Connor Foley wanted this night to come sooner.
Wednesday night, Indiana carried a seven-run lead into the bottom of the ninth as the team looked to finish off the second night of a midweek back-to-back. They’d earned a momentous win the night before over No. 12 Louisville, and were on the verge of handling business on the road at Cincinnati on Wednesday.
But the sailing wasn’t so smooth in the bottom of the ninth. As the Bearcats threatened, head coach Jeff Mercer called on Luke Hayden to close the door. It wasn’t immediate, but Hayden finished the job as Cincinnati scored only five of the seven runs it would’ve needed to extend the game into extra frames.
Hayden wasn’t the only option Mercer had in his arsenal, though. Foley wanted the ball himself.
“We kind of flipped a coin between him and Luke Hayden,” Mercer said Friday, speaking of Wednesday’s contest. “I asked him after the game, I said, ‘Were you ready for that?’
“It was kind of explicit-laiden, and in so many words, he said, ‘Yeah, I was ready for it.’ He wanted that moment.”
Foley and Mercer are a lot alike. From similar small towns in southern Indiana, Mercer sees the talent and the potential with his freshman arm. He’s also tough on him, pushing him to fulfill that talent that Mercer knows is inside him.
The pushback was a sign of confidence from Foley, one that sat in the back of Mercer’s mind. To have the guts and the moxie to want the ball in that moment, Mercer says, is something he absolutely loves about him. It’s what inspired the same confidence in his head coach when it came time to call his number on Friday.
Inheriting two runners on base with no outs and a one-run lead to protect, Foley shut the door for his first career save as Indiana defeated Ohio, 9-8. Besides taking the series’ first game, it extended the Hoosiers’ win streak to five as Indiana improved to 20-1 at home.
Foley, as evidenced by the video Indiana posted to its social media accounts, was also named the player of the game for the evening by Mercer.
“You just have to stay locked in and stay working hard,” Foley said. “You never know when your time is gonna come, and obviously mine was tonight. Staying ready just helped me get through that.”
Foley loves the big intense moments — “Once you can get out of them, if you can get out of them, it’s a hell of a lot of fun,” he says — but he knows saves are hard to come by. After Ryan Kraft looked human for once, Foley had to find three outs with the tying run on second and the go-ahead runner 90 feet behind him.
Saves are even harder to come by when you have nowhere to place the batter. After striking out the first hitter he faced, Foley hit the next Bobcat up to the plate with a 95 mile per hour fastball on an 0-2 count. His fastball is his best pitch, and he was one away from being an out away. Instead, the bases were juiced. Now. a base hit would’ve likely given Ohio the lead.
Calming down after that mishap was a tall task, Foley says. But it was how he handled the next batter that dictated how the rest of his outing would transpire.
“You just gotta stay poised out there in those big situations,” Foley said. “I went first pitch strike the next hitter, and that kind of set the tone and maybe if I didn’t it was the next pitch after that… getting ahead and getting into those pitchers’ counts makes all the difference in my confidence out there.”
After a seven-pitch at-bat, Foley struck out the Bobcat hitter directly after and two pitches later, induced the game-ending flyout to right field.
“I think it says a ton about him,” Mercer said. “We all reach a point in our maturation process as we go from a young man to an adult where we just say, ‘Enough’s enough. I’m tired of messing around. I’m tired of being timid and feeling for it, and I’m just gonna go for it…’ Tonight, he went for it.”
Indiana’s pitching staff has been reliant on young guys stepping up when called upon all season long, piecing games together by getting innings where they can. IU is a team that’s built on the success of youth development. Just this year, Foley says pitching coach Dustin Glant has transitioned him from a thrower to an actual pitcher and has been a mastermind with his progression.
Moments like Foley’s on Friday night are what coaching is all about, but it’s also what winning requires and a testament to program development.
“You watched a guy grow up today,” Mercer said. “You’re waiting for those moments when they really flourish and they grow right in front of your eyes, it looked like that was the night for him.
“I’m sure he’ll have good days and everywhere in between, but today was a really big day for Connor Foley and his growth, which is a big day for us.”
Indiana continues its series with Ohio on Saturday, April 22 at 1 p.m.