BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Kyle Schwarber wanted dessert. Tracy Smith demanded a 460-foot home run in return.
Indiana was scheduled to follow a practice during its first ever College World Series run last spring with a team dinner at Janko’s Little Zagreb, one of the most highly-regarded—and most expensive—steakhouses in Bloomington. The Hoosiers would be eating on a budget, but Schwarber, Indiana’s barrel-chested All-America catcher, still put in a request during batting practice to the manager to order cheesecake after the meal.
Smith told him he could only do that if he hit the next pitch not only over the right-field wall, but also over the two black metal fences on the knoll beyond that wall that separate Indiana’s newly built Bart Kaufman Field from the Hoosiers’ softball complex.
So Smith threw, the lefthanded Schwarber swung, and the ball cleared the fence by 20 feet.
“That just wowed everybody,” said Casey Smith, Tracy’s son and senior left fielder. “It was unbelievable.”
But for Schwarber, not uncommon. Those sort of moonshots happen when the nation’s top returning home run hitter and projected first-round draft pick gets an opportunity to tee off in batting practice. His power is such that in that setting, he can display it on demand. In another BP session last season around the same time, Schwarber hit five straight home runs, starting with a blast to left field and moving his way with each subsequent homer from left-center over to right, calling his shot just before contact each time.
The ball leaves Bart Kaufman Field just as frequently when Sam Travis is up, just from the other side of the plate. The batting practice legends of Schwarber’s “Bash Brother” and fellow preseason All-American aren’t quite as Ruthian, but his consistency is nearly as impressive.
“During BP one time, he had 18 swings and I think he hit 15 home runs,” said Indiana’s former shortstop and captain Michael Basil. “I haven’t seen anyone hit that many out in one round. The power that (Travis and Schwarber) have and the consistency they operate with, I had never seen before.”
In this era of college baseball, there aren’t many other places to see it. Power has been a less valued commodity since the NCAA switched to BBCOR bats in 2011. That was underscored in June when a small-ball UCLA team that hit a combined .250 and slugged .329 with just 19 home runs on the season won the national championship.
But Schwarber, Travis and the Hoosiers proved last season that power still matters. Schwarber hit 18 home runs, Travis blasted 10 despite playing most of the season with a broken and now surgically repaired hamate bone in his left wrist, and Indiana became the surprise of the 2013 college baseball season. The Hoosiers had won just one NCAA Tournament game in their history through 2012, but last year became the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 1984 to reach the College World Series.
With Schwarber and Travis returning as arguably the most fearsome 1-2 punch in the nation and the heart of one of the most dangerous lineups in Division I, the Hoosiers have every reason to believe they can do it again.
“That team they had last year was a special team,” said Illinois coach Dan Hartleb. “But with the players they have coming back, that team is going to be tough and it’s going to be able to compete at a national level.”
If it does, Tracy Smith will have even more reason than he already does to feel both validated and lucky.
Gap To Gap Philosophy
Year One of the BBCOR Era hit Indiana as hard as any program. The Hoosiers were thinking Big Ten championship in 2011 because they returned 2010 Big Ten player of the year and conference triple crown winner Alex Dickerson and most of the rest of the lineup that had set a school record the previous season with 85 home runs in a 28-27 season. They had also replenished a pitching staff that had been gutted by the draft in 2009 following the Hoosiers’ Big Ten championship that year.
But Indiana didn’t even reach the conference tournament, let alone win it, finishing seventh in the Big Ten with a 30-25 overall mark and an 11-13 conference record.
It was evident to Smith then that the game had changed with the new bats and the Hoosiers hadn’t been prepared for how drastic it would be. They still led the Big Ten in home runs that season, but the rest of their numbers plummeted at an even greater rate than they had nationwide. They had too many flyball hitters who were home run or bust.
But Smith also decided it would be foolish to over-adjust and abandon power altogether, living on bunts, steals and manufactured runs in hopes that his pitching staff could mass-produce shutouts. He decided the answer was to look for gap-to-gap power, hitters who could consistently drive the ball for extra-base hits and run into the occasional homer.
