Power, Toughness Have Indiana On The Rise

Image credit: Pauly Milto (Photo by Mat Gdowski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Halfway through its series against Minnesota last weekend, things weren’t looking good for Indiana. The Hoosiers lost Friday’s opener, 7-3, and its offense struck out 15 times, while the usually steady Pauly Milto allowed seven runs on 12 hits in seven innings.

On Saturday, it looked like more of the same. Minnesota righthander Sam Thoresen, who came into the game with an ERA over 6.00, struck out 11 and held Indiana to one run on two hits in six innings, with the Gophers building a 6-1 lead through six innings.

“It shows that we have work to do on the mental side of things,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said of his team being put in the position of having to fight back in the series. “It shows that I have to do a better job, I have to communicate more effectively and efficiently. I have to make sure that those things don’t happen from a competitive standpoint and from a focus standpoint.”

But actually, let’s pause there. Because Mercer doesn’t so much care about the results.

He’s not overly concerned with an offense that is sometimes reliant on hitting the long ball. He’s not worried about the high number of strikeouts that might cause some hand-wringing from other coaches around the country. And he’s not even really worried about losses, because losses are just going to happen.

What he’s worried about is effort, and seeing his team compete like a team that knows it’s good and knows it can beat anyone, even a Minnesota team that had beaten his Hoosiers six consecutive times, dating back to when the Gophers won a pair of games against IU in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament.

“You just have to be able to continue to compete, it’s so cliché, but just the toughness,” Mercer said. “You just have to continue to go and go and go, and you can’t worry about what happens. We couldn’t worry about what happened Friday, we couldn’t worry about what happened in the first five of six innings (on Saturday). You’ve got to just keep going.”

But it’s funny how those two things go hand-in-hand. The Hoosiers came out with a different energy in the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, and that’s when things started to turn. Soon they had grabbed the momentum and capitalized in the ninth inning. Freshman Grant Richardson sparked the come back with a home run, and then after back-to-back walks issued by Gophers closer Brett Schulze, Lloyd connected for a mammoth walk-off three-run home run to right.

Just generally, Mercer hasn’t always been happy with the way his team has competed this season, including in the Friday game against the Gophers, but perhaps the comeback on Saturday serves as a catalyst moving forward.

At least on Sunday, it looked like the message had been received, as Indiana knocked Gophers starter Joshua Culliver out in the first inning on the way to scoring five runs over the first two frames and finishing up the series with a 7-1 win. That series win pushed Indiana to No. 22 in the Top 25, its highest ranking of the season.

This isn’t the first time IU has pulled off the trick of losing the opening game of a series before coming back to win the final two. It did the same in series wins against Maryland and Penn State earlier this season.

“We have confidence in one another, and I think (it’s) having a veteran group and guys who have been around,” Bradley said. “You see it even on Saturday, they dominated us for the whole entire game and it comes down to one swing from Matty Lloyd that gave us that win and that momentum going into (Sunday).”

But even if Mercer hasn’t always been satisfied with what he has seen out of his team, it’s tough to argue with the results. The Hoosiers are 30-14 and 11-4 in the Big Ten, which puts them in second place, a half-game behind Michigan. They haven’t lost a series since February, when they got swept at Tennessee.

They are going to be in a regional, barring an unlikely collapse. They can also win the Big Ten regular season title, and if they do that, they very well could be in position to host a regional.

An RPI of 28, where it stands now, is probably a bit higher than it would need to be in order to host, but upcoming series with Illinois and Michigan, plus midweek games with Kentucky and Louisville, provide chances to improve that figure. A number closer to 20 than 30, combined with a Big Ten title, could be a recipe for playing at home in June.

On the field, a rotation of righthanders Milto (6-4, 2.90 ERA) and Tanner Gordon (4-3, 3.36 ERA), and lefthander Andrew Saalfrank (6-1, 2.31 ERA) has proven quite effective, and righthanders Lloyd (1.38 ERA, 4 SV) and Connor Manous (2.10 ERA) have anchored the bullpen.

At the plate, the strikeout totals might be a concern for some, as Indiana hitters have fanned 469 times in 44 games, and that can sometimes put their offense in neutral, but with that has also come a windfall of home runs, 72 of them to be exact, led by Lloyd’s 14, good for first in the nation.

So, there is certainly a feast or famine quality to the lineup, but the Hoosiers have feasted far more often than they’ve gone hungry this season, and honestly, that’s another thing Mercer isn’t too worried about.

“If we hit 250 home runs some day, I’d be ecstatic,” Mercer said. “If we hit 100, if we hit five, we have to be able to be multi-dimensional and be multi-faceted.”

You can learn a lot from losses, but it’s always preferable to learn when you’re winning instead, and that’s what Indiana has done. It may not have been perfect up to this point, but all of their big-picture goals are still right there for the taking, and that’s a good place for any team to be going into the month of May.

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