When Indiana and Iowa met in 2022’s final regular season series, the Hawkeyes poured on 44 runs over the course of three games against the Hoosiers — 30 of which coming in the Friday night opener.
By chance or by choice, a beatdown of that magnitude doesn’t sit well. It’s not one you forget easily either, as shown by Jeff Mercer’s relatively sharp memory of the proceedings from a season ago. Indiana had won four straight series leading into that tilt, and was looking to secure a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
Then, Iowa upended Indiana. Big-time. Although the Hoosiers still backed into the Big Ten tournament — making some noise about it in the process — a series loss like that is one you hope to avenge.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, where Indiana has done just that. Playing host this time around, the Hoosiers took two of three from Iowa to notch their fifth consecutive series victory and their third straight to open conference play.
The emotions overflowed into a loud locker room eruption, one that could be heard all the way back to Iowa City a year ago. Back to the dishevelment that put an ugly mark on the face of a roller coaster season a year ago. An eruption that serves as a worthy vindication for the work Indiana is doing to try and erase any narratives an overblown embarrassment had brought upon Mercer and his program.
“We’ve come a long way in a year,” Mercer said on Sunday following the series victory. “I’m just really happy for the guys, just to see the growth over the past year.”
Much like the opener a week ago versus Penn State, Indiana dropped the weekend’s first matchup on Friday night. Iowa flamethrowing starter Brody Brecht was as advertised, wowing the pro scouts in attendance with 100-plus mile per hour fastballs and seven innings of two-hit, one-run pitching. He didn’t dismantle the Indiana lineup by any means, but he had a firm control of the contest.
For what it’s worth, Mercer joked that he hopes he never has to see Brecht pitch again.
Yet, his lineup’s approach was competitive overall. The Hawkeyes had utilized timely hitting to periodically stretch their advantage to an eventual 7-1 victory, but Mercer’s trust didn’t waver. In his words, this weekend was a heavyweight fight.
He couldn’t allow his guys to be so up-in-arms about round one when rounds two and three were still to follow.
“The goal each weekend is to win a series,” Mercer said Friday night. “The year we won the Big Ten, we lost three or four Friday nights, came back and won the series…My dad would always say when something bad would happen, ‘You’ve got tonight to sulk and mope about it. But tomorrow morning, put your hard hat on, grab your lunch pail and get back to work.’
“There’s no place for tuck-tailing or acting like a big baby.”
Saturday was Indiana’s turn to trot its ace out to the mound, as Luke Sinnard returned to his dominant ways on the mound. His last time out, Indiana lost for the first time that Sinnard had toed the rubber all season. He’s one of the more competitive guys on Indiana’s staff, so a repeat performance was not in the cards.
“I came to a realization that I feel like I may have gotten a little bit comfortable in the starting role,” Sinnard said, “and I didn’t go out there with as much fire as I needed to (versus Penn State).”
Sinnard regained that fire on Saturday, throwing six innings of scoreless baseball, racking up 12 strikeouts and allowing just three hits in the process. Directly after, Ryan Kraft maintained momentum just the same, throwing four more scoreless innings and striking out five as the game moved into extras.
Indiana’s high-leverage arms had done their job, but the Hoosier bats struggled to figure out the vaunted Iowa staff of arms. But when the game went to extra innings, IU wasted little time in capturing the results the pitching staff had earned.
Carter Mathison’s single through the right side accounted for just the second Indiana hit of the afternoon. Then, Morgan Colopy recorded the Hoosiers’ third and final mark in the hit column, ending the game on one swing.
“I’m so glad God blessed that kid with that moment, because he’s so deserving,” Mercer said on Saturday of Colopy’s walk-off blast.
In Mercer’s eyes, he’s a true pro — the first guy in the cages, always finding extra reps. He stays late to perfect his craft. He hadn’t started in a month, and had been mostly a defensive replacement late in games when a result was in hand.
“I just can’t say enough good things about him, because everyone can remember that home run and that’s awesome,” Mercer said. “You would think he hits third and plays every day the way that he works, the way that he shows up.
“I’m glad we won, but I’m more happy on a personal level for him with the respect that I have for him as a human being.”
And as for Colopy’s recollection of the event?
“To be honest, I don’t really remember after I hit second base. I kind of blacked out, just was so excited for our team winning that big game.”
Yet in the biggest moment with his aforementioned long break between starts, Colopy’s focus was razor sharp. By staying prepared to do his best with his opportunity, he took full advantage.
After the dust finally settled on Saturday’s 2-0 win, a decisive Easter Sunday rubber match was set. This time around the Hoosier bats were ready, hammering the ball early. Yet, three consecutive double plays in the first three innings killed any momentum Indiana attempted to muster up.
“Sometimes, you get baseball’d,” Mercer said afterwards.
The situational aspect of Indiana’s hitting alluded the Hoosiers in times they needed it most, the scorebook reflecting an unsuccessful approach with runners in scoring position. Yet much like their Saturday outing, the Hoosiers turned it on when it mattered most.
Indiana scored its first run of the afternoon in the seventh inning, knotting the score at one on a Bobby Whalen RBI single. Iowa would respond with what could’ve been a backbreaking unearned run off of a potential inning-ending error in the eighth. However, Indiana — which has been so good on Sunday, so good when faced with a challenge — would not be denied.
A Peter Serruto RBI single tied the score at two, and after Phillip Glasser was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Bobby Whalen stepped up to the occasion once again.
His two-RBI single became the decisive blow in the 4-2 win, as freshman Brayden Risedorph shut the door on the game and the series.
“We have the ability to stay emotionally stable, to stay calm and to just use all 27 outs. We preach it every day,” Mercer said on Sunday. “You find a way to break through. You have to find a way to wait people out sometimes, and if you just stay stable throughout the entirety of the game, you hope someone else makes a mistake, and today we were able to do that.”
Just shy of 11 months after being humiliated at the hands of this same Iowa team, Indiana’s series victory over Iowa becomes the most pivotal feather in its cap for not only its Big Ten tournament prospects, but its NCAA tournament resume as well.
Erasing a series loss of that magnitude is always hard. Perhaps being in sole possession of the Big Ten’s top spot can help alleviate that.