Baseball: Vicious Electronic Questioning: Indiana
One of my favorite types of mgo-posts before the days of m.go.podcasts were segments called Vicious Electronic Questioning (VEQ). To quote Brian circa the 2009 ND game:
Hello once again. When Michigan plays the sort of opponent that actually has opposition bloggers this here blog tends to flag one of them down and relentlessly grill them until they are convinced their team will meet ignominious defeat.
Never does the phrase "sort of opponent that actually has opposition bloggers" come more into play than with college baseball. The Big Ten has a surprising amount of baseball coverage (and amazingly, we're fairly organized), and one of those fine blogs is Behind the Plate, covering this weekend's opponent, the Indiana Hoosiers.
So while I may not get quite as vicious as Brian in his VEQ's with House that Rock Built, I can also promise at least 75% less Tom Hammond:
He makes me hate Indiana for reasons I can't explain
What does posting a picture of Tom Hammond, a Notre Dame football announcer, have to do with Indiana University's baseball team? It just doesn't make any sense. If Tom Hammond is linked to IU, you must acquit. The defense rests.
Anyway, I return the favor by writer IUBaseballFan by answering some questions over at Behind the Plate, in which I predict a series sweep with a low confidence rating. Probably even lower now that I look into a certain ace on the IU staff, more about him after the jump. This will also act as the preview for the weekend, but I'll have a few more thoughts to post up tomorrow.Q&A after the jump...
FA: 12-11 on the season so far, what's gone right and what's gone wrong on the season? Feel free to include a pot shot at Ohio State as you guys at least beat your NAIA opponent.
IUBaseballFan: Despite losing a ton to the draft/graduation from last year's NCAA tournament team, IU's performance to date in 2010 has actually been somewhat of a surprise. Heading into Big Ten play a season ago, IU's record sat at 7-14. Obviously 12-11 is a big improvement over that. Now maybe this is attributable to an easier schedule, but at the same time wins are wins.
As far as what's gone right, I would say the offense really hasn't missed a beat even with the loss of All-American Josh Phegley as well as key contributors in Kipp Schutz and Evan Crawford, among others. The Hoosiers are averaging over 7 runs per game, and they lead the conference in slugging percentage, thanks in large part to the duo of Jerrud Sabourin and Alex Dickerson in the middle of the order.
While a lot has gone right thus far this season, there have definitely been bumps in the road along the way. As you would expect with a relatively young and inexperienced team, the Hoosiers are definitely more prone to striking out at the plate and making errors in the field than a more experienced squad might be. Putting together consistent performances on the mound has also been a challenge. While some young guys have stepped forward to provide quality innings, the team ERA currently sits somewhere in the neighborhood of 6+, and the Hoosiers actually give up more runs than they score themselves per game when you factor in all the unearned runs. Overall, though, I've got to think Coach Smith is happy with where the Hoosiers are at entering conference play.
FA: You forgot the line about actually beating your NAIA opponents, and despite the fact you played them, that your strength of schedule is still higher than Michigan thanks to Fordham and IPFW. That's for not mentioning the latter?
Moving on, the key words coming from Tracy Smith were youth and inconsistency to start the season. Has that been the case?
IUBaseballFan: I would say Coach Smith was spot on with his "youth and inconsistency" assessment. I mean, who knows this team better than him, right? Chris Squires is the only pitcher on the staff that has been with the team as a pitcher more than a year, and offensively the Hoosiers start 4-5 guys on a regular basis that are either freshmen or sophomores. So, youth and inconsistency has definitely plagued this team at times thus far in 2010. However, that being said, Indiana has won 7 of their last 8 and with the exception of a big loss in a mid-week game at Morehead State last week, the pitching has been much more consistent of late. As this team gets more and more games under their belts, I think youth and inconsistency will continue to be less and less of a factor.
FA: Sounds much like half of Michigan's team last year that kept us from competing at the top of the Big Ten, but a much larger proportion of the team.
Who is this Drew Leininger (3-0, 0.79 ERA, 34 IP, 23 K, 8 BB, 1 SHO) and what's his story? Where on earth did he come from?
IUBaseballFan: Leininger is a sophomore left-hander from Poway, CA outside of San Diego, and a lot was expected from him as a freshman last year. He came to Bloomington with several impressive high school accolades in a state and city where baseball is a really big thing, but that never translated to success on the mound in 2009. He struggled early and often, and his opportunities were hard to come by as the season progressed. He finished 0-2 with a 9.91 ERA in 26.1 innings of work, less than stellar numbers to say the least.
That being said, Leininger has definitely been the biggest surprise for the Hoosiers in 2010. I certainly didn't see this coming at all, especially after he got knocked around in the fall in the games I saw. I think the talent/ability has always been there, so maybe it has just been a case of him finally settling in and reaching a comfort level on the mound in a Hoosier uniform as he's figured out how to pitch to hitters at the collegiate level. Interestingly enough, last year's staff ace (All-American Eric Arnett) came out of nowhere to post the big numbers that he did as well. Hopefully Leininger continues to impress come Big Ten play.
FA: Who else is holding down a spot in the rotation?
