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• Kendall Rogers on Indiana Aiming For Big Ten Title
• Aaron Fitt on Lamar’s Quest To Send Jim Gilligan Out With a Bang
• Top 25 schedule
Indiana’s Impressive Turnaround
by Kendall Rogers
It’s one of those years in college baseball when everything seems to be deviating from the norm. Out on the West Coast, Utah, which still has a losing record and RPI in the triple digits, is tied for the Pac 12 Conference lead, while in the Big Ten, Indiana heads to Minnesota this weekend just a half-game out of first place, but, too, well into the 100s from an RPI standpoint.
Indiana coach Chris Lemonis stopped trying to figure out the RPI a long time ago, following the lead of many coaches. But he knows where his team stands in the Big Ten pecking order, and knows what needs to happen moving forward. After all, he saw Michigan go on a ferocious run last year, win the conference tournament and reach the NCAA postseason, while he also became accustomed to the idea of playing from behind postseason-wise during his time as a coach at The Citadel.
All those experiences and more have this Hoosiers team — which has turned the corner over the past few weeks — taking their situation one game at a time, with deep down hopes that a strong finish could somehow propel them to an at-large bid.
“It’s a little bit frustrating when you look at where we are [in the RPI]. I always look at it and have tried to figure it out in the past. I just know we have a potential Big Ten regular season championship ahead of us,” Lemonis said. “I learned during my time at The Citadel that you want to be playing your best baseball at the end of the year. I feel like we’ve got some good RPI games coming up. Could we get back in there and get the RPI up? Maybe. For now, though, our eyes are pretty focused on the Big Ten race.”
While Lemonis is a little frustrated with the way his club’s RPI has shaped up since getting on a hot streak the past few weeks, the Hoosiers are certainly to blame for a slow start. They began the season with a 2-7 record, losing road series to both Middle Tennessee State and Cal State Fullerton, while also falling to 12-13 overall after a conference-opening series loss to Rutgers. Those setbacks put the Hoosiers in a steep hole, but things have been vastly different since that series finale against the Scarlet Knights, a contest the Hoosiers won 9-2, and the return of hard-hitting outfielder Logan Sowers, a projectable 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, who commands attention at the plate with his impressive raw power.
“We got Sowers back around then, and he was a huge part of our lineup. He was just a presence out there, and he’s a great hitter,” he said. “Him getting back out there was huge for us, and we really didn’t have enough offense without him in there. His return has really helped take some of the pressure off the hitters.”
The Hoosiers won’t be confused as an offensive juggernaut, but Sowers and fellow outfielder Craig Dedelow are talented hitters with the ability to break games open. Sowers in particular is hitting .311 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in just over 100 at bats, while Dedelow leads the team with 10 doubles.
“It was a process with Sowers. He sprained his wrist, we brought him back, then he hurt it again. It was pretty much a five-week period. He’s just a physical hitter with a lot of power and the big thing for him is that he’s learned to improve his approach. He was a big swing and miss guy at the Cape, and he’s really turned that around,” he said. “He doesn’t chase a lot, and he’s become more of a pure hitter. He’s an above-average outfielder, too, and I really haven’t coached many kids like that who defend their position like he does at that size. He’s really evolved.”
“Craig has been our steady guy. He’s just a really good player,” he said. “We’ve hit well at times, but I’d say our lineup is more opportunistic in nature. We’re playing better across the board [since Sowers came back] and that’s made a difference.”
The one constant for this team has been the pitching staff, which possesses a steady rotation with veteran Kyle Hart and senior lefthander Caleb Baragar leading the way. Hart has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings, while Barager works with a low-90s fastball, while also possessing a quality breaking ball. The Hoosiers have other good options out of the bullpen, too, with junior righthander Jake Kelzer as the headliner and Thomas Belcher as another terrific option. Kelzer has an ERA under two and has struck out 37 in 32 innings. He sits low-90s with his fastball, touching 93-94, while also showcasing a filthy 84-86 mph slider.
“Baragar might just have the best stuff on the team. He’s really good with his lefthanded fastballs and he’s really tough to hit when his breaking ball is rolling. He’s just competitive and tough to square up,” he said. “Kelzer has plus stuff and he’s really learned how to be a closer. We feel like we have some flexibility with him and Belcher out there.”
The Hoosiers will need all pieces to come together this weekend during their series against the Golden Gophers, ranked No. 19 nationally and sitting at 24 with the latest RPI with good hosting chances. Meanwhile, IU has an RPI that needs to improve, along with just a 2-4 mark vs. RPI Top 50 and 5-8 mark vs. RPI Top 100.
This weekend won’t put the Hoosiers in the field of 64, but with the RPI volatility as of late, it starts to make things interesting the final few weeks.
Given their start to the season, that’s all Lemonis can ask for.
