The first six innings of Tuesday night’s contest between Indiana and Indiana State had been a bit of a drag. Outside of a Carter Mathison two-run shot that he’d gotten every stitch of, the game’s five runs came from a sacrifice fly, a wild pitch and an RBI single. Exhilarating stuff, for sure.
Then, the rain came. Whether or not that had an impact on the seventh inning, we’ll never truly know. However, something changed. Indiana carried a 4-1 advantage into the seventh.
A whopping 65 minutes and 14 combined runs later, the Hoosiers held a 15-4 stranglehold over their opponents. The Sycamores would add one more run in the ninth, but Indiana’s final margin of victory was 10, securing a 15-5 victory on Tuesday night.
Obviously, Indiana’s 11-run seventh inning was a shock to the system of what had been a relatively quiet, ho-hum pitching duel up until that point — one that Indiana had a firm grasp on. Yet, the Sycamores rallied for three runs to even the score and introduce a brand new ballgame on the other side of the seventh inning stretch.
Craig Yoho had inherited two runners with an out already recorded before allowing a single to load the bases. With nowhere to put anyone, Yoho hit the next batter before two consecutive walks forced across three runs. Tie game — the Sycamores still threatening with the bases loaded.
Indiana had always planned to staff the night, but head coach Jeff Mercer wanted to test the mettle of his infielder turned trusted bullpen arm. So, instead of turning to a different arm to get out of the jam, Mercer stuck to his guns and believed Yoho could reel it in before the inning snowballed further.
“Craig’s just kind of been, you know, clean innings,” Mercer said Tuesday night. “It’s good to get those guys in the fray. And you got to work your way through it.”
Ryan Kraft has emerged into the solid backend arm that every coach desires to have, and Mercer pondered turning it over to him. Kraft was scheduled to get work on the night regardless, but Mercer was thinking big picture by leaving Yoho in.
“It’s like, ‘Man, if Craig can really buckle down here and pitch through it, struggle then finish strong, it’s going to end up paying big dividends down the road,’” Mercer said. “When there’s a leadoff single in the eighth, one run game, can you manage this again? Have you been there before?”
The trust invested in Yoho to escape came to fruition: two strikeouts to end the frame and strand the loaded bases, preventing the inning from ballooning and allowing the Sycamores to control the outcome. Weirdly enough, Yoho’s two strikeouts were more of a momentum swing than the three Indiana State runs they’d scratched across in the inning.
Now, Indiana had a chance in another close ballgame late to do what the team has done best in this situation all season long: go out and win it. Expressing poise and comfort to the highest degree — especially impressive given the sudden turn of events — the Hoosiers wasted little time in their efforts.
Fifteen batters came to the plate as Indiana scored its 11 runs with patience. The approach has been simple all season long — take what the opposing arm will offer, and pounce when an opportunity presents itself. As a collective, Indiana has been holistically sound in high-pressure situations. While the numbers don’t show it right away, results have continued to formulate as the game continues to come to them.
Walks, wild pitches and plunked batters netted more free bases as the Hoosiers capitalized, pairing six base hits with their composed mindset at the plate. By maintaining their mentality, the Hoosiers methodically blew the game wide open and never looked back.
“Confidence is a big thing,” sophomore outfielder Carter Mathison said following the result. “Knowing we can win those games, and proving it lately, has been good for us. Just trusting ourselves.”
Mathison said their only focus at the plate is to get to first base and make things happen from there. So, in a position where other teams would likely fold over after surrendering a lead heading into the closing stretch of a tightly-contested game, all Indiana did was just keep going.
“We weren’t thinking anything much of it,” Mathison said. “We trust our offense. So, we’ll do anything for our pitchers. Whatever we had to do to take the lead, that’s what we were gonna do.”
Winners of nine of its last 10, Indiana has established a good groove at the right time heading into the first conference series of the season — a three-game home tilt versus Ohio State this upcoming weekend. The Buckeyes are playing good ball, and Mercer doesn’t expect an easy matchup.
Indiana is 14-7 on the year and 11-0 at home, but all that matters now is a clean slate in conference. However, now everyone is 0-0, and it’s all systems go to get out on the right foot early. The last thing the Hoosiers want is to fall flat to open their slate.
“We go into the fray (this weekend), but having the way that we were able to compete the last few weeks and find ways to win, be tough, and find a way to blow that thing open bodes well,” Mercer said. “Last year, we didn’t have the preseason we wanted and I lined them up in the dugout, tore up the stats and the record didn’t really matter because the whole season begins anew. And I’ll do the same thing.
“We’re ready to go. It’ll be a dogfight.”