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Indiana drops first Big Ten series to Northwestern after losing rubber match

Everything was finally looking like it was going in the right direction for Indiana entering Saturday’s game against Northwestern. After starting 0-8 in games decided by less than three runs, Indiana won three straight games, all being decided by a single run.

After taking the series against in-state foe Evansville with a doubleheader sweep, Indiana began Big Ten play 1-0 with a tight 5-4 win over Northwestern on Friday night. But that proved to be the sole win of the weekend for IU, as the Hoosier offense was inconsistent and the bullpen struggled once again.

In Friday’s win, Jack Perkins tossed a quality start with six innings with just two earned runs, but was outmatched by Wildcats starter Sean Sullivan, who tossed six shutout innings with 11 strikeouts. Entering the seventh inning stretch, Indiana trailed 2-0.

However, Indiana pounced on the Wildcats ‘pen, batting around in the seventh to plate five. Hunter Jessee got it all started with a pinch-hit single, and RBI hits from Phillip Glasser, Bobby Whalen and Josh Pyne gave the Hoosiers a lead they nearly relinquished in the next half inning but held onto in the end for a nail-biting win, with the save coming from Braydon Tucker.

Head coach Jeff Mercer said it was a “relief” when Sullivan exited the game, and credited the southpaw for his outing.

“I hope we never see him again,” Mercer said with a wide smile and a chuckle. “But seriously, he was outstanding tonight. He’s got such an interesting fastball that keeps hitters off-balance.”

Glasser said his approach at the plate didn’t change when the reliever came into the game, which led to him slapping a double down the left field line to tie the game at two.

Scoring in only one inning was the case again for the Hoosiers on Saturday, this time ending in a 7-6 loss. After trailing 7-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Indiana found a second wind, scoring six runs in the final half but ultimately falling short. Carter Mathison and Tucker Schank each had two-RBI hits but the top two Hoosiers in the lineup struck out to end the game. Too little too late, but better late than never.

Heading into the rubber match, Indiana had only scored in two of the 17 innings the offense had come to the plate. They scored in five of the nine innings on Sunday, but only scored multiple runs in a frame once, losing 13-6. The ‘Cats scored 11 of their 13 runs with two outs as Indiana couldn’t get out of innings before the damage was done. The Hoosiers used five pitchers, and only the starter Nathan Stahl faced fewer than 10 batters. Stahl got just four outs and took the loss, giving up three earned runs.

Once again, Indiana doesn’t have a strong Sunday starter, and bullpen games aren’t going to win this team many matchups given the way relievers have handled the ball on the mound. Unless they can consistently outslug teams, Indiana is going to have trouble winning on getaway day with this current system. There simply just isn’t enough talent and depth to win games, given that bullpen arms are seeing three or four innings of work a weekend, and they usually get dinged up in the tail end of their appearances.

Mercer addressed this question after the game Sunday, explaining that they have the talent to get through bullpen games, but need to do better keeping opposing offenses in check, which is exactly what Northwestern did to them.

Indiana will attempt to win the season series when the team travels to Evansville on Tuesday for a single game on the road before a trip to West Lafayette looms over the weekend.

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