Lamar Has Special Season In Gilligan’s Swan Song
by Aaron Fitt
Will Davis wasn’t sure what to expect when he left his post as a volunteer assistant at LSU to join Lamar’s staff as head coach in waiting this January. After all, he was joining a team that went 21-31 in 2015 and had many of the same players back for 2016.
“Obviously when you move in January, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, especially when the team didn’t make the conference tournament the year before and was picked ninth going into the year,” Davis said. “It’s been cool to see coach (Jim) Gilligan enjoy success in his last go-round.”
In Gilligan’s 39th and final year as head coach at his alma mater, Lamar has been one of the brightest surprises in college baseball. Heading into a huge series this weekend against Southland Conference leader Southeastern Louisiana, the Cardinals are 31-12 overall, 16-5 in the conference (just two games out of first place), and No. 58 in the RPI, putting them right in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. In home series over the next two weeks against Southeastern and second-place Sam Houston State, Lamar’s at-large case will be minted or crushed.
“I definitely think we have a chance, we’ve just got to win,” Davis said. “Coming from a place like LSU to here, the margin here is so much smaller, because every loss is such an RPI hit. We have to finish strong if we want the at-large bid. We’ve got some good teams in this conference, and over the next two weekends we’ll be playing two of the best.”
Gilligan wasn’t quite sure what to expect this season, either. He liked his team, and a strong performance in a fall scrimmage at Rice made him particularly optimistic about his team’s chances to make some noise in 2016. But he wasn’t sure if the offseason coaching transition would be a distraction. Gilligan didn’t make the decision to hire Davis as his replacement instead of longtime assistant Jim Ricklefsen, but Gilligan did coach against Davis’ father, and he valued LSU head coach Paul Mainieri’s strong endorsement of Davis. So after Ricklefsen left the staff, it was Gilligan’s idea for Davis to join the program in January, rather than after the season.
“We had a lot of controversy over my replacement,” Gilligan said. “My assistant for quite a long time really wanted the job, so it was a tough thing on the kids. Once that was over with and the new guy came in, it was like, ‘OK, it’s time to get to work.’ There was just tension around here for everybody. Once they decided on who they were going to have, Will Davis came in and the players love him, it just sort of calmed down.”
Davis said he thinks the players are driven to send Gilligan out with a trip to the NCAA tournament, but Gilligan downplayed the notion that his players have any extra motivation on his account. “The reason we’re doing what we’re doing is we have some talent,” Gilligan said. “It’s not fully developed, they’ve still got a ways to go, but we’ve got talent.”
And that’s undeniably true. The Cardinals stand out for their balanced offense and power — they rank 17th in the nation in home runs per game even though their home park is generally not conducive to the long ball, with the wind usually blowing in. They also rank 49th in batting (.297) and 32nd in slugging (.454).
Lamar made some noise in the first two weeks of the season by sweeping Ohio Valley Conference power Southeast Missouri State and then winning a pair of midweek games against Arizona and LSU, scoring 25 runs combined in those two victories. The following weekend, Arizona coach Jay Johnson raved about the Cardinals. “Lamar is the best team in the country that nobody knows about,” Johnson said. “I mean that’s a special offense.”
The centerpiece of that offense is left fielder Reid Russell, who’s had a monster season in his first year after transferring from Tyler (Texas) JC. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound masher is batting .378/.441/.713 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs. It’s an incredible transformation for a guy who hit just .285 with eight homers in juco ball last year. Gilligan said he has listened to his coaches and improved his approach, allowing him to unlock his power potential.
And it’s big-time power potential. One of the neat things about coaching for four decades is you develop a deep reservoir of anecdotes and experiences to draw upon, and Gilligan made an interesting comparison when talking about Russell. Back in the early 1980s, Gilligan was recruiting on the West Coast, and he asked his friend Rod Dedeaux if he could sit in and watch Southern California practice.
“I saw (Mark) McGwire take BP when he was in college, and it was very similar,” Gilligan said. “Reid hit one the other day that reminded me of McGwire’s 62nd (in 1998), a sinking line drive. It was sinking from the time it hit the bat. That takes brute strength to do that. When it blows in here, you don’t hit much. We had an 18 mph wind blowing in against Houston, and he went oppo dead into the wind, probably hit it close to 400 feet into the wind. He’s hit them over the center field wall. It’s McGwire-ish.”
The Cardinals have some pop around Russell in the lineup, which makes it hard to pitch around him too much. In fact, from No. 2 to No. 8 in the lineup, they have players who can hurt opponents with the occasional long ball. Jake Nash and Cutter McDowell give the lineup a pair of mature upperclassmen right in front of Russell, while talented and juco transfer Bryndan Arredondo provide some protection behind him.
