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February 17, 2011

Let's play ball

NOTE: Talk Hoosier baseball in our new IU baseball forum

Here's our 2011 season preview:

You could sense the excitement yesterday as the Indiana baseball team practiced in their last full day in Bloomington before the 2011 season opener. Later today the Hoosier team travels to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a three-game weekend that starts with a noon game Friday against Virginia Tech.

"We're ready to go, we've been inside too long now," said junior pitcher Drew Leininger. "Looking forward to play against somebody else, see a different team, a different uniform."

It's the lefty Leininger that is expected to start on the mound in that Virginia Tech opener tomorrow. He led the Hoosiers with a 9-3 record last season and is confident he'll have a fresh arm for tomorrow's challenge.

"I'm ready to go, definitely" said Leininger. "I didn't pitch all fall."

A year ago Indiana started slow, losing the first three of the non-conference schedule in a road trip to San Diego. The Hoosiers did still finish above .500 at 28-27 and tied for fifth in the Big Ten with a 12-12 record. Pitching was the nemesis as Indiana was last in the league in E.R.A.

Head coach Tracy Smith is hoping a new group of young pitchers and some healthier vets will change that.

"We recruited some talented young arms," said Smith. "I think the depth will allow us to play "match-ups" a lot more later in the game. We realize it may take a little time for the young guys to get comfortable, but at least we will have some options this year out of the pen rather than our first baseman and catcher. I think a healthy Blake Monar and Matt Carr are going to make a difference. You mix those guys with some of the talented freshmen arms: Joey DeNato, Matt Dearden, Ryan Halstead to name a few, we at least have a chance to complement our offense."

Smith added that DeNato, a lefty from San Diego, will get the start in Saturday's second game against Boston College.

The staff is bolstered by the return of Monar, a junior from Rockport, Indiana. Monar was 5-3 his first year in Bloomington. A shoulder injury stole his sophomore season as he was limited to just one outing before going down.

Monar is another lefty so the Hoosiers may be often going with all southpaw starters in the upcoming three-game weekend trips.

"We are going to try that early," said Smith. "Pluses are those guys give us the best chance based on what we have seen this far in preseason, in addition to neutralizing the running game of the opposition. The minuses are it allows teams to see "similar" starters, although they really aren't all that similar in their stuff."

Hitting the ball was not a problem last year for Indiana. The Hoosiers led the entire league with a .327 team batting average. Leading the charge was Alex Dickerson. The Poway, California native won the Big Ten equivalent of the Triple Crown, leading the conference in hitting (.419), home runs (24) and RBIs (75).

So now as a junior, how does he top such a dream season?

"I don't even think one of us had one of those in Little League," said Smith. "It's funny because we said the same thing about his freshman year. When he was named Freshman of the Year. It was like, 'wow, those were awesome numbers and I hope he can come close to those his sophomore year.' Of course he does that and then some."

The slugger isn't worried about topping the soph stats.

"It is nothing to get too anxious about," said Dickerson. "I am just going to play my game and if it ends up being good enough at the end of the day, that's all I can ask for."

Not surprising, Dickerson is all over the first-team Preseason All-America squads. The left fielder obviously has the chance to get drafted awfully high when that time comes.

"The beautiful thing about him, I was talking about this with my wife the other today about this and she said 'do you think it is getting to him, the pressure of maybe being a (MLB) first round draft pick and all that?'" said Smith. "But there's not one kid that handles success or failure better than Alex Dickerson, that I've ever coached."

"You just focus in on day-to-day and the Indiana Hoosiers," said Dickerson. "Practice hard, make your adjustments. Baseball is baseball whatever level you are at."

Indiana will again have Micah Johnson at the top of the lineup. The speedy infielder from Indy led the team in stolen bases last year as a frosh and battled .312 with 11 home runs. The news on Johnson is he's moving from third to second base.

"Well last year I moved over there for the Big Ten tournament," said Johnson. "My defense last year at third base was a little shaky. This fall I got into working there a lot."

The move is made easier by the arrival of freshman Dustin DeMuth. The newcomer from La Porte, Indiana is expected to start at third this weekend.

"He has a major league arm," said Johnson. "The question will be adjusting to the range as he's used to short(stop). The ball gets on you a lot quicker there (at third). We just want him to play good defense."

"The best infield arm that I've ever coached," said Smith.

Sandwiched between Johnson and Dickerson in the second spot will be senior first baseman Jerrud Sabourin. As a junior the San Diego native hit .394 and knocked in 45 runs. He only trailed Dickerson in conference batting average.

