Hoosiers whiff in 7-3 loss to Gophers

The home runs are nice.

And very quickly this season, long balls have become a primary source of offense for Indiana.

But there’s a predictable and natural byproduct of relying too much on the big blasts, and right now, IU’s mounting strikeout totals are becoming an issue the Hoosiers are trying to solve.

IU struck out 15 times in Friday’s 7-3 loss to Minnesota in the series opener at Bart Kaufman Field, marking the sixth consecutive double-figure strikeout game for Hoosier hitters.

Gophers ace Max Meyer certainly played a major role in those frustrations, punching out 12 batters across his seven innings of impressive work on the mound. But as Indiana strives to achieve a more complete offensive approach over the final month of the regular season, the Hoosiers are trying to close the gap between big blasts and big whiffs.

Because right now, it feels like feast or famine.

“There’s a progression to creating a truly elite offense,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “We’ve gotten to a certain point in our progression offensively where we hit a bunch of home runs, extra base hits and hit balls hard. The next piece of the progression for us is you see there’s always moves and countermoves. In baseball, at a high level, there’s always a countermove. The countermove the last couple weeks has been just throw every pitch off-speed.”

So on Friday, the Hoosiers chased, and chased some more, producing only minimal offense in the first of a three-game set with Minnesota (18-20, 8-5). Sandwiched around Grant Richardson’s RBI groundout in the bottom of the fourth, Indiana added to its gaudy home run total with solo home runs from Matt Gorski and Scotty Bradley.

Even as Indiana (28-14, 9-4) has climbed the national leaderboards, mashing a Division I-leading 74 home runs, the Hoosiers have produced their share of empty at-bats to go along with them.

IU batters have struck out 445 times this season, averaging 10.5 per contest. In the past two games alone, the Hoosiers have combined to whiff 33 times.

Early this season, Indiana hitters adjusted to a steady diet of fastballs away, then readjusted when opposing pitchers began pitching inside.

Now, the Hoosiers are facing a different challenge.

“The next move is to throw a lot of breaking balls and see if (we) can adjust to that,” Mercer said. “It’s a constant adaptation. That’s what we have to do. We have to understand that that’s what’s happening, and then be able to adjust and move from that. That’s where we are right now. It’s not shocking or surprising that we strike out a lot early. Then we fix that problem, then someone else adjusts to that. Now we have to adjust back.

“When that’s going to be, I don’t know. Hopefully by tomorrow. But that’s going to be our next task. It’s something that we’ve talked about and we’ll continue to work on it. But it’s the natural ebb and flow of creating an offense that doesn’t have holes.”

Indiana finished Friday’s game by going merely 1-for-11 with two outs, 2-for-19 with runners on and 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

On the mound for Indiana, starter Pauly Milto yielded season highs in runs (seven) and hits (12) during his seven-plus innings of work.

The first run came in somewhat controversial fashion in the top of the second, when a diving attempt by Gorski in centerfield was overturned and ruled a trap. The runner on second base, Cole McDevitt, was awarded third and scored moments later on Drew Hmielewski’s groundout to the right side.

Then, Minnesota took a 4-2 lead with a three-run top of the fifth that included a two-run triple by Easton Bertrand and a run-scoring groundout by Zack Raabe.

The Gophers tagged Milto for three more in the eighth on a bases-clearing triple by Hmielewski.

“I thought Pauly was fine,” Mercer said. “But they were better than us with two strikes. The majority of their hits were with two strikes, and 0-2, 1-2 (counts), not 3-2. That’s baseball. Unfortunately, that happens sometimes.”

Friday’s loss knocks Indiana into a tie with Nebraska for second place in the Big Ten, where the Hoosiers and Cornhuskers are a half-game behind Michigan.

Right-hander Tanner Gordon, who was knocked out of last weekend’s start after getting hit by a line drive, is scheduled to start Saturday’s rematch.

Due to the threat of rain, first pitch has been moved up to 12:05 p.m.