An interview with Alex Robbins, Indiana baseball maven.
Hey! Nebraska travels to Indiana for the first time since 2012 (not counting trips to Purdue). No longer does Indiana have to make back to back trips to Lincoln, even though last year’s series was a blast for Husker fans. Gone are the dominant trio of starting pitchers you used to throw out every year, and gone seem the days of winning the Big Ten Title, but it is early and everyone has a chance - maybe Rutgers could even win it.
I talked with Alex Robbins of our sister SBNation Indiana site, The Crimson Quarry, about this weekend’s series with the Hoosiers. Note Alex’s Big Ten Power Rankings for baseball from a couple days ago.
I assisted them with questions about Nebraska that you can read here!
Indiana does appear to be the hottest team in the Big Ten after starting out the year ice cold, what has changed in the past ten games with the Hoosiers going 9-1 including a sweep of Northwestern?
Part of this is that the schedule was a little lighter. Indiana opened with two of their first four games against Oregon State, then played road a couple warm weather schools in road series. But as you said, they’ve really hit their stride, and Hawaii is where it got going. They took three of four there and would have had a sweep had they held a six-run lead they took to the Bottom of the 8th.
The difference is the offense. In their first 12 games (4-7-1), they scored just 4.4 runs per game. If you take out just three games where they scored eight or more, they scored just 2.55 runs per game. But in the last 10, they’ve scored 7.9 per game.
With a run to Omaha just recently (2013), what are the expectations for Indiana Baseball? Should the Hoosiers be running roughshed over the league, or would people be happy to make it to a regional every few years?
I think a regional every few years would be disappointing. There is no misconception that Indiana is a baseball power that should be competing to host regionals and aiming for Omaha every year, but I think it’s reasonable for this program, now in its third year under Chris Lemonis, to think that finishing in the top three or four of the Big Ten and playing in a regional every year (or, at most, missing the tournament once every four or five years) is too lofty a goal.
Lemonis’s first year was the best example of why that’s so. They went 35-24, just 12-10 in Big Ten play, and that was good enough to grab a 3-seed in the Nashville regional. Granted, that non-conference slate included two wins over Stanford and a sweep of Cal State Fullerton, but 12 wins in the conference is probably lowballing this club in the future.
Before we get to the pressing matters of this weekend’s series, how do people feel around Indiana hosting the Big Ten Baseball Tournament? Is it excitement that Indiana will get home field advantage and not have to travel, or are people disappointed not to play in TD Ameritrade Stadium?
The Huskers and Hoosiers played the greatest game of baseball from a fan standpoint on 2014 when Kyle Schwarber launched the hardest hit ball in TD Ameritrade Stadium into the fully loaded seats in right field. Man, it really is something to see every concession stand have to open because 20,000 people want to watch two teams compete on the field.
People are very excited about this. For a tournament that takes place mostly during the work week, it is really nice for Hoosier fans who will be able to attend games after work or can take a day off but not have to drive or fly to Nebraska.
TD Ameritrade is great, but the athletic department and the fans are proud of Bart Kaufman Field and they are excited to show it off to the rest of the conference. It’s a $20 million facility that opened in 2013. It only has 2,500 permanent seats, but I’m sure they’ll bring in bleachers like they did when the Hoosiers hosted an NCAA regional in 2013 and 2014. And everyone is thrilled about home field advantage. To date, Indiana is 86-34 in the ballpark.
Indiana seems to like to shuffle their lineup a lot. Out of the 22 games currently played as of Monday, Indiana only has seen Craig Dedelow, and Tony Butler start every game. Does Indiana like to match up depending on who is pitching, or is Head Coach Chris Lemonis trying to find a more consistent lineup?
This may sound bizarre, but I don’t think Lemonis is trying to find a consistent lineup. Well, let me rephrase. He wants consistency. But I don’t think he’s looking for it to come from the same lineup. I wrote in Crimson Quarry’s season preview that there were probably four or five guys who might get left out of the everyday mix. That was before we knew how much some new guys, like Matt Lloyd, could contribute. In reality, there were five or six guys capable of helping this be a winning team could have been left out, but to Lemonis’s credit (I think) that hasn’t been the case.
Part of it has been injuries that have forced other guys into the lineup. But really, he’s just gone with the hot hand and when the hot hand cools off, he reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls something else out. I think we’ll see this throughout most of Big Ten play. As they near the Big Ten and (hopefully the) NCAA Tournament, Lemonis will probably settle on a typical lineup. But if he does, he’ll have a quick trigger and a lot of guys will have a short leash.
Mashing on Northwestern over the weekend is not very impressive, but anyone who hits three home runs in a game is. Is Matt Lloyd a real threat, or was it just an impressive performance from the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week? Lloyd has only played 17 games this season, and has committed four errors in the field, is his defense keeping him off the field? Lloyd also is the closer, could you give us a scouting report on what he does effectively on the mound?
