Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Season Recap and Tournament Preview

**This is a piece I wrote for Chris Webb of the Buckeye Nine, an Ohio State baseball blog. He recently created a dedicated site for the Big Ten tourney, so you can follow all the action there. I will of course have continued coverage on all things Indiana Hoosiers baseball throughout the tournament.**

After limping to a 7-14 record (including a stretch where they lost 8 of 10) heading into conference play, the Indiana University baseball Hoosiers did their best Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard (notorious slow starters) impressions and finally turned things around during the Big Ten portion of the season. The Hoosiers dropped the conference opener at home to Minnesota but from there went on to win 10 of their next 13 Big Ten games, enabling the team to come out on top in four consecutive weekend series before dropping 2 of 3 at rival Purdue. That series against the Boilermakers, who were just 5-9 in conference play at the time, likely cost IU a chance at its first Big Ten title of any sort since 1996, when the Hoosiers took home the tournament championship. Nonetheless, this year’s squad finished 28-25 overall and 16-7 in Big Ten play, good for a 3rd place finish in the final regular season standings, the highest the Hoosiers have finished since the 1996 campaign when they finished 2nd.

This year’s Hoosier squad featured one of the top offensive attacks in the conference in addition to one of the league’s best 1-2 pitching combos in RHP Eric Arnett and LHP Matt Bashore. Preseason All-American catcher Josh Phegley, who tied for the Big Ten led with 17 homeruns in the regular season, built on what was already a very impressive career at IU, and freshman newcomer Alex Dickerson established himself as a force to be reckoned with given his ability to hit for both power and average from the left side. Centerfielder Evan Crawford led the Big Ten with 27 steals, while his counterpart in left, Kipp Schutz, overcame early season injuries to finish among the top 10 (8th to be exact) conference batting average leaders after a short stint with the IU basketball team this winter. Chris Squires found himself a home out of the pen as the team’s closer.

Those are just a few of the storylines out of Bloomington from the 2009 IU baseball team. Looking back on the regular season that was, there was a lot of good to go around. Namely, the Hoosiers built on last year’s 6th place Big Ten standing to finish 3rd this year and make the program’s second consecutive conference tournament appearance on the heels of four straight years (2003-2007) in which IU finished no better than 10th in the Big Ten. In addition to actually wining a lot of games in conference action, the Hoosiers finished second among all Big Ten teams in team batting average (.322), slugging percentage (.483), on-base percentage (.400), hits (605), homeruns (59), and total bases (908). The team’s trio of weekend starters (Arnett, Bashore, and FR LHP Blake Monar) went a combined 21-8 in 248.2 innings of work with a 3.73 ERA and 240 strikeouts against 95 walks while holding opposing batters to a .245 average.

All the good didn’t come without any bad, though. Poor play in the field plagued the Hoosiers all season long as the team committed the second most errors in the Big Ten (86) and were third to last in team fielding percentage (.959). Although the Hoosiers have gotten more quality innings out of key relievers of late (SO RHP Joey O’Gara, SO RHP Matt Carr, and FR LHP Matt Igel), the bullpen has also been a weakness all season. In retrospect, the 2009 campaign was somewhat of a disappointment for IU in many ways. While the Hoosiers were right in the thick of things until season’s end in terms of competing for the regular season conference title, the team struggled mightily in nonconference games, going just 12-18 against teams outside the Big Ten. In a season in which many experts predicted IU would be in a position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the squad’s poor performances in midweek and early season games (many of which were against what I would consider inferior opponents) likely cost the Hoosiers a shot at landing an at-large invite.

Nevertheless, the Big Ten Tournament is an opportunity for the Hoosiers to overcome a weak non-conference tournament resume and punch a ticket to the NCAA’s field of 64 by taking care of business this weekend in Columbus. Win the whole thing and all of a sudden those poor midweek and early season defeats no longer make any difference. With wins in 6 of the last 7, IU heads into Wednesday’s opening round tilt against Purdue with as good a chance as any at taking home the title. Arnett and Bashore will be very, very tough to beat in the first two games, and while Blake Monar has struggled of late, the former Yankees draft pick is certainly more than capable of shutting down any team in the tournament when he’s got his good off speed repertoire working and is throwing all his pitches for strikes. Although having to play at least four games to win the tournament is certainly a disadvantage, I really think this IU team has what it takes to bring home the title. There is a ton of experience back from last year’s squad that made an improbable run deep into the tournament, and the team undoubtedly possesses the offensive firepower and quality starting pitching needed to make another deep run this time around.

As with any team, there are a number of questions surrounding the Hoosiers that must be answered in the affirmative in order for IU to have a shot at taking home the hardware this weekend. Will the defense make plays? Will guys like 2B Tyler Rogers, 3B Vince Gonzalez, and SS Jake Dunning (all of whom have struggled at the plate in Big Ten play) contribute at the bottom of the order? Will Blake Monar rebound from his recent struggles and return to his early season form? Will Arnett and Bashore continue to dominate on the mound? Will the lineup come through with clutch hits in key situations? If the answers to all those questions are “yes,” then I like IU’s chances at winning it all this weekend. I am confident the Hoosiers will take Game 1 against Purdue behind a well-rested Arnett (did not pitch last weekend against MSU), and then I think they can take Game 2 from Minnesota behind Bashore, who has been throwing as well as any pitcher in the conference of late. After that it is hard to predict how things will shake out. Ever the optimist, though, I will go ahead and predict the Hoosiers will take home the tournament championship. They have the hitting, pitching and intangibles to do so. Now they just need to put it all together out on the field in Columbus. It should be an exciting weekend! Go Hoosiers!

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