Hoosiers headed to Louisville Regional

By now, this is simply one of many annual checkpoints for Indiana baseball.

The NCAA Tournament is where the Hoosiers expect to be each year at the start of June, and on Monday, IU received its latest assignment.

Indiana landed a No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional, where it will open this season’s tournament with a matchup against third-seeded Illinois State on Friday at 2 p.m. It’s the sixth time in seven seasons that Indiana has extended its season with a Regional berth, and one of the latest milestones for a program eager to build on its recent and ever-growing tradition.

“It’s certainly exciting,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “This time of the year is always a lot of fun. Fortunately for us, both at Indiana and the programs that I’ve been at in the past, (we) have been in a lot of tournaments. You kind of have an idea of what to expect. It’s exciting, but it’s also to be expected. That’s what we work every day for. Looking forward to going out and putting our best foot forward.”

For Indiana, the Big Ten regular season champs, this is the program’s ninth all-time NCAA Tournament bid, and its fourth as an at-large invitee. Each of those four at-large appearances have come in the last five years.

For Mercer, the Big Ten Coach of the Year, Monday’s invitation also put him on a short list of accomplished first-year coaches in IU program lore. He becomes only the third Indiana skipper to guide the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in his first year, joining Ernie Andres (1949) and Chris Lemonis (2015).

The Hoosiers will be hoping for a more fruitful trip than the one they just made, pivoting to the Louisville Regional after dropping both of their games at last week’s Big Ten Tournament. The winner of Friday’s matchup between the Hoosiers and Redbirds will face the winner between No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 Illinois Chicago on Saturday at a time to be determined.

Indiana, of course, has plenty of experience in this setting, though the program has failed to advance out of the Regional round in each of its past four tournament trips. Last season, IU fell to host Texas in the final round of the Austin Regional.

“The confidence piece is the biggest thing we take from (having been at this stage before),” IU outfielder Matt Gorski said. “We know we can compete with anybody in the country when we went down to Texas (last year), and we’re facing some really good Midwest competition this week, so we’re gonna see who comes out on top.”

Illinois State (34-24, 14-7) shared the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title with Dallas Baptist, entering the week at No. 26 in the RPI. Indiana is No. 36 in the RPI.

Both the Hoosiers and Redbirds have five wins this season against the RPI top 50.

After Monday’s announcement, Mercer said he planned to examine matchups before deciding on an order for his starting pitchers. Right-hander Pauly Milto has been IU’s Friday night starter all season, while Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Andrew Saalfrank has served as Indiana’s Sunday starter. IU has used right-hander Tanner Gordon in the Saturday spot this spring.

“A lot of it will depend upon what the breakdown says with the matchups for our opponents,” Mercer said. “I guess if you were going to take one positive from our poor performance last weekend, it’s that now we really have the flexibility to do whatever we want with whoever we want and match up — their matchups against righties and lefties, how they are against sinkers and high RPM guys, and match it up.

“Milto is going to be in the first couple of games, certainly, and then everyone else falls in behind that. You want to put Pauly in position to be the most successful he can be, whether it’s the first game or the second game, and we’ll kind of make a decision based upon the numbers.”

For now, Indiana is using the rest of the week to work on situational aspects of the game, while taking comfort in the fact that its next few contests will take place close to home.

“That will be exciting,” Mercer said. “Hopefully we have a lot of IU fans down there cheering us and supporting us. It’s nice for the families to go down and be a part of it. I’ve been a part of it where you get shipped halfway across the world and I’ve been a part of it where we go down the road. It’s nice when your family’s there and you have some hometown crowd behind you, too.”