IU clinches series with 7-1 win over Minnesota

It’s a simple plan, really, and Jeff Mercer has been preaching it to his Indiana ball club from the very beginning.

Find a way to win the weekend series’ that form the backbone of the schedule, and the rest will take care of itself. The Hoosiers haven’t lost a series since Feb. 23, embarking upon a mid-season stretch that has positioned IU for a Big Ten title run inside the final month.

Sunday’s 7-1 win over Minnesota was another step in that direction.

The No. 25 Hoosiers manufactured all seven runs without a homer, received another strong start from left-hander Andrew Saalfrank and polished off their seventh consecutive series victory on a cool, sunny afternoon at Bart Kaufman Field.

“If you find a way to win each series,” Mercer said, “you’re gonna have a chance to win a Big Ten championship.”

Claiming the conference title is a reachable goal for this Indiana team, which ended the weekend a half-game behind first-place Michigan. IU (30-14, 11-4) has won 23 of its past 29 games, marking its territory atop the Big Ten standings and displaying a degree of resilience in the process.

Three times during its run of seven straight series victories, Indiana has dropped a Friday night opener. It happened at Maryland on March 29, then again a week later in a home matchup with Penn State.

It also happened this weekend against Minnesota (18-22, 8-7), perennially one of the Big Ten’s better programs, in a game that put some of IU’s warts on full display. All told, the Hoosiers were outplayed for the majority of this weekend’s series, but strung together enough clutch at-bats to score a come-from-behind, walk-off win on Saturday before putting all facets together for a more decisive win in Sunday’s rubber game.

The Hoosiers have a lot going for them this season, including a powerful, experienced lineup, and a pitching staff full of capable arms. Perhaps most importantly, Indiana’s resilience might be its most meaningful quality of all.

“You just have to be able to continue to compete,” Mercer said. “It’s so cliche, but just the toughness. You just have to continue and go and go and go. You can’t worry about what happened. We couldn’t worry about what happened Friday. We couldn’t worry about what happened in the first five or six innings yesterday. You just gotta keep going. You come out today and you could kind of feel that the energy was back, the confidence was back. We had the monkey off our back.”

Indeed, Indiana plated five of its runs over the first two innings. The Hoosiers jumped on the board with a two-run double by Cole Barr, followed by a run-scoring fielder’s choice that materialized off the bat of Grant Richardson. In the second, Scotty Bradley was credited with an RBI on a fielder’s choice that plated two runs and set off a strange sequence of events. After a throwing error by the Minnesota first baseman, Bradley appeared to be awarded second base on an obstruction call, but he was tagged out in a rundown between first and second, instead.

According to Mercer, the first base umpire told him Bradley hadn’t been running fast enough around first base to receive the free pass to second.

“Really interesting day for me,” Bradley said.

But it was no matter.

Bradley finished with two hits and two RBIs, driving in Matt Gorski on a fourth-inning single through the right side. Bradley later scored the Hoosiers’ final run on a seventh-inning base hit by Elijah Dunham.

For the Hoosiers, Sunday marked the first game since April 14 — and only the second time in the past 13 games — that it finished without a home run.

“We played more fundamental baseball,” Mercer said. “We have to be multifaceted, we have to be multidimensional. If we hit 250 home runs someday, I’ll be ecstatic. If we hit 100, if we hit five … we have to be multidimensional, we have to be multifaceted. We have to be prepared to score in a variety of ways. You’ll see a sac bunt every now and then, you’ll see a safety bunt, you’ll see us hit and run every now and then. We’ll steal bases, you saw us running today. Whatever the situation calls for, we have to be able to do that. Today was not a matchup to hammer balls.”

Saalfrank delivered another strong outing for the Hoosiers, allowing only one run over his 5 2/3 innings. The left-hander scattered six hits, struck out six and walked only two, while throwing 56 of his 96 pitches for strikes and inducing seven groundouts. Behind him, Connor Manous and Tommy Sommer worked the final 3 1/3 innings without allowing a hit.

For Saalfrank, it was his fifth consecutive win.

And for Indiana, it was another step toward their goal of a conference crown.

“I think you see baseball can play either way,” Bradley said. “Saturday, they dominated us the whole entire game and it comes down to one swing from Matty Lloyd, and that played into the momentum heading into today. It’s baseball. You just bounce back and you don’t let it bother you. … I think you’re seeing us now starting to put some good baseball together. Obviously, we want to continue that moving forward.”