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BLOOMINGTON – Are the Indiana Hoosiers, a powerhouse baseball team battling a power outage, ready to bust loose?
We're about to find out.
Big Ten play opens today with a three-game home series against Michigan (8-12-1), and the Hoosiers seek the form that made them a College World Series preseason favorite. They are 10-8 and unranked, an unexpectedly slow start for a team ranked No. 3 in preseason polls and projected to win the Big Ten title for a second straight year.
But Wednesday's 9-3 victory over No. 7 Louisville suggests that the silent bats are finally ready to make noise.
“It was good to get the bats going,” third baseman Dustin Demuth said. “Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Last year IU rolled into the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., with a potent combination of hitting and pitching. It returns All-America catcher Kyle Schwarber, the nation's top returning home run hitter (13), preseason All-American first baseman Sam Travis (122 RBIs in just over two seasons), preseason All-America pitcher Joey Denato (a career 27-9 record) and others.
The Hoosiers return most of their offense and most of their pitching, including former South Side standout Will Coursen-Carr, a sophomore lefthander.
At the start of the season optimism was everywhere. A Big Ten team hadn't reached the World Series in a generation before Indiana did it last season. IU was picked to make it two in a row.
An upgraded early schedule and lack of offense resulted in a 2-5 start, including an 8-1 loss to No. 1 Oregon State. A big blow was losing record-setting reliever Ryan Halstead to a season-ending knee injury. He hadn't allowed a run in 3.1 innings before tearing his ACL.
The Hoosiers will need to get hot fast to duplicate last year's 49-16 record.
Still, the potential is obvious with a team earned run average of 2.69, the best in the Big Ten by more than half a run. The fielding percentage of .970 is solid. But the team batting average of .248 is a big drop from last year's .301.
Wednesday's 12 hits and nine runs, three more than the Hoosiers had scored in their previous three games, suggest a turnaround is coming. They've beaten Louisville twice this season, plus No. 18 Kentucky. They enter Big Ten play with five wins in their last seven games
“I've analyzed these stats every which way,” coach Tracy Smith said. “We're leading the conference in ERA. We've got a .970 fielding percentage. It comes down to one thing. I look at guys who have hit before and what they're doing now. We just weren't getting good hits.
“We're playing good baseball. I'm a believer if you just keep pitching and playing good defense … these are proven hitters. I was managing it. I wasn't panicking. They know they're going to hit. For us it's playing a good, quality style to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Designated hitter Scott Donley reflects IU struggles. Last year he hit .358 with a Big Ten-leading 61 runs batted in to earn all-conference honors. This season he's hitting .226 with 13 RBIs.
His three RBIs against Louisville are another sign the Hoosiers are ready for a big run.
“If you recall why we were so good last year,” Smith said, “we had Scott Donley doing what he can do in the 4 hole. We know he's a good hitter. He can hit. If he can start doing that, provide protection for Kyle and Sam, he'll be right up there in RBIs again.”
As for Coursen-Carr, he's struggled to regain last season's form, when he was 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA. He is 1-2 with a 3.98 ERA. He is not in this weekend's rotation, with Christian Morris (0-1, 2.75 ERA) set to get Sunday's third-game start behind Joey DeNato (3-1, 1.95) and Kyle Hart (2-1, 2.59).
IU is gunning for a Big Ten title. It also wants a strong enough RPI to host postseason series. The year-old Bart Kaufman Field rates among the best baseball stadiums in the country and, with a capacity of nearly 3,000, provides a strong home-field advantage.
Beating a top-10 team such as Louisville twice is a boost to those postseason hosting hopes.
"You have to take advantage of these midweek opportunities against quality opponents," Smith said. "Louisville is a very good team. They're going to have a good season. They always do. These are good RPI wins to sock away out of your league.
“It was nice to see some balls fall our way. Hopefully that continues to come as we roll into conference play.”