Behind every great turnaround or success story is a motivating moment. A key factor. A driving force. A “why.” Indiana baseball is no different.
A season ago, Indiana dropped a three-game set in West Lafayette that set them back – not just literally, but emotionally. A young team who was searching for purpose and identity on the Big Ten tournament bubble, the Boilermakers’ dismissal of head coach Jeff Mercer’s squad was demeaning. Drilled 17-0 in the Friday opener, Indiana bounced back in the first game of a doubleheader, 10-3, to even the series. The series closed in a thriller, but the Hoosiers were on the wrong side of a 16-15 final.
“It’s frustrating, believe me,” Mercer said following that April series last season. “Leading the organization, there’s no one that sees that or understands that more than I do.”
Indiana took it personally. Mercer says as human beings, it’s hard not to. This season, however, is a different story.
Emotions could have rode high and influenced uncharacteristic play. After all, there was a lot going on: the celebration of 10 seniors for their time in the program, the honoring of an incoming Pro Baseball Hall of Famer in Indiana Director of Player Development Scott Rolen, a contentious matchup against a hated in-state rival with the potential for revenge.
Yet in a season that has featured so many highs, it’s the lows that fuel this collective unit to continue to push further. Indiana wants to maintain those heights, if anything to ensure they don’t endure those lows again.
Fast forward to this weekend, where the Hoosiers did just that. After beating the brakes off of the Boilermakers for two consecutive nights and outscoring Purdue 41-14 to begin the weekend, Indiana hadn’t strayed far from their grounded roots.
“I’ve told them a couple of times, ‘Don’t you ever forget what that was like,’” Mercer said Saturday night. “‘Don’t you ever forget what it’s like to be in that position.’”
Freshman standout Tyler Cerny wasn’t yet a Hoosier when Purdue drubbed Indiana last year. Doesn’t matter. Before taking the field in search of a Mother’s Day sweep on Sunday, the Hoosiers knew what they wanted to do.
“They embarrassed us last year,” Cerny said Saturday night. “We just made it our mindset to not have that happen again, and we just took it to them. And we’re going to continue to do that tomorrow.”
Piling on to 26-11 and 15-3 victories on Friday and Saturday, the Hoosiers poured on en route to a 10-2 victory on Sunday. The 51 total runs across the weekend is the most for Indiana ever in a three-game series versus Purdue, and it’s the first time the Hoosiers have swept the Boilermakers in a series since 2016.
Indiana set up a gameplan on the mound, followed it “to perfection” in Mercer’s own words and had the offensive firepower to back it up. As a result, the Hoosiers control their own destiny heading into the final Big Ten series of the year at Michigan State, tied atop the conference with Maryland after the Terrapins dropped a game to Minnesota on Friday.
“We played our best baseball, this weekend, of the season,” Mercer said Sunday. “When you talk about it from the very first meeting in the fall, you want to play your best baseball in the last couple of weekends. You want to be playing the best that you can going into postseason play.”
Indiana had a taste of this type of production just two weeks ago, but was on the other side of it – Maryland trounced Indiana in three games, none of the three being particularly close contests with all due respect. The Terrapins’ veteran group put away the hosts in business-like fashion, played without emotion and their competitive, unrelenting playstyle beat the Hoosiers into submission.
Mercer said Sunday there’s value in seeing that. It’s another situation where the Hoosiers must remember how it felt to be repeatedly punched in the face.
“You can’t shy away from that,” Mercer said.
In turn, Indiana beat Purdue the same way they’d lost to Maryland. Another catalyst to the success. That’s what good teams do. Mercer says he’s been around enough of them to know when he has one, and he’s got one this season.
Indiana understands what it means to execute the task at hand, to be committed to a plan and follow it through. Having experienced what it’s like to be too emotional and fired up for a series, Indiana plays with the right consciousness in the current moment while keeping the big picture in mind.
They’ve worked tirelessly to be in the position they are – postseason play on the table and in the hunt for a Big Ten title down the homestretch. Indiana has earned the right for each and every game to carry the magnitude and importance of a playoff game. Mercer said they’ve been playing playoff games for a month.
But the Hoosiers are serious. They’ve created a culture of winning, built through the right personnel and a wholehearted belief in the process required to reach the goals they aspire to achieve. It’s a complete team effort, one that Mercer attributes to not only having the right staff on board to do so, but having the kids that are willing to listen and apply the coaching and lessons learned to their own development. They’ve struck a nice balance while doing so, too.
“We really focus on little things that come up throughout the weekend that you wouldn’t recognize that really do change the course of the game, but we like to have fun while we do it,” sophomore infielder Josh Pyne said. “It’s nice to be out there with your brothers every day.”
Failure and frustration has become the agitator to facilitating success, a constant reminder of where Indiana doesn’t ever want to be. Now, they must remember the same feelings they have now, where success and the raising of their own ceiling can be used as incentive to replicate it.
After all, senior reliever Craig Yoho says they sometimes enjoy each other’s triumphs more than their own – “That’s kind of the culture we’ve built.” He wasn’t in the dugout when Hunter Jessee hit two home runs in the same inning during Saturday afternoon’s game, but was listening to the radio broadcast in the locker room. That wasn’t where he was by the time Jessee had rounded the bases, though.
“I heard it, I sprinted out there and met him basically right in front of the dugout,” Yoho said. “That was awesome.”
Indiana’s sum is made up of its parts. Sometimes, the byproduct of that is a near-perfect weekend against your in-state rival while putting yourself in the position you’ve sought after all season long.
The Hoosiers are in the driver seat as to how much further they go. In the same breath, they’re just along for the ride.