Hoosiers’ bullpen falters in 6-5 loss to Iowa #iubase

Perhaps Thomas Belcher was due for an outing like Sunday.

The last month’s worth of games had been good to the side-arming right-hander — so good, in fact, that Belcher used his available opportunities to assert himself as one of the Big Ten’s most reliable back-end relievers. When he entered the game with a two-run cushion in the top of the eighth inning, Belcher carried with him a streak of 10 consecutive scoreless appearances.

Within a matter of moments Sunday, that unblemished run met its end.

Belcher allowed three runs over the final three innings, including the go-ahead RBI single to Eric Schenck-Joblinske in the top of the 10th that lifted Iowa to a 6-5 victory before an announced crowd of 2,642 at Bart Kaufman Field.

Pitching has been the one constant for Indiana (20-14, 6-3 Big Ten) this season, with a weekend rotation and collection of bullpen arms that helped keep the Hoosiers afloat during a middling start to the year. But after starters Kyle Hart and Caleb Baragar produced outstanding pitching efforts on Friday and Saturday, Sunday’s start and finish were uncharacteristically uneven and snapped IU’s winning streak at eight games.

“(This was) probably our first down day in our bullpen in a couple weeks,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said. “We just gotta throw more strikes, and then they had some hits. They got hits off (Belcher), one of the hottest pitchers in the country. Some days you just have to tip your hat to the opponent.”

Indeed, Iowa (17-17, 5-6) charged back from a 5-3 deficit in the latter innings with solid contact off Belcher. Of the six hits Belcher yielded across the final three innings, three of those were stroked directly through the middle.

Belcher hadn’t allowed a run since March 15 at Evansville until Robert Neustrom’s single to right field scored Austin Guzzo with one out in the eighth Sunday. That put runners on the corners for Schenck-Joblinske, who laid down a perfect safety squeeze to plate Nick Roscetti and tie the game at 5-5.

After Belcher mowed through a perfect top of the ninth inning, Schenck-Joblinske returned as the hero in the 10th with his game-winning single through the middle.

“It’s baseball,” IU designated hitter Scotty Bradley said. “Anything happens. That stuff happens, so you can’t look at it too much. Thomas Belcher is such a good pitcher and he’s done so well for us. Things like that happen in baseball all the time.”

Bradley led a bottom half of the order that produced all five runs for Indiana. The freshman Bradley followed his career-high three-hit afternoon on Saturday with two hits and three RBIs in the series finale, beginning with a run-scoring single through the right side in the bottom of the first.

An inning later, Tony Butler hit his second home run of the weekend and his third this season on a solo shot to IU’s left-field bullpen.

From there, Indiana was left to play catch-up.

Starter Evan Bell was unable to follow the leads of Hart and Baragar before him, struggling to escape the fourth inning. He left after giving up back-to-back two-out singles by Neustrom and Austin Guzzo, throwing only 52 pitches.

With runners on the corners, Lemonis liked the lefty-lefty matchup that reliever B.J. Sabol presented against the bottom of the Iowa order. But Sabol struggled to find the plate, walking Schenck-Joblinske on five pitches to load the bases then issuing four straight balls to No. 9 hitter Mitchell Boe to force in a run and put the Hawkeyes ahead 3-2. The walk to Boe, who entered the at-bat with only three hits in his first 31 at-bats this season, allowed Iowa to take its first lead of the weekend.

“It just didn’t work out for us,” Lemonis said of playing the matchups.

Bradley helped IU reclaim the lead in the bottom of the fifth, delivering a two-run single with the bases loaded. Austin Cangelosi added a sacrifice fly that scored Ryan Fineman and gave the Hoosiers a 5-3 lead. The Hoosiers had a chance for more with only one out and runners in scoring position, but Iowa reliever Ryan Erickson fielded back-to-back comebackers from Butler and Brian Wilhite to escape the inning.

Fineman, meanwhile, saw his team-best hitting streak end at 14 games, but worked a walk and reached on a fielder’s choice. He has now made his way on base in each of his past 20 games.

“You have a chance to break it open and the guy makes two great plays and pitches great the rest of the way,” Lemonis said. “Sometimes you get beat. We’re moving forward and we’re excited for a big week coming up.”

The Hoosiers will have a crack at first-place Michigan State next weekend, after traveling to Xavier on Wednesday.