IU baseball trusts the process at LSU

There was some unfairness in how the baseball traveled off Grant Richardson’s bat Saturday and into an LSU mitt.

In the estimation of Indiana coach Jeff Mercer, the sophomore couldn’t have hit it much harder to right-center. It’s just that the wind was blowing in during the final game of the Hoosiers’ three-game set in Baton Rouge, and the No. 11 Tigers had an outfielder capable of running it down. So with runners at first and third, only one came home.

“Any other day, in any other ballpark in the world, it’s a home run by 40 feet,” Mercer said.

But the difference between one run and three wasn’t as much of a concern. It was how Richardson reacted, coming off the field clapping, cheering himself on, that told the Hoosiers’ second-year coach so much more.

Heading down to LSU for a season-opening series was bound to include some adversity for the Hoosiers. There were 10,000-plus in the stands at LSU’s venue, “The Box,” whipped up by a first-pitch from its football coach and recently crowned national champ Ed Orgeron. The Tigers then kicked things off with two wins, 8-1 and 7-4.

But a young IU squad stuck to its plan. A couple of runs failed to cross the plate on Richardson’s blast, but he got more than a few others to fall, including a double, triple, and home run during the trip, collecting five RBIs in all. IU won the series finale 7-2.

That displayed a mental toughness Mercer can work with.

“I was more impressed than I’ve been in a long time with just our maturity and our discipline and our intent to execute a plan,” Mercer said. “Whether that worked or didn’t work is irrelevant. But our intent in all facets was right, was where it should be at, for the whole weekend.

“If we are undisciplined and unbridled, if we are selfish, now we have a lot more and it’s not just Xs and Os. It’s the psychology of it and those things that are much more difficult for me to manage. When those are in check … it’s much easier for me to say ‘Hey, he throws a four-seam fastball and a two-seam changeup, you’ll see the difference in the spin of the ball.’”

Mercer wants to build a more process-oriented mindset into the Hoosiers’ culture. Everyone has a role to play, and it’s about executing that objective every time out.

If the wind blows in, that’s beyond the Hoosiers’ control.

If the Hoosiers lose a veteran starter to injury, as they did in redshirt senior Grant Macciocchi in the LSU series, they can’t worry about what’s missing.

If they start a series with two losses, they can’t let frustration eat into their focus.

“We’re a pretty hard-nosed team,” Richardson said. “Even though we’re pretty young, nobody is, like, freaking out or anything like that. Everybody is cool-headed, calm.”

Richardson, who started 42 games as a freshman, certainly feels like he’s grown since last season. But on a team with 14 freshmen and eight sophomores, he’s one of several young players just trying to do his part.

And in the first three games, there seemed to be a focus but also an easiness about the Hoosiers. Richardson just remembers all of the chirping LSU fans directed at freshman right fielder Ethan Vecrumba.

“He was loving it,” Richardson said. “He was waving to them every half-inning.”

On the mound, the Hoosiers’ bounce-back win featured a one-run, six-inning gem from sophomore Braydon Tucker. Again, it was a success rooted in the mental side of things.

As a freshman, Tucker appeared in five games, all in relief. Moving back into a starter’s role not only required a stretching out of the righty’s arm, fine-tuning his mechanics, and better mastering pitch sequencing — it required an ability for Tucker to better harness his emotions.

The sophomore-to-be told Mercer as much in the summer. He just needed to calm down and pitch.

“That’s the big thing for him, watching him, the way his tempo and his pace and his calmness, those things allow him to go out there and be a marksman and not just like Rambo,” Mercer said.

Tucker spent the hours leading into his start in the locker room, listening to some music, absorbing some reading material. When he was on the mound, the LSU crowd didn’t seem all that intense. His mind wasn’t latching on to every high and every low.

He may have recorded only one strikeout, but he only allowed four hits and no walks. He was in control.

“He’s solely focused on executing a game plan, and whatever happens on that pitch, he’s not tied emotionally to the outcome,” Mercer said. “Did I execute to the best of my abilities? Yes, I did. … Once the ball leaves my hands, it’s out of my control.

“That’s a guy that’s a dangerous weapon for us, and I think there are a lot of guys that are in that area or are trending in that direction.”

Whether the Hoosiers won all three games at LSU or dropped all three, Mercer was going to remind his team that this season is a marathon. They are nowhere near the end.

But their opening strides looked good. And pulling out a win wasn’t a bad way to end the weekend, either.

“We saw what we can be, not even at full potential,” Tucker said. “How dangerous I believe we can be as a team, it gives me a lot more confidence in myself to go out there and compete and know the guys out there have my back.”