After dropping its first two games of the season to LSU, the Indiana baseball team caught fire at the South Alabama Tournament.
The Hoosiers defeated UT-Martin 3-2 this past Friday, followed by a 4-2 win over South Alabama and 12-3 route of Siena to extend their win streak to four games. Three wins this weekend give the Hoosiers a 4-2 record, which Mercer said he will take based on the level of competition his team has been challenged with.
“Mostly what I would take is we have shown glimpses of being able to play a high level of baseball [and] to really pitch,” Mercer said. “We have shown flashes of good defense, but we have to be better overall taking care of the ball. We have to be able to stay focused for nine innings.”
Let’s wrap up the weekend with some key storylines from the South Alabama Tournament.
Starting pitchers find their groove
Even after the team’s opening series versus LSU, there were some questions surrounding Indiana’s inexperienced pitching staff. It is safe to say that after a weekend in which each starter gave up zero earned runs, most of these questions have been answered.
Tommy Sommer started the weekend strong with a nice bounce-back performance versus UT-Martin on Feb. 21. The 6-foot-4 lefty gave up four hits in five innings and both UT-Martin runs resulted from an error by first baseman Jordan Fucci.
Sommer struck out four batters and showed great control throughout the game, not walking or hitting a single batter. Sommer has proven susceptible to giving up home runs after allowing two versus LSU, but was able to keep the UT-Martin hitters inside the park on Friday by forcing 11 flyouts.
Perhaps the most impressive pitching performance of the weekend came from Gabe Bierman on Saturday versus No. 30 South Alabama. Bierman struck out 11 batters in 6 2/3 innings and gave up six hits. Two unearned runs came in to score in the seventh inning after a throwing error by Cole Barr, but nonetheless, it was an impressive outing from Bierman.
Sophomore Braydon Tucker continued his impressive start to the season with another solid outing to close out the weekend versus Siena. The 6-foot-4 righty pitched five innings, allowed three hits and one walk, struck out three batters and did not allow a run. While Mercer thinks Tucker had a stronger outing versus LSU, he was proud of the way Tucker competed and managed tough situations.
“Overall our pitching staff was really good,” Mercer said. “…Whenever you can go out and compete on the mound like that, you give yourself a chance to win games.”
Career weekend for Elijah Dunham
Last weekend it was Grant Richardson who led the IU offense, but Elijah Dunham ran the show at South Alabama. The junior left fielder extended his on-base streak from last season to 24 games and was a big reason the Hoosiers left Stanky Field with three victories.
Dunham was on fire at the plate all weekend, finishing 7-for-11 with a home run, two doubles, three RBIs, four runs scored and four walks. Jeremy Houston’s sacrifice fly in the fifth inning versus UT-Martin ended up being the game-winner, but Dunham’s three hits and one walk in this game kept the line moving.
Never a doubt, @elijah_dunham.
— Indiana Baseball (@IndianaBase) February 24, 2020
“Eli has been really good, hitting a lot of balls hard,” Mercer said. “It’s always nice when he comes up with some guys on base.”
Dunham scored a key run on Saturday versus South Alabama on a wild pitch that proved to be the difference maker in the Hoosiers 4-2 victory. It was never a contest on Feb. 23 versus Siena, but Dunham’s three-run home run and two walks contributed to the Hoosiers’ domination.
While Dunham had one of his best offensive series as a Hoosier, Mercer was concerned with certain aspects of the team’s approach at the plate. The Hoosiers drew 14 walks versus Siena, but Mercer still wants to see his team be more patient at the plate.
“We are going to have to get better and be more disciplined and be able to execute our job more,” Mercer said. “That just comes with growth and just playing and maturity, but I don’t think we were good offensively and I expect us to improve.”
Bullpen shows grit in clutch moments
The starting pitchers kept Indiana in a comfortable position for most of the weekend, but the Hoosiers would not have left South Alabama with three wins if it weren’t for some gutsy performances from the bullpen.
In total, the Indiana bullpen pitched 10 1/3 innings and gave up just two earned runs, which came in the eighth inning versus Siena when the Hoosiers had already built a big lead.
Versus UT-Martin, Braden Scott played the middle-man role and struck out four batters in two scoreless innings. While Sommer and Scott kept the Hoosiers ahead, it was Connor Manous’s gritty ninth inning that sealed the deal for Indiana. Manous struck out three in the eighth inning, but was faced with an immediate challenge in the ninth.
— Indiana Baseball (@IndianaBase) February 24, 2020
Manous gave up singles to the first two UT-Martin hitters and walked the third to load the bases with no outs and a one-run lead. Cole Barr threw out the lead runner at home for the first out after Manous induced an important ground ball. Manous followed it up with two clutch strikeouts to end the game, battling back from a scary bases loaded, zero outs situation to record the save.
Two unearned runs scored in the seventh inning versus South Alabama to cut Indiana’s lead to 4-2. After 6 2/3 innings from Gabe Bierman, Mercer turned to a trio of relievers to finish the game. Grant Sloan, Cal Krueger and McCade Brown combined for 3 1/3 innings of one-hit baseball and showed they are ready for bigger roles out of the bullpen for the Hoosiers this year.
Indiana had another close call in the ninth inning versus South Alabama after two walks from Brown. However, two key strikeouts from the sophomore reliever secured another nail-biting victory for the Hoosiers.
Aside from the clutch performances from Manous and the rest of the IU bullpen, Mercer was also impressed with redshirt-freshman Ty Bothwell on Sunday versus Siena. Mercer only needed the lefty for one inning, but Bothwell struck out two and did not allow a hit.
Moving forward, the Hoosiers have their first home game of the season 3:05 p.m. Wednesday versus Butler. Indiana defeated Butler 9-3 last season, but eight of the nine runs came from players who are no longer on the team. For Mercer, an emphasized focus on situational hitting will be important for Wednesday’s game.
“We have got to be better in RBI situations and not try to have the big hit,” Mercer said. “But just be able to manage your at bat with a good swing on a good pitch.”