Hoosiers sweep Rutgers, win Big Ten title

Gabe Bierman’s final pitch landed in Ryan Fineman’s catcher’s mitt at 89 miles per hour, a 3-2 fastball that froze Rutgers’ David Soto on arrival.

With the 27th out recorded, and Indiana’s 13-3 rout of Rutgers complete, the celebration was on at Bart Kaufman Field.

After a five-year wait, the Hoosiers are Big Ten champions.

For a program proud of its recent and ever-growing tradition, Saturday represented an important checkpoint to meet. Since their 2013 College World Series run, the Hoosiers have maintained their reputation as one of the Big Ten’s top teams, qualifying for NCAA Regionals in five of the past six seasons.

But there haven’t been any trophies housed in IU’s clubhouse since 2014, the last time the Hoosiers won the league. Playing reliably good, quality baseball from February through May is a credit to the program’s overall health after two recent coaching changes. But at the same time, Indiana has been missing the hardware to buttress its standing in the conference. And hardware is important.

That changed on Saturday afternoon, with the program’s seventh league title.

“(It was) a long road,” senior Matt Lloyd said. “Finally got the championship, and we’re not done yet, for sure.”

After recording the final out, a called third strike on Soto, Fineman tossed the ball, then threw his mask as he jogged to the mound to embrace his battery mate. Their teammates weren’t far behind, spilling from IU’s third base dugout and piling on top of one another on the infield grass.

Not everyone escaped the dog pile unscathed. Pitcher Tanner Gordon, who helped IU to a series win on Friday, suffered a bloody nose and had to plug his nostril to complete the revelry with his teammates.

But after climbing to the top of the conference, there was no slowing this party.

“It’s surreal,” Fineman said. “You always talk about it as a kid. You’re going to win it! You’re going to dog-pile! There is still a lot of season to go, but that was awesome. That was fun.”

Fineman hoisted the Big Ten trophy first, running over to IU athletic director Fred Glass on the left side of the infield and eagerly accepting the handoff.

“I almost tackled him,” Fineman said with a smile.

One after another, the Hoosiers took turns tapping their newly-earned hardware, capping an exciting regular season run that saw them win 10 weekend series and hold off second-place Michigan during the Big Ten’s final week.

The players’ partying eventually swallowed first-year coach Jeff Mercer, who was on the receiving end of a water cooler shower while he completed an on-air interview with Big Ten Network in front of the dugout.

After a half-hour celebration on the field, the team moved the merrymaking into their clubhouse. When Mercer walked through the door, pitcher Tommy Sommer stood up and flipped one of two card tables in the center of the room. As whoops and hollers spread through the team’s quarters, Mercer flipped the other table in the room and drew louder cheers.

This party was in no danger of stopping.

For Mercer, Saturday’s victory was personally gratifying beyond its championship merits. His roster was largely, if not entirely, recruited, signed and installed by his predecessor, Chris Lemonis, who left IU for the Mississippi State job after last season. During the course of his first year on the job, Mercer has felt the connection with his players grow, appreciating how they’ve welcomed him and accepted the teaching and guidance he was hired to deliver.

That’s especially true of IU’s seven seniors — Fineman, Lloyd, Pauly Milto, Wyatt Cross, Cade Bunnell, Logan Kaletha and Scotty Bradley — who were honored in a Senior Day ceremony before Saturday’s game.

“They’ve been terrifically important,” Mercer said. “You know, they were involved in the interview process. And when I sat down with them and asked them what they wanted, they said they wanted to win the Big Ten championship, wanted to be coached, wanted to be pushed, wanted to maximize their abilities.

“And I said, ‘Fellas, that row is going to be tough to hoe. I mean, it’s going to be hard. We have to change our diet, change our lifestyle, we have to work on all these things. And sometimes you ask for that and you’re not sure you’re really ready to receive it, once it starts coming at you.’

“But they’ve accepted it. They’ve been supportive of it. And they’ve been real catalysts.”

Just look at the way Saturday’s game unfolded, with a senior taking the lead.

Rutgers soft-tossing right-hander Tommy Genuario stymied Indiana’s lineup during his first time through the order. The Hoosiers seemed to be tight, playing as though they were hyper-aware of the stakes, while Genuario’s mid-80s fastball and his 75-mile-per-hour breaking ball kept them off-balance.

Indiana found a fix in the top of the fourth, starting with Lloyd’s one-out infield single. The power-hitting utility man didn’t need to hammer the ball this time, settling for a weak grounder to the middle of the infield that stood as IU’s first hit of the afternoon.

It wasn’t much, but it seemed to soften the nerves of Hoosier hitters.

Indiana followed Lloyd’s hit with an offensive explosion, batting around and scoring six runs in the inning. Cole Barr tied the game at 1-1 on a double to left-centerfield, before Fineman gave IU the lead with a single to left. Justin Walker and Drew Ashley followed with a pair of two-run singles.

“We’re such a good offense that, when we struggle, we have one guy that gets us going and there’s no looking back,” Fineman said. “The other team’s done at that point.”

IU out-hit Rutgers 11-8, struck out only three times, and went 7-for-13 with runners in scoring position. After Kevin Welsh cut into Indiana’s lead with a two-run homer in the fifth, Barr got both runs back on a two-run shot of his own in the bottom half.

Barr and Dunham each finished with three hits. Barr led the way with four RBIs, while Ashley, Walker and Fineman each finished with two runs driven in.

Meanwhile, after allowing a run in the first, IU starter Andrew Saalfrank battled the rest of the way. Saalfrank turned in a quality start, allowing only the three runs over six innings. The left-hander scattered six hits, walked one and struck out six, while throwing 56 of his 88 pitches for strikes.

“This was a really tough matchup for Sally,” Mercer said. “They really stay inside the ball, then they hit the ball the other way and they’re almost completely right-handed so as Sally’s ball sinks away, it’s right in their barrel path. We knew it would be a tough matchup, so we tried to go with some four-seams, which is a little different for him.”

Arguably the most impressive work of the day came courtesy of reliever Gabe Bierman, who shut down Rutgers over the final three innings. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week allowed only two hits, while striking out four, rising to the moment only days after the death of his father.

“What an incredible job by him,” Mercer said. “What incredible resiliency and toughness. Obviously, we’ve prayed really hard for Gabe. He’s a great player and he comes in and just really settled things.”

Next week, at the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, a new challenge awaits. But for the rest of the weekend, at least, the Hoosiers are taking comfort in their place atop conference.

“It was awesome,” Fineman said. “It was everything you could hope for. It was nice that we could come out there and just play our best game.”

3 comments

  1. Congratulations, IU Baseball!
    How many IU rookie coaches and staff win conference season championship their first year?

  2. Coach Mercer you are tremendous! Your team is both explosive in hitting and tough on the mound. What a great first year! Stay forever and build a top 10 national program in Indiana!

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