Gordon, Saalfrank pitch IU to doubleheader sweep of Evansville

Pauly Milto started it, Tanner Gordon kept it going and Andrew Saalfrank took it a step further.

Indiana is enjoying a string of outstanding starts from its pitching staff this weekend.

After Milto twirled eight scoreless innings in Friday’s series-opening win, Gordon and Saalfrank made easy work of Evansville in Saturday’s doubleheader sweep at Bart Kaufman Field. Gordon yielded merely two hits over seven innings in IU’s 5-1 victory in the opener, and Saalfrank followed with a career-high-tying 14 strikeouts in Indiana’s 9-3 win in the nightcap, extending the Hoosiers’ winning streak to six games in the process.

“Our starting pitching has been tremendous on the weekends for several weeks,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “Really, really just sets the tone and gives us a chance.”

Indiana entered the weekend ranked third in the Big Ten in ERA (3.59) and fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.29) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.9). Through the first three contests of their four-game series against the Aces (17-14), the Hoosiers (23-12) have built on those marks in impressive fashion.

Across 22 2/3 combined innings this weekend, Milto, Gordon and Saalfrank have allowed only three earned runs on 10 hits, with three walks and 27 strikeouts.

“We just learn from each other,” Gordon said. “Learn the hitters. Learn their tendencies, especially with Pauly being our Friday night guy. He’s a great guy to learn from. He’s such a good leader. I just build off his start and take it the rest of the way.”

Gordon cruised through his outing in Game 1, retiring 12 consecutive batters between the second and fifth innings. The right-hander tallied six of his nine strikeouts in the first three innings, setting the tone for another crisp afternoon of Hoosier pitching.

Evansville did only minimal damage to Gordon’s line, taking advantage of a leadoff walk in the top of the sixth and driving Danny Borgstrom home on a one-out groundout to the right side of the infield.

But by that point, Indiana still held a 3-1 lead thanks to three RBIs — a run-scoring double in the first and a two-run homer in the third — by Matt Lloyd. Cole Barr added insurance on a two-run double in the seventh.

With the way Gordon was dealing, the Hoosiers were well on their way.

Saalfrank made sure IU’s success didn’t stop with the opener. The left-hander kept Evansville off balance with his assortment of pitches, including his looping curveball. The crowd of professional scouts seated behind home plate likely took notice.

The junior struck out four consecutive batters from the second to the third inning, then struck out five in a row from the seventh to the eighth. For Saalfrank, it was simply more of the same.

During the past month, Saalfrank has been missing bats at an impressive rate. He’s struck out 53 batters in his last 29 2/3 innings, one-upping himself in the process.

“He had 13 last weekend,” Gordon said. “Now he’s got 14. I told him, next weekend he better have 15 or else I’ll be pretty disappointed.”

And for a player whose consistency on the mound has ebbed and flowed during his career, the past five outings represent Saalfrank’s best stretch in an IU uniform.

“I would have to believe he’s really at a different place mentally, emotionally,” Mercer said. “His stuff’s always been excellent. But (now) just how locked-in he is, how focused he is, how committed (is impressive).”

At the plate, Indiana’s bats provided more than enough support for Gordon and Saalfrank.

Lloyd’s bat has been especially potent this weekend, and after going a combined 5-for-6 in Saturday’s doubleheader, the senior utility man is a remarkable 6-for-9 with five runs and five RBIs against Evansville this season.

“Remarkable is a perfect word for Matt,” Mercer said. “He’s a terrific player, a terrific worker and an incredible competitor. Woven into the fabric of his being is an elite competitor and he doesn’t give any pitches away. He’ll have a game that’s maybe not his best and you just know the next at-bat, he’s gonna be back on, and the next day he’s gonna be back on. He is very, very good. He is very, very good.”

Grant Richardson has been pretty good for these Hoosiers, too. The freshman went 2-for-3 with three RBIs in Game 2, supplying a two-run double and a solo home run in the nightcap.

Justin Walker and Scotty Bradley each added two RBIs in the second game, with Walker delivering a pair of run-scoring singles and Bradley driving in runs off of fielder’s choice scenarios.

Indiana will go for the series sweep on Sunday. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m.

With the four-game set, IU will likely ask its bullpen to carry the load in the finale. Left-hander Tommy Sommer is on track to get the start, with Mercer planning to patch things together after a few innings from the sophomore.

The Hoosiers aren’t hurting for bullpen arms at this point. Not with Milto, Gordon and Saalfrank each pitching deep into the first three games and propelling IU to another weekend series win.

“We really are in as good of a position as we could be going into tomorrow in a four-game set,” Mercer said. “I feel good about tomorrow going into it.”