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On this day in IU sports: Baseball captures Big Ten championship



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IU’s baseball team cheers as they welcome then-sophomore outfielder Elijah Dunham back to the dugout May 18, 2019, at Bart Kaufman Field. Dunham scored at the bottom of the fourth inning against Rutgers University. Alex Deryn

The IDS sports desk is releasing a series of articles over the summer to relive past moments in Hoosier sports:

The temperature reached 87 degrees in Bloomington on May 18, 2019. The turf of Bart Kaufman Field combined with long baseball pants made it even toastier.

So, the IU baseball team took it upon themselves to ensure that first-year head coach Jeff Mercer wasn’t overheating in the blistering Indiana sun.

With a headset fastened over his IU trident baseball cap, a group of players from the Hoosier squad emptied a cooler of icy water on Mercer, engulfing him mid-interview. 

It was for good reason, as IU had just clinched the 2019 Big Ten regular season championship with a 13-3 victory over Rutgers in the last game of the regular season. It was their seventh title in program history, and first since 2014.

“I was thinking about the community and all the people that helped to raise me,” Mercer said during the postgame interview. “And these boys and just everything that goes into making this a possibility. It’s just community—.”

A troop, all sporting crimson championship T-shirts, swept behind Mercer and unleashed a frigid waterfall. Mercer’s oration was overtaken by a howl from the team. A resounding “Pffffffft” from Mercer followed as he was swarmed by his players.

“Gol-lee,” Mercer said with a laugh. “Gol-lee. That was good. You got me. I did not see that coming. I did not see that coming.”

In a drenched IU windbreaker, Mercer smiled and finished the interview.

The Hoosiers entered the day with a simple task: win and they would be the outright conference champions. With Michigan securing a victory earlier that day, an IU loss would leave the Hoosiers in second place.

Rutgers took an early 1-0 lead. But, the Hoosiers unleashed an onslaught of six runs in the fourth inning. IU had five batters reach base in a row, including an RBI double from sophomore Cole Barr and RBI single from senior Ryan Fineman. Then, sophomores Justin Walker and Drew Ashley each drove in two more runs, giving IU a 6-1 advantage.

The Hoosiers never gave it up.

Similar to the mob that ensued during the TV interview, the team's focus was centered around Mercer.

A native of Bargersville, Indiana, Mercer grew up wanting to play for IU. Instead, his baseball skills took him to the University of Dayton in neighboring Ohio. After two years, he transferred to Wright State University.

Mercer was named to the All-Horizon League twice at Wright State as a first baseman. In 2009, Mercer hit .357 with 74 RBI and tied Wright State’s single-season records for RBIs and doubles. His performance led him to be the Horizon League Player of the Year. 

After his playing career concluded, Mercer made coaching stops at Ohio Northern University, Michigan and Western Kentucky before returning to Wright State as an assistant coach in 2014. Two years later, he became the head coach and led the team to a 77-38 total record over two seasons. The program broke into the national rankings for the first time in its history.

In 2019, IU head coach Chris Lemonis accepted a head coaching job at Mississippi State University. Mercer’s life-long aspirations to represent his home state finally came to fruition.

In his first season, the Hoosiers posted a 37-23 overall record and only lost one conference series all year. Four Hoosiers notched double-digit home runs and, behind Mercer, the team put together winning streaks of eight or more games twice. A dominant 21-5 mark in home games was key to their success.

Junior pitcher Andrew Saalfrank earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and a record-setting 10 players were taken in the 2019 MLB Draft.

Mercer was the first coach in over 20 years to win a regular season conference title in his first year as a manager. As a result, he added Big Ten Coach of the Year to his resume.

The Hoosiers ended up going 0-2 in the Big Ten tournament before being bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the Louisville regional in June 2019. But, Mercer still guided IU to a conference title while maneuvering the transition as a new head coach.

“Anything worth having, you have to fight for,” Mercer said after IU clinched the Big Ten championship. “There’s nothing that’s free, nothing that’s given. You have to go, you have to fight, you have to compete and will yourself.”

While Mercer was referencing the development of his team, the same can be applied to his journey to IU.

On that day in mid-May, Mercer stood on the third base line soaked in water while donning cream and crimson.

It was exactly where he was supposed to be.

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