Hoosiers eager to bounce back at Louisville Regional

Inside of the past four months, Indiana made its mark as a club eager to respond in the wake of defeat.

The regular season saw the Hoosiers bounce back from multiple Friday night losses, erase an early-season losing record, win all but one conference series and play a style of ball that elevated them to the top of the Big Ten standings.

At this weekend’s Louisville Regional, IU has to play to its resilient reputation once again.

An 0-2 showing at the Big Ten Tournament left Indiana thoroughly unsatisfied with its introduction to postseason play. But if there’s any solace found in such an empty trip to Omaha, it’s that IU has found itself in similar situations this season.

And the Hoosiers have demonstrated that they know how to answer.

“We have been a polarizing team throughout the whole season,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “To be completely honest, we’ll get where we need to be at and we’ll play well for a couple weeks, and then we do some knucklehead things and we have to go back and get back to the basics and remind everybody what we have to do. Then we usually go out and get back to ourselves a little bit.”

Indeed, IU’s course to a Big Ten title never followed a linear path. The Hoosiers carried a 7-8 record in mid-March before powering their way back on track with an explosive brand of baseball that produced 90 home runs during the regular season.

But before Indiana was able to establish traction in the middle of the season, the team took a few dents along the way. Most importantly for the trajectory of its campaign, IU figured out how to learn from the setbacks.

Take for instance, the back-to-back Friday night losses IU suffered against Maryland and Penn State early in league play. Both of those defeats to middling teams served as alarms for Indiana, which bounced back to win both weekend series.

Indiana also dealt with disappointment late in the regular season after dropping a series at Illinois. Instead of jockeying for prime position atop the Big Ten standings during that weekend trip to Champaign, the Hoosiers lost two of three and set themselves back in the race for the conference crown.

It proved to be only a minor regression for Indiana, which turned around and secured a crucial series win at Michigan the following week to put itself back on track to the Big Ten title.

At points throughout this season, IU has been confronted with a series of setbacks both big and small. The program’s poor performance at the Big Ten Tournament was another such disappointment, and one that the Hoosiers are eager to atone for this weekend.

“Going to the Big Ten Tournament, it was a little bit of an embarrassment,” IU utility man Matt Lloyd said. “We didn’t play our brand of baseball. Coming into this week of practice, we really got after it. We’re looking forward to getting going tomorrow.”

Indiana’s pursuit of its first Super Regional berth since 2013 starts with an opening-round matchup against Illinois State. The winner will take on either top-seeded host Louisville or No. 4 Illinois Chicago on Saturday.

At least to start the weekend, Indiana is keeping its starting rotation intact, with right-handed senior Pauly Milto (8-6, 3.54) scheduled to take the mound against the Redbirds. From there, Mercer has options with how he stacks his rotation across the remainder of the double-elimination tournament. Although given how Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Andrew Saalfrank didn’t see the mound at all during last week’s brief, two-game Big Ten Tournament appearance, it feels like IU’s southpaw Sunday starter would be a natural fit for Game 2.

For now, Mercer will trust Milto to keep IU on the winner’s side of the bracket.

“Pauly can really execute a fastball and that’s going to be pivotal against a team that puts the ball in play,” Mercer said. “He gets off the mound and he handles the bunt well. He’s tough to run on. He’s quick to the plate. He’s been in this environment a lot of times. He’s pitched the biggest games for this team for several years now and he’s one of the best to ever do it at Indiana. When you put all that together, you look at it and say the matchup makes sense. There weren’t any crazy splits to disallow you from making that decision.”

Illinois State is expected to counter with left-hander Brent Headrick (9-3, 3.50), who has struck out 101 batters in 90 innings this season. Headrick, the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year, has worked into the seventh inning in three of his past four starts, while allowing only six earned runs across his past 29 frames.

The Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title with Dallas Baptist and carry a 34-24 overall record into this weekend.

The Hoosiers, meanwhile, say they are finding extra motivation in last week’s lackluster results in Omaha. All season, they’ve been a team eager to bounce back from their setbacks.

Friday is their latest opportunity.

“The life of this team is now in the balance every time you play,” Mercer said. “And someone is trying to end your life – they’re trying to end your season, end your career. And we have to make sure we play with that urgency again.”