Richardson making most of his chance

It wasn’t the easy, obvious decision it seems like today.

Inserting Grant Richardson into Indiana’s lineup came with a risk in mid-March.

The IU freshman outfielder was still an unknown quantity then, a player with clear upside and athleticism, but one who was still finding his way behind the scenes.

A week before Richardson made his college debut for Indiana in a 7-5 loss at Cincinnati on March 13, IU coach Jeff Mercer arranged for a scrimmage in practice specifically to get the Fishers product more work. Richardson stepped to the plate six times in that intrasquad workout, striking out in each appearance.

Really, the offensive side of his game wasn’t even the initial concern Mercer had about playing Richardson too soon. Richardson’s raw, undeveloped defensive instincts in right field were the main reason he didn’t see the field during the first month of his first college season.

But by the time Indiana made its way to Cincinnati for a mid-week game last month, the Hoosiers had a need for an outfielder. Mercer turned to Richardson, who has since made it impossible to remove him from the lineup.

The newcomer leads IU with a .352 average entering this weekend’s three-game series at Michigan State, seizing the opportunity to play during his freshman season, while occupying a crucial role both in the field and at the plate.

“When I first got here, I realized I’m not even close to being where I should be, or where I need to be,” Richardson said. “Mercer really emphasized that. From then, I’ve just thought about playing here and being able to do all the things they’ve done.”

During the fall ball season, Richardson operated as most freshmen typically do. He would flash power and collect hits, then go a handful of plate appearances without producing a quality at-bat.

To Mercer, that was fine. He saw enough in Richardson’s batting approach to trust he’d settle in with time. It was Richardson’s play in the outfield that needed the most work.

His hips were tight and his range was restricted. Mercer also saw a player who had a tough time going to his right — to his glove side — and fielding ground balls. His reads off the bat weren’t very good, and he needed tips on how to both charge in and retreat on balls in the air.

“He was just a young, raw, really good athlete,” Mercer said. “So we really challenged him.”

Mercer, who doubles as IU’s outfield coach, spent plenty of time working closely with his freshman prospect. He taught Richardson how to use the brim of his ball cap to calculate the trajectory of a ball off the bat, how to play in, and how to play back.

He also told him to watch how senior outfielder Logan Kaletha goes about his job. Follow Kaletha around like a little brother, Mercer told Richardson. Watch what he does and do it yourself. That advice — and Kaletha’s eager willingness to teach the youngster — proved pivotal in Richardson’s defensive transformation.

“Kaletha really helped me defensively,” Richardson said. “He was the one that pushed me to go as hard as I do in the outfield.”

Richardson was very much still a work in progress when Indiana’s season started on Feb. 16 at Memphis. Even though Mercer had no plans to play Richardson early in the season, he still wanted him on the travel roster so that Richardson could become accustomed to the routine of playing college baseball, while also maximizing his time on task during batting practice.

“When it came time to make the travel roster for the spring, we didn’t take everybody,” Mercer said. “But we always try to bring those young guys that may end up being impactful, either in the future or potentially down the stretch in the season.

“… (We told him), ‘You’re going to hit in one (batting practice) group and take defense in three groups. Whether we’re doing base running, throwing group or hitting off the tee, you’re going to hit for one and do defense in three. I want you to go catch every ball. Get everyone else out of the way and catch every ball that’s in the outfield.’ He did it. He did exactly what he was asked to do.”

Eventually, that improved glove work helped Richardson earn the trust necessary to crack the lineup, where his bat has done more than enough to keep him there.

He went 1-for-4 with an RBI in his debut at Cincinnati, then followed with three hits, a homer and three RBIs in IU’s next game against Canisius.

Through his first nine games, Richardson was 15-for-36 (.417) with three home runs and 17 RBIs.

He did it all while showing up in the field, too.

“It was kind of surprising, just the whole flip around from traveling and being on charts, then they called me up on the bus and told me I’m starting,” Richardson said. “Since then, I’ve been an every day starter. It’s been a great transition, but just being able to make an impact for the team is probably what I’m most concerned about.”

Richardson has followed through in that regard, earning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week award in back-to-back weeks earlier this month. To date, he has seven homers — three of which came in one game at Maryland on March 30 — 14 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs, good for fourth-most on the team.

He enters the Michigan State series on a six-game hitting streak.

Although the initial decision to play him wasn’t a slam-dunk call for Mercer, Richardson has quickly proven himself as one of Indiana’s most important players. And as IU enters the final month’s worth of regular season games this weekend, it’s Richardson’s all-around approach that could help determine the Hoosiers’ postseason trajectory from here.

“I’m just excited to see where we’re going,” Richardson said, “one game after another.”