“That’s how I’ve redefined power at the college level is, are you fearful he can hit a gap or hit a double?” Smith said. “We preach the gap-to-gap philosophy here. I want guys that come to the plate that put fear in the other dugout . . . I want to field a team that the guy in the other dugout (is always thinking), ‘If I make a mistake, this guy can hurt me.’ ”
Top to bottom, that’s the lineup he’s built. For as much attention as Schwarber (.366/.647/.456 last season) and Travis (.316/.545/.419) get as home run hitters, they’re just as good at hitting for average and driving the gaps. The rest of the lineup is filled with doubles guys such as all-Big Ten picks Dustin DeMuth and Scott Donley. The Hoosiers finished sixth in the nation in doubles last season with 134, and that was the highest they finished nationally in any category. They also finished 12th in the nation in runs with 434, which was 98 more than any other team in the Big Ten.
“There’s not any easy outs in that entire lineup,” Michigan coach Eric Bakich said. “They’re all good hitters, too. They’re not just marginal hitters who have good power. They’re advanced hitters who also have power.”
The Hoosiers still bunt and steal and don’t necessarily play for the three-run bomb. But Tracy Smith found a mid-point between staying the course and a total lineup overhaul that worked.
“Across the nation, people panicked,” Casey Smith said. “‘Oh no, we gotta get speed guys, defensive guys. Let’s change the way the game is. It’s all about pitching now.’ He never strayed away from what he believed in. I think that’s what’s gotten us where we are. He finds these power hitters coming out of nowhere.”
Finding those hitters, though, required some luck.
“I’m Here to see the Catcher”
Smith often tells the story of a Schwarber non-believer he encountered on the recruiting trail. At one of the catcher’s games at Middletown High School in southwestern Ohio, Smith ran into a fellow college coach he won’t name who was recruiting a catcher—whom he also won’t name—from Middletown’s opponent.
“He said, ‘Who are you here to see?’ I said, ‘I’m here to see the catcher,’ ” Smith said. “He says to me, ‘Who, such and such?’ I said, ‘No, I’m here to see the kid from Middletown. Schwarber.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s the wrong catcher.’ And Schwarber proceeds to hit three home runs that game off a quality lefthander, a moon-ball, just ridiculous. I was searching like crazy to try to find that guy in the seventh inning. He had already left. Wrong catcher? I think we were on the right one.”
What Smith doesn’t always point out, though, is that Smith had never watched Schwarber before that game, either. Fred Nori, whom Smith recently hired as an assistant coach on an interim basis this season, is a long-time advisor of Smith’s and a former coach at Middletown who was still living in the area when Schwarber got to school. It took two years for Smith to hear enough Paul Bunyan-esque stories from Nori to finally go see Schwarber hit.
But on the drive home from that game, Smith called Schwarber and offered him a scholarship. The Hoosiers didn’t have to beat many teams to get him, as Schwarber was getting as much if not more attention from Mid-American Conference football teams who wanted him to play middle linebacker.
“I was that sure when I saw him one time,” Smith said.
He barely saw Sam Travis at all, and if his then-assistant Ty Neal—now the head coach at Cincinnati—hadn’t wanted him bad enough, Smith might have never had him in the program.
Like Schwarber, Travis was under-recruited at Providence Catholic in Orland Park, Ill. He was sifting through offers at mid-major schools and settled on Central Michigan. He sent e-mails to the other schools that had been recruiting him including Indiana, even though the Hoosiers hadn’t gotten around to offering a scholarship, to say that he was going to commit to the Chippewas at the end of the week.
Neal wasn’t ready to surrender.
“He e-mailed me and said, ‘You’re a scholarship guy for us. We want you to come down and take a visit. We’ll give you a scholarship offer,’ ” Travis said. “The next day I came in to visit Indiana and I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
Travis committed, and the Hoosiers found out before Travis had even arrived that they’d made the right call by making the push for him. After originally beating out Central Michigan, they had to keep him away from the Cincinnati Reds. Travis had what he called a “surreal” senior season at Providence Catholic, hitting .504 with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs to lead his team to the Class 4A state title game, and the Reds took him in the 40th round of the 2011 draft. The Reds made an over-the-top offer to sign him too, Travis said, but he kept faith that the money would be there if he went to Indiana and succeeded.
