coached."
The duo of Brian Ritz and Casey Smith are expected to fill-in at third, short and second when needed. Ritz posted a .340 average in 50 at-bats a year ago, which included a school-record-tying five hits in a game against Kentucky. Smith, meanwhile, made all his appearances on the mound last season.
"We feel comfortable having these two guys to fill in when needed. Both are capable of playing the different positions and providing a solid bat in the line-up."
At first base, Trace Knoblauch and Cody Leichman will be looked upon to provide depth behind Sabourin.
"Trace and Cody will have to be patient and take advantage of the opportunities when given. They need to continue to work hard every day and be prepared to take over if necessary."
Coach Smith can attack the opposition from both sides of the plate in the DH slot. From the right side, freshman Dillon Dooney is the leading candidate while Lyon provides serious left-handed pop.
"Dooney brings some power to the plate, we need to get him some swings. If Josh is not playing in right, he's most likely going to be the DH the majority of the time."
Drew Leininger, Joey DeNato and Blake Monar will get the first crack as the weekend starters. Leininger was the turnaround story of the year for IU last season, posting a 9-3 record and being selected as one of the "Top Three Starting Pitchers in 2011" according to a survey of the Big Ten's head coaches. Monar secured the Friday starter position right away as a freshman in '09 before shoulder surgery forced him to limited action on the bump last year. He was drafted out of high school in the 26th round by the New York Yankees. DeNato is a highly-touted freshman from San Diego, earning High School All-America status as a senior.
"Our depth this year is going to be a plus. If any of these guys struggle, we've got others we'd be confident in throwing into the starting line-up. Chad Martin, at times, has shown to be dominant out there on the mound."
Coach Smith will have the luxury of extended bullpen depth in 2011. Not only are the options high in quantity, but they are high quality arms as well. With increased depth this season, the Hoosiers will have the ability to get much better lefty-righty match-ups out of the pen than they have in past seasons.
"Our biggest challenge is going to be replacing Chris Squires. We are going to miss the gift of simply handing the ball to `Q' in the eighth or ninth and knowing he's going to get it done. It may start as a bullpen by committee, but with our depth and talent I expect someone to emerge as that go-to guy out of the pen."
As has been his M.O. since arriving in Bloomington, Coach Smith has put together another challenging schedule for 2011 which sends the Hoosiers across the country playing some of the nation's top teams. The opening weekend from Feb. 18-20 is no exception as Indiana travels to Myrtle Beach, S.C. to face Virginia Tech, Boston College and #20 Coastal Carolina.
Other marquee non-conference match-ups include: #9 UCONN, #30 Pittsburgh, 2006 and 2007 College World Series Champion Oregon State (RV), Louisville (RV) and Kentucky.
Complete 2011 IU Baseball Schedule