BLOOMINGTON, Ind.--Bart Kaufman Field opened just in time.
Part of a $19.8 million complex for baseball and softball, Kaufman Field is a beautiful new facility for Indiana’s baseball team, complete with a new locker room and indoor batting cages, a fantastic AstroTurf surface, spacious open-air concourses, a comfortable press box and seating for 2,500 fans. The Hoosiers are still adding some finishing touches, which are expected to be completed by April, but it is clear that this stadium is ready to accommodate a regional.
That works out well, because Indiana is on pace to host one. The Hoosiers broke into Baseball America’s Top 25 rankings for the first time in school history two weeks ago, and they improved to 19-3 with their 12th consecutive victory Wednesday against Louisville, 6-2. That winning streak is tied for the nation’s longest.
More significantly, IU clinched the season series against the Cardinals, an Omaha contender located just two hours from Bloomington. The Hoosiers opened their season with a 2-0 win against UofL in Florida, and the two teams meet once more in May. With Louisville, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Indiana all enjoying banner years, there could be a crunch for regional sites in those two states, so IU’s head-to-head advantage could loom large.
“I think it kind of legitimizes what we did early in the season, because people were like, ‘Eh, you haven’t had a lot of success, was that a fluke?’ ” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said after Wednesday’s win. “They’re a good baseball team . . . I would think that that would prove that we can play a little bit.”
Louisville did not play well Wednesday (more on the Cardinals in Thursday’s Weekend Preview), but Indiana showed off its lineup depth and its supply of quality arms. The first four hitters in IU’s lineup went a combined 0-for-13, but Indiana won anyway, as the second half of the lineup came up big.
The Hoosiers took control of the game in the fourth inning, with the score tied 1-1, two outs and nobody on base against power-armed righty Kyle Funkhouser. No. 5 hitter Michael Basil doubled to left-center, and Dustin DeMuth followed with an RBI single to right center. Chris Sujka added an RBI single, and Will Nolden capped the three-run rally with an RBI double--the last of four consecutive two-out hits. That put Indiana ahead 4-1, and the Hoosiers never looked back.
“We’ve said, and I honestly believe this, with our lineup, you have to work top to bottom,” Smith said. “Nolden has played for us, he’s a mature kid, we redshirted him one year, so he’s a third-year guy, he’s been around, he’s gotten stronger. He makes things happen. He got a key hit for us this weekend to win it. Sujka played a lot last year, has had his role diminished, but he’s still been playing regularly; very gifted player, lot of tools.
“The depth is probably going to be the key, and not just positionally but also on the mound.”
Freshman lefthander Will Coursen-Carr started on the mound Wednesday for IU and worked into the fifth inning, but Smith pulled him after he abruptly stopped throwing strikes in the fifth. He had good arm-side run on 85-87 sinker, and he topped out at 91 in the first. He also showed feel for his slow curveball at 68-71, though it lacks power.
Fellow freshman Scott Effross followed and delivered 3 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out two. Effross got into a jam in the eighth, as Louisville loaded the bases with one out, but he minimized the damage by inducing a 4-6-3 double play and a fly out, holding the Cardinals to one run in the frame.
Closer Ryan Halstead followed with a scoreless ninth. That duo has been lights-out for Indiana at the back of the bullpen, as Effross is 4-0, 0.38 in 24 innings over 10 appearances, while Halstead is 1-0, 1.15 with four saves in 16 innings over nine outings. Both commanded fastballs in the 89-90 range, and Effross bumped 91 with good sink. Halstead showed a sharp downer breaking ball at 77-78.
“Effross has been doing that all year,” Smith said. “That’s a kid that I think is really flying under the radar nationally--he’s legit. Halstead set a single-season saves record as a freshman, got beat out a little bit last year, but we don’t hesitate giving the ball to either one of those guys.”
Indiana’s 2009 team might have produced three first-rounders, but this year’s club has a chance to be the best in school history, because it has more depth and is not lacking in star power.
So this June, when the temperature is 75 degrees instead of 42 like it was Wednesday--and it was still a lively crowd of 1,028 for a chilly Wednesday afternoon game in March)--that new ballpark might just be jammed with fans watching regional action.