The defense committing six errors was the biggest negative that Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer could come up with when asked about his takeaways from the Hoosiers’ 2-1 weekend. And for Mercer, a slow start defensively is in part because of the lack of practices his team has been able to hold outside on a real field.
After taking down No. 17 East Carolina and High Point to begin the weekend, the Hoosiers fell to No. 13 Ole Miss on Sunday. Going 2-1 in a weekend with games versus two ranked teams, Mercer is proud of the toughness and competitive attitude his team employed both at the plate and on the mound.
Moving forward, Indiana has proven it can be a dangerous ball club as long as it focuses on cleaning up errors that put a damper on what was an overall successful weekend.
“The biggest thing for us is to continue to grow defensively,” Mercer said. “That is the one area having not been outside that much that we haven’t been able to practice. I am fully confident that we will get better defensively. We’ll make better decisions managing runners and managing the run game and being able to take care of the ball and execute.”
With errors being one of few problems that have hurt Indiana so far, let’s break down an eventful weekend of baseball at the Keith LeClair Classic.
Fucci answers the bell
In this weekend’s preview, I wrote about the need for another hitter not named Grant Richardson, Elijah Dunham or Cole Barr to step up and produce in the Indiana lineup. Well, that’s exactly what first baseman and Samford transfer Jordan Fucci did this weekend.
Fucci finished the weekend going 6-for-13 at the plate with one home run, six RBIs and three doubles. It is nearly impossible for Fucci to fill the void left at first base by Matt Lloyd last year, but the power-hitting ability Fucci showed this weekend will help determine just how good the Hoosiers can be this year.
“Jordan really changed the course of the weekend for us offensively,” Mercer said. “…He has had a great track record of being able to produce in the middle of the lineup with a lot of RBI, a lot of extra base hits.”
Mercer said Indiana put in a lot of work in the batting cages this week and for Fucci, it obviously paid off. Fucci made a small adjustment leading up to this weekend’s series that helped the redshirt senior lead the Indiana offense. Mercer said Fucci focused on opening up his batting stance slightly, which allowed Fucci’s bat head to get out and stay through the ball.
While Fucci’s recent success may seem like a personal improvement, Mercer thinks having his bat in the middle of the Indiana lineup benefits the entire team.
“[Fucci] is very physically gifted and he really helped the offense operate by doing his job,” Mercer said. “That helps everybody in front of him, and obviously puts Collin Hopkins in a good position to be successful too.”
With a dangerous bat like Fucci’s now coming alive, the Indiana offense looks like it is starting to round into shape as Big Ten play awaits in the last weekend of March.
Stellar outings for Sommer, Scott
Tommy Sommer has been the Friday starter in each of Indiana’s first two weekend series, but this past weekend in Greenville, North Carolina, Mercer decided to switch things up. Gabe Bierman took the mound on Friday, leaving a matchup with High Point for Sommer.
In what was his best outing as a Hoosier, Sommer dominated the High Point lineup for 8 2/3 innings before being pulled. Sommer gave up five hits, one earned run, three walks and five strikeouts, and if it weren’t for a double, error and walk in the ninth, it would have been the first complete game for Sommer wearing the Indiana cream and crimson.
“I’m really pleased with where we are at,” Mercer said. “I look at our at bats, I look at the way we pitched the ball and both of them were really good…On the mound the stuff has been good, we have to put guys away.”
Sommer’s ability to pitch deep into Saturday’s game also benefited the Hoosiers’ bullpen for the rest of the weekend. Braden Scott had to make a long relief appearance in Friday’s win over No. 17 East Carolina and got some important rest as he watched Sommer mow down the High Point batters.
Bierman exited the game after just four innings on Friday, and Scott helped secure an Indiana victory with four shutout innings in relief to go along with three hits allowed and seven strikeouts. Together, Scott and Sommer were both main reasons the Hoosiers returned to Bloomington with two important wins.
Hoosiers show ability to compete with top teams, but errors remain an issue
Not even 10 games into the season, Indiana has answered some big questions left as a result of 10 Hoosiers getting drafted to the MLB after winning the Big Ten regular season title.
A rotation of Sommer, Bierman and Braydon Tucker looks solid as conference play enters sight, and more recently, players such as Fucci, Drew Ashley and Hunter Jessee have stepped up to complete a dangerous Indiana lineup. Holding a 6-3 record, the Hoosiers haven’t been perfect by any means, but wins over No. 11 LSU, No. 30 South Alabama and No. 17 East Carolina prove that Indiana can hang with some of the top teams in the country.
Indiana has yet to play a game at Bart Kaufman Field where it went 21-5 last year, but has claimed wins to show that Mercer has the Hoosiers headed in the right direction after losing a chunk of last year’s 37-win team.
Moving forward, the biggest challenge that Indiana faces is eliminating defensive errors. Gabe Bierman’s start on Feb. 28 was marred by errors that allowed three runs to score in the second inning. A Drew Ashley error in the ninth inning versus High Point played a role in Sommer pitching 8 2/3 innings instead of the full nine.
Altogether, the Hoosiers committed six errors at the Keith LeClair Classic and have committed 15 errors as a team, compared to just 10 errors by their opponents. Moving forward, an increased level of focus when playing the field will be crucial to Indiana’s success.
Mercer thinks as his team plays more games and practices more outside, these defensive struggles will naturally decrease. For Mercer, this is one of few things he has pointed out as a major area in which the Hoosiers need to improve.
“Offensively our bats have been really good, we have competed well on the mound and we have played intelligently,” Mercer said. “So we just have to take care of the ball better and I am confident that we will.”