With its senior and all-time saves leader sidelined for the season with a knee injury, the IU bullpen put together a resilient effort to capture a series win against Jacksonville this weekend.
The absence of senior right-hander Ryan Halstead, who injured a knee attempting to field a ball in Wednesday’s win against Xavier and will miss the rest of 2014, allowed unsung members of the Hoosiers’ corps of relievers to shine in the weekend series, which saw IU take wins Saturday and Sunday after a Friday loss.
“Obviously with the loss of Ryan Halstead, that forces us to do some things a little bit differently with our bullpen,” IU Coach Tracy Smith said. “But it was good to get some guys in some pressure situations, some opportunities to pitch with the game on the line.”
Smith called upon six different relievers in Jacksonville, Fla., with sophomore right-hander Scott Effross submitting the most notable performance.
Called into action in the fourth inning of Saturday’s contest, Effross pitched 4 and 1/3 shutout innings in relief of sophomore left-hander Will Coursen-Carr, whose start lasted only 3 and 2/3 innings. Effross allowed just four hits and two walks, striking out three as IU took a 9-2 lead that would stand as the final score.
“I watched (senior left-hander) Joey DeNato on Friday, looking at what he did against them,” Effross said of his approach Saturday. “A lot of fastballs, trying to get ahead early in the count. I went out there with the mentality that if my fastball’s working, I can get ahead and get some outs.”
Redshirt freshman Thomas Belcher closed out Saturday’s victory in his first collegiate appearance, and IU returned to its winning ways after a 4-3 defeat in Friday’s game.
In that series opener, IU received another strong outing from DeNato and a home run from junior catcher Kyle Schwarber but could not overcome a Jacksonville fifth-inning rally that took the lead for good.
With the series knotted at one game apiece, the two teams headed to Sunday’s game, where Smith again had to rely on his bullpen to overcome a short day from his starter.
Sophomore right-hander Christian Morris made it through just three innings, allowing seven hits and three earned runs, before turning it over to a group of five Hoosier relievers to control the damage.
Junior Luke Harrison, Belcher, redshirt freshman Jake Kelzer, sophomore Evan Bell and junior Kyle Hart combined to close out the game’s final six innings, allowing three runs on seven hits.
They stifled Jacksonville’s bats enough to allow IU to make a ninth-inning comeback, with junior first baseman Sam Travis and junior second baseman Casey Rodrigue scoring in the top of the inning to give IU, and Hart, a 7-6 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth.
The left-hander retired the first three batters he faced to earn his first career save and take the series victory for IU.
The two victories raised No. 17 IU’s record above .500 for the first time since Feb. 14, but Smith said he has yet to see what he wants out of his team going forward.
“We’ve got some things we need to fix,” he said. “I still don’t think we’re playing great baseball. Moving forward, that’s got to be the focus of the coaching staff, is to make sure we’re playing baseball the Indiana way and staying focused on good baseball.
“I wish I could say I’m sitting here feeling great.”
Follow reporter Alden Woods on Twitter @acw9293.