The IU baseball team couldn’t catch a break during the first weeks of the season.
Sophomore outfielder Elijah Dunham suffered an injury in the first weekend of the season. Junior outfielder Matt Gorski didn’t play during the three-game series against the University of Tennessee.
Without key pieces, the IU offense struggled to put up runs early in the season. IU scored just four runs in its weekend in Knoxville. It scored just seven runs in its three game tournament in Seattle.
However, as IU has started to get key pieces back into the lineup, IU Coach Jeff Mercer’s offensive philosophy has started to become more evident.
Mercer has found a lineup which has scored 89 runs over its current eight game winning streak that was continued Sunday in a 7-1 win over Iowa.
“It helps getting a couple guys back and a couple guys going,” Mercer said. “The thing is we’re understanding our approaches as a group. As we’ve understood how offense is produced, we’ve been able to run more, put guys in motion and have more situational at-bats. It’s just fundamental baseball."
The return of players such as Gorski, Dunham and senior outfielder Logan Kaletha have sparked a change in the IU offense. That paired with the emergence of freshman outfielder Grant Richardson has changed the trajectory of IU’s season.
After a midweek loss to the University of Cincinnati, IU was 7-8 and reeling. However after back-to-back weekend sweeps, IU is now 15-8 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. Suddenly, IU looks like one of the top three teams in the conference.
“The biggest thing I say, and it’s kind of cliche and I probably say it way too much, but trust,” Mercer said. “Do you trust the guy behind you to do his job? Can I take this single and take this walk? If he’ll do his job then I can do mine. We’re starting to trust each other. It’s a program approach.”
IU is still trying to figure some things out. The defense is sloppy at times. The strikeout numbers are still rampant. But IU has shored up the areas that hurt it most. The more experienced players are hitting at a high level, and the pitching has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Still, Mercer believes that his team's best baseball is yet to be played.
“As good as we’ve been, we haven’t played a complete nine innings on any side of the ball,” Mercer said. “We’re a lot better than we’ve been. That’s always been our motto, just go back to work. We’re not going to panic, we’re not going to over react, we’re just going to go back to work every day."
IU’s three-game sweep of Iowa gives it a good measurement for how it stacks up with the rest of the Big Ten. IU pulled out three different types of wins this weekend. A walk-off Friday. A blowout Saturday. And a grind it out, sloppy game Sunday.
However, what excites Mercer the most is how they’ve gone back to playing their brand of baseball. When IU plays the situation at hand, it’s perhaps in its strongest form.
“It gives you a good feel for where we’re at,” Mercer said. “But the way we manage our at-bats, our approach is exciting. Whether we win or lose, if we can control the process then we’ll see results from it. The opponent doesn’t matter, it’s our game. Play to our standard.”
The long haul of the conference season is still ahead of IU. But if this eight-game winning streak is any indication, Mercer’s offensive philosophy with a healthy IU lineup makes this a dangerous ball club heading into the spring.