Hoosiers off to scorching start at Grand Park summer league

As is always the case in baseball, Indiana’s Ethan Vecrumba understands there are ups and downs.

During recent summer league games at Grand Park in Westfield, Vecrumba can recall hitting a hard line drive to the outfield, only to have a harder gust of wind push it down into the glove of IU teammate Drew Ashley. That hurt just a bit more, because Ashley, suiting up for the league’s Tropics squad, had a few words to say pregame as Vecrumba’s Turf Monsters threw in the outfield.

“I just let my game speak for itself,” Vecrumba said of his current “rivalry” with fellow Hoosiers.

The underclassman has gotten his return jabs in. In his first at-bats in a live game since the COVID-19 pandemic, Vecrumba has been a scorching 9-of-14 from the plate with five doubles at Grand Park. Quite the bounce-back effort from a disappointing .097 start to his IU career in 31 ABs.

It’s just summer ball, but these games mean just a little bit more for the Hoosiers involved. It’s a long-awaited return to the diamond after the sudden short-circuiting of their 2020 season just 15 games in. For Vecrumba, in particular, it was a return after a much-needed breather, heading to batting cages at Tier Ten Sports in Spencer, texting back and forth with IU coach Jeff Mercer to correct his swing.

There is a confidence to be gained from pounding doubles into the gap. There’s some fun to had being around IU teammates again, including pitchers Brian Gaffney, Reese Sharp, and Tommy Sommer on Vecrumba’s team. And when it comes to Ashley, Connor Manous, and Braydon Tucker’s Tropics, Vecrumba has won a battle or two.

Tucker plunked Vecrumba with a fastball during one at-bat, and IU’s speedy outfielder stole second base on Ashley, who was catching at the time.

“Always fun to have a 93-, 94-mile-per-hour fastball hit you in the elbow,” Vecrumba said. “I got on base. Mercer would be happy with that. Hit by pitch is just as good as a hit. As long as you are on base.”

Vecrumba is one of several Hoosiers performing well during baseball’s restart at Grand Park. IU third baseman Cole Barr is 7-of-12 at the plate with five runs batted in for The A-Team. His IU and summer league teammate Zach Behrmann has pitched eight innings and has yet to surrender a run, striking out eight batters.

The A-Team name was an obvious choice. Squads were randomly selected, and IU’s Barr, Behrmann, and Cooper Trinkle ended up on “Team A.”

“Couldn’t come up with anything better,” Barr said. “That just stuck with us right away.”

For many of the participants, they were just anxious to get back on the field. Many top-tier summer leagues were called off early in the pandemic, including Vecrumba’s scheduled destination, the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Barr was bound for the Lakeshore Chinooks of the Northwoods League.

Until plans for Grand Park were announced, they just bided their time and found ways to improve. Vecrumba worked to flatten out a swing that had become far too steep. He found live pitching against former Edgewood teammates, Cooper Thacker and Luke Hayden. Gaffney also joined them.

Hayden, an IU recruit in the 2021 class, would record swings on Vecrumba’s cell phone, which Vecrumba would then text to Mercer for feedback.

“I was happy with where my swing was in the fall after working with Mercer. But once you get in the season, it’s every man for themselves,” Vecrumba said. “You aren’t with coach as much one-on-one, and I think I slowly got out of my ways, I guess. I slowly changed my swing, and it wasn’t good changes, I guess.”

How his freshman season ended was just odd and unexpected. Vecrumba recalls Mercer making what would appear to be an obvious statement coming into the spring: that the season doesn’t just stop.

If you’re struggling, you just have to keep working.

But then Mercer’s tone changed. He was watching the spread of COVID-19 overseas. Then it came to the U.S., and Mercer was preparing his players for the possibility that everything may be on hold at some point.

While a pause was somewhat of a blessing in disguise for a struggling Vecrumba, Barr felt like he was just starting to hit his groove as the season shut down. After starting the year 2-of-15 from the plate, the junior bumped his average up as high as .286 in early March.

Barr’s last plate appearance of the 2020 season was a double versus Cincinnati on March 11. A couple of days later, news of COVID-19’s spread pushed Barr to accept the possibility that the season would be delayed. He couldn’t quite grasp the idea that it would just stop altogether.

“My initial reaction was disbelief,” Barr said. “Several days later, it hit me. ‘Damn, we’re probably not going to play.’ It’s just like a pretty terrible feeling. You put in all that work … and for me, personally, I thought I had just hit my stride and got going, and it got taken away.”

But just like Vecrumba, Barr went to work. One of his best friends had a weight room in his garage. Barr found live pitching down at a friend’s facility in Indianapolis and swung alongside IU teammate Grant Richardson.

They just wanted to stay sharp. And when Grand Park opened for summer ball, Barr was still feeling it. His first at-bat of the summer was a grand slam.

“I didn’t really know it was going to be out. Depending on what field you are playing on, the wind, the ball doesn’t necessarily carry,” Barr said. “I was running out of the box. I didn’t know. Then I saw it got out.”

Barr didn’t have much of an outward show of emotion, because that’s the kind of hit he expects.

“Maybe it’s surprising other people,” Barr said of his hot start to summer. “This is what I’ve expected out of myself my entire career. I’m starting to figure it out, I feel like.”

There are just ups and downs in baseball. Right now, Barr and Vecrumba are riding a high. They have a chance to keep it going as long as games continue at Grand Park, where the schedule runs through late July.

Once they return to IU, they hope to keep it going.

“I’m really happy with how I’m barreling everything up, from gap to gap. I know I got two or three base hits the first day,” Vecrumba said. “I was happy with it because I knew the work I’d put in and was able to see some good results.”

(above photo courtesy of IU Athletics)