BLOOMINGTON -- Justin Cureton is not the second coming of Mike Trout. Let's get that out of the way. He will not hit his way into Indiana baseball lore in the manner of, say, Mike Smith (the former Hoosier who won the first triple crown in NCAA history in 1992).
Is that a problem?
Not for the Hoosiers. Cureton turns center field defense into art. He gets to everything in the park and, sometimes, even when it's not.
Case in point – his game-altering second-inning catch Sunday night against Austin Peay that turned a three-run home run into an inning-ending double play.
“It ripped our hearts out,” Austin Peay coach Gary McClure said.
Cureton's hitting doesn't come close to that level. He went 0-for-4 against the Governors with three strikeouts. His .222 average is the worst on a team that hits .305 overall. It is why he bats last in the lineup.
Don't be misled. Cureton impacts every game he plays. His glove is a weapon. So is his speed and athleticism.
“He saved the game for them,” McClure said. “That's what speed does for you. The kid's a great athlete. He plays a great center field.”
IU coach Tracy Smith sees no reason to disagree.
“I've watched a lot of games on TV. I've watched a lot of games as a player and a coach. I don't know that I've ever seen a catch like that. I've already started referring to it as 'The Catch.'
“I don't think people can appreciate how difficult that play was. On our field, there is no warning track. Justin could not tell the difference with his feet. On a typical warning track, there's a chance in surface.
“It was a great catch because it got over the wall. It's an even greater catch because it was fearless effort. At that point, he was selling himself out.”
Selling out doesn't include self promotion. Cureton treated the play with the same enthusiasm he might treat brushing his teeth.
“I've had that play before,” he said. “Playing at home helped.”
The home edge is gone. IU (46-14) will play at No. 7 Florida State (47-15) this weekend in the best-of-three Super Regional. The teams will play Saturday at noon, Sunday at 1 p.m. and, if necessary, Monday at 1 p.m.The winner advances to the College World Series at Omaha, Neb. The loser goes home.
The Hoosiers, who are 0-6 against Florida State, have no intention of going home anytime soon.
“When we play our game, we feed off each other's energy,” Cureton said. “All year we've been backing each other up. If we keep doing that, we'll do well.”
The task is formidable against Florida State, which is the tournament's overall No. 7 seed. After going 0-3 in the ACC tourney, the Seminoles went 3-0 in regional competition, outscoring Savannah State and Troy 32-4. They have won 19 straight regional games and reached the Super Regional round for the sixth straight season and 13th time overall. They have a NCAA tourney record of 177-113, 13-17 in Super Regional action.
Florida State thrives on pitching. It starts with Luke Weaver, who is 7-2 with a 1.95 earned run average. He's struck out 114 batters in 92.1 innings. His career-high 14 strikeouts against Troy earned him regional MVP honors.
Then there is Scott Sitz, who is 10-1 with a 1.59 ERA. Reliever Robbie Cole has nine saves and a 1.56 ERA. He has 35 strikeouts in 34.2 innings.
The offense is led by left fielder D.J. Stewart and his team-best .363 average and 25 doubles. He's driven in 56 runs. Designated hitter Marcus Davis and catcher Stephen McGee share home run honors. Each has nine. Davis has a team-leading 61 RBI. McGee has 51.
This is IU's first-ever Super Regional appearance. That's great Cureton said, but it's just another step for a program that wants to win it all. He added he'll reflect on this record-breaking season, “When it's all said and done, which is not any time soon. It's been an extraordinary year, extraordinary guys, extraordinary coaches. We're just enjoying it. We are not done yet.”