Hoosiers rejuvenated ahead of Big Ten Tournament opener

It was a surprise stop, one that provided the desired effect.

Nearly two weeks ago, with his Indiana baseball team struggling as it approached a three-game series at Nebraska, Chris Lemonis got creative. Prior to making the one-hour drive down Interstate 80 to Lincoln, Lemonis rerouted the team bus through downtown Omaha, stopping at T.D. Ameritrade Park.

There, at the site of this year’s Big Ten Tournament and College World Series, Lemonis guided his players through a short tour of the 24,000-seat facility. As they walked the field, carrying the weight of a four-game losing streak with them, Lemonis stopped and pointed to the pitcher’s mound.

“In two weeks, somebody’s dog piling on the mound. Then, in five weeks, somebody’s dog piling on this mound,” Lemonis said, alluding to the upcoming tournaments.

At Indiana’s lowest point of the season, it was a reminder that it still had attainable goals — that the Hoosiers still had plenty to play for.

Since that initial visit to Omaha, IU has fixed the course of its season. The No. 5 seed Hoosiers have gone from dropping nine decisions in 11 tries to winning six in a row entering their conference tournament opener against No. 4 Illinois on Wednesday at 10 p.m.

“It is (important), just to sort of reset and start over with a clean slate,” starter Jonathan Stiever said. “Starting from that point on, forget about the last couple weeks when we were struggling a little bit and just sort of restart the last stretch of the season. We were able to do that and find our groove going into the tournament.”

The Hoosiers are now playing some of their best baseball of the season, buoyed by a hot lineup and a pitching staff that is back to full strength.

After missing three starts due to arm soreness, Pauly Milto has fortified a weekend rotation that missed his presence. As solid as Stiever has been in the Friday role this spring, Milto has served a crucial role in helping IU string series victories together.

Together, Stiever and Milto have led an IU pitching staff that leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally with a 2.85 ERA. Hoosier hurlers also pace the conference in shutouts (seven) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.52).

Since returning to the weekend rotation at Nebraska on May 12, Milto has been the best version of himself. He’s yielded only three runs (two earned) on 12 hits over 12 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts and two walks.

“Getting Pauly back in that spot was huge,” Lemonis said. “That start he had at Nebraska, getting back out there and pitching well (helped). Now everyone gets to fall back into their original roles, so it’s good for our club.”

Milto’s return also further deepens IU’s pitching options in a tournament setting.

Tim Herrin has pitched well across the past month, while Cam Beauchamp and Andrew Saalfrank give IU additional arms on deck, whether they’re needed to start or come out of the bullpen.

“I told coach (Kyle) Bunn, our pitching coach, we have a lot of guys who have started, so it’s been nice,” Lemonis said.

As IU has rediscovered traction across the past two weeks, its lineup has been arguably its most impressive weapon.

The Hoosiers are hot, particularly in the middle of the order. During last weekend’s three-game sweep of Maryland, Nos. 3-5 hitters — Matt Gorski, Logan Sowers and Luke Miller — combined to his 16-for-34 with 16 RBIs, six home runs, a triple, a double and 13 runs scored.

Indiana ranks first in the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.454) and home runs (60), second in hits (515) and third in on-base percentage (.384).

“Their performance has lifted us,” Lemonis said. “They did it at Nebraska, too. I think their numbers were pretty similar at Nebraska. They’ve gotten hot at the right time and, all three, they’re swinging it well together.”

In the tournament opener, the Hoosiers will see a potent Illinois lineup headlined by newly-crowned Big Ten Player of the Year Bren Spillane. The junior claimed the league’s regular season triple crown by batting .407 with 22 home runs and 57 RBIs.

The Hoosiers handled him well during a three-game series in Bloomington late last month, limiting Spillane to a 2-for-10 weekend at the plate in an IU series victory.

“You just got to pitch him smart,” Lemonis said. “He can change the game with one swing. He may be the best player in the country right now, so you just gotta be smart.”

Rejuvenated and ready to go, the Hoosiers are up for the challenge.

“To win in the postseason and to win in the tournament, your best players have to play well,” Lemonis said. “We know we have some of the better players in the league, and in the last six games, they’ve played well and that’s been the difference.”