But Lamar’s other best player is leadoff man Stijn van der Meer, a senior shortstop who makes the offense go and anchors the defense. Van der Meer, who grew up in the Netherlands, ranks second on the team in batting (.361) and first in OBP (.459). In some ways, he reminds Gilligan of somebody he saw play shortstop for the Double-A team there in Beaumont back in 1983: Ozzie Guillen.
“He’s really good, and you have to see him every day to appreciate him,” Gilligan said. “He’s not a classic shortstop. He sort of reminds me of Ozzie Guillen. You’ll see him in the hole, he’ll get something on it. I’m not interfering with his style of play, because it’s effective. For the most part, he’s the key to our infield defense, and just a really great kid. When he gets mad, he cusses in Dutch. Some guys have told him to keep quiet, and I’ve said, ‘You don’t even know what he’s saying!’”
But Lamar isn’t just an offensive outfit. This is a balanced team that also ranks in the nation’s top 50 in ERA (3.51). Leading the way is 6-foot-7 senior righthander Will Hibbs (9-1, 1.89, 77-19 K-BB in 76 IP), who is tied for the national lead in victories. Hibbs pitches at 88-92 with good angle and touches 93 from time to time when he needs a little extra. He also mixes in a good changeup, a solid curveball and a decent slider. Gilligan said Hibbs has a shorter arm action that doesn’t let him maximize the downhill plane he could generate with his big frame, but “he’s found a way to pitch with good stuff, and there’s a bunch of guys like him in the big leagues.”
The Cardinals have another senior in the No. 2 slot in righthander Billy Love (5-2, 2.48). Love can touch 92 also, and he has a tendency to find another gear in tight spots, because he is a fierce competitor who hates coming out of games.
Lamar also has a quality bullpen with a very talented anchor in junior righthander Jimmy Johnson, another Tyler JC transfer. Johnson is 7-2, 2.87 with five saves in 37.2 innings of relief, and he owns Lamar’s best pure arm strength.
“Jimmy Johnson has some great numbers for us, but he’s only scratching the surface as far as I’m concerned,” Gilligan said. “He used to be a cross-stabber, got him to where he’s got more of a pure arm action, and that has met with approval, results-wise. When you make any kind of arm action change with a guy who’s been doing it since he was 8 years old, there’s always a tendency to revert. He went back for about a week, week and a half, but then he got back into it and was even better. The other day, he threw seven innings and was working 90-94 with a good slider. So he’s a prospect.”
It’s obvious that Gilligan loves to talk about pitching, and he said he’s focused on running the pitching staff down the stretch, while Davis and hitting coach Scott Hatten take care of the rest. This summer, Gilligan will work in the Hampton’s Collegiate Baseball League teaching young pitching coaches and working with arms on every team.
“I really want to get out of the competitive side of baseball, so that’s why I’m going up to the Hamptons,” Gilligan said. “Every pitcher in the league will be on my team, so when I go to a game, I’m not pulling for one pitcher over another — they’re all mine … When you’re talking to pitchers, you’re talking to the only kids on the team who are really listening. They’re looking for magic dust from day one. It’s not like when you’re talking to hitters, and while you’re talking they’re thinking, ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready to hit.’”
Gilligan’s sense of humor comes across almost immediately in a conversation with him, and Davis said he’s just going to miss being around him every day.
“It’s been a really enjoyable thing to just spend every day with him. He’s the coolest 69-year-old man I’ve ever been around — he’s not a 69-year-old at heart by any stretch of the imagination,” Davis said. “He keeps things light. Coming from coach Mainieri, who’s a Hall of Famer in his own right, I feel blessed to get one season under him. Not only does he know the game, but he knows Lamar, every bit of it.
“And he’s handled it perfectly. His attitude and demeanor have been great. You just want to see a guy rewarded at the end of his career like that. We go into every game expecting to win. Beating LSU and Arizona early really helped us. We’re not afraid of anybody, that’s nice to have at a place like this. I’d definitely like to see us finish the task, get over that hump and get in there (to a regional).”
Top 25 In Action
1 Florida at Tennessee
8 Vanderbilt at 2 Texas A&M
3 Miami at 22 Georgia Tech
Missouri at 4 Mississippi State
Bowling Green at 5 Florida State
6 NC State at Clemson
7 South Carolina at Kentucky
9 Louisville at North Carolina
10 Texas Tech at Kansas
11 Oregon State at Arizona
12 Ole Miss at Georgia
14 Rice at Florida International
15 TCU at Penn State
16 Tulane at South Florida
Arkansas at 17 LSU
18 UC Santa Barbara at UC Davis
Indiana at 19 Minnesota
Prairie View A&M at 20 Oklahoma State
21 Washington at Southern California
23 Coastal Carolina at Liberty
24 East Carolina at Connecticut
Appalachian State at 25 Louisiana-Lafayette