IU controls destiny after 11-4 win over Rutgers

When the announcement was made, they knew.

As the final score of the first game of Nebraska’s doubleheader with Michigan — Huskers 7, Wolverines 0 — was announced over the public address system at Bart Kaufman Field, Indiana infielder Jeremy Houston threw his fist in the air inside the Hoosiers’ third-base dugout. Around him, his teammates clapped. In the stands, cheers rippled through the ballpark.

On the field, Indiana still had work to do. It was only the middle of the fourth inning when word spread from Lincoln, Neb., but one thing was already certain.

The Hoosiers’ pursuit of a Big Ten title was now completely in their hands.

IU responded in necessary fashion, throttling Rutgers 11-4 and arranging an opportunity to win the conference championship outright on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s exciting,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “We’ve continued to push the guys to be able to put (themselves) in this position. I told them — and I’ll tell you exactly what I told those guys — we’ve just earned the right to go out and play the same game that we played.”

Indeed, Indiana can wrap up its first regular season championship since 2014 with a win on Sunday, when southpaw Andrew Saalfrank (7-1, 2.40) faces off against Rutgers’ right-hander Tommy Genuario (3-4, 2.58) at 12:05 p.m.

No matter what else happens around them — the second game of Friday’s doubleheader between Nebraska and Michigan did not begin until 10:45 p.m. Eastern — the Hoosiers left the ballpark a half-game ahead of the Wolverines, and fully aware of the championship scenarios.

A Michigan win in Game 2 of its twinbill would mean IU has to complete the sweep of Rutgers on Saturday to win the league. A Nebraska sweep, coupled with an IU loss on Saturday, would cause the Hoosiers and Huskers to share the title. A Michigan win and an IU loss would give the Wolverines the title.

The clearest course to the Big Ten title? IU knows if it simply wins on Saturday, the conference crown will be coming to Bloomington.

“We just control our own destiny now,” IU first baseman Scotty Bradley said. “I said to the announcers on BTN as well that we’re just going to come out here tomorrow and pour everything we can onto the field, and whatever happens happens.”

Bradley played a starring role in getting the Hoosiers to this point. He homered twice in the rout of Rutgers, mashing a tie-breaking, three-run blast in the bottom of the third before connecting on a solo shot in the fifth.

Indiana homered four times on Friday, breaking the program’s previous single-season record of 85 long balls when Matt Gorski pumped a solo home run to centerfield in the bottom of the first. Grant Richardson also got in on the action, snapping out of a 1-for-30 funk with a solo homer in the third.

The Hoosiers once again lead the country with 89 home runs on the year.

“It’s been a driving force for us, obviously,” Mercer said. “But you look at the balls that go out for us today — Gorski’s ball is a little bit high. Grant’s is a little bit. But most of those balls are just line drives.”

IU out-hit Rutgers 12-4, and also took advantage of an RBI double by Justin Walker, a run-scoring single by Elijah Dunham and a two-run single by Ryan Fineman. Cole Barr also earned an RBI by working a bases-loaded walk during a four-run bottom of the sixth.

Indiana’s patience at the plate was the most impressive development for Mercer, who applauded his team’s ability to force Rutgers starter Tevin Murray into a high pitch count early in the contest.

Murray, one of the Big Ten’s better arms, had thrown 53 pitches by the end of the second inning, laboring through the first two innings while IU set the table for what was to come.

“You watched us execute a game plan like professionals,” Mercer said. “That’s what we did today. It was absolutely professional. It was suffocating.”

On the mound, IU starter Tanner Gordon locked in across the middle innings. After yielding a game-tying, two-run homer to Rutgers’ Kevin Welsh in the top of the third, Gordon retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced to earn his sixth win of the season.

Gorskon scattered three hits, struck out six and finished without walking a single batter.

“He did a really good job in a big moment,” Mercer said.

The Scarlet Knights’ only other runs came on Luke Bowerbank’s two-run homer off Austin Long in the top of the eighth. Otherwise, the night belonged solely to the Hoosiers.

The objective now is to make sure Saturday goes the same.

“We’re gonna play the game the same way we’ve played the 54 games before this and live to that standard,” Mercer said. “If we do those things, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world, no matter the outcome.”

5 comments

  1. No doubt in his 1st year Mercer stepped into a program with talent but he has shown exceptional coaching chops in adapting to their skills which don’t in many ways fit his philosophy and creating the atmosphere for them to excel. I really believe he could well be the next Branch McCracken, Doc Councilman, Jerry Yeagley, RMK and Mal during the times when he whipped the big boys. Whatever the ‘it’ is they had I think he has it too. I don’t want to add weight to his task in saying, ‘The Bart’ and the surrounding sports complex are +’s for continuing recruiting good baseball talent. In the future he’ll most likely be inundated with lucrative offers.

    1. I think you’re probably right HC, but I’m afraid IU won’t likely be able to keep him very long. Win consistently in a northern program and you will be in demand in the baseball power regions. The best thing for IU baseball is for the coaches coming through to do extremely well at the next destination. If they do, IU will be viewed as a stepping stone, and will be able to attract the top developing coaching talent. Lest any think IU can’t win in all themselves, not saying it can’t be done, but extremely difficult. Check the history books for the last time a true northern team won in Omaha.
      In the meantime, enjoy some great coaching talent coming through and with them, some good baseball.

      1. Unless you are at the top, every place is a stepping stone depending on your success.

        How many programs could keep their coaches if they were offered the Alabama football or Duke basketball jobs?

        I agree with your premise that being seen as a highly desirable stepping stone job is not necessarily a bad thing.

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