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Almost perfect, Indiana erases early season demons in pivotal 3-win weekend

After McCade Brown had been perfect into the seventh. After he had made one mistake. And that one mistake had seemingly ruined everything. The epitome of Indiana baseball’s late season surge stepped to the plate — Collin Hopkins.

He was the Hoosiers’ last gasp with two outs in the ninth to Rutgers. Brown had carried a perfecto into the seventh only to give up a solo home run. IU had been unable to score all afternoon.

But Hopkins would not let IU go quietly. Not after he had raised his batting average from below .100 to almost .250. Not after he had gone six straight games with at least one hit. Not when IU needed the redshirt senior catcher to come through to maintain the team’s winning streak and tenuous hold on first place in the Big Ten.

Hopkins sent a 1-0 pitch looping into center field. One big plop on the damp outfield grass long enough for Grant Richardson to score from second. Tie game. 1-1.

IU and Rutgers exchanged two runs in the 10th. In the top of the 11th, Jordan Fucci came to the plate. Another redshirt senior transfer who has struggled this year. Benched for most of the past month his last hit was on April 3.

Fucci fouled off five straight pitches. Then on the eighth pitch of the at-bat he crushed the baseball over the Bainton Field’s centerfield wall. Hoosiers win 5-3.

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IU won three of four games this weekend in Piscataway, New Jersey, facing both a hot Rutgers team and Big Ten title contenders Nebraska. (The games were part of a pandemic year Big Ten instituted “pod” where three teams get together in one location to all play each other twice over a weekend.) The feat was even more impressive considering the obstacles the Hoosiers faced all weekend.

IU was on the road, a place the team has struggled, especially in the hitting department. The Hoosiers were 7-7 away from Bloomington entering this weekend. Adding to the challenge, the Big Ten’s scheduling made IU face Rutgers and Nebraska’s top two pitchers in each game. And in their second game Saturday they battled a fresh Nebraska team playing their first game of the weekend. The scheduling also meant IU faced three left-handed starting pitchers. A bugaboo for IU batters all season.

IU second baseman Paul Toetz high fives teammates during a 12-6 victory over Iowa. The freshman had five hits and three runs over the weekend in Piscataway. (Harris Jaffe/HN)

The concerns over a road trip and lefties were extinguished even in cold and rainy Piscataway.

IU bats stayed hot in New Jersey after a scintillating past two weekends in Bloomington. The Hoosiers plated eight runs Friday facing Rutgers’ ace Harry Rutkowski. The Scarlet Knights’ lefty gave IU fits in an opening day loss in March. The Hoosiers then completed the two-game sweep of Rutgers on Saturday courtesy of Hopkins and Fucci’s clutch hits.

IU even plated five runs in the Hoosiers’ sole loss on Saturday evening to Nebraska. A combination of an exhausted bullpen in their third game in 24 hours, five errors (the one glaring concern going forward with the Hoosiers) and a driving rain cost IU a victory. But the Hoosiers bounced back on Sunday against the Cornhuskers with four runs in a 10-batter first inning and would cruise to a 4-2 victory to finish their weekend.

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The final demon disposed of in New Jersey? The Hoosiers’ starting pitching. IU has hit the past two weekends to work around some shaky starter outings.

On Friday, Tommy Sommer had his best outing since March, limiting the Scarlet Knights to six baserunners and one earned run in six and two-thirds. IU broke Rutgers’ five game win streak.

McCade Brown pitching during a 8-0 victory over Illinois. (William McDermott/HN)

Saturday was even more promising with the enigmatic McCade Brown plowing through Rutgers. The 6-foot-6 righty has had serious control problems for most of the season especially in his past few starts. But when he throws strikes? The sophomore might be one of the best pitchers in the country. The perfect game into the seventh was Brown’s third outing this season not allowing a hit through the first six innings.

IU’s fourth starter is still not set in stone. John Modugno was shaky in four innings in Saturday’s second game. IU head coach Jeff Mercer has wavered between Modungo and Ty Bothwell as his fourth starter. While IU has just one more four-game weekend in Big Ten play, this could end up being an important decision in a NCAA regional next month.

However, Mercer did not have to make any challenging decisions about his Sunday starter. Gabe Bierman continues to shove from the mound. The righty pitched his first career complete game allowing just five baserunners and one earned run. It’s a far cry from a pitcher early in the season who struggled with his control and looked uncomfortable on the mound. The Big Ten starting pitcher ERA leader is one of the favorites to hoist the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year hardware.

Bierman and the rest of the Hoosiers have eyes on other hardware — a second straight Big Ten crown. The Hoosiers have three weekends of regular season baseball remaining. IU sits alone in first place in the Big Ten a game up on Michigan and Nebraska as of Sunday evening. The Hoosiers play the Wolverines and Cornhuskers in a combined five games over the next two weekends. The league title will be decided by the Hoosiers.

This weekend IU proved its early-season problems are behind them. They have three strong starters and clutch confident hitters capable in any conditions. No, Indiana is not perfect team, but the team might have enough to win a Big Ten title.

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