With staff ace Blake Monar nursing a sore shoulder (still no idea when he will return to the mound) and Matt Igel (who many thought would hold down the #2 spot in the rotation) struggling mightily early on, the rotation has been somewhat of a patchwork job thus far. Freshman Walker Stadler has started every weekend since the season began, and he's done a nice job providing this team with quality innings on a consistent basis. His numbers (3-2, 4.91 ERA) aren't fantastic by any means, but on a staff where "youth and inconsistency" is more the norm than the exception, he has been a steady, reliable presence.
Beyond Leininger and Stadler, the #3 spot has really been nothing more than a source of instability. No other Hoosier has recorded more than 2 starts, and the guys that have actually had the most success as starters outside of Leininger and Stadler have been a pair of Hoosiers who began the year as infielders - Ethan Wilson (11.2 IP, 3.09 ERA) and Jerrud Sabourin (11.1 IP, 4.76 ERA). But, your guess is as good as mine as to who will get the nod as the #3 on Sunday.
FA: Squires is definitely one of the top 2 relievers, if not the best in the Big Ten. Tell us a little about him. Is he virtually alone in the bullpen?
Biased as I am, I for one like to think that Squires is the best the Big Ten has to offer as far as relievers go. I've sat behind the scouts at several games this year, and the scouts rave about his "Major League" change-up. He's definitely a big strikeout guy (22 in 17 IP), and he's just got a great make-up overall. I think he is the perfect fit for IU as a late-inning reliever, and I really believe he embraces that role.
Beyond Squires (I'll be frank), though, there really isn't a lot to get excited about out of IU's bullpen. Football player Matt Ernest throws a fastball that registers in the low 90's on a regular basis and he's had some success in 4 relief appearances, but he too is nursing an injury that has kept him off the mound of late and I doubt we see him this weekend. Overall, I definitely think the bullpen is this team's biggest weakness, so I guess we will see what kind of impact that has on this weekend's outcomes.
FA: How has replacing All-Big Ten/All-American Catcher Josh Phegley been going?
Pretty well, surprisingly enough. I think his leadership and presence behind the plate is definitely missed, but offensively the team really hasn't missed a beat with him being gone. Jerrud Sabourin and Alex Dickerson are holding down the #3 and #4 spots in the order in a big way, and they rank at or near the top of the Big Ten in nearly every major offensive category. I thought this team would experience a big drop-off offensively from a season ago, but that really hasn't been the case. Now we can only hope that will continue once conference play begins.
FA: Can Alex Dickerson please get drafted - again - already? How's he doing this season? Who's batting around Dickerson to give him protection/runners on base?
Fortunately for the Hoosiers (and unfortunately for everyone else in the conference), Dickerson actually will be around for another year after this one since he is only a sophomore. Coming off a huge freshman campaign, Dickerson picked up right where he left off and as of Tuesday is hitting a robust .426 with 10 doubles, 10 home runs, 33 runs batted in and 24 runs scored. He leads the Big Ten in slugging percentage, home runs, runs batted in and total bases. Dickerson is an immense talent to say the least.
Jerrud Sabourin hits in front of Dickerson in the #3 hole, and he packs the stat sheet as well. The junior first baseman ranks second in the Big Ten with a .446 average and leads the conference with 45 hits to go along with his 8 doubles, 4 home runs and 24 runs batted in. Lead-off hitter Micah Johnson has also been a welcome addition to the lineup. The freshman is hitting .327 with 6 doubles, 7 home runs, 22 runs batted in and 22 runs scored himself, and he's a good guy to have at the top of the order in front of Dickerson and Sabourin.
FA: I'm noticing a good amount of stolen bases spread out over the whole team. Is there some team speed I should know about? Is Indiana playing the small ball a lot this year?
While there are no Evan Crawford's on this year's team, there are definitely some guys with some speed who are capable of stealing bases from time to time. The Hoosiers rank in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten as far as stolen bases go, so I wouldn't say this should be a big concern for opponents, but at the same time IU will be aggressive on the base paths and take a base via a steal when it is there. Guys like Micah Johnson, Michael Earley, Tyler Rogers and Brian Lambert definitely have the speed to steal a base when asked to do so, and the Hoosiers will play small ball when the situation to do so presents itself, but for the most part this is a team that scores run via the long ball and extra base hits, as evidenced by the fact that IU leads the Big Ten in both slugging percentage and home runs.
FA: What's your prediction for the weekend?
As much as I hate to say it, I just don't think the Hoosiers have enough firepower on the mound to win this series. I do think they will pick up a win when Leininger takes his turn, but I just don't see IU getting it done in either of the other 2 games. So, Michigan heads back to Ann Arbor with a 2-1 series win.
That's pretty encouraging. I'm still taking the sweep, but man does Leininger spell trouble for our bats. If there's going to be a narrow escape by Indiana with a win, I think it comes there. Hopefully Oaks can keep up the workhorse mentality and get through 7 innings with less than 2 runs allowed, or we may looking at Louisville all over again.
Thanks to IUBaseballFan of Behind the Plate for the insight and good luck trying to win one this weekend, hopefully you'll need it.