Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Led By Youth, Future Is Bright for Hoosier Baseball

Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Preseason prognosticators argued that Indiana’s 2012 baseball season would be over before it even began. After all, it had all the makings of a classic rebuilding year: the departures of five everyday position players (including 2010 Big Ten Player of the Year Alex Dickerson and IU’s all-time hits leader Jerrud Sabourin) and arguably the team’s best pitcher in Blake Monar, a roster composed of 21 – yes, 21– underclassmen, and a small senior class. Preseason rankings projected a team that could finish as low as ninth in the conference, and ideas of playing in the six-team conference tournament were farfetched.

Apparently, the Hoosiers never got that memo. Indiana finished the regular season only a game behind Purdue for the conference championship, led the conference in All-Big Ten selections with eight, and featured two Freshman All-Americans. The team showed incredible resiliency after starting the season with a 16-21 record, winning 15 of their last 20 games and making a run in the Big Ten tournament.

What was the sparkplug? A group of fantastic freshmen.

Orland Park, Ill. native Sam Travis looked more like a major leaguer than a college freshman after a superb season at the plate, leading IU in a slew of offensive categories. The first baseman hit out of the three hole for most of the season and did not disappoint, cracking 74 hits to drive in a total of 50 RBIs on the season. He pounded nine home runs en route to a .906 OPS, capturing Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American honors a year after being named the Chicago Tribune’s 2011 Illinois High School Player of the Year. Drafted in the 40th round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2011, Hoosiers fans have to be thrilled with his decision to go the collegiate route. Having this kid in the middle of the lineup has already paid dividends for skipper Tracy Smith, and softens the blow of losing two of IU’s all-time great hitters to the professional ranks.

Joining Travis on the Freshman All-American team was Middleton, OH product Kyle Schwarber. The catcher’s position was vacant going into the season following the loss of three catchers, but Schwarber stepped in with a bang. Starting all 60 games as a freshman (including a remarkable 54 as a catcher), Schwarbs was a stalwart in the field as well as the lineup. He emerged as one of the team’s most clutch hitters, batting .376 in conference play and .364 with runners in scoring position. The 6-foot, 230-pounder also showed surprising speed on the basepaths, swiping nine bags in twelve attempts.

On the mound, Kyle Hart absolutely dazzled. The tall, lanky lefty from Cincinnati made 15 starts for IU, tied for most on the team.

Finishing with a 3.21 ERA, Hart is an innings-eater who firmly established himself as one of the conference’s most promising young arms. His victory over Georgia Southern on April 21st was the Hoosiers’ only complete game shutout of the season. Hart was rewarded for his efforts by taking home Big Ten All-Freshman accolades, following in the footsteps of fellow starter Joey DeNato, who was awarded the same honor in 2011.

Add in conference All-Freshman outfielder Chris Sujka, who was one of the hottest hitters in the country before tailing off in the second half of the season, and you have an explosive roster that looks like it could easily contend for a Big Ten title in the coming seasons. The rest of the Big Ten has to be cringing at the possibility of what they have to face over the next handful of years, especially if these guys continue to develop. Anyone knowing nothing about the team who sat down to watch a game this season would never have guessed that the Hoosiers were as inexperienced as the roster showed; even in the midst of their early season struggles, they played with a sense of confidence and poise typically found on more experienced teams.

Boasting a young, strong nucleus, there’s not much to dislike about the team that Tracy Smith has assembled. With seven seasons under his belt as the head coach, Smith has always been aggressive on the recruiting front and it’s been nice to see those efforts pay off on the field. Combine Smith’s experience with the new $19.8 million Kaufman Stadium baseball complex set to be ready for the start of the 2013 season, and Indiana has to be considered one of the top contenders in the conference from a recruiting standpoint.

Did someone say something about rebuilding?

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