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Indiana climbing baseball ladder

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Looking at Baseball America’s preseason NCAA top 25, it is easy to think you are back in grade school pondering one of those logic problems.

You know, the kind where you are shown pictures of three different vegetables and a bulldozer and are asked, “Which one doesn’t belong?”

Pick up any of the top publications, and you will see the usual array of West Coast and Sunbelt teams. There’s defending national champion UCLA and fellow PAC-10 members Oregon and Oregon State, SEC powers South Carolina and LSU, a trio of Florida schools, and squads from other warm weather climates from the Pacific Coast through the Carolinas.

Hey, these all look alike.

But wait. There, at No. 3. Is that Indiana?

Yes, the Hoosiers from the frozen tundra of Bloomington are back and ready to prove that last year’s run to the College World Series was not a fluke.

IU may be the bulldozer — that thing that just looks out of place—but this isn’t one of those elementary puzzles.

These Hoosiers belong — even if the Big Ten is short on baseball success on the national stage.

Here’s Baseball America’s take:

“Indiana’s 49-win 2013 season was no fluke — this is one of the most talented, complete, experienced teams in the nation, and should be regarded as a leading contender to win the national title. The lone question mark is the defense.”

This is rarefied air for the Hoosiers, indeed, for any “northern” team.

It has been 26 years since a Big Ten team has been ranked this high (Michigan in 1988).

Go through this year’s top 25, and you will not find another Midwest or Northeast team.

“It’s exciting when you have that mindset and players are thinking about competing not just in conference but beyond,” said Coach Tracy Smith. “Sure, we talk about that goal every year, but now it is real and tangible. The guys have been there. I like the fact that we can see it.”

The Hoosiers proved they were for real last season, winning the Big Ten and following that up with a Regional title. The real capper, though, was sweeping host Florida State in the Super Regional for a first-ever trip to the College World Series.

In Omaha, IU accorded itself well, taking an opening game over Louisville before two tough one-run losses to Mississippi State and Oregon State.

This season, Smith said it is key to keep that success in perspective.

“The last thing they are thinking about with a runner at second base is ‘We’re No. 3, I need to get a hit here.’ That’s more for the fans,” the coach said. “Our players think ‘I want to give my best effort and play good team baseball.’ We’re not trying to live up to what everyone else is saying about us.”

The Bloomington climate dictates a start on the road, with a four-game series at Texas Tech last weekend, where the Hoosiers won the opener but lost the next three.

A Big Ten-Pac-10 series follows in Phoenix starting Friday. In that locale, the Hoosiers will face No. 2 Oregon State, along with Washington and Utah. The Beavers eliminated IU from the CWS in a classic 1-0 battle before going on to the championship game.

IU opens at home March 5 against Xavier.

Smith’s team is loaded this season with seven position starters returning and a deep, talented rotation.

Catcher Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Sam Travis are fresh off a summer playing for the USA national team.

Schwarber “has mammoth raw power and knows how to use it,” Baseball America said of the projected major-leaguer (.366 average/18 HR). Travis played through a broken hand down the stretch last year and his improved health should contribute to his power (.316/10 HR).

Senior left-hander Joey DeNato (10-2, 2.52 ERA) leads a veteran rotation; right-handed closer Ryan Halstead (48 strikeouts in 44 innings) leads what Baseball America calls “one of the nation’s best bullpens.”

Schwarber, Travis, DeNato and third baseman Dustin DeMuth (.377/11 SB) are preseason All-Americans. Halstead is on the Stopper of the Year watch list.

There is a lot to like about this Hoosier team, which is the unanimous preseason pick to repeat as Big Ten champs.

But the goal is something more.

“It’s Omaha. It is winning that national championship,” Schwarber said in a Big Ten Media Day interview. “We know now what it takes to get there. And we know that feeling in your gut from losing.”

Smith has worked hard to build a base in Bloomington (the southern spot of the conference, as he likes to say), but is careful not to let success redefine how the Hoosiers play.

“Certainly, a lot of people have put Big Ten baseball on the map,” said Smith, whose Hoosiers progressed from NCAA Cinderella to serious title contender in the eyes of national media last season. “This is good for our conference at large.

“If you get wrapped up in that, though, you lose perspective on how you got here. I’d like to think that we’re doing the same things we have done for the past five or six years, you’re just seeing the results now. We just want to play good fundamental baseball.”

Playing fundamental baseball while in the spotlight is the challenge this season.

“We’re going to show the young guys what it means,” Schwarber said, fully aware that the Hoosiers now have a target on them. “Taking just one play off can make the difference in a game.”

The big-time baseball stage is not something IU will shy away from.

“The national exposure has a benefit,” Smith said. “Sure it helps for recruits to see you on ESPN and Baseball America.”

The more exposure, the less IU baseball — indeed Big Ten baseball —will seem like the oddity in the college baseball landscape.

Which of these doesn’t belong? The Hoosiers are changing that answer to “none of the above.”

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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