Though the Hoosiers had an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, losing to Iowa and Minnesota, they received a two-seed in the regional stage of the NCAA Tournament. Louisville will play host to the regional, including Indiana, along with three-seed Illinois State and four-seed University of Illinois-Chicago.
It took four hours and 46 minutes to decide a winner in the Hoosiers’ first matchup with Louisville, falling 8-7 in 12 innings on May 14. Indiana will be seeking revenge and a regional title this week at Jim Patterson Field, but will first have to take care of Illinois State at 2 p.m. on May 31.
Though Indiana comes in as the higher seed, Illinois State is ranked 26th in RPI, compared to Indiana’s ranking at 36. Let’s break down the matchup between the Hoosiers and Redbirds.
Indiana’s strength all season has been the long ball. While Arizona State stole the team home run lead at the end of the season with 92, the Hoosiers finished second with 90. Matt Lloyd and Cole Barr led the team with 16 home runs apiece, followed by Matt Gorski with 12.
The Hoosiers will be playing in similar field dimensions as their home stadium, the only major difference being the fence in right center field, which is 11 feet further at Jim Patterson Field. Indiana’s ability to hit home runs will certainly not be affected by the dimensions of the stadium this weekend.
While the Hoosiers will need to rely on their studs like Lloyd, Gorski and Barr to advance in the playoffs, depth was key to their regular season Big Ten title. Justin Walker has been a prime example of this depth recently, having 13 hits in his last 12 games played. Elijah Dunham has also been swinging a hot bat, with 17 hits in his last 9 games, bringing his average up to .305.
Illinois State is a team with almost polar opposite stats to the Hoosiers. Only hitting 50 home runs all season, the Redbirds are a team stacked with high-batting-average hitters. As a team, they batted .295 on the season, compared to .254 for Indiana.
Right fielder Joe Aeilts is the clean-up hitter for the Redbirds and posted a .350 batting average with 10 home runs and 46 RBI. Joe Butler plays third base and batted .323, tying the team lead in doubles with 14.
The Redbirds boast a lineup with five players batting .304 or higher. They also love to run the bases and put pressure on opposing defenses. Second baseman Derek Parola led the team with 14 stolen bases, Aeilts stole 13 bases, followed by Butler and center fielder John Rave each with 11.
Yet another lop-sided statistic, the Redbirds have 129 less strikeouts than Indiana this season, a stat that the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in by a wide margin. The Indiana defense will be busy with a patient Illinois State team that focuses on finding a way on base, posting a .375 on-base percentage.
Indiana’s Andrew Saalfrank was recently named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, but head coach Jeff Mercer is giving the ball to Pauly Milto for game one of the regional. While Saalfrank leads Indiana starting pitchers with a 2.58 ERA, it is not surprising that Mercer is sticking with the senior, Milto, in this situation.
Milto owns a 3.54 ERA along with 1.12 WHIP in 101.2 innings pitched this season. A concern for the Hoosiers in Friday games has been providing run support for Milto, who holds just an 8-6 record despite leading the team with 97 strikeouts.
Out of the bullpen, Mercer will likely look to Tommy Sommer (3.61 ERA), Connor Manous (2.61 ERA) and closer Matt Lloyd, who has five saves, to replace Milto. Gabe Bierman, who saved Indiana’s win over Rutgers to win the Big Ten, could also see heavy usage in the regional stage.
For the Redbirds, Brent Headrick will toe the rubber on Friday. Headrick is 9-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 90 innings of work. Strikeouts could play a big role in this game as the Hoosiers tend to be home run or bust at the plate, and Headrick has 101 strikeouts on the season.
Headrick’s most impressive start came on May 10 against Bradley when he pitched eight scoreless innings and struck out six batters. This win propelled the Redbirds into a tie for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference and boosted their RPI ahead of the postseason.
Illinois State head coach Steve Holm will likely use bullpen arms like closer Jacob Gilmore and Colton Johnson who have 11 and three saves, respectively. The Hoosiers could also see Michael Sebby (3.55 ERA), Mitch Vogrin (5.02 ERA) and Connor Peplow (4.76 ERA) should Headrick have an early exit.
While Indiana is the higher seed in this matchup, Illinois State is regarded as one of the stronger three-seeds in the field, as shown by their 26th RPI ranking.
First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. from Jim Patterson Field in Louisville, Kentucky. The game can be seen on ESPN3.