Last year IU baseball head coach Jeff Mercer took over a group still built to play to the style of their former coach, Chris Lemonis. Lemonis, who left for the head coaching job at Mississippi State University, put together an IU roster hell-bent on winning by playing for home runs, and only home runs.
It’s now Mercer’s second year in Bloomington now. IU's 10 player draft class last year was the largest in team history. After adjusting to coach the power hitters he had in year one, Mercer has begun to shape his roster around the small-ball style of play that garnered him national notoriety when he was the head coach at Wright State University.
And that starts with junior outfielder Elijah Dunham.
“Eli was a guy that was vocal especially down the stretch last year,” Mercer said. “That’s what I want a guy like Eli to rub off. Just teach young guys how to work. The outcome will take care of itself.”
Dunham was among IU’s most reliable hitters at the end of the 2019 season. He finished with a team best .310 batting average among players with over 30 at bats. He started 42 of the 43 games he played and hit eight home runs and 29 RBIs. He hit .556 over the final week of the regular season as IU clinched the Big Ten regular season title.
“Last year at the beginning when I got into the lineup consistently, it was flying by,” Dunham said. “By the end of the season it started slowing down and coming to me easier. I feel like I can take that into this season because now I know what to expect.”
Dunham was selected in the 40th round of the 2019 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates but chose not to sign and returned to college instead. He went to play with the Ocean State Waves of the New England Collegiate Baseball League over the summer. There, he would play every day against some of the top college pitching in the country and continue the momentum from a strong close to the season. Dunham hit .360 with the Waves with six home runs and 27 RBIs in 34 games.
Now he comes back to Bloomington having emerged from the shadow of Matt Gorski and Matt Lloyd. But with Gorski, Lloyd and the rest of a program record MLB Draft class out of the picture, Dunham is now IU’s star at the plate, and its leader.
But Dunham was recruited to IU under Lemonis. When Mercer got to IU he began to call Dunham “Eli” and Dunham never corrected him. In a way, it is a symbolization of Dunham adjusting to his new coach.
Mercer has helped Dunham become a more balanced hitter and is the most clear anbd successful example of the type of transition Mercer has tried to implement after Lemonis left.
“I didn’t even really know what hitting was, I was just trying to go up there and swing and hit home runs before Mercer got here,” Dunham said. “He really taught me how to have an approach and set fundamentals to myself to know what I need to be successful.”
Dunham has worked to reshape his approach at the plate to be more disciplined, to cut down on strike outs and look to put the ball in play, not just over the fence. Dunham will be relied on for his production, hittting in the core of IU’s lineup. But with such a young roster as Mercer tries to fill in his own players, experienced players like Dunham will be looked to as leaders.
There’s ample young talent around Dunham, especially with sophomore outfielder Grant Richardson and freshman outfielder Ethan Vecrumba. After being the young player looking to the leaders in Gorski and Lloyd, the young players will now defer to Dunham.
“It’s a change,” Dunham said. “Freshman year you walk in and everything is new to you. You’ve got older guys saying things you’ve never heard before. Now being the leader, it’s trying to get a culture that the coaches want and we want to be successful.”