Hoosiers power past Flames, 9-5

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Something had to change.

So Matt Lloyd grabbed his razor. It was the only logical place to start.

Hours after Indiana dropped its Louisville Regional opener on Friday evening, Lloyd and teammates Ryan Fineman and Pauly Milto returned to the team hotel and decided enough was enough. Following three consecutive postseason losses, and with the Hoosiers facing elimination in Saturday morning’s game against Illinois Chicago, the senior trio decided to trim their facial hair.

In Lloyd’s case, that meant lopping off the light brown beard that he sported for much of the spring, and trading it in for a neat and distinguished mustache.

“Tried to switch up the vibes a little bit,” Lloyd said. “Switch up the juju.”

It worked.

Lloyd mashed one of three Indiana home runs on the day, helping the second-seeded Hoosiers to a 9-5 victory over fourth-seeded Illinois Chicago at Jim Patterson Stadium. With the win, IU advances to play the loser between host Louisville and No. 3 Illinois State on Sunday at noon.

After a frustrating two-week stretch at the plate, it felt like Lloyd was due for a big moment.

The senior entered Saturday’s game in a 4-for-29 rut, having gone without a hit across Indiana’s first three postseason games. But in the top of the sixth inning, Lloyd snapped out of his funk in a big way.

With two on, two out and IU holding a 4-3 lead, Lloyd worked himself into a hitter’s count, sat on a 2-0 slider over the plate and mashed it over the right field fence for a three-run home run. It was a crucial cushion against a scrappy, spunky UIC team fighting for its season.

It was also evidence that the Hoosiers were feeling like themselves again, a meaningful development after the inconsistent, uncompetitive at-bats littered across the team’s first few tournament games.

“We just tried to get back to what we were doing before — getting pitches over the middle of the plate, staying in the big part of the field, staying in our fastball timing, battling with two strikes,” Lloyd said. “Basically, what we went back to was what we’d been doing the majority of this season.”

The home run-happy Hoosiers hit three long balls on the day, with Cole Barr following Lloyd with a solo shot in the top of the seventh. Barr’s big blast once again tied him with Lloyd for the team lead with 17, continuing a home run race that has played out all season.

Saturday marked the sixth time that both Lloyd and Barr homered in the same game.

“I always joke with him and say that he can’t hit one unless I hit one,” Lloyd said. “… I guess he just wants to be like the older guy.”

Drew Ashley followed with a solo homer of his own in the eighth. Ashley and Grant Richardson each finished with two hits.

The Hoosiers’ power performance was matched in importance by reliever Gabe Bierman’s 3 2/3 innings of scoreless work out of the bullpen. On an afternoon when Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Andrew Saalfrank struggled with his command, Bierman shut the door over the middle innings to help IU to its first postseason victory.

Having a cheering section of family and friends made the outing all the more special for Bierman, a Jeffersonville native who has authored some of his best work late this season as he tends to a heavy heart.

Bierman’s father, Douglas, died suddenly on May 16, leaving the freshman pitcher without one of his biggest supporters. In the wake of his father’s death, Bierman made it clear to IU coach Jeff Mercer that he wanted to remain on the active roster. He wanted to pitch.

His father wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He’s like, ‘Give me the ball, give me the ball, I’m ready when you need me,'” Mercer said. “You see him, he’s a tremendous kid. He just wants to help. He just wants to help.”

The right-hander has aided the Hoosiers in a major way over the past two weeks, solidifying his status as one of IU’s best bullpen arms. Bierman was on the mound for the final out of Indiana’s Big Ten title clinching victory over Rutgers on May 18, and across two outings in the Louisville Regional this weekend, Bierman hasn’t allowed a run in 5 1/3 innings of work.

“He’s a tough dude,” Mercer said. “Like, he’s a tough dude. I asked Gabe – he wasn’t going to go back out for that last inning, but then just said, ‘Just give us what you got. Just pour it out one last time.’ I mean, he threw two innings yesterday and came back today.”

Indiana was forced to come from behind after UIC plated two against Saalfrank in the bottom of the first. A two-run homer by Flames No. 3 hitter Scott Ota, his 20th of the season, gave UIC the early advantage.

From there, the contest turned into a see-saw affair. The Hoosiers answered in the top of the second, scoring three runs to take the lead. A two-run triple by Richardson, followed by a well-executed base-running sequence put Indiana on top.

With runners on the corners and the game tied at 2-2, Cade Bunnell took off from first and drew a throw to second. The distraction worked, allowing Richardson to dart home from third and give IU a 3-2 lead.

A run-scoring double by Joshua Figueroa tied the game in the bottom of the third, before an RBI double by Jeremy Houston put IU back in front in the top of the fourth.

Houston, who entered the regional batting .200 this season, has compiled multiple quality at-bats during the first two games of the weekend. The junior infielder had an RBI infield single in Friday’s game, then put together a 10-pitch at-bat in his first plate appearance on Saturday.

IU reliever Grant Sloan was charged with two runs in the bottom of the eighth, before Lloyd closed the game.

Afterwards, Lloyd sat in the bowels of Louisville’s baseball complex, stroked his mustache and declared victory against the baseball gods.

“I got the mustache going,” he said. “I switched up the juju a little bit.”