Indiana picked up its third series win of the season, and its first in Big Ten play, taking the first two games of a home series against the reigning conference champion Nebraska Cornhuskers.
In a battle of two teams that have thoroughly underperformed this season, the Hoosier bats came alive on Friday and Saturday, winning 8-7 and 8-1. The weekend was all about the first running of the Little 500 with fans in three years, but Indiana quietly put together two much-needed performances at home. Maybe there should be a bike race every weekend in Bloomington.
Indiana got off to a quick start Friday night, jumping out to a 7-0 lead after four innings, highlighted by a Josh Pyne three-run home run to left. Jack Perkins pitched six scoreless innings before giving up four runs in the seventh, finishing with 6 1/3 innings pitched and eight punchouts. Nebraska wouldn’t go away quietly, scoring two on Grant Holderfield in the ninth before Braydon Tucker had to shut the door for his fourth save of the season. Perkins got the win on the mound to improve to 3-2 and begin the weekend on the right foot.
“You just don’t know which one it’s going to be,” head coach Jeff Mercer said to his ballclub after the game, referring to the seventh inning, when Indiana stretched the lead to 7-4 via a Tyler Doanes RBI single after Carter Mathison beat the shift with a drag bunt single with two outs. That turned out to be the game-winning run.
Indiana was able to win the series on Saturday behind another solid pitching performance, this time from Bradley Brehmer. He tossed a quality start, six innings of one-run ball to pick up his fourth win of the season. Offensively, Indiana scored eight unanswered runs after falling behind 1-0 early. The Hoosiers took advantage of an error in the second inning and made the Huskers pay by plating five, as Bobby Whalen had a 2-RBI single and Josh Pyne cleared the bases with a double, both to right-center field. A Carter Mathison solo shot in the third and a Bobby Whalen triple in the eighth accounted for the other runs.
“When we get a quality start we are a really good team,” Mercer said.
Pitching has been the glaring weakness for a team, and given the way they play defensively and can hit the ball, a quality start gives this Indiana team a chance to beat anyone in the country, and Mercer reflects the same attitude. The problem is the depth in the rotation, and the length, especially on Sundays, and that problem popped up once again in this series.
The Sunday struggles continued for the Hoosiers as they lost a shootout 19-7 Sunday, finishing the weekend with a 16-23 record, 4-8 in conference play. Nebraska went 20-44 (.455) at the plate, clubbing four home runs, 20 hits, and sent 63 batters to the dish to win by a dozen. Max Johnson collected the first two RBIs of his career with a double down the left field line in the fourth to cap off a four-run inning, Indiana scored in only two other innings and all five Indiana pitchers had earned runs charged to their name.
“You can’t take a positive situation and turn it into a negative because today didn’t go our way,” Mercer said, referring to the fact that his goal this weekend was to win the series and defend their home-field advantage.
Indiana gains much-needed momentum by winning the series, but losing again on getaway day has been an issue all season long, and certainly puts a dent in any of the confidence created in games one and two.
Indiana has another busy week ahead, with five games next week, beginning with a trip to Indianapolis to play Butler at Victory Field on Tuesday.