Hoosiers hoping for more than homers in Omaha

It’s the place where home runs go to die.

This week, Indiana hopes TD Ameritrade Park won’t kill the most significant feature of its offense.

For an IU lineup that leads the nation with 90 home runs, the venue for this year’s Big Ten Tournament might be cause for concern. Ever since the teams included in the 2013 and 2014 College World Series fields combined for a total of six home runs, the eight-year-old ballpark has carried a reputation as a cavernous, pitcher-friendly setting that’s quick to mute one of the most exciting facets of the game.

There have actually been more home run hits at the facility since the NCAA lowered the seams on its baseballs in 2015, but the park still plays big.

And over the coming days, beginning with Wednesday’s first-round matchup with Iowa, Indiana will learn if its lineup can handle a potential power outage.

“Often times the balls that go over the fence are well-struck balls that are line drives that happen to carry a little bit,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “It’s just kind of part of the way you have your offensive approach. You’re just trying to drive balls to the big part of the field. If they ride out, they ride out. You have to be able to put the ball in play consistently with good spin so when you come into a ballpark like this, you just try to stay to your approach and make sure you have quality at-bats.”

There’s reason to believe Indiana can manufacture runs without relying so heavily on the long ball. In last weekend’s series against Rutgers, the Hoosiers scored a total of 31 runs, with only 10 of those coming via the team’s six home runs in the series.

But make no mistake, IU powered its way to the Big Ten title with a feast-or-famine approach that produced 1.64 home runs and 10.7 strikeouts per game. It has two players, Matt Lloyd and Cole Barr, tied atop the conference leaderboard with 16 home runs on the year. And across the past four months, the Hoosiers have played true to their soul as a team built to mash its way through the schedule.

The question now is whether that style will suit them well in Omaha.

“We’re going to have to be able to go station-to-station sometimes,” Mercer said. “We’re going to have to be able to hit behind runners, advance runners. It’s not always an offensive day, a good offensive matchup.”

Indiana’s program knows all too well how the ball can play at TD Ameritrade Park. IU’s lone College World Series appearance in 2013 didn’t feature a single home run. And that team — led by the big bats of Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis — could rake, finishing that campaign with 53 homers.

TD Ameritrade Park opened in 2011 with the same dimensions — 335 down the lines, 375 in the gaps and 408 to dead center — as its predecessor, Rosenblatt Stadium. But unlike Rosenblatt, which saw 32 long balls hit in its final season hosting the College World Series, TD Ameritrade saw a dearth of home runs hit in its first few years of hosting college baseball’s crown jewel event.

There were only nine homers hit in 2011, 10 in 2012 and three each in 2013 and 2014. The paucity of home runs also coincided with the NCAA’s new deadened aluminum bats, which went into circulation in 2011.

With excitement in the game dialed back, the NCAA countered the changes to the bat with a new ball put into play in 2015. The new ball features lower seams designed to help it carry better and restore some of the offense that was lost with the previous equipment change.

In Omaha, that led to 15 home runs during the 2015 College World Series, 10 in 2016 and 23 in 2017. Last June, there were 18 dingers hit in the event.

The Hoosiers, of course, have recent experience in testing their bats at TD Ameritrade Park, which has hosted three of the past five Big Ten Tournaments. Last year, Indiana hit three home runs in its three-game run in Omaha, including two in the team’s final contest vs. Illinois.

This year, home runs are the main feature of IU’s lineup. But at TD Ameritrade Park, the Hoosiers know that long balls can’t be their only source of offense.

“You just got to be able to string at-bats together and put together five or six at-bats in a row,” Mercer said. “If you have to be a little bit more — I don’t want to say small ball — but a little more fundamental in the way you advance runners, you have to do that. … We’ve played in big ballparks before and found ways to score runs. You have to do it again. So we’ll find a way.”

Indiana had no issue producing offense against Iowa during a three-game sweep of the Hawkeyes in Bloomington in late March. The Hoosiers hit a clean .300 (30-for-100) in the series, scoring 23 runs and hitting a total of 10 extra-base hits.

The winner of Wednesday’s game will face the winner between Minnesota and Nebraska on Thursday at approximately 10 pm.

For Indiana, the Big Ten Tournament will be about backing up its regular season championship. A winning run through event isn’t likely to vault IU into position to host an NCAA Regional due to the Hoosiers’ RPI (30) and their record against top-50 competition (5-9).

But IU also enters the event recognizing that this tournament is important for other reasons. The other seven teams in the field would all like another shot at the Hoosiers this week in Omaha, and it’s IU’s duty to live up to its top-seed billing.

“Whether we win the Big Ten Tournament or not, as long as we go out and do the things we’re supposed to do, I’ll sleep at night just fine,” Mercer said. “And our boys should, too. Just do the best you can. That’s all anybody can ask of you, and that’s all I ask of the boys.”

16 comments

  1. That didn’t go well. Have to fight through the losers bracket now. Tough road and may hurt tourney seeding and location.

  2. This has been the Achilles heel of IU baseball, if you live by the HR at TD Ameritrade we know what will happen. Having HR power in the lineup is great in most situations, but at Omaha you have to score runs the hard way, one inside the park hit at a time.

  3. Delighted that Iu won the Big Ten Championship and is making another appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of how it turns out, this seasons success exceeded my expectations for a team with a new coach.

    1. Po,
      I agree with you and Chet, it was a very good hire. Hopefully over the next few season we will see Mercer get a more balanced offense. Home runs are great and a real motivation for a team, but if you live by the Home Run and have the wrong pitcher or ballpark, you may well die by the lack of Home Runs. T.D. Ameritrade Park is just one of those parks.

      I think IU baseball has a good enough coach to get it worked out. The issue is if he keeps doing this well, will be to find yet another coach of this caliber to replace him when he moves on to bigger things.

  4. I see no new threads since the 21st. So I go to the last topic with a comment and read “comments are closed”. ? Yup!

    1. Maybe it’s because the comments have been civil and well conceived for an extended period of time.

      It just disoriented Jeremy.

    2. I have not closed the comments on any thread, so no idea what’s going on there. And yes, things have been relatively calm of late, which worries me.

      1. Must be an illusionist at work. Swear my screen says on Quinones post “comments are closed”.

          1. I think comments close automatically on articles after a certain amount of time has passed since the publication of the article.

Comments are closed.