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Indiana's Smith coaches with 'gut', not stats

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Indiana vs. Mississippi State, College World Series, 8 tonight

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Mississippi State next for Hoosiers in CWS

Monday, June 17, 2013 - 6:06 am

This is a gentler, kinder Tracy Smith. Keep that in mind. The death glare Indiana's baseball coach gave seconds after right fielder Will Nolden got caught in a pickoff at third base for the SECOND time in the College World Series win over Louisville was an aberration.

Well, maybe not, but work with us here.

Smith is the national coach of the year in part because he has learned to restrain any Bob Knight urges. He demands without emotional volcano moments. He decides without resorting to the statistical onslaught of sabermetrics (think Brad Pitt and the movie “Moneyball”).

Or so we've been told.

This doesn't mean that Smith and Nolden haven't had that Dad-I-wrecked-the-car conversation or that Smith won't get a little feisty from time to time. Mellow has its limits, and you don't win a national championship -- IU (49-14) plays at 8 p.m. Monday against Mississippi State (49-18) in Omaha, Neb. -- with cuddles and giggles.

Still …

“We grow,” Smith says. “We learn from all of our experiences. My difference (in approach) would be based on the different personality of the team. This has been the most low-maintenance team I've ever coached. That allows me to not have to worry about distractions on other things.”

Smith mentions the mid-April Michigan State series, when the Hoosiers lost all three games in the last inning.

“That was the low point,” he says. “Maybe in the past I would have had a little more fire, trying to find something to blame or gone crazy on something. I used to be a little emotional.

“This time I took a step back and said, I trust you guys. That's all we said. I don't know if I would have done that before. It was a little bit more low key.”

That approach has not only propelled IU into the College World Series for the first time in school history, it also helped earn Smith national coach of the year honors by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. He's won 559 games in 17 seasons as a head coach with four NCAA tourney appearances -- two at Miami of Ohio, two more with Indiana. He's earned Mid-American Conference and Big Ten coach of the year honors.

Smith deflects the spotlight.

“It's not me. It's (the players). It's their team. I try to put them in position to be successful and get out of the way.”

His players respond. Case in point was Nolden, who made up for his boneheaded base running by throwing out Louisville's Sutton Whiting at the plate in the third inning when Whiting dared to try to score from second on a single to right. His throw arrived so early that catcher Kyle Schwarber almost had time to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" before applying the tag.

As for Smith's lack of infatuation with statistical analysis, well, when it comes down to it, baseball, like all sports, is more about passion than numbers.

“How much do we use it? Zero. How do I manage? I manage with my gut.

“I'll take statistics and look at some of that stuff, but I'm a simple human being.”

Smith's simplicity often leads to criticism. For instance, he sometimes bunts with runners on first and second and nobody out.

“They cite all these sources that say that's the absolute stupidest thing in the world,” Smith says. “I'm a big believer in you've got to know your personnel and put context to your decisions.

“I'm a feel manager. I think I've got a pretty good sense of my personnel, and that's how I make decisions. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't.

“At Indiana, we're not big on scouting. We try to focus on just being us.”

On Saturday night, that focus meant riding left-handed pitcher Joey DeNato all the way. DeNato threw a career-high 136 pitches en route to his complete-game shutout that extended his scoreless streak against Louisville this season to 13 innings. Both times he started against the Cardinals, the Hoosiers won 2-0.

It helps to have an offense that doesn't mess around. IU scored in the first inning against Louisville, just as it has in 28 other games this season. It outscores opponents 60-24 in the first inning. It thrives with power (it ranks 14th nationally with 53 home runs), and if TD Ameritrade Park is too big for homers, that doesn't mean the Hoosiers will change their approach.

“We won't swing for the fences,” Smith says, “but we're going to let it out. I had some coaches say, tell your players not to hit fly balls in batting practice. I joked, that's like telling the pope not to pray.

“We're a team that can drive the ball. We can drive gaps all the way through the lineup.”

IU drove it against Louisville. It will drive it against Mississippi State and everybody else in this nearly two-week-long event. Smith will do it his way, and to heck with convention and sabermetrics.

In the end, that's all that matters.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at