It’s a rational approach to use the nonconference schedule to ease a team into the season. In theory, playing against weaker competition at the start of the year will help a team gain confidence, make adjustments and work through problems before the heart of conference play.
But Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer’s approach is quite the opposite. After opening the season 1-2 with a road series against No. 11 LSU, the Hoosiers defeated No. 30 South Alabama last weekend and are now presented with a challenge that could prove to be even greater than that.
With a 4-2 record and a four-game winning streak, Indiana will travel to Greenville, North Carolina this weekend for the Keith LeClair Classic that promises more top competition for the Hoosiers in nonconference play. A three-game weekend set begins Friday with a matchup against No. 17 East Carolina, followed by High Point on Saturday and No. 13 Ole Miss on Sunday.
As another tough weekend approaches, Mercer points out execution at the plate as a main point of focus, but knows experiences against some of the top teams in the country will naturally help this.
“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… I expect us to improve.”
Let’s break down the top storylines as Indiana prepares for the Keith LeClair Classic.
IU pitching staff to face a clash of styles, offensively
The Hoosiers open the weekend with No. 17 East Carolina that is off to a 7-1 start. East Carolina is not a team that will hurt Indiana by hitting the long ball, but the Pirates possess a deep lineup with hitters who will constantly put the ball in play.
Mercer said after the South Alabama Tournament that Indiana will need to focus on defense and taking care of the ball, which will be even more important versus an East Carolina team that is batting .290. The Pirates are led by Bryson Worrell, who comes into the game with a .444 batting average, 12 hits, three doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs.
The Pirates only have five home runs as a team this year, but hitters such as Thomas Francisco and Connor Norby will keep the IU defense on its toes. Francisco comes into the game with a .440 batting average, 11 hits, one home run and seven RBIs. Norby will be a threat on the bases for Indiana catcher Collin Hopkins to keep an eye on. Norby has two stolen bases to go along with a .321 batting average.
Much different from East Carolina’s lineup is the Ole Miss offense. The Rebels have already blasted 17 home runs and have 61 RBIs compared to just 29 from Indiana. Ole Miss is led by Anthony Servido and Cael Baker, each of whom have hit four home runs and 10 RBIs this season. Servido is also a threat on the basepaths with four stolen bases already.
Though he has only started four games for the Rebels, Hayden Leatherwood has proven to be a real threat at the plate wherever he bats in the order. Leatherwood’s home run versus Southern Miss was the difference maker and his six hits in 11 at-bats are something for the IU pitchers to keep their eyes on.
If Mercer sticks with the same rotation as the first two weekend series, sophomore Braydon Tucker would face a deep Ole Miss lineup that has seven different hitters with a home run. Tucker has only started two games on the mound as a Hoosier, but has a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings pitched so far.
A matchup with a 5-4 High Point club on Saturday will give the Hoosiers some time to catch their breath in between two ranked matchups, but can’t be taken lightly. Sam Zayicek leads the High Point lineup with a .394 batting average, two home runs and 10 RBIs. While High Point hasn’t shown the ability to hit the ball out of the park on a regular basis with just four home runs this season, four batters with an average of .344 or higher will challenge the Indiana pitching staff.
Will a new face step up this weekend?
In the opening series against LSU it was Grant Richardson. At the South Alabama Tournament it was Elijah Dunham. Both players were named Big Ten Player of the Week after having scorching hot weekends at the plate. Most recently, Dunham went seven-for-11 with a home run, two doubles, three RBIs, four runs and four walks.
But for this Indiana team to reach the same level of offensive prowess as last year’s Hoosiers, it will need an underclassman or two to emerge as a real threat at the plate. There have been flashes of great play from a few new faces, but if Indiana hopes to take down two ranked opponents this weekend, a group effort will be required.
Outfielder Hunter Jessee from South Lebanon, Ohio, has been the most consistent freshman bat in the IU lineup with a .263 batting average and five hits in five starts. Jessee’s most notable moment of the season so far came in game two versus LSU when he hit a one-out triple to centerfield and scored from a Grant Richardson sacrifice fly. Fellow freshman and Bloomington native Ethan Vecrumba has earned five starts but has yet to solidify his spot in the lineup with just one hit in 16 at-bats.
It may take some time for these freshmen to develop under the direction of Mercer, but a number of transfers have also proven to be candidates to fill in some of the holes last year’s team left due to the MLB draft. Western Kentucky transfer catcher Collin Hopkins has shown glimpses of special play with four RBIs, but is batting .211 and is 0-for-6 when attempting to throw runners out on the bases.
Aside from Richardson and Dunham, juniors Cole Barr and Drew Ashley haven’t missed a beat from successful 2019 campaigns. Barr’s two home runs and Ashley’s .345 OBP leading off for Indiana have helped power the Indiana lineup, but these four can’t be the only sources of production for the Hoosiers moving forward.
Execution with runners in scoring position
One of the biggest issues with Indiana this year has been producing at the plate with runners in scoring position. Mercer said he was happy with the team’s approach in the weekend series versus LSU, but did not feel the same after the South Alabama Tournament.
Mercer mentioned execution and going up to the plate with a definitive plan as two areas of improvement for the Hoosiers to work on moving forward. So far, Indiana has left 57 runners on base this year compared to just 43 from its opponents.
Last year the Hoosiers scored a large chunk of their runs from the long ball after setting a school record with 86 home runs. This year Indiana might have to change its approach at the plate, though. Richardson, Dunham and Barr will be consistent home run threats at the top of the order, but that does not look like the case for the rest of this Indiana team.
An enhanced focus on situational hitting and simply getting on base more often by working counts could be the recipe for success as the Hoosiers work through losing much of last year’s home-run-heavy roster.