LOUISVILLE — As IU freshman pitcher Gabe Bierman watched University of Illinois-Chicago first baseman David Becker swing through his 1-2 breaking ball for the third out of the seventh inning, he turned to the IU dugout and let out a scream, banging his fist on his chest as he walked off the field.
His strikeout was the culmination of a whirlwind couple of weeks both personally and athletically. On May 16, Bierman’s dad, Douglas Bierman, died from a sudden heart attack. Just two days later, Gabe Bierman pitched three scoreless innings to secure the outright Big Ten title against Rutgers.
For one weekend however, Gabe Bierman was back in his natural element just 9.7 miles away from where he grew up in Jeffersonville, Indiana. After pitching one and two-thirds innings against Illinois State University Friday, Bierman threw three and two-thirds innings Saturday and led IU to a 9-5 win over UIC.
“The support is awesome,” Bierman said. “I love having all that support in the stands. I also have brothers beside me to support me. It felt really great.”
With the threat of elimination and a winless postseason looming, the freshman impressed out of the IU bullpen. On a day where junior lefty and 2019 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Andrew Saalfrank simply didn’t have his best stuff, IU coach Jeff Mercer needed all the help he could get.
After burning four arms yesterday, Mercer had little room to maneuver in his bullpen. A win Saturday would push IU into a potential play two situation on Sunday.
“He’s a tough dude,” Mercer said. “Before he went back out, I told him, 'give me everything you have.' He pitched two innings yesterday and still gave us three today. I’ll speak on his behalf because he’s a modest guy. His stuff is good but it plays up because of his resolve.”
UIC outfielder Scott Ota started the scoring early with a two-run home run, his 20th of the season, over the centerfield wall in the bottom of the first.
Its momentum was short lived as IU freshman outfielder Grant Richardson scored junior infielder Scotty Bradley and senior catcher Ryan Fineman tripled to the right-center field gap.
UIC and IU exchanged blows with a run in the third and fourth inning respectively, but it was IU senior infielder Matt Lloyd who blew the game wide open with a three-run home run over the right field fence.
Sophomore infielders Cole Barr and Drew Ashley added insurance runs of their own with solo home runs in the seventh and eighth. With Barr and Lloyd each hitting their 17th home run of the season, it marks the sixth time this season that Barr and Lloyd both homered in the same game.
“I always joke with him and tell him that he can’t hit one unless I hit one,” Lloyd said. “I guess it’s accidental. You just get in a roll. He wants to be the older guy, just like the older brother.”
IU sophomore lefty Tommy Sommer recorded the final five outs Saturday afternoon after fellow sophomore Grant Sloan loaded the bases in the eighth.
Saturday’s win keeps IU alive for at least one more day. IU will play the loser of Saturday’s second game between the University of Louisville and Illinois State on Sunday afternoon. A win there and IU would play a second game later that night.
IU is playing the survive and advance game right now. Mercer will have tough decisions to face tomorrow but with players like Bierman and Lloyd, perhaps the answers will become clear.
“Gabe is so composed for a young guy and it’s impressive,” Mercer said. “You trust who he is more than what he is. The stuff is good but who he is is more special.”
IU’s game against either Illinois State or Louisville will begin at noon Sunday afternoon.