BLOOMINGTON -- For Indiana baseball coach Tracy Smith, the drama that is the College World Series boils down to six words:
“We're here to win this thing.”
The Hoosiers (48-14) open with Louisville (51-12) Saturday night at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park and something has to give. Both are 5-0 in NCAA tourney play.
“We're absolutely ready,” Smith said. “We're not going to be intimidated by the venue. We've played in big stadiums. We won't be intimidated by the crowd. Last weekend (at Florida State) was the most hostile crowd ever.
“The ingredients are right. We've done everything within our power to put ourselves in position to be successful. Our kids are looking at this as an unbelievable opportunity.”
And if opportunity comes as a College World Series rookie, bring it on, catcher Kyle Schwarber said.
“It's a bigger stage, but it doesn't change anything,” he said. “It's still a baseball game. It's still us against Louisville. Their best shot against our best shot.”
IU won two of three shots with Louisville this season, and you'd better believe that meant something given the way the Cardinals had dominated the series in recent years. Last year Louisville won two games by a combined 34-8. In 2009, when the Hoosiers won the Big Ten tourney title and made the NCAA Regional, they lost 15-1 and 8-2.
“They've handled us recently,” Smith said. “It was embarrassing. We got tired of it.”
It showed right away. The Hoosiers opened the season with a 2-0 February win over then No. 4 Louisville in Florida, then won again 6-2 in March at Bart Kaufman Field. They blew a late 3-1 lead at Louisville and lost 4-3 in May.
What does that mean now?
Not much, Smith said.
“Our guys have confidence, but it doesn't mean anything at this point. It's a whole new season.”
Louisville has two dominant starting pitchers in Jeff Thompson and Chad Green. Thompson is 11-1 with a 2.00 earned run average. He has 109 strikeouts against 33 walks in 103.3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .169 against him.
Green is 10-3 with a 2.29 ERA.
“I assume they'll throw Green on Saturday,” Smith said. “We faced him in Game 1, which was a long time ago. We'll see a guy similar to what we saw in the first game at Florida State -- a power arm, a good breaking ball, a guy who throws strikes.”
The Cardinals also have one of the nation's best relievers in Nick Burdi. His 100 mph fastball has helped him total 16 saves, a 0.78 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 34.7 innings. Beyond that, they have plenty of pitching depth for left-or-right match-ups in the later innings.
“The key to this game,” Smith said, “is you have to have a lead by the fifth or sixth inning because of what they're able to do with their bullpen -- which most of us can't do -- which is to play match-ups in every inning the rest of the way and still have quality pitching.”
Offensively Louisville thrives with speed. Center fielder Adam Engel leads with 41 steals even though he's hitting only .234. Third baseman Ty Young has 26 steals while leading the team in hitting (.339), runs (54) and runs batted in (57). Left fielder Coco Johnson has 22 steals and a .333 average, plus eight home runs. Shortstop Sutton Whitig has 24 steals and a .315 average.
Overall the Cardinals have won 21 of their last 23 games, and stunned No. 2 overall seed Vanderbilt in last weekend's Super Regional round by sweeping both games.
Smith said he'll counter with pitcher Joey DeNato. DeNato is 9-2 with a 2.76 ERA.
“He'll start for multiple reasons,” Smith said. “For one thing, he's a tough kid. He'll handle the environment. He's had some success against Louisville and does a good job of controlling the running game, which is what Louisville does. He's been a big part of our success; he's been a go-to guy for three years. He's earned the right to be in this position.”
As far as the starters after that, Smith said he'll wait until after the first round to decide.
“Really, everybody will be available.”
What will it take for IU to win the national championship?
First, the Hoosiers have to win their four-team pod that features Louisville, Mississippi State (48-18) and Oregon State (50-11). It's a double elimination format, with a day of rest between games.
If the Hoosiers advance out of that pod, they will face the winner of the other pod -- North Carolina (57-10), Louisiana State (57-9), UCLA (44-17) and North Carolina State (49-14) -- in a best-of-three final series.
The pod winners will be determined no later than June 22. The finals are set to begin June 24 and end no later than June 26. There won't be any day of rest between those games.
As far as the favorite, North Carolina is the overall No. 1 seed, but the Tar Heels struggled to get out of the regional and the Super Regional.
LSU, the No. 4 overall seed, won national titles in 2000 and 2009. Oregon State, the No. 3 seed, was the national champ in 2006 and 2007.
The key, pitcher Will Coursen-Carr said, is simple.
“We all have to buy in and know we can hang in with these southern teams.”
Added Smith: “Our mantra is we'll be who we are. We won't try to change because we're playing for a chance at a national championship. If you try to be somebody else, if you change what your players are used to, you get in trouble. We'll stay who we are, and we're either good enough or we're not.”