Pitchers blaze trail for Hoosiers
Indiana's deep pitching staff could propel team to first CWS
We’ve heard it time and time again from baseball coaches at every level -- pitching and defense wins games. For Indiana, it is no different. The Hoosiers may have some sluggers, but their arms have undoubtedly played an integral role in the program’s unprecedented season of success.
The Hoosiers have posted a school-record 46 victories against Division I foes this year en route to winning the Big Ten Conference regular-season and tournament championships, hosting their first NCAA Regional and capturing the program’s first regional title.
While the Hoosiers (46-14) have improved across the board statistically compared to last year’s 32-28 finish, it is their pitching staff that has made the greatest jump. In 2012, Indiana finished the season with a 4.58 ERA, good for 163rd in DI. This year, as the Hoosiers head to the NCAA Tallahassee Super Regional, IU’s pitching staff ranks sixth in the nation with a 2.56 ERA.
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“We’ve improved defensively,” Indiana head coach Tracy Smith said. “I know that doesn’t affect ERA when there are errors behind you, but it still affects the way you pitch with runners on base. The guys are more mature and playing with more confidence and they are throwing more strikes. I keep saying if you throw strikes, you give yourself a chance to win. I don’t want to leave out the last ingredient -- these guys are pretty talented.”
That’s a pretty big leap, no matter what the reasoning. So, what changed?
First off, the Hoosiers added 6-foot-10-inch right-hander Aaron Slegers to the starting rotation after he had seen limited action in his first two seasons due to injury. Slegers, determined to make a name for himself, garnered Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors and enters the weekend with a 9-1 record and 1.94 ERA. He’s walked just 12 batters in 92.2 innings of work while fanning 53.
“The first two years when I was injured, it really put the importance on being on the field,” Slegers said. “At the beginning of the season, I sort of had a chip on my shoulder trying to prove myself. I was a junior and no one really knew who I was. I tried to go out at the beginning of the season and go pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning. I try to keep that same mindset for every outing.”
Slegers is not IU’s only pitcher to turn in an outstanding season. Junior lefty Joey DeNato, an All-Big Ten second-team pick who will start Saturday’s contest against Florida State, compiled a 9-2 mark and 2.65 ERA this season.
“He’s our point man,” Smith said. “We’re going to probe the perimeter a little with DeNato and see what we’ve got. We think he handles that well.”
Add sophomore left-hander Kyle Hart (8-2, 3.01 ERA) and freshman southpaw Will Coursen-Carr (4-0, 1.80 ERA) as two viable options for the rotation’s third starter, plus a solid bullpen highlighted by Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Scott Effross (6-1, 1.97 ERA, 5 saves) and Ryan Halstead (11 saves) and you have a staff that is tough from top to bottom.
“I think we have probably five or six guys that could be Friday night pitchers for a number of teams in the nation,” DeNato said. “That’s huge for us, especially in midweek games. Last year, we didn’t really have a midweek pitcher and some of those games we just gave away because the pitching was so thin. This year, we won almost every single midweek game because we had a starter that could have been a Friday night guy and we also had a bullpen to back him up too.”
Regardless of who is on the mound, the Hoosiers will not be intimidated by opponent hitter, and do give up many hits or walks. IU’s staff has surrendered just 8.29 hits per nine innings (33rd in NCAA), and walked just 2.72 batters per nine innings (22nd in NCAA).
“Individually, there are a lot of opposites on the team,” Slegers said. “There are left-handers with good change-ups like Kyle Hart and tall righties like myself and short lefties like Joey DeNato, who has been getting it done for a long time now. Our pitching coach Ty Neal preaches going right after guys and throwing strikes early and often. I think that’s what fans will see this weekend. We fill up the strike zone and go right after hitters.”
“The key to our pitching staff is consistency,” DeNato said. “Every time, no matter who goes out there, we pretty much know what to expect. We have some guys that can throw fastballs by people, we have pitchers who throw a little softer and pinpoint their pitches and can throw three or four pitches for strikes, but consistency is a huge part of the rotation.”
Slegers also points to some healthy competition between teammates as a driving force in the staff’s improvement.
“It all of started in the fall,” Slegers said. “We had some really good freshmen come in who had success in high school. Will Coursen-Carr is kind of jumping off the page for me. He came in and immediately started picking up steam in fall ball, throwing a lot of strikes. When a couple of guys start to do that, it really has a ripple effect on the whole staff. We’re all pulling for each other, but we’re very competitive with each other at the same time. We’ve maintained a competitive culture since August and that has benefitted us a lot this year.”
“It shows how mature the freshmen are, too,” DeNato said. “We have a lot more depth in our pitching staff this year. And, as a starting pitcher, it’s a lot less stressful knowing our bullpen can hold a lead and our offense can swing the bats as well.”
The Hoosiers will face their toughest challenge yet as they face No. 7-seed Florida State (47-15) -- a program that has advanced to the College World Series 21 times. In contrast, Indiana will be vying for its first trip to Omaha.
“We finally get to be an underdog,” Smith said. “We’ve had a target on our back the entire season and that’s a tough position to be in because the pressure is on you. I’ve been reading stuff and hearing the quotes out of Tallahassee. Nobody is giving us a chance. That’s okay. We’ll go down there and put our best foot forward and see what happens.”
“It is fun playing a team with a storied history like that, but at the same time it’s still a game and you have to pitch to the hitters and get base hits and around the bases,” Slegers said. “We’re excited to play our game and see it where it takes us this weekend.”
And while the Hoosiers respect the Seminoles’ tradition-filled past, they are looking to make their own history when the best-of-three series gets underway on Saturday.
“Florida State is one of the places I’ve always wanted to play,” DeNato said. “I’m excited to play there and I know the other guys are, too. This is one of the goals on our board -- making it to the College World Series -- and this is just another step along the way.”