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Nick Mitchell swings and misses at a pitch against Illinois on Friday, March 22, 2024. (HN photo/Jaren Himelick)
Nick Mitchell swings and misses at a pitch against Illinois on Friday, March 22, 2024. (HN photo/Jaren Himelick)

Indiana’s lack of complementary baseball facilitates frustrating Big Ten opening series loss to Illinois

Big innings, non-competitive approaches and unsustained play sandwiched a Saturday gem as IU lost two of three to Illinois

Complementary baseball is a two-way street all teams wish to travel upon.

Many of Indiana’s inconsistencies so far this season are rooted in failing to find that street. Not combining defensive shutdown innings from the pitchers and defense with the run-scoring capability IU’s offense has shown in the past on a frequent enough basis is among head coach Jeff Mercer’s frustrations with the campaign’s up-and-down start.

Big Ten play presented a new opportunity to right the ship and return to a form that closer resembles who Indiana hopes and knows itself to be. The sixth-year head coach emphasized that this league was for the taking if the elusive formula to stability in results was to be discovered.

That hunt will go on for another week, as Indiana dropped two of three in its Big Ten opening series to Illinois.

Hosting Illinois for a chilly opening to conference play, Indiana was burned again by the big innings they’ve been susceptible to suffer from all year long. The game was close except for one frame — an eight-run sixth inning for the Illini. Too often through the campaign’s first 24 games, when it rains, it pours. In this instance, missed opportunities to control the game offensively then put the Hoosiers in a hole when the arms were put into a bind.

“It stinks,” Mercer said Friday after a 9-1 loss, “because we actually played good defense and pitched it well outside of that one inning. So the things that we’ve really focused on, we were better at outside of that one inning. It’s frustrating.”

Regardless of the proficiencies the innings of good work had tabled, IU’s lineup only mounted four hits, meaning they’d go quietly in the weekend’s first defeat.

“I didn’t think we were very competitive offensively late,” Mercer said. “We were frustrated and it showed in our at-bats.

“When you have opportunities you have to capitalize, and we just didn’t. Weren’t able to break it open early, and when you don’t break it open, now you’re kind of trying to thread the needle on what you do on the mound to give yourself a chance to win the series. The offense didn’t necessarily give us an avenue to use the mound the way we would.”

The stark contrast came Saturday, when IU starter Connor Foley hurled seven scoreless innings to piece together his best outing in an Indiana uniform. Allowing just two hits, his 10 strikeouts, seven innings and 103 pitches were all career-highs. And just hours after not rising to the bar Indiana had set in the two other aspects of the game, the IU lineup was timely — albeit delayed — with its contributions in conjunction.

Six of the eight Hoosier runs came in the final three turns at bat as they came around, allowing IU to celebrate a weekend-evening 8-1 win when all was said and done Saturday.

“It’s our responsibility as an offense to do more than we did, but then all of a sudden, Connor gets going there,” Mercer said Saturday. “In the fifth or sixth inning, (he) was spectacular. You can tell when you got a real guy, he gets into the fifth or sixth inning in a close game and smells it. He puts his foot down, punches a couple guys out there in the fifth or sixth and comes charging off the mound. That energy and enthusiasm is contagious.”

In the most simple terms, the Hoosier pitchers have thrived when being able to attack with the freedom of taking the bump with a lead. Finally, IU earned the right to revel in it.

“(Connor) comes in like Tarzan, all fired up, and then you start to have better at-bats and you have a responsibility back-and-forth to each other,” Mercer said. “You kind of get it going offensively and you open it up and roll, but it’s a two-way street.”

“It sets a good example,” Foley said following his performance. “Hopefully we can just hit the ground running now with a little momentum.”

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Connor Foley delivers a pitch during Indiana’s win over Illinois on Saturday, March 23, 2024. (HN photo/Nicholas McCarry)

When returning to the Bart for the Sunday rubber match, IU surely had hopes to validate the positive outcome from just the day prior. Instead, it amounted to be the weekend’s anomaly. It didn’t take long into the series finale for that conclusion to materialize.

IU trailed by four before even taking a turn at the plate as starter Ryan Kraft received his marching orders prior to the recording of the frame’s third out. Two innings later, eight Illini runners crossed the plate in a single turn at the plate for the second time all weekend. Indiana’s attempt at winning the year’s first conference series was only an hour and 15 minutes old, but their steep deficit was 12.

The Illini advantage would remain comfortable through the ensuing six innings, winning the weekend on the shoulders of a 15-8 victory. Indiana’s late fight was valiant, but truly never threatened a change in the outcome.

“I know that people talk about confidence, and I get it,” Mercer said following the defeat, “I played and I’ve coached and I’ve seen it. You can’t always see the ball go through the hoop before you have the ability to go and compete with your best stuff. You don’t always get to have a base hit fall before you go out and compete to have your best at-bat.

“We all want to have confidence. We all want to have belief. We’re gonna have to go out there and execute with better stuff to kind of force that to happen, to will that to happen. You can’t kind of hope and wish it, you have to make it a reality.”

Indiana’s infield and outfield meets during Indiana’s loss to Illinois on Friday, March 22, 2024. (HN photo/Jaren Himelick)

Now 12-12 on the year, Indiana entered Sunday with the Big Ten’s worst combined ERA for a pitching staff, worst team fielding percentage and just a middle-of-the-pack offense. What Indiana aspires to be hasn’t materialized through the season’s first six weeks.

All of the following can be true: entering the season, there were real, lofty, present expectations. How warranted they really were is likely a matter of reflection which can only be decided later in the year, but IU has had flashes of living up to it — just only in spurts. They’ve beaten quality teams, but suffered losses to opponents of a respectfully inferior caliber. Yet, there’s still time for those spurts to substantialize into something IU can ride into a better stretch of play.

“It hasn’t just been on the pitching,” Mercer said. “It’s the inability for us to do what we’re supposed to do offensively, follow a plan, and then the ability for us as coaches to put guys in the right spot.

“We’re going to go on a run,” Mercer said. “At some point, we’re going to play really good baseball. I’m 100 percent confident of it.”

Why hasn't it happened yet? Attribute some of it to a tough early season schedule, yes. But the Hoosiers haven’t done themselves enough favors in playing baseball that’s favorable to winning the way teams experiencing success around them have.

Until that changes, the Hoosiers remain strapped into this year’s frustrating roller coaster ride.

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