Hoosiers need better bullpen in regional

When the postseason arrived last week, it seemed Indiana’s bullpen was ready to come of age.

Hoosier relievers were showing signs of more consistency down the stretch, helping IU win eight of its 11 regular season games in May, including arguably the pen’s best performance of the season in a midweek win over No. 2 Louisville.

Then came the Big Ten Tournament and the return of the bullpen woes that have plagued this team all season.

To win this weekend’s regional in Lexington, Ky., where No. 2 Indiana will begin play against No. 3 N.C. State on Friday at 7 p.m., the Hoosiers can’t afford further regression from their bullpen.

Hoosier relievers combined to allow nine runs on 18 hits across 13.2 innings during Indiana’s three-game stay in the conference tournament. The bullpen performed poorly in each of those three games, including IU’s lone win in the tournament — a 13-inning marathon that was sent to extras when closer Matt Lloyd couldn’t hold a one-run lead in the ninth.

The bullpen problems were again highlighted in last Friday’s 9-8 loss to Minnesota, when IU relievers Tim Herrin and Kade Kryzsko combined to yield six runs over the final three innings, including the game-winning, three-run homer to a Golden Gophers pinch hitter.

The win over Louisville on May 16 was an example of what this bullpen can be, with Herrin delivering one of the highlights of the game — and arguably the season — by striking out Cardinals star Brendan McKay on a series of sliders with two outs in the eighth inning.

But the Big Ten Tournament was further reminder that IU’s bullpen remains this team’s weakest link.

“I may have jinxed them last week because we didn’t finish two games,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said. “But we’ve pitched pretty well. It was kind of a weird inning we had the other night (in the second game against Minnesota) to not get out of the eighth, but I think they’re pretty good. They’re all healthy, they’re feeling good and we’re rested. They’re ready to go.”

As a pitching staff, Indiana (4.48) has the highest team earned run average of the four teams in the Lexington Regional. No. 1 Kentucky (3.65 ERA) leads the field, followed by N.C. State (4.01 ERA) and Ohio (4.29 ERA).

Although IU pitching has been inconsistent, particularly out of the bullpen, the potential of Indiana’s pitchers has been on display during the second half of the season.

Herrin, a sophomore, and freshmen Cameron Beauchamp and Andrew Saalfrank have shown signs of settling in as the season has progressed.

Junior southpaw B.J. Sabol has been effective against left-handed hitters, striking out 16 in 9 2/3 combined innings against lefties. Kryzsko, a fellow junior, had allowed only two runs across his previous 6 1/3 innings of work prior to yielding the pinch-hit home run to Minnesota last week.

And Lloyd, despite a tough outing against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, is tied for fourth among Big Ten pitchers with nine saves.

“We have a couple left-handed matchups that I think will be huge this weekend,” Lemonis said. “Just looking at the other teams, a couple of our right-handers are available, too. We get an extra starter back in that mix because in the conference tournament you have to win four. In a regional, you may just have to win three. I feel good about our pitching and where we’re at.”

Lemonis has not revealed who will take the mound to start Friday’s game against the Wolfpack. Neither has N.C. State counterpart Elliott Avent revealed who the Wolfpack will start against the Hoosiers.

“We’ve been watching a lot of film, looking at a lot of scouting reports and everything else,” Lemonis said. “They’re talented. They’re very talented. I think they were picked as one of the top teams in the country to start. They had a rough start, but are playing very well now. It’ll be a good matchup for us.”