BLOOMINGTON – After winning the regular-season Big Ten title for the first time in 81 years and winning its first NCAA regional ever, the Indiana baseball team faces perhaps its biggest test this weekend in a quest to continue its historic season.
The Hoosiers (46-14) travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on Florida State, the No. 7 team in the nation. The best-of-three series begins at noon today at Dick Howser Stadium.
For the first time in months, IU manager Tracy Smith’s team won’t be favored to win, which he actually enjoys.
We finally get to be an underdog, Smith said. We’ve had the target on our back the entire season, or basically from the spring trip on. That’s a tough position to be in because the pressure is on you.
When there has been pressure on the Hoosiers, junior pitcher Joey DeNato has been able to handle it. During his time at IU, DeNato has almost always been the team’s starter for Friday games, usually reserved for the team’s ace.
DeNato, who is scheduled to start today against Florida State, has posted a 9-2 record and a 2.65 ERA this season. In his most recent start against Austin Peay in the NCAA regional, DeNato struck out nine to reach 207 career punchouts, the fifth-most in program history.
Florida State will start sophomore Luke Weaver, who is 7-2 with a 1.95 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings pitched. Weaver and the Seminoles blasted their way through their NCAA regional, which took place in Tallahassee.
Florida State (47-15) won its three games by a combined score of 32-4, scoring in double digits in all three games. Even though the Seminoles are at home, Smith said he isn’t worried about the atmosphere. Smith specifically referred to the final series of the regular season at Ohio State, when IU took two out of three from the Buckeyes to clinch the regular-season title.
The Ohio State atmosphere was a darned good atmosphere, Smith said. We were playing for a lot at that time, and our guys handled it.
While Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus holds 4,450 people, Dick Howser Stadium holds 6,700 fans. The Seminoles and their fans have quite a bit of experience playing host for super regionals, as they have advanced to the round in 13 of the past 15 seasons, including the last six years.
The Seminoles are 35-3 at home, but IU sophomore starting pitcher Aaron Slegers – who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round Friday – said he relishes the opportunity to play in hostile road environments.
In those packed away venues, it’s always fun throwing against that away crowd, Slegers said. It gives you a little motivation to compete out there.
Slegers, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, is scheduled to start the second game of the series at 1 p.m. Sunday. If necessary, a third and deciding game will be at 1 p.m. Monday.
Notes: Cincinnati named IU pitching coach Ty Neal as its head coach Friday. The Twins drafted IU third baseman Dustin DeMuth in the eighth round. IU catcher Kyle Schwarber was named the District V Player of the Year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America.