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BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana's Brad Hartong makes 'em laugh, which would be great if he were a comedian or Broadway performer.
Instead, he's a left fielder converted from a catcher, and let's say when it comes to slick outfield play, he's no Roberto Clemente.
Is that a problem?
Not even close.
“When he goes to catch a ball, sometimes we laugh,” coach Tracy Smith says. “It might not always be the prettiest. He's got those crazy legs going sometimes.”
Don't confuse crazy legs with bad defense. Hartong's fielding might not inspire poetry, but then, how many poets win a Big Ten Player of the Week award, as this California native has done? In his first year of Hoosiers action he's emerged as a star on a powerhouse baseball squad well positioned for a second straight conference title, and more.
For the record, Smith is fine with Hartong's fielding. Hartong has only committed three errors all season, just one as an outfielder. Smith calls Hartong's over-the-back-shoulder catch at Iowa last month, “One of the greatest catches I've ever seen.”
“If he's close to it, he'll catch it,” Smith says. “It might not be pretty, but I do trust him. You watch his routes. He's gets those legs going, then stopping, then starting. But you know what. He'll catch it and make the play.”
That's the bottom line and Smith is very much a bottom-line coach. He needed a left fielder after his son, Casey, had to quit playing baseball because of a back injury in late March. The 6-foot-5 Hartong seemed to be the perfect replacement. Why? Because of intramural football.
“I was just watching that kid in intramural (flag football) last fall,” Smith says, “and the athleticism -- he's one of the best athletes on campus. So that transition from catcher to left fielder was easy because he's just an athletic, big, strong kid who can jump and run. He brings that to the field. You can put him at first base, third, it doesn't matter. The best fit for us is at catcher and left.”
For the record, Hartong doesn't have a family monopoly on athleticism. One sister, Emily, was an All-America volleyball player at Hawaii. Another sister, Hailey, was a member of the UCLA rowing team.
Anyway, when Smith mentioned left field to Hartong, who had spent the first half of the season as All-America catcher Kyle Schwarber's backup, he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.
“I haven't played outfield since high school,” he says. “We have this guy, Kyle Schwarber, who is pretty good. He's a stud.
“I got a lot of work in the outfield. It wasn't too big a change. We practice so much and do so many drills with our coaches they get all of us ready. It hasn't been too bad. It's been fun.”
How hard was the fielding transition?
“The hard-hit balls I haven't mastered yet,” he says. “Those line drives right at you are the hardest. You don't know whether to come in or go back. Those are the ones I struggle on. There are times I'm running after the ball and everyone in the dugout is going, 'Oh, no!'
“I haven't had any brutal plays. I'm getting a lot of confidence. I come up with the catch. That's all that matters.”
Confidence also comes from his offense. As late as April 20, Hartong was hitting .247. Since then he's been on a tear. He's now hitting .313 with three home runs, five doubles and 27 runs batted in. His conference Player of the Week award came after hitting .529 over four games with a home run and 10 runs batted in. Five of those RBIs came in one inning against Ball State.
Hartong generally bats sixth in the lineup, behind such potent hitters as Schwarber (.345 average), Sam Travis (.372) and Dustin DeMuth (.368). He's a big reason why IU has won 20 of its last 22 games to improve to 32-12 overall, 16-2 in Big Ten play, entering this weekend's action at Penn State (17-26, 5-12).
“He's been putting together some good at bats,” Smith says. “He's been the key to solidifying the lineup and making us tick. We were getting a lot of guys on base with Schwarber, Travis and DeMuth, but we weren't getting them in.
“Regardless of the sport, the more comfortable you get, the more your abilities will come out. Earlier in the season, maybe because of the performance of guys we've had in the past and him being the new guy, maybe he was pressing some and trying to do too much and looking over his shoulder. Now that he knows he's in the lineup, it allows him to relax and play ball.”
Added Hartong: “I was trying to do too much when I saw my name in the lineup. I just calmed down, got some pitches to hit and put some good swings on the ball.”
Hartong arrived with solid credentials after earning junior college All-America honors while at Cypress College in California. As a sophomore catcher at Cypress he threw out 26 of 32 attempted base stealers while hitting .380. He redshirted last season at IU and has two years of eligibility remaining.
“I try to do all the little things to be in the lineup, whether it's lay down a sacrifice bunt or read a ball in the dirt to get to second base, or be a good base runner. It's not just hitting or fielding. There are so many things that go into making a lineup. I want to stay focused.”
Adds Smith: “He's put in a lot of time. It's nice to see it's paying off for him.”