"He doesn't say a lot but he's really a coach on the field," said Smith. "He's a calming influence for me because I may say 10 words to him the rest of the season because I just don't worry about him."

The two guys at the top of the lineup have to be pitched to thanks to the presence of Dickerson.

"I'm in the leadoff spot and with Sabourin hitting second, these teams don't want to put us on base because they know Dickerson is going to do something," said Johnson. "42-percent of the time he's going to do something and he had 24 home runs. We are going to score somehow, home run, double, something."

The big issue may be the guys behind Dickerson.

"Last year we had Mike Early sitting behind him and Mike put together a pretty good year (.352 avg.) that provided a little bit of protection," said Smith. "That's a bit of a question mark as we go into this weekend. Do we have the protection behind Dickerson this year that we had last year? I think we do but it is going to just take a little time to figure that out. If teams start pitching around him and we show we can't protect him, that will be problematic."

Josh Lyon should be one of the guys behind Dickerson. Last year as a designated hitter, Lyon belted 11 homers and batted .371. This year the junior from Indianapolis may be moving to one of the open outfield spots.

"I think Josh Lyon is going to pick up right where he left off," said Dickerson.

With the movement in the outfield and infield, it's not surprising that team defense is an early concern.

"Big question mark for me," said Smith. "I am not really comfortable yet with our outfield defense. I am concerned about our lack of speed in the outfield especially if we go "more offensive" with our line-up. Just getting outside and playing tough competition early will allow us to see if those concerns are warranted."

Earlier this week the Big Ten Coaches Preseason Poll was released and the Hoosiers are slotted third behind Minnesota and Michigan.

"It's probably a fair assessment of where we are if we live up to what we're doing," said Smith. "Our biggest challenge is going to be the young guys, the young pitchers. How quickly do they come around? Then I'm a little concerned about our defense. It may take us some time to come around early, I hope not, but it might, but I think once these guys get some experience under them I think that is probably a fair pick. We should compete for the title this year."

For now the focus is getting started on the right foot. After the games against Virginia Tech and Boston College, Indiana will play host Coastal Carolina on Sunday. The Chanticleers are ranked #20 nationally.

"If you schedule good teams early you are going to know what your deficiencies are," said Smith. "What better test to play two teams from the ACC and an annual national power in Coastal Carolina?"

"Last year we kind of got off to a rough start and that kind of set the tone for our season," said Johnson. "I think we should go down there with the mentality that we're taking three. Just need to take one game at a time each weekend and then roll that into Big Ten play."

The Hoosiers travel next weekend to Corpus Christi, Texas for another three game set. The following weekend Indiana will be down in Knoxville, Tennessee. Over Indiana spring break time in mid-March the team will play eight games in Lakeland and Winter Haven, Florida. The Big Ten opener is April 1st at Michigan.

Besides getting early victories, there's also another big priority in these first few games.

"We have to figure out what our lineup is," said Smith. "Baseball in the north is a little different. We don't have the luxury of intrasquads and really getting to see guys in game situations. Our first time on the field will be Friday. We want to figure what we have behind the plate. We have three quality guys there and somebody is going to have to establish themselves as number one. Our outfield situation is a little bit of a question mark. For me that's what I hope to come back that first weekend---certainly get some wins but really figure out what we're doing behind the plate and in the outfield."

New stadium update

Currently the Hoosiers play at Sembower Field. The field is older (built in 1951) but ideally located on Fee Lane next to Foster Residence Center. Plans are moving forward to build a new stadium.

"Things are progressing rather well," said Smith. "Recent communications with (Athletic Director) Mr. Glass have been good as far as where he sees the project and where we are. I'm finally do feel like for the first time we're making headway. We are in the quiet phase of our fundraising. We have a goal that we're shooting for now and we are getting people tied into that. I think you'll hear a bigger announcement, probably next October in terms of exactly what's going to happen. I assure you though that the wheels are rolling and I as the baseball coach feel very comfortable with the timetable and how it is all going to enfold."

One thing Smith has fought for is keeping the stadium in the heart of campus.

"My preference would be and we've had a lot of discussion, even with the president, do we put it by the bypass or do we stay where we are? I hope in the end we stay where we are. You capture not only an unbelievable location with the baseball field and the immediate surrounding, but you also have the students. The students can literally fall out of their dorm rooms and come over. When I was at Miami-Ohio we had the same type of discussions, 'do we move it north or do we keep it here? And ultimately we kept that thing right there in the middle of campus. It was the best decision Miami ever made and I see it being even better here in Bloomington."


Thanks to Scott Marks for contributing to this preview.



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