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Indiana Baseball Season Preview: Experienced Hoosiers poised to compete for Big Ten title

Indiana baseball’s 2020 season was abruptly cut short last March. Nearly a year since the Cream and Crimson last took the diamond, the Hoosiers start their 2021 season on Friday.

IU will play a 44-game, Big Ten-only schedule starting with two games apiece against Rutgers and Minnesota this weekend indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. There will be no Big Ten Tournament, meaning the automatic NCAA tournament bid will be awarded to the regular-season conference champion. The Hoosiers have the hitting experience and pitching talent to defend their 2019 Big Ten title.

Cole Barr during last season’s game with Cincinnati. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

The Hoosiers’ Hitters: Experience At The Top, Questions In the Back

IU returns two of its three core top-of-the-lineup hitters in outfielder Grant Richardson and infielder Cole Barr. Outfielder Elijah Dunham signed with the New York Yankees last year forgoing the rest of his eligibility. 

Richardson is expected to be the heart of the Hoosier lineup. The Fishers High School grad was named a first team preseason All-American this year by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. Richardson can hit for contact and power. He led IU with five home runs and a .424 batting average in 14 games in 2020.

Barr is expected to be one of the Hoosiers’ leaders.

“He has been terrific in his lifestyle, the weight room, his physical development, his emotional stability in a really tumultuous time,” Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer said. “He has just become a young man.”

The junior should be a reliable bat in the middle of the lineup. Scouts will be watching as well, he was drafted in the 37th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2019.

Indiana also will return outfielder Drew Ashley and DH Jordan Fucci. Both upperclassmen had above .400 on base percentage in 2020.

The Hoosiers have numerous holes behind the top of the lineup. Indiana struggled at times in 2020 for timely hitting from their back-half hitters. The Hoosiers may look to some freshman for production. Infielder Paul Toetz, who sat out 2020 with an injury, is a name to watch.

“He’s a really competitive, intense kid,” Mercer said. “Has a great offensive feel, a strong-handed kid.”

The Hoosiers’ Pitchers: Young Firepower and Depth Abounds

IU’s biggest strength is the front end of its rotation.

Gabe Bierman and Tommy Sommer will be the two reliable weekend Hoosier starters. Jeffersonville, Indiana, native Bierman enters his third season in Bloomington and his second as the IU ace. In 22 innings in 2020 he led the Hoosiers’ starters with a 2.45 ERA. He is a tough-minded kid who has already faced serious adversity in his life.

Sommer is the Hoosiers’ leader on the mound.

“He’s a worker and he’s a professional,” Mercer said. “He can communicate and he is articulate. He has his opinions grounded and based on his own research he has done.”

The fourth-year southpaw had a 2.61 ERA in four 2020 starts. 

Mercer has multiple tantalizing pitching options after Bierman and Sommer. Braydon Tucker had the most impressive win of the 2020 season, scattering four hits, no walks and just one run over six innings in front of over 10,000 fans at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge against No. 11 LSU.

Mercer will go with two less experienced arms for opening weekend in Minneapolis. McCade Brown, a third-year righty, has pitched a total 6 ⅔ innings in two years in Bloomington due to injuries and the shortened 2020 season.

“I’ve got complete confidence in Mac,” Mercer said of Brown. “He feels really good about himself you can see it in his body language.”

Brown’s confidence took off last summer in the Kernels Collegiate League in his hometown of Normal, Illinois, where he posted an 0.93 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 22 ⅔ innings. 

Drew Ashley during last season’s game against Purdue. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Another inexperienced pitcher Ty Bothwell will make his first career start this weekend for IU. The lefty has a lively fastball and is described as a talented athlete by Mercer with a lethal pickoff throw.

“He’s whipped our hitters’ butts a lot this year,” Mercer said. “I think he’s going to be great.”

The depth at the starter position should allow some of the talented arms to come out of the bullpen. Braden Scott and Connor Manous are bullpen veterans who will see plenty action from the pen. 

Mercer has an ideal scenario with his pitchers — firepower at the top and enough depth to trust numerous arms in key moments throughout the season.

The Hoosiers’ Schedule: Backloaded Big Ten Only Schedule Presents Unique Challenges

Indiana looks to have an easy schedule early in Big Ten play. Four of its first five opponents are projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference based on D1 Baseball’s preseason rankings.

Minnesota, 2018 Big Ten champion, is the lone team in the top half of the projected standings. The Hoosiers cannot afford many losses early because of the backloaded schedule. Eight of IU’s final 11 games are against Michigan, Maryland and Ohio State — all teams in contention for the Big Ten title. A three-game weekend series in Ann Arbor May 14-16 between Indiana and Michigan could decide the Big Ten crown.

The Hoosiers’ biggest scheduling problem will be playing in the mediocre Big Ten without having nonconference wins to add to their resume. The Big Ten has not proven to place many teams per year in the NCAA tournament. No Big Ten team is currently ranked in D1Baseball.com’s top 25. If the Hoosiers do not repeat as Big Ten champions there may be some nerves in Bloomington on Memorial Day weekend as IU awaits its postseason fate.

But Mercer is not focused on two months from now. And neither is his team after nearly a year off the diamond.

“I think if you put us on the surface of the moon right now, they’d find a way to go play,” Mercer said.

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