After a long wait, Hoosier baseball ready to roll

Indiana baseball will find itself in an unusual environment Friday for its Big Ten opener, playing indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

But when IU coach Jeff Mercer was asked about adjusting to the sightlines, he couldn’t help but acknowledge the prevailing sentiment as the Hoosiers resume play in 2021 after a pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“I think if you put us on, like, the surface of the moon right now, they’d find a way to go play,” Mercer said, laughing.

Opening play in an NFL stadium versus Rutgers is more than fine for the Hoosiers, a team that brings high expectations into a conference-only campaign. IU has been picked to finish second in the league by Big Ten coaches, with Michigan favored to win the conference.

A slew of seniors from last year’s squad chose to return, including infielder Jeremy Houston, catcher Collin Hopkins, and reliever Braden Scott. That adds to a unit anchored by sophomore outfielder Grant Richardson, who comes in with plenty of preseason honors following his torrid start to 2020. There is also depth on the mound, led by junior Tommy Sommer and sophomores Gabe Bierman and McCade Brown.

IU should have the tools to win a lot of Big Ten games in 2021, and, hopefully, make a postseason run. It’s just about being mentally prepared to start Friday, especially after such a long wait. Teams in the Big 12, SEC, and ACC, for example, are already two weeks into their schedules, including some non-conference matchups. The Big Ten, on the other hand, chose to wait.

Mercer has had to urge patience with his players.

“Any time when you play a spring sport, where you wait all year to begin with, the three or four weeks leading up to the season, everyone’s on edge, and everyone’s cranky, and everyone’s a bit emotional. It’s like, golly, we just need to go play,” Mercer said. “Then exacerbate that with everything else that’s gone on this year.

“I know we’ve worked hard to prepare for that, from an emotional standpoint. I’ve been really firm with the kids this year. I’m always firm with them, but this year more so than ever before.”

There is a certain discipline required to start right after such a long layoff. Now the Hoosiers will begin a 44-game, conference-only schedule with Rutgers and Minnesota indoors this weekend. A week later, IU will return for their home opener, a four-game set with Penn State.

Early this season, Mercer will be able to play with a deep lineup, moving pieces around. Juniors like Cole Barr and Drew Ashley boast experience, along with seniors like Houston, Hopkins, Grant Macciocchi, and Jordan Fucci.

Some newcomers have an opportunity to enter the mix, as well. Mercer has been impressed with redshirt freshman Paul Toetz, an infielder from Wisconsin. He’s an intense competitor with a strong feel in the batter’s box.

“He’s just going to have to control his emotions,” Mercer said. “He wants to go, now. He’s a fighter.”

Mercer also singled out Sam Murrison, a freshman outfielder from Florida, as a smart, heady player who puts the ball in play and can cover ground defensively.

Along with some fresh faces in the freshman class, Mercer expects contributions from a grad transfer catcher, redshirt senior Jacob Southern, who came over from Jacksonville University. While he is a career .237 hitter, Mercer believes Southern can be more than that at IU.

“I know his offensive numbers in his career haven’t been overwhelming, but he’s a really talented offensive player,” Mercer said. “He had a little bit of arm stuff last year, nothing serious, as a catcher. But he’s gotten back. He can really throw. There’s not many catchers you look at like, ‘He changes the game with the way that he throws.’ He’s a guy who can really throw.”

Paired with the likes of Sommer, Bierman, and Brown on the mound, and IU has a chance to balance its offensive potential with defense.

Mercer admits that in the fall, IU’s pitchers were behind. That was just the nature of the shutdown. While hitters could get in a cage and take batting practice, most pitchers were just shut down. When they returned to IU, a concerted effort was made to get them back up to speed.

“We have to get these guys back in the weight room, we’ve got to get them physically where they are capable of just handling that workload,” Mercer said. “I would say about a month ago … you could see it start to go, and the pitching staff has been terrific.

“In the fall, we’re struggling to pitch and our offense is some juggernaut. Well, let’s just wait, because at some point in time, it will be the ‘We can’t hit at all’ and our pitching staff is unhittable. And that’s not the reality, either.”

In regards to the pitching staff, Mercer is actually glad the season was delayed until now.

“We weren’t ready to play two weeks ago. No one’s ready to play two weeks ago,” Mercer said. “You look across the country, how many arm injuries have you already had, real prospects? A bunch, and we could have been in a similar situation with some guys who are not ready to go.”

However ready the Hoosiers truly are, it will be put to the test starting Friday.

They are certainly ready to get on with it.

“The guys are really tired of practicing, and I’m doing everything I can to get them to hang on for, like, two more days,” Mercer said Wednesday, noting recent warm weather has allowed the Hoosiers to get outside and catch a bunch of fly balls. “But they are tired of having practice, meetings, and doing that. They are ready to go.”

2 comments

  1. So we win 3 of 4, losing only the first game, 2 to 1, when our hitters showed opening game jitters. Then the hitting improved quickly as of game 2. The pitching was overall excellent; Tommy Sommers was masterful, and McCade Brown – coming off just a few innings pitched in the last 2 years, was “lights out.” His “out” pitch after 2 strikes is near unhittable. He struck out 12. As a red shirt freshman, Ty Bothwell staked a solid claim as the #4 starting pitcher.
    There was no speed gun in the coverage, and the announcers were from Rutgers and Minnie for all 4 games. Lots of our freshman and newcomers got to play.
    No B1G team won all 4 games this weekend. But co-favorite/favorite Michigan, and some others including OSU, also went 3 and 1.
    Here are basic stories on each game: https://iuhoosiers.com/sports/baseball/archives

Comments are closed.