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Indiana looking to rebound in 2011

The Indiana Baseball team won their second straight title in 2010.  Not on the diamond, but in flag football intramurals, with head coach Tracy Smith quarterbacking the team.  “I am about teaching our kids there is value in winning.  I don’t care what you are doing, it is better to win than lose.”  Winning was common for Hoosiers in 2009 on the diamond, when they entered the Big Ten Tournament as the three seed and swept through it on their way to their first Big Ten Title under Tracy Smith since he took over the program in 2006.  After an injury plagued 2010 that saw them squeak into the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers look to come out swinging in 2011.

With an upcoming first round pick like Alex Dickerson on the squad with emerging star Jerrud Sabourin in the heart of the lineup, Indiana looked to be a contender to represent the Big Ten again in the 2010 NCAA tournament.  Fast forward to the last weekend of the regular season, and they were looking at a defacto Best of 3 series with Illinois.  Indiana advanced to the Big Ten Tournament on the final day of the season, finishing with a .500 record of 12-12 in conference, while going 1-2 in the tournament.

“Given what happened to our pitching staff prior to and immediately once the season began, we were pleased to be in the hunt at 12-12,” Smith says.  Smith is referring mainly to opening day starter Blake Monar being shut down on the mound after only his first appearance at University of San Diego, in which he surrendered  7 earned in only 3 1/3 innings.  He was relegated mainly to pinch hitting for the Hoosiers in 2010.  Monar had a good freshman campaign, going 5-3 with a 4.64 ERA in 13 starts and a Cape Cod League with the Wareham Gateman that left the Hoosiers thinking they had found their Friday starter.   At the end of it all, none of their pitchers garnered Big Ten honors, even though top returning starting pitcher Drew Leininger went 9-3 with a 4.04 ERA. Help is on the way with a healthy Monar, as well as High School All-American left hander Joey DeNato from San Diego to help round out the rotation and improve on a Big Ten worst 6.63 ERA from a year ago.

DeNato went 10-2 during his senior year for Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, the same high school which produced Jerrud Sabourin.  Coach Smith is real optomistic about DeNato’s development, “I think Joey DeNato has a chance to be a very special pitcher.  He is very mature on the mound, and understands completely what he is trying to do.  He will get a lot of attention this year.”  Coach Smith is also very excited about the potential of the young arms he’s brought in, along with DeNato includes Tyler Thicke, Matt Dearden and Ryan Halsted, all three of which will compete for the vacated closer role left vacant with the loss of Chris Squires who led the Hoosiers in saves the last two seasons.  If the Hoosiers can find consistent arms on the mound, they should be in good shape to make a splash this year with the players they have returning in the starting lineup.

It was somewhat surprising to see Jerrud Sabourin not be drafted after his Junior season that saw him hit .394 with 7 HR and 45 RBI, tallying 95 hits in the process.  Smith will be glad to have that Senior leadership back for another year over at first base, and it also doesn’t hurt to have a lefty available for relief appearances.  Sabourin started in 3 games and made 9 total appearances for the Hoosiers in 2010 on the mound.  Unanimous Big Ten Player of the year OF Alex Dickerson returns for his Junior season after hitting 38 Homeruns in his first two seasons with the Hoosiers, totaling 186 hits in that time.  The Big Ten’s Triple Crown Winner was named a First-Team All-American by practically every major publication, hitting .419 with 24 HR and 75 RBI.

The left handed batting and throwing Dickerson helped lead Team USA to a Silver Medal finish this summer, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the former 48th round pick by the Nationals find himself in the first round of the 2011 draft.  Seniors Brian Lambert and Sterling Mack should be in prime position for the other two outfield spots, with the possibility of Sophomore Micah Johnson playing some out there with the talent the infield possesses.

Johnson had a great first year as he hit .312 with 11 HR and 42 RBI, starting every game of his Freshman campaign mainly at 2B and 3B.    Junior Brian Ritz saw intermittent action in the middle infield over the season, hitting .340 with 4 HR and 17 K’s in 50 AB’s.  It would be interesting to see if he could get into a groove with some consistent playing time.  Sophomore Michael Basil had a great year defensively for the Hoosiers, racking up the most assists from the SS and 3B positions, and could see a lot of action at SS with the departure of Ethan Wilson.

Senior Dylan Swift held down the catching position for the most part in his Junior campaign in 2010, and it will be interesting to see who gets the most time behind the dish this year between him and Josh Lyon.  Lyon had a breakout Sophomore campaign after only appearing in 19 games his freshman year.  Lyon hit .371 with 11 HR and 39 RBI, and was a First Team All-Big Ten Designated Hitter.   Coach Smith is big on incoming Freshman Ty Downing, a catcher from Greenwood, Kentucky.  In watching video of Downing, he makes real solid contact on the ball and shows he can swing to all fields (VIDEO).  He was efficient enough to throw out 15 of 19 baserunners during his senior season.  Downing earned 3 Letters at Quarterback for Greenwood HS, and it shows in his throwing motion.  It will be interesting to see if that changes at all.

It seems as if Johnson, Sabourin, Lyon and Dickerson would make for an extremely potent 2-5 of the lineup, but that all depends on Coach Smith being able to find a player to fit the true leadoff role.  That’s where Freshman 3B Dustin DeMuth could come into play.  Smith says that DeMuth “has a chance to play right away,” and after hitting .531 his senior season at LaPorte (IN) High School with 12 stolen bases and only 5 strikeouts, he could be an ideal leadoff batter this season.  DeMuth seems like he would eventually fit into the meat of the lineup, but placing him in the leadoff spot would be a good problem to have in 2011.

Smith spent the intramural football season because, as he says, “it is fun for our guys to compete in something other than baseball.  I get to see who my competitors are because if you are a competitor, you will compete in anything with a will to win.”  The combination of leadership and young talent that has won at the prep level is going to be needed for a team that is going to be mainly on the road with one game March 27th at home against Evansville before returning for their first weekend home series against Ohio State on April 8th.  The early road and neutral site tests against tournament teams like Coastal Carolina, UConn, Virginia Tech and Oregon State could be an early preview of more postseason games in June for Indiana.