“In the back of my mind, I really wanted to go to school,” Travis said. “Get an education, be in the atmosphere of college baseball. I knew I ultimately wasn’t ready to go.”
But he was ready to combine with Schwarber to lead Indiana to places the program had barely even dreamed of going.
The Bash Brothers aren’t as similar as might be expected at first glance. They might both look like they emerged from the same cave, club in hand, with the singular purpose of pulverizing baseballs, but they contrast in very significant ways.
Schwarber is the more cerebral of the two, which comes from being a catcher and understanding what it means to put together a game plan for that hitter.
Travis is more intense and instinctual, and his understanding of the game is ingrained to the point that he doesn’t actually think about it in games. He’s known for an excellent approach and he almost never swings at bad pitches, but if you ask him for his hitting philosophy, he’ll respond by saying “I try to hit the white thing and break it into pieces.”
“You look at Sam and Kyle and you associate them to be the same person,” Casey Smith said. “But if you ask anybody on our team, they are the complete opposite person. They’re great friends, and they both work hard, but you have the big, soft, giant in Schwarber. People think he’s mean. That’s the nicest guy on our team, hands down. He’s the sweetheart, the big teddy bear. Sam is the mean, gritty guy, and that’s his game. That works for him.”
But the ties that bind the Bash Brothers are the presence of power and the absence of both arrogance and fear.
Part of what makes Schwarber and Travis so valuable not only on the field for Indiana but the clubhouse as well is that they don’t consider themselves above anything. They are dirt dogs on the field, beasts in the weight room, and they accept the occasional manual labor task without complaint. Even though both stand to be selected in the top 200 of June’s draft at worst and both have at least six-figure signing bonuses coming in the not-too-distant future, they’ve remained focused primarily on team goals.
“They’re our hardest workers,” Tracy Smith said. “When you’re being told you’re going to be this, you’re going to be that, you’re going to make this much money, some guys get a little bit of an ego. These guys, they don’t have it. They don’t think they’re too good to clean up the locker room if you ask. A couple of weeks ago, we’re out here picking up dirt and leaves on the turf, and these guys are right there with it. I think that’s helped our program, even the leadership component of that. If Schwarber and Travis are doing it, I guess we can do it too.”
But just as importantly, they don’t believe they’re below anyone either, and that has been evident since they arrived. Lightly recruited as they may have been, there is no blue-chip pitcher that they fear.
“When you step into that batter’s box, you can’t think about anything,” Schwarber said. “You’re really just locked into that moment. You’re thinking you’re 10 times better than this pitcher, and there’s no way he’s going to get me out.”
Said Travis: “We never show any signs of weakness.”
And they don’t want their teammates showing any either. That’s why at the end of the summer of 2012 after Schwarber and Travis returned from starring and playing against each other in the championship series of the Cape Cod League, they gathered the rest of the Hoosiers to explain to them that they were every bit as talented as anyone else in college baseball.
“Travis said, ‘Me and Schwarber, we’ve played with all of these guys, the best players in the nation,’ ” Casey Smith said. “‘But they’re not the best players in the nation. We’re just as good. We’re gonna do this this year.’ It was one of those touching moments, now that you look back on it. Everything they said ended up coming true.”
Indeed, the Hoosiers put together a list of 10 team goals with one that appeared to be a serious long shot, and the only ones they missed out on were a pair of team statistical goals—a .310 team batting average and .970 fielding percentage. A win in their series against Florida, two wins in the regular season against Louisville, a top 25 ranking for most of the spring, an NCAA Tournament bid, a Big Ten championship and even a trip to Omaha came to pass.
This year the Hoosiers were asked for their individual and team goals. Travis only listed one goal in each column: a national championship.
He and his Bash Brother have instilled in his teammates the same belief.
“The way that they were able to convey that,” Casey Smith said. “‘We are the best players in the nation. You’re on our team, we can beat anybody.’ . . . We’ll never say an opponent is better than us. I don’t care who they are.”
Because with Schwarber and Travis in the lineup, they have no one to fear.
Dustin Dopirak covers Indiana for the Bloomington Herald-Times.