Mercer tasked with keeping Hoosiers on track

Tracy Smith propelled Indiana’s program in a positive direction, and Chris Lemonis kept the Hoosiers in the national conversation.

Now, it’s Jeff Mercer’s mission to make sure IU baseball stays there.

The 33-year-old native Hoosier has been on the job since July, taking control of a program built to win. These first few months have proven instructive for Mercer, who won 77 games during his two seasons guiding Wright State, and is now poised to add more meaningful victories at IU. He knew he was joining a program with tradition, a program with the resources to win.

On the eve of Friday’s 5 p.m. season opener at Memphis, Mercer now knows exactly what he’s working with.

“I think anytime you come into a new situation, you don’t know their desire to learn, or their ability to be intrinsically motivated, and to really have a growth mindset,” Mercer said. “You don’t know that when you walk in the door but, very quickly (here), that became evident that they really wanted to improve. Man, they’re so smart. They’re motivated. They’re intelligent.”

And under Mercer, the Hoosiers are intent on continuing the success the program has achieved in recent seasons.

Since the start of the 2008 campaign, Indiana leads the Big Ten in overall wins (384) and conference victories (161). IU has also made five NCAA Tournament appearances across the past six seasons.

Mercer inherited a team that expects to continue winning this season, a team that advanced as far as the last year’s Austin Regional final before losing to Texas in early June. It’s a team that once again has the pieces to challenge for a conference title and build on the success of Mercer’s predecessors.

“We feel we can go up against the best in the country,” junior first baseman Scotty Bradley said. “Obviously a tough ending (last season), but we don’t want a regional final as a place to stop. We want to continue to improve on that, obviously, and get further. And it all starts on Friday, so we’re looking forward to it.”

Mercer was non-committal about his lineup when asked Wednesday, but his weekend rotation is good to go.

Senior Pauly Milto will slide into the Friday role after working to a 2.03 ERA and posting two complete game shutouts across 13 starts in 2018. Milto, an All-Big Ten second team selection last spring, has solidified himself as a reliable arm for the Hoosiers in recent seasons. He pitched into the sixth inning in six of his final seven outings as IU’s Saturday starter last season.

Behind Milto, Mercer is hoping the offseason gains made by junior college transfer Tanner Gordon and sophomore left-hander Tommy Sommer translate into weekend results this spring.

Gordon joins IU from John A. Logan College, where he posted a 2.06 ERA, along with 104 strikeouts in 70 innings pitched last season. The right-hander will start Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Memphis.

“From the fall to the spring, I’ve seen the development of his sinker (and) the growth of a change-up, to where he’s very dangerous against left-handed hitters,” Mercer said. “So just his growth and the pitch-manipulation, his ability to throw to both sides, his ability to hold in the run game and ability to pitch out of the stretch (make him an intriguing option).”

Sommer started three of the 13 games in which he appeared as a freshman last spring, striking out 27 batters in 29 1/3 innings and posting a 3.07 ERA.

“He’s grown a lot,” Mercer said. “I saw him in high school, obviously, and he had good stuff. Very ‘projectable.’ His ability to hold the run-game is very mature. He’s an adult. His growth, both physically and being able to really manipulate the pitch in the role, has been really good. So you feel real confident about him being able to go out and throw on the weekend, at a young age, as a sophomore.”

At the plate, meanwhile, Mercer is working to change Indiana’s approach.

IU led the Big Ten with 68 home runs in 2018, 23 of which came from Logan Sowers and Luke Miller. Without those two power bats in the lineup, the Hoosiers are aiming to achieve more offensive balance.

“In terms of approach, I’d say, at the plate, we actually have a true, solid plan,” senior Matt Lloyd said. “We have three different approaches we can go to: middle-in, middle-away and cut-the-corners. So we kind of have – depending upon the situation, the count, the pitcher, depending upon what you do well – you can just fall into one of those approaches and do your job.

“Our offense is more of a unit. I feel like last year, and years prior, we kind of relied on the long ball, probably more than we should have. This year, we can score many ways. We can steal bases. We can hit the ball in the gap. We can manufacture runs. We’re fast. But we can still hit with power. I just think we’re really prepared to go into the season strong.”

In addition to reprising his role as IU’s closer, Llloyd will swing one of the bats Indiana will count on. He batted .275 with nine homers and 41 RBIs last season. projects junior left fielder Matt Gorski as the Big Ten Player of the Year. Last season, Gorski led IU in batting average (.356), hits (79) and total bases (123), while posting 14 doubles, three triples, and eight home runs.

“The main cogs in the wheel (last year) are going to be the main cogs in the wheel into this year, as well,” Mercer said.

Mercer feels like IU could be strong up the middle, with a veteran senior catcher in Ryan Fineman, a strong backup in Wyatt Cross and strong options at the middle infield spots.

Justin Walker and Cade Bunnell will each see time at second base, while Jeremy Houston returns to short. Although he’s known mainly for his glove, Houston, a .219 career hitter at the bottom of the order, is trying to enhance his offensive profile. Mercer said he’s proud of the development Houston has enjoyed this offseason, and the junior could even split time with centerfielder Logan Kaletha in the leadoff role as the season progresses.

“We put Jeremy Houston there a bit in the fall games and I think Jeremy’s growth offensively has been one of the more interesting storylines that we’ve had,” Mercer said. “That guy has worked really hard. He’s a different offensive player. You could see him potentially, at some point, sliding into that role. I do know that normally what starts the season isn’t what ends the first weekend, let alone halfway through. But we are fortunate to have some different options.”