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Last updated: Fri. May. 30, 2014 - 11:54 am EDT

Indiana baseball mystery – who's the starter

Hoosiers begin NCAA regional play

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BLOOMINGTON -- In the mystery that is Indiana's starting pitcher for tonight's NCAA regional opener against Youngstown State, this much is certain:

We know nothing.

Ace pitcher Joey DeNato knows nothing.

Coach Tracy Smith knows nothing.

Yes, for those of a certain age, this is a twist on a famous line from the 1960s' sitcom "Hogan's Heroes," which played a World War II prisoner of war camp in Germany for laughs.

Smith, however, isn't laughing. He's determined to get his top-seeded Hoosiers out of the regional and into next week's super regional, and pitching will be crucial.

In an ideal world, IU will play three games in three days and move on. A loss could mean as many as five games in four days. The key question, in Smith's mind, is how do you maximize a deep pitching staff to win and move on.

“We'll go more toward matchups and not so much what guys did for you during the year,” Smith said. “We'll do what we feel is best. Our bullpen allow us some flexibility to do that. We feel that could be the determining factor in our favor.”

Thus, the uncertainty on whether to open with DeNato, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, who is as close to a sure victory as there is in college baseball these days. He is 12-1 with a 1.77 earned run average. He is 36-9 for his career, holding the school record for wins in a season (12) and a career (36), along with the record for career strikeouts (293).

He would seem the obvious choice to face Youngstown State (16-36), but then, Smith does not follow the obvious coaching blueprint.

Key thought: why waste DeNato on a weak opponent when he'd be a better fit against stronger Indiana State and Stanford teams.

Anyway, quality pitching -- the Hoosiers have a combined ERA of 2.17, which is the best in the Big Ten and ranked third nationally -- provides Smith with options most coaches don't have.

“Moving forward is critical,” he says. “You try to put yourself in the best position to win the weekend and advance.”

DeNato is basically good for seven to nine innings. After that in the rotation, it's a little more pitching by committee, although Christian Morris (6-3, 1.82 ERA) has emerged as the solid No. 2 starter, with Brian Korte (3-0, 2.11 ERA) at No. 3.

But Morris isn't in the mix to start tonight. DeNato, Korte, Evan Bell (2-1, 3.50 ERA) and Scott Effross (4-2, 1.65 ERA) are.

“The charge for us is to make sure all those guys are ready to go,” Smith said. “It might seem unorthodox, but outside of DeNato, we've pulled guys in the second, third and fourth innings frequently because of the depth of our staff.”

Effross would be an interesting choice because he hasn't started in any of his 30 appearances. He leads IU with five saves.

“He only threw an inning last weekend,” Smith said, “and he has one of our best arms.”

Smith will wait to see today's opening game, between second-seeded Indiana State (35-16) and third-seeded Stanford (30-23) to get a better sense of future matchups. The Hoosiers split two games with Indiana State during the season and didn't play Stanford.

“The only team we have any sense of right now is Indiana State,” Smith said. “You can go over all the video and scouting reports you want, but until you see the guys in person and watch them swing, it's hard for me to make the matchup decision.”

Smith insisted the decision will not be based on the apparent weakness of Youngstown State, which only made the tourney by going 4-0 to win the Horizon League tourney title.

“We take nothing for granted with Youngstown State,” he said. “We have to win Game 1.

“Now you throw everything out in the regular season. It's how are you playing now. Clearly, they are playing well now.”

Youngstown State figures to start left-handed pitcher Jared Wight (1-3, 6.97 ERA). Second baseman Phil Lipari hit .524 in the Horizon League tourney to earn MVP honors.

“Anything can happen in tournament play,” Smith said. “Everybody has good pitching. A good pitcher can keep you in there.

“I don't care about (Youngstown State's) record. They'll come in ready to play. Obviously, they're hot.

“If it gets down to the point that we see things will run status quo, we'll run DeNato out there. If we see where the second-round opponent (would be more vulnerable against right-handers), we might consider one of the two right-handers (Bell and Effross).”

pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com


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