CINCINNATI – Devin Taylor has had this week written in his calendar for a while now.
He’s not the only one. For Indiana, the chance to play two midweek games back-to-back — one against a top-ranked program on national television at your facility. For national pundits, this week provided a chance to see if Indiana’s eye test is as solid as the metric-based rating systems that have been so hot on the Hoosiers. For Jeff Mercer and his staff, it was a chance to continue experimenting and piecing together a pitching staff that has almost too many arms to manage. There’s probably worse problems you could have, though.
But for Taylor, this week also meant a chance to come home — to showcase why he’s in the position he’s in now. And, he says, a chance to get his 3-Way with two coneys from Skyline Chili. If there’s one thing a Cincinnatian is loyal to, it’s their slop-covered spaghetti and hot dogs.
Wednesday night, Taylor had a cheering section of nearly 50 people roaring in approval as the ball sailed over the right field fence and ricocheted off of Fifth Third Arena in the air, about 30 feet off the ground. Seconds earlier, the eventual three-run home run left the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week’s bat at 109 miles per hour, ballooning Indiana’s advantage to seven runs in the top of the seventh.
“I got fooled,” Taylor said of the blast Wednesday night. “I just threw my hands at it… I got fooled, I’m so serious. I sometimes underestimate my power.”
Mercer wasn’t so sure.
“If he got fooled on that, then I’d like him to get fooled more often,” Mercer said.
As the final out was recorded later in the evening in an 11-9 victory over the Bearcats, he was one of a host of freshmen who stole the show over the last 18 innings of baseball. As a result, combined with the 7-3 triumph over No. 12 Louisville on Tuesday night, Indiana had two wins to show for it.
If it sounds familiar, just a season ago the group of Carter Mathison, Brock Tibbitts, Josh Pyne and others were the ones making waves as a star-studded freshman class. Now, they’ve paved a path for others to follow in their footsteps and produce right away.
“(Mathison, Pyne, Tibbitts), they really set the tone last year and brought us under their wing, saying we can do this again with this group,” Taylor said on Wednesday night. “They’ve definitely helped us out with that and make us feel more comfortable. Now we’re just riding through it.”
With intrigued eyes set on Tuesday night’s matchup with the visiting Cardinals, Indiana handled Louisville’s early challenge to put up a five-spot in the bottom of the third and take a comfortable lead.
It stayed comfortable thanks to an outstanding outing from Ethan Phillips, whose 4.2 innings of pitching limited the potent Cardinal offense as the Hoosiers tacked on additional runs to their cushion. The appearance was the longest of Phillips’ young career. It also, according to Mercer, was his most influential — not just for this season, but for his personal growth moving forward.
“You could see him a couple times step off the mound and collect himself. That’s a big environment for a freshman,” Mercer said on Tuesday night. “There’s a lot of people in the stands, you’re playing against a really good team… I’ve been in his keister all year, ‘You have a chance to be a star, you’re a wonderful player, if you would just believe in yourself like I, like we, believe in you.’
“To see him collect himself in those moments… it was just very fulfilling.”
In a game where the Hoosiers knew they would need to stack innings from their relievers, Phillips offered to start Tuesday night’s tilt in the bullpen. The translation, Mercer says, is that’s the sign of a guy who’s ready to go whenever you need him. There’s not a handbook or how-to manual for ways to showcase your confidence in your abilities to a coach, but how could a coach not love that?
“I just always want to get in the game. I love to pitch,” Phillips said Tuesday night. “I want to be out there, I want to eat as many innings as I can. And I want to be where they need me.”
With four complete games’ worth of innings still to be covered after Tuesday’s game, the coaching staff needed him to give them length that he hadn’t ever given before to preserve other arms. Phillips' response? No problem.
“My overall mentality is that when I get in the game, I want to finish it,” Phillips said.
Coming back from Christmas break and getting back into the swing of things, Phillips’ only goal was to crack the travel roster. Even so, that took multiple weeks to do, let alone earning the trust required to be entered into certain spots such as the one he did Tuesday.
A couple months later, Phillips can shake off the teasing from veteran catcher Matthew Ellis asking if he’s ready for the challenge Louisville presented.
“Mercer kind of wanted me to just grow, and I was able to watch. I was able to kind of step back and watch and see guys play, even on both sides of the ball, just kind of see what works,” Phillips said. “Then I was able to say, ‘Hey, I’m good enough to be here. I’m good enough to play,’ and realized what the coaches saw in me.
“I was able to get my opportunity and kind of take off and have that success, and just keep growing… I’m here to play college baseball. I’m here to win.”
Phillip’s night Tuesday was backed up by the aforementioned showing out from Taylor, more fireworks from Tyler Cerny — both with the bat and the glove — and on the bump from Brayden Risedorph.
Taylor’s 422-foot blast accounted for his only hit of the evening, but extended his reached-base streak to 27 consecutive games and became the 11th time this season he’s had a multi-RBI game. Cerny had two extra-base hits and a homer of his own, golfing a low fastball over the left field fence in the midst of a five-run second inning en route to recording three RBIs. Risedorph’s night featured a career-high seven strikeouts and just two hits across four scoreless innings.
The success Indiana has had in having multiple high-impact freshmen is a testament to its recruiting process and allowing opportunities for freshmen to showcase why they were brought into the program in the first place. In Mercer’s eyes, it does no good to stunt the growth of a young player by continually recruiting over him.
If not given adequate opportunity and reason to earn a spot, why are they in the program in the first place?
“Philosophically, we believe in the high school guy and you believe in your development, so you’ve kind of got to clear the deck,” Mercer said Wednesday. “You can’t clutter the roster and impede those guys’ development.”
If the past two seasons are anything to go by, it’s all vindication for the countless hours put in years in advance on the recruiting trail to bring in guys who will help the program right away. Indiana has a stream of impact freshmen that not only improve their chances of winning now, but winning in the future with the upcoming crops of recruits that could call Bloomington home.
Recruits love a blueprint. Evidently, Jeff Mercer and company have more than a few in their toolbelt.