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Indiana unable to declaw Wolverines as weaknesses come to light for Hoosiers

The No. 21 Indiana Hoosiers fell to the Michigan Wolverines in a weekend series in Ann Arbor, losing two of three games in what was a highly anticipated series.

What does this mean for IU going forward? What went wrong and how can it be fixed as the season nears its end?

Michigan saved its best for Indiana. The Wolverines had only won one of their previous three series and welcomed an IU team that was playing its best baseball of the year.

Indiana sat firmly atop the Big Ten in pitching and that was complemented by its offense producing with glorious efficiency. Over seven runs per game in their last seven meant that opposing pitchers would have their hands full from the first at-bat and if their starting pitching could deliver on the road for a second straight series it would spell trouble for Michigan.

Unfortunately for IU, Tommy Sommer struggled to get outs as he had season-lows in innings pitched, total pitches and strikeouts in the 10-3 loss. It was easily his worst outing of the season and in order for Indiana to have continued success the Hoosiers will need their dominant lefty to win his Friday starts.

A key for IU all season has been getting length out of its starters and helping them by taking the lead early. Neither was accomplished in the opener against Michigan, putting head coach Jeff Mercer in the position of deploying five total arms in just the first game. Sommer has shown flashes of being his early-season self but has struggled with comfort and control as of late. He will have to get back to setting the tone, so the bullpen doesn’t need to get the phone.

Game two of recent series have been crazy for IU and Saturday’s was more of the same as the teams scored 21 total runs in a 13-8 Hoosier victory.

Indiana’s offense had been rolling ever since a consistent starting nine and batting order was implemented back in its series against Northwestern. This changed on the Hoosiers’ most recent road trip and while they have played well overall, their situational hitting left a lot to be desired in this series. A total of 23 men left on base is far too many for a team like IU looking to sit atop the Big Ten standings.

The recent lineup changes could be a reason for the increase in runners left on base. The Hoosiers have performed best when their roles are defined and consistent.

James Espalin is the most recent casualty of the new lineup, with Jeremy Houston filling in at shortstop. Houston is more than capable of handling the role but both men have struggled to hit this year leaving us to wonder if Espalin is worth keeping in the lineup because of his sensational fielding ability.

Indiana’s relievers have been giving up hits at an uncharacteristic rate as well.

Reliever Matt Litwicki has also not been his usual self when deployed before the ninth inning against both Iowa and Michigan. Mercer clearly has confidence in his ability but Litwicki has been touched up in back-to-back outings after having not pitched against Nebraska or Rutgers.

Closers are distinctive individuals and no matter how fast they can dial up their fastball, if they are not comfortable it could cost their team a win. This has not been the case in his past two outings but he is the most polarizing arm in the IU bullpen and should be back to his unhittable self when back in his usual role.

For McCade Brown and Gabe Bierman it was another day at the office both building off of their outstanding performances against Rutgers and Nebraska. Both had lengthy starts which looked like they could’ve won IU the series but only one received a cushion from the offense.

Brown took a shutout into the seventh but did not maintain it. Indiana’s offense took pressure off a shaky bullpen performance and plated nine total runs in the seventh and eighth. Brown has looked sharp in his past two starts and is back to making opposing batters look silly at the plate.

Bierman continues to give IU his heart and soul every time he takes the mound on Sunday. May 16 marked two years since Gabe lost his father, responding with a gutsy performance as he kept the game close.

Working with only one run of support off a Morgan Colopy homer in the fifth, Bierman continued to get outs and pitch around minimal traffic in what was ultimately a 6-1 loss. On such an emotional day for the Bierman family, Gabe delivered a memorable performance that coaches and teammates commended after the game — one that the team desperately wanted to win not only for their season, but for Gabe.

IU is still in good shape as the team sits at second in the Big Ten — ahead one game on Nebraska. With this past series not going their way, the complications that emerged are fixable. Mercer has shown he knows exactly what his team needs and when it needs it. IU will have its opportunity to gain ground on Nebraska starting May 21 in Bloomington.

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