Indiana had a chance. Tied atop the Big Ten standings heading into the final weekend, the Hoosiers had a chance to claim at least a share of the Big Ten regular season title on the last weekend of the season. However, Indiana faltered in its final regular season series of the year, dropping two of three in East Lansing, Michigan against the Michigan State Spartans.
Despite the sour end to the season for the Hoosiers, they locked up the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament. Last year Indiana showed promise. Behind talented freshmen, the Hoosiers won 27 games and snuck into the Big Ten Tournament. This year, Indiana’s youth was once again the theme of the team and it propelled the Hoosiers to their first 40-win season since 2018.
The three games in East Lansing this weekend were decided by a total of four runs. After losing the first two games, Indiana needed a win on the final day of the regular season. Freshman Connor Foley came up big for Indiana as he has all season long in the series finale, earning a three-inning save in IU’s 6-5 win to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament for the Hoosiers.
“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” was the message from Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer following the series-opening loss. “It’s one game and one day, we’ve lost three or four Friday night games and have come back to win those series.”
Luke Sinnard started the first game for the Hoosiers on the mound but was ultimately tagged with the loss after Ryan Kraft came into the game in relief and allowed three inherited runners to score.
Kraft — the Big Ten’s ERA leader heading into the game — allowed three runs himself and could only go an inning and a third before he was pulled out of an abundance of caution.
“(Kraft) just had a little bit of tightness and he was kind of shaking his arm a little bit,” Mercer said. “We went and grabbed him just out of precaution and we’ll let the trainers and doctors take a look and hopefully he’s fine.”
Despite scoring two runs in the top of the ninth and bringing the tying run to the plate in that frame, the Hoosiers were unable to complete the comeback, falling 8-6 in the series opener.
The second game of the series followed a similar pattern. Indiana took the lead early, but lost it in the middle innings and again found themselves trailing heading into the ninth.
After Hunter Jessee struck out, representing the tying run in the series opener, Jessee once again stepped up to the plate in a big spot in the ninth for Indiana. The bases loaded, two out, trailing by one run. Jessee scalded a 1-0 pitch out to center field where it was caught, ending the game with a 7-6 loss.
“I was on second base and I for sure thought it was down,” Carter Mathison said after the game. “So I was scoring, but (Michigan State) made a good play on it.”
For a second consecutive game, the Hoosiers put up two runs in the top of the ninth and fell short with the tying run either at the plate or on the bases.
“Life on the road in Power Five baseball is a really hard road,” Mercer said. “It is what it is, but we’ve won a lot of games, had a great season, lost two games by a total of three runs. That’s just the way it goes.”
Before the Hoosiers began play in the series finale they knew what they were playing for. After Maryland had taken down Penn State earlier in the day, a shot at the Big Ten title was gone. Instead, the Hoosiers were playing for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament.
A win and Indiana would be the No. 2 seed, a loss and an Iowa win and the Hoosiers would be the No. 3 seed.
Two solo home runs for the Hoosiers star freshman Devin Taylor helped to give Indiana the lead in the middle innings. After each team scored a singular run in the sixth, Indiana held a slight 4-3 lead heading into the seventh.
That’s when Foley came into the game to pitch for the Hoosiers. One of Indiana’s stand-out freshmen had only two saves on the year coming into the game.
Armed with two additional insurance runs from the eighth inning, Foley came out to toe the rubber in the ninth — a third straight inning of work in relief. Foley had not gone more than two innings and had not exceeded the 40 pitch mark all season long.
In need of three outs to clinch the 40th win of the season and the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Foley allowed hits to three of the first four batters he faced in the inning. The Spartans scored twice to bring their deficit to just one run. After an intentional walk, there were runners on first and second with just one out — the runner on second representing the tying run.
Foley proceeded to make the biggest pitches he’s made perhaps in his career, striking out the next two batters he faced and snatching the win for Indiana.
“I had the confidence to go out there and go right at them,” Foley said postgame. “I just reared back and threw as hard as I could up there and got it done.”
The young freshman has grown tremendously this year for Indiana. So much has been made of the young Indiana bats — and rightfully so — but the Hoosiers have a number of talented young arms as well.
“He’s developed a ton over the course of the year,” Mercer said. “He was the right man for it. We had faith in him that he was going to find a way to get it done.”
Indiana doesn’t get a lot of time off before going out west to Omaha to participate in the Big Ten Tournament which begins on Tuesday. Indiana — the No. 2 seed — will take on Illinois to begin the tournament.
Indiana has hopes of a deep postseason run, not only in the Big Ten Tournament, but in the NCAA Tournament as well. For the Hoosiers, it’s been the belief they have in themselves that has gotten them to this point. It’s that belief that will push them through a run in the postseason.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say how proud I am of the kids and how proud I am of the coaches,” Mercer said. “They worked their tails off and they believed in themselves. They believed we could win.”