Well, I don’t really know. Just last Wednesday after a 3-2 win over Cincinnati (in which Lloyd got his first save), Lemonis was asked about why Lloyd hadn’t been in the lineup much lately. He said it wasn’t because of Lloyd’s pitching it was because “he’s not hitting right now.” Lemonis trotted him out in the lineup on Friday and he hit four homers in the doubleheader en route to being named National Player of the Week and Big Ten Player of the Week. He also grabbed a save in the first game Friday, in which he hit three home runs. Obviously he can’t continue that kind of pace, but we’ll see if he is fully out of that funk that Lemonis was talking about. The club certainly thinks he’s a threat as he started the year in the third spot in the lineup.
As for his pitching, he throws upper 80s and it might sneak into the 90s. His breaking stuff isn’t ungodly or anything like that. But he’s got great command. He’s only walked one batter in 9.2 IP. But, he’s also only got eight strikeouts. Really, he’s just effectively pitching to contact. But he won’t be the only guy you see closing out games if Indiana is leading. Lemonis has never used just one guy. But if it was a must-win, Lloyd would be the go-to guy.
Indiana used to be known as the school for starting pitching with prospects like Kyle Hart, Scott Effross, Christian Morris, Jake Kelzer, and many more coming through and delivering solid performances for the Hoosiers of past. This year it appears that Indiana starting pitching is down. The trio of Tim Herrin, Brian Hobbie, and Andrew Saalfrank are just 5-4 combined and an ERA approaching five combined. What has happened with the starting pitching and how has the bullpen managed to pick up the slack with Indiana climbing well over .500?
Part of this is injury. At least one of either Herrin or Saalfrank shouldn’t be starting on the weekends. Jonathan Stiever, who won the offseason battle to be the Friday starter, was pretty good to start the year. He went 5.2 IP and gave up just one run against Oregon State in the opener and then turned in a quality start against Florida Atlantic. But sometime between then and the next series, he woke up with some pain in his chest and/or shoulder, and didn’t play again until he made what was essentially a rehab start last Wednesday. He threw one inning against Cincinnati. He started again on Friday at Northwestern, but it went very poorly. He gave up nine hits and eight runs in 2.2 IP.
As for the other starters, Hobbie is a veteran who is good enough for the Saturday role. He had a couple awful starts, but he’s settling in. He was huge for Indiana in the second game last Friday in Evanston as he went the distance, despite giving up five runs, which really helped Lemonis since the bullpen threw 6.1 innings earlier that day.
The bullpen hasn’t really “managed to pick up the slack.” They did on Friday when Stiever struggled and for most of the game on Sunday after Saalfrank didn’t make it through the first inning. The backend is a mess. Pauly Milto, Cal Krueger, and BJ Sabol have been tremendous in the middle innings, but the only way to describe the late innings is “meltdown.” Indiana blew a two-run lead they took into the bottom of the 8th at Florida Atlantic (ended in a tie), a three-run lead they took into the bottom of the 8th at Samford, and a six-run lead they took into the bottom of the 8th at Hawaii. And this past weekend, they almost blew a seven-run lead they took into the bottom of the 8th at Northwestern before Lloyd finally closed the door for a 10-9 win.
Honestly, Indiana’s offense has been it’s best defense.
Recently Indiana has had to slug their way to win ballgames. Who are the sluggers that we should expect to see this weekend on top of their game? Besides Lloyd give us a few of the batters to watch. Should we be watching Logan Sowers, the hyped recruit from last season who is off to a terrible .213 batting average?
Logan Sowers hasn’t hit for average at all like we expected, although he does have four home runs. He hit .257 as a freshman and .273 last season. So this has been disappointing, but he’s good enough that he’ll eventually snap out of it. He did go 5-for-11 at Northwestern, including 4-for-5 on Sunday, so maybe he’s coming around.
Right now, Lloyd has the hottest bat, obviously. Aside from him, it’s Luke Miller, who went 7-for-11 last weekend and is finally hitting his stride after an early injury. He’s hitting .338, only behind Matt Gorski. Alex Krupa has also been good, hitting .328 in the leadoff spot.
The guy to watch, though, is Craig Dedelow. Dedelow was drafted by the Pirates last summer but came back for his senior year and so far, it hasn’t been great. He’s hitting just .266, but does have five home runs and 15 RBIs. I think he’s due for a hot streak to pull his average back up around his numbers from the last two seasons, .325 and .302, respectively.
Nebraska comes in with a clear starting pitching advantage, while the Hoosiers have put up gaudy offense numbers. Something will have to change this weekend. What do you think prevails? The solid starting pitching from Nebraska or the big bats of the Hoosiers?
I have absolutely no idea what to think about this weekend. Part of that is Nebraska’s lackluster non-conference play (at least it seems that way from afar). Part of it is that no one can know whether Stiever is going to get right before his matchup with Jake Meyers on Friday. Part of it is that Indiana’s offense and pitching are operating at two different extremes right now.
My best guess is that neither team gets a sweep. I’ll give Indiana the nod and say they’ll win two of three at home, but given Stiever’s last outing and the fact that the Hoosiers seem to shut down mentally on Sunday afternoons, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it go the other way.