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Non-con tests will continue this weekend for Indiana Baseball

There are few environments that will test both a team’s physical ability and mental toughness more than a trip to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 11 LSU Tigers. Playing in front of a packed stadium of passionate college baseball fans was an immediate wake-up call, but that’s the challenge Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer presented his young Hoosier squad with in the first series of the season.

Grant Richardson looks on. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Indiana left the bayou with a 1-2 record, but Mercer believes this was a positive experience for the Hoosiers. Sophomore outfielder Grant Richardson was named Big Ten Player of the Week and showed early signs of a breakout season. Richardson was 6-for-12 with a home run and five RBIs. While starting pitchers Tommy Sommer and Gabe Bierman weren’t at their best to start the year, sophomore Braydon Tucker impressed with six innings of one-run baseball.

Most importantly for Mercer, it forced Indiana to play with toughness that will be necessary if it wants to repeat as Big Ten champions this year.

“I tell the guys all the time, you can’t buy toughness,” Mercer said. “The only way you can pay for it is through your investment, through hard work and through dedication and discipline to plan. If you can stay true to the plan and if you can worry about the name across the front of your jersey and be committed to that, you are capable of far more than you think you are.”

Moving forward, the Hoosiers journey their way through the south with a weekend tournament at South Alabama’s Stanky Field. Indiana will begin the weekend with a matchup against UT-Martin on Friday, followed by No. 30 South Alabama and Siena to round out the weekend. Let’s break down the upcoming weekend for the Hoosiers.

Promising pitching matchups await

Approaching the batter’s box with a thought-out plan will be a continued point of emphasis this weekend. After facing one of the top pitching staffs in the country versus LSU, this weekend appears to give the Hoosiers a few more favorable matchups on the mound. 

UT-Martin’s Friday starter Cannon Winston struggled against Saint Louis in the season opener on Feb. 14 and is a likely candidate to open the weekend tournament versus Indiana. Winston pitched four innings, giving up two runs on six hits and two walks. Compared to LSU’s Cole Henry who shut down the Hoosiers last Friday, this looks to be a more favorable matchup.

As the weekend continues, Saturday’s showdown versus South Alabama looks to be the biggest test for the Hoosiers. South Alabama is currently ranked No. 30 in the country, but hasn’t gotten the best out of its starting pitchers so far. Miles Smith is the likely starter for the Jaguars on Saturday, which should light up the eyes of the Hoosier hitters.

Smith struggled with control last Saturday versus Campbell, walking three hitters and plunking another. Smith managed just three innings and gave up five hits and four runs. If the IU lineup can execute the same plan Mercer talked about versus LSU, the offense could have a big day on Saturday.

Rounding out the weekend with Siena, the Hoosiers will face yet another pitcher who hasn’t had the best start to the season. Siena’s Sunday starter Ben Seiler was credited with the loss in the team’s 9-1 loss to UCF last Sunday. Seiler managed 3.2 innings, but gave up five runs on five hits and two walks in the process.

Mercer said after the team’s series versus LSU that he was proud of the team’s ability to execute a plan at the plate, which will continue to be important this weekend.

"I was more impressed than I have been in a long time with our maturity and discipline and our intent to execute a plan," Mercer said. "If our plan worked or didn't work is irrelevant, our intent in all facets was where I felt it should be throughout the weekend. From there, you can work off of that."

Containing power hitters 

Keeping the ball down in the zone became a bit of an issue last weekend for Indiana versus LSU. Tommy Sommer allowed two home runs in his four-inning season debut, and while Gabe Bierman kept the LSU offense inside the ballpark, a few fly balls allowed the Tigers to score five runs off Bierman, though two were unearned.

Looking at some of the premier hitters in this weekend’s tournament, there should be an emphasis on forcing ground balls for the Indiana pitching staff. After giving up two home runs versus LSU, Sommer will face UT-Martin’s Sean Dixson, who already has a pair of home runs of his own. 

Along with Dixson, Sommer will have to be careful against Wil Lafollette in the middle of the UT-Martin order. Though Lafollette only started one of the team’s three games so far, he has proven he belongs in the lineup, leading the team with five hits and four RBI in nine at bats.

On Saturday, a pair of power hitters in Ethan Wilson and Hunter Stokes will challenge the Indiana pitching staff. Though the two have been home run or bust at times with averages .250 or lower, Bierman will still need to hit the corners of the strike zone to challenge these two. 

Wilson hit one home run, a double and drove in five runs in the team’s opening weekend. Stokes made his three hits count, taking one out of the park and scoring two runs. While Wilson and Stokes have shown their power already, South Alabama has really struggled, especially with strikeouts, to begin the season. The Jaguars have struck out 56 times this year, and Richard Sorrenti, who only has two at-bats this year, is the only player on the roster who has not struck out.

What it comes down to 

Starting pitching was the biggest question mark for this team before the season and will remain a question until this young staff finds a rhythm. The South Alabama Tournament presents another great opportunity for the Indiana pitching staff to gain experience after struggling at times versus LSU.

Sommer, who entered the season with the most starting pitching experience, took the mound in the Hoosiers’ season opener on Feb. 14. Sommer pitched four innings and gave up five runs on five hits while walking three batters and striking out five. As referenced earlier, Sommer struggled with command at times in his first start and wasn’t able to keep the ball down in the zone on a consistent basis, with all five earned runs coming from two home runs.

In game two, Gabe Bierman started the game on the mound for Indiana and had a similar result to Sommer. Bierman gave up seven hits in five innings pitched and finished with three earned runs. Control was a bit of an issue for Bierman, who finished with two walks and one hit by pitch. 

Bierman left the game with the Hoosiers trailing 5-1, but the Indiana defense wasn’t at its best at times. Two unearned runs scored off Bierman after a Jeremy Houston error at shortstop and a sacrifice fly in the second inning. An encouraging sign for Bierman was his ability to force groundouts. Bierman’s off-speed pitches kept LSU hitter off-balance at times, inducing six groundouts. 

A somewhat new face toed the rubber for Indiana in the second game of Saturday’s double-header. Mercer gave the ball to sophomore Braydon Tucker, who gave up two runs in 6.2 innings out of the bullpen in 2019, to start the game. Tucker found the most success versus a deep LSU order, pitching six innings and allowing one run on four hits. Tucker’s lone earned run came in the sixth inning off a sacrifice fly out to left field.

The bottom line is Sommer and Bierman simply have to find a way to be more effective moving forward. Sommer found great success last season with his curveball, which could play a big role versus UT-Martin. Tucker was outstanding in his first start as a Hoosier, and performances like his versus LSU will be huge for this pitching staff moving forward.

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