It sounds like a broken record at this point — freshmen and sophomores leading the way for Indiana. Time and time again this year the Hoosiers have been led by 19- and 20-year-olds in their first or second seasons of collegiate baseball. This weekend, a three-game sweep of the Ohio Bobcats, was no different.
In game one it was sophomore Bobby Whalen and freshman Connor Foley. In game two it was sophomores Luke Sinnard, Josh Pyne, Brock Tibbitts and Carter Mathison along with freshman Tyler Cerny. In the series finale it was freshmen pitchers Ethan Phillips and Brayden Risedorph.
Two guys I didn’t mention are sophomore Ryan Kraft and freshman Devin Taylor. Kraft has allowed just six earned runs in 40.2 innings pitched this season out of the bullpen. Taylor leads the team in slugging, on-base percentage and home runs — he added two more to his tally this weekend.
It’s the young core that has propelled Indiana to seven consecutive series wins dating back to February. A group of young players that has been brought into Indiana for a reason. It’s all a part of head coach Jeff Mercer’s idea of how to build a winning baseball team.
“The lifeblood of the program is recruiting and the backbone of it is player development,” Mercer said Sunday after the series finale. “The last two years you’ve watched so many young guys just continue to grow and get better.”
“I’m just really proud of the kids,” Mercer went on to say. “I’m really proud of the coaches and proud of the recruiting I put in place and of the systems that we put in place and I hope we can continue to compete at this level.”
In the series opener on Friday night, Foley was put in a tough situation. He came into the game in relief for Kraft with runners on first and second base with nobody out in a one-run game.
Foley struck out the first batter he faced for the first out. Then, ahead in the count 0-2 to the next batter, he ran a fastball too far inside and hit the batter to load the bases with just one down in the inning. The freshman responded by striking out the next batter and getting the final out on a flyball to right field, clinching the 9-8 win for the Hoosiers.
“I think you watched the guy grow up today,” Mercer said postgame after game one. “That’s what you need when you’re built on growing up young guys and playing young guys.”
It was the first time all year Foley had been thrust into the game in a high leverage spot. He credits Indiana pitching coach Dustin Glant with a lot of the improvement he’s made this season.
“(Glant) has helped transition me from a thrower to a pitcher,” Foley said Friday night after his first career save. “He’s a mastermind, I’m so glad I get to work with him.”
After two midweek games thinned out the Indiana bullpen, Sinnard — the Hoosiers’ game two starter — knew he needed to give his team length. Sinnard, the only traditional starter on the team, did just that in his 10th start of the year on Saturday. He allowed two runs on two solo shots and struck out eight in his longest start of the year, going a much-needed seven innings.
“(Sinnard’s) a young guy going through it for the first time and he looks terrific,” Mercer said after game two. “He’s a great kid and a great player.”
Sinnard got the best run support he’s gotten all year long, as the Indiana offense exploded for 17 runs on 18 hits. Six Hoosiers had multi-hit games. Cerny hit two long balls — a three-run blast in the second and a two-run shot in the sixth — on a day where he tallied three hits and six RBIs total.
Mathison, who shattered the Hoosiers freshman home run record last year with 19, also went deep in the 17-2 win. Mathison’s fifth homer of the year went 454 feet.
Indiana went into the series finale looking for its first sweep since the Big Ten opener in late March against Ohio State. After the opener, junior Seti Manase, only went 2.1 innings, Phillips got the nod out of the bullpen.
Phillips had a great outing on Tuesday against No. 12 Louisville, going 4.2 innings and allowing one unearned run in the Hoosiers resume-boosting win over the Cardinals. Phillips picked up right where he left off against Louisville, striking out five and not surrendering a single hit in 3.2 innings of work Sunday against Ohio.
Risedorph was the next man out of the Indiana bullpen. Risedorph continued the bullpen dominance by allowing one hit over the final three innings en route to a 9-2 win for the Hoosiers.
“Today, my sinker wasn’t working and I really leaned on my slider,” Risedorph said after collecting his second save of the season. “It’s all about having a feel for the game and just going with whatever is working the best and just attacking.”
Another Indiana youngster, Pyne, had three of his eight hits this weekend in the series finale.
“It feels like we’ve known each other for years now,” Pyne said of his fellow underclassmen. “I think that is big, we like to hang out off the field.”
Indiana freshman and sophomores combined to throw 19.1 innings this weekend and allowed just six runs. On the offensive side, the underclassmen went 26-for-56, good enough for an average of .464.
The Hoosiers have begun to reap the rewards of the youth movement this season. After sneaking into the Big Ten Tournament a year ago as the eight seed and being bounced in the first round, the Hoosiers sit all by themselves atop the Big Ten standings this year. The Hoosiers have all but locked up a berth in this year's NCAA Tournament and have their sights set on hosting a regional.
It’s a process that doesn’t always yield immediate results, but for Indiana this year it's the youth that might lead them to their eighth Big Ten regular season title in program history